The question has become pressing. How will Europe’s first military conflict in the twenty-first century end, especially after three turning points? The first followed the meeting hosted by US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at a military base in Germany last week. The 40 countries pledged to ramp up their supply of weapons to Ukraine and prevent Russia from threatening neighboring countries. The second is Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s insistence that the outbreak of a third world war is a “real danger,” and that the “risks are grave and cannot be underestimated.” The third is Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley’s warning that if Russia gets away with what it has done would spell the end of the so-called international order, and this would inaugurate an era of dangerously increasing instability.
These developments and positions suggest that the war in Ukraine is likely to get worse and become increasingly brutal and polarizing, which indicates that walking back on them would be difficult for both sides. That was reflected in the French election results, whose implications were best summed up by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s salute to Macron after he defeated the far-right, calling it a “sign of Europe’s strength” because France and Germany are the “engines of Europe.” His relief demonstrates how determined the Europeans and US are to defeat Moscow, or at least the very least contain its ambitions. Nonetheless, while the arms that the US and Europe have supplied Ukraine, allowing the latter to defend itself to hold its ground and improve its negotiating position, the former has not yet gotten involved directly. It is not likely that they will change their minds, and the status-quo will probably remain unchanged; that is, Ukraine will not achieve a decisive victory, and Russia will not taste bitter defeat.
True, the Ukrainian resistance did create a bulwark against Russian advances, but the Western alliance has yet to impose devastating costs on Russian President Vladimir Putin. For his part, Putin does not appear intent on retreating to cut his losses and find a framework for ending the war that does not achieve the near-term goals he has laid out. That policy is bigger and broader than Ukraine, and he is sticking to it, although victory is not certain and can only be attained through a costly war that would heavily burden the regime because of the price of funding the war itself and the sanctions that perpetuating it would imply. Still, whatever happens, Russia will always be a nuclear power with the biggest traditional army in Europe, however much its reputation was recently undermined.
What next for Europe and the world then? Will Europeans continue to push on, or will the rise of national divisions and nationalism seen before the war continue? In its first seven weeks, this war propelled major transformations: Europe overcame the refugee crisis and received millions. Germany decided to increase its military spending to unprecedented levels, and the European Union has announced that it will cut its imports of Russian oil and gas to zero “before 2030”, which had been unimaginable in the past. At the other end of the Atlantic, most of the politicians representing the two major parties, Canada and the US have backed their administrations’ policy of supporting Ukraine and standing up to Putin.
However, other developments that indicate the opposite must be noted, as Putin has certainly already done. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban won his race and the popular vote easily. The French presidential elections saw far-right candidate Marine Le Pen receive 41.5% of the vote, a lot higher than the 33.9% she received in the 2017 elections.
It is not likely that this war will offer a swift or easy path to peace. Even if Putin were to tactically retreat, the peace this would generate would only be temporary. It is difficult to believe that Putin will shift his methods or goals; he will continue to relentlessly strive to achieve his nationalist aspirations, whose repercussions the Russian economy and political system may not be able to endure.
Unless unanticipated developments unfold, external influences increase, or a settlement is reached, the war in Ukraine can only play out in one of three ways.
In the first scenario, Putin does not relent, and the Ukrainians continue their resistance as western arms shipments become larger and more frequent. This scenario holds major political and economic repercussions for Russia, as well as the Western allies of Ukraine; it could mean a prolonged years-long conflict with several rounds of negotiations and initiatives by many parties to calm and contain the situation. This scenario also creates the potential for political shifts within Russia and in its military; they could pressure Putin to change or reverse course. It also poses risks to Putin himself and could see him pushed to the side.
In the second scenario, Putin remains obstinate, refusing to retreat and continuing to pursue his goals, which would imply suffocating Ukraine and occupying its only seaport in Odesa. This scenario could also be brought about if the West ramps up its military assistance to Ukraine, especially its supply of offensive and modern weapons, which could strengthen Ukrainian resistance and increase Russian military casualties. This could prompt the Russian president to use unconventional weapons, or even tactical nuclear weapons, that could escalate this conflict and bring it to the brink of turning into a world war that would leave unimaginable carnage in its wake.
The third scenario sees fragmentation and disintegration take hold in the Russian Federation as the war continues, with domestic unrest as ethnic, or even religious, turmoil and unrest wreak havoc. Although this scenario is less dangerous than the outbreak of a nuclear war, it may destroy Russia’s capabilities and make it a mere regional power in front of the Chinese giant. This would create major political and security risks in Asia and Europe, especially since the world has not yet recovered from the ramifications of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia is a major nuclear power, and it is worth asking: In whose hands would the largest nuclear arsenal in the world fall? Russia is also a major source of basic resources such as gas, oil and wheat. What will happen to these resources if chaos ensues in Russia? On a regional level, the Middle East is still suffering from the vacuum left by the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, despite its maliciousness and the atrocities it has committed. Perhaps the continuation of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, albeit nominally, is a result of fears of what might come after its collapse. Iran’s allies, and even its opponents, fear the collapse of the regime in Tehran without realistic and credible alternatives, which are difficult to find. What, then, are we to imagine would follow the collapse of Russia?
It is not easy to understand what is meant by “punishing” or “defeating” Russia or what consequences this implies. It is equally impossible to ascertain Putin’s true goals and the agenda behind this dangerous and destructive war in Ukraine. Without entering into debates about the causes of this war, or the allocation of blame and responsibility, the world faces a complex and unchecked crisis: The world order has been shaken and undermined, and several countries are trying to crystallize an alternative. Meanwhile, the rapprochement between the two sides of the Atlantic, and Western vigilance and unity in general, have proven incapable of deciding this conflict, and it does not seem like Russia is keen on reconsidering its position. All the progress, awareness, and achievements mankind has made over the past century cannot help us break the bottleneck in this protracted tragedy.
What remains to be seen are the positions of China, India and other countries that are still wary of getting involved in such crises. Are these powers worthy of a role in this conflict? Has the international system entered the stage in which the cards need to be reshuffled, and sources of power and wealth should be divided along lines that create a consensus between discordant values and competing interests? Only time will tell.