“Yesterday we awoke to news of lies and violence. Russia’s massive, illegal invasion of Ukraine is a gross violation of every principle that both we as a country and the international community as a whole stand for. The outrage, anger and deep concern that we are feeling connects us to the people of Ukraine. There is a great deal of uncertainty surrounding not just the safety of the innocent Ukrainians, but also the future stability of our continent following this unprecedented act of war.”
– Wopke Bastiaan Hoekstra
Deputy Prime Minister
and Minister of Foreign Affairs
of the Netherlands
Historically speaking, the security and stability with which many of us in Europe grew up is an exception. Because our content has a dark history of war and instability…
The new world order established after the Second World War has been maintained for half a century. The global political events in the decades following the war were governed by the interests of the two military superpowers of the Cold War era, the United States and the Soviet Union until the final collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991. The relative power balance of the Cold War era was based on mutual deterrence and the de facto recognition of the spheres of influence of the two superpowers. Although attempts at disrupting the other’s sphere of influence were continuous on both sides, the word order established at Yalta prevailed until 1990. And now the global political order formed after the fall of the Soviet Union has (most probably) reached its end after three decades, with Russia’s attack on Ukraine.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has set off the most dangerous struggle between Moscow and NATO allies since the Cold War. Days before the assault, Russian President Vladimir Putin made clear that he considers Ukraine’s place to be in Russia’s fold. The invasion, which has become one of Europe’s gravest security crises since World War II, shows that Putin is determined to settle the matter by force.
The Putin doctrine
With the improvement of its economic position, Russia started to take up arms in the 2000s, and Putin repeatedly communicated that he would not allow NATO to expand any further to the East. After Ukraine and Georgia was invited to NATO in 2008 (against the strong opposing opinion of German Chancellor Merkel and French President Sarkozy), Russia—gradually making its way back to the global playing field over the past two decades, braced with the ambitions of a great military and political power—wants to stop the attempt at shifting the Western sphere of influence further east, or the American “democracy export”, even by starting a war, using weapons, as the United States and NATO refused to give any written guarantee. The Russia–Ukraine war started on 24 February is mostly about this. The Russian invasion of Ukraine will undoubtedly open a brand new chapter in the long, often bloody history of the competition and opposition between great powers.
Russian President Vladimir Putin put an end to the international situation developed after the collapse of the Soviet Union and intends to restore the empire. Putin regards the end of the Soviet Union as a kind of “geopolitical catastrophe”. The goal of the Russian president is to have the West recognise a Russian sphere of interest that covers the former Soviet territories and a major part of Eastern Europe. And NATO would need to guarantee that it will not expand eastward and will not operate in areas qualified as sensitive by Moscow.
At the same time, some other theories suggest that Putin’s imperialist approach is partly inspired by the conquests of Peter the Great, as Peter the Great entered the pantheon of Russia’s legendary historical figures through the expansion of his empire. He paved the way for Russia to become a maritime power by establishing sea ports and conquering new, coastal territories. His work made Russia not only a real empire by the second half of the 18th century but a great European power, the will of which could not be disregarded anymore in questions determining the fate of the continent. So we must remember that too when it comes to Putin’s imperialist fixation—it is the 350th anniversary of the birth of Tsar Peter I.
But in what and where does all this originate from—what do the Russians wish for and want?
These two questions have very different answers. The Russian political elite will never accept that they lost Ukraine. Ukraine being an independent state on its own is seen by the leaders of Russian military and secret service bureaucracy as a bad joke of history from which we need to move on. And they have been busy trying to drive it back behind the apron of Mother Russia in many different ways, mostly achieving the opposite of what they intended. Nonetheless, Russian efforts to undermine the operability of the Ukrainian state have not been without success.
But regardless of the weakness of the Ukrainian state and its getting weaker day by day under Russian attacks, the fact is that the significant majority of its population does not want to rejoin the empire. As we can see, due to the size of Ukraine’s territory and population, any violent approach requires huge resources and sacrifices not only at the moment of its implementation but even after that. It is a formidable if not impossible task to pacify Ukraine, to take over its operation, and to manage and keep in check the hostility of the population. If the purpose of the Russian attack was to conquer the entire Ukrainian territory, we could justly call that lunacy.
And the Russian leadership probably knows that better than anyone. So what could they want with this attack if not what they wish for? Experts on the region are essentially looking for and seem to find the answer to that in two directions.
One of them concerns internal affairs. Putin has serious popularity issues, and the legitimacy problems of his reign are compensated by the continuously toughening police state operation of the state. The population’s standard of living has been constantly deteriorating or has been stagnant at best since the Crimean adventure in 2014. And what has happened with the total output of the economy since then is obviously less than a triumph. Although the hybrid war against Ukraine going on since then is far from popular, the leadership might still think that they could still exploit something about the restoration of their lost imperial glory as a political product if the mess gets big enough. However, it seems that war is something else entirely, and he miscalculated the effects of it.
The other possible explanation is about geopolitics and strategy. Everything points to the Russian leadership being genuinely afraid that Ukraine will join NATO one day. That would not only make it more difficult for them to get this territory back, but it would also pose a direct threat to their national security in the Russian’s view. So they did what they thought was their last resort and invaded Ukraine.
But even the Russians must have known that the NATO membership of Ukraine was most probably very far from becoming reality. It is also a fact that less than a decade and a half ago this was the official position of America (i.e. Ukraine to become a NATO member), but we will never know whether the incredibly destructive neoconservative foreign affairs “dream team” operating next to President George W. Bush at the time was serious about it or they had included in their calculations the expected, sensible veto of the European allies that they eventually gave. But all that will now remain a theoretical question.
What will happen to Ukraine now?
One thing is certain: by resorting to open military offence in Ukraine, Russia has moved to a higher level and stepped over a red line from where there is no way back towards the world order maintained since the collapse of the Soviet Union—and that is final for Europe if it is committed to democracy and the fundamental freedoms.
As of this writing, the Russian army has been attacking Ukraine for twenty days, and the forces of the latter—despite some more significant failures and the painful losses suffered—have so far held up much better than many expected, including the designers of the Russian invasion. If the Russians do not increase the intensity of the war significantly—for example, through a much larger scale use of artillery and air strikes—, the fight may drag on for weeks or months.
Of course, the situation on the battlefield can change very rapidly, so any relevant train of thought has a high risk of becoming outdated, but it is still worth thinking about what the future may hold for Ukraine. And that necessarily requires some presuppositions, so let us start with those. If we do not suppose that the Russian army disassembles and/or the leadership of the country collapses, Russia will have a determinative word in the future of Ukraine. Either because its military conquers Ukraine (perhaps with the exception of its Western provinces), or because its terms for ceasing military operations will at least partly reflect Russian interests. This leaves three probable possibilities for the country’s future.
The Finnish scenario
When the Soviet Union attacked Finland at the end of November 1939, the latter was seen by the world as having even less of a chance than Ukraine had in facing the Russian aggression last week. Still the Finns successfully defended themselves for months in the Winter War, even wiping out an entire Soviet rifle division at one point.
The performance of the Finns was admired by the whole world, and their country and army received more and more support, just like Ukraine is getting more and more help from the West now. (For instance, it is the first time since their support of Finland that Sweden decided to provide weaponry for a country under attack.)
But as the end of winter approached, the Soviet army, which had suffered terrible losses—amounting to over 100 thousand soldiers—, renewed its offence and broke through the main defence line of the Finns in the Karelian Isthmus. As they could have easily reached even Helsinki from there, the Finnish government asked for a ceasefire. The peace terms were strict: Finland had to hand over almost one tenth of its territory to the Soviet Union.
Finland managed to keep its independence that it had won, for the first time in history, a mere 20 years before that. And they could hold on to it even after the Second World War, even though—for the purpose of getting their lost territories back—Finland attacked Russia alongside Germany in June 1941, but they managed to make peace in 1944 before the Red Army could overrun them.
What is most interesting for Ukraine is the neutrality Finland has maintained since the Second World War, as the country did not join NATO or the Warsaw Pact, and it could control its own internal affairs. And they did that so well that Finland realised one of the few real economic convergences in the world by turning their poor country into a rich one, with a Scandinavian social system that is envied by many across the globe.
For Ukraine, the best-case scenario might be if Russia were satisfied with the country staying neutral and making a statement that it would not become a member of NATO. But the only chance for that seems to be if the Russian offensive is hindered for a long time and Western sanctions pose the threat of economic collapse for Russia already in the near future. In that case, Ukrainian neutrality could be a compromise that Vladimir Putin could sell as victory at home. Especially if it comes with an agreement about certain types of strategic weapons not being allowed in the territory of the country. That would probably be acceptable for the Ukrainian leadership too.
But the chance for that is slight at the moment, as the Russian claims are much more extensive. Ukraine will hardly officially accept losing Crimea, and Russia wants the “demilitarisation and denazification” of the country besides that. The content of both elements are rather heavy even when looking behind the propaganda.
Demilitarisation most probably means that the country not only could not join NATO, but it would not be allowed to maintain an army that might be able to defend it against Russia to any degree. But then the mighty neighbour could abuse it however and whenever the ones holding power in Moscow feel like it.
And denazification shows that Russia demands to have a say in Ukrainian internal affairs, and it would probably take advantage of that at the first signs of a nationalist turn of events. A positive interpretation of that could be the provision of minority rights for Russian and Hungarian speakers, for example, but it could easily be abused too—and it is hard to assume that a warmonger’s only goal would be to support minority languages.
Of course, the “Finnish scenario” would not guarantee a similarly successful economic convergence for Ukraine either, at least that is what the rather mixed results of Central European countries have shown since the change of their political system after 1989, despite starting from a much more advantageous position. But even a relatively successful Ukrainian trajectory—getting closer to Central Europe economically while maintaining a more or less democratic system—would pose a challenge for Putin’s Russia, which increasingly builds on oppression and generates only stagnation in the economy. And that is another reason for the Russian president not to want that.
The Belarusian way
If everything had gone according to Putin’s plans—or if things take that direction in the future—, the Russian president would most probably put Ukraine in a similar situation as Belarus. Or what remains of Ukraine. The Russians surely do not intend to give Crimea back, and all other territories serve as bargaining chips towards Ukrainian society, as well as the West, in return for lifting the sanctions. For example, the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics could
- stay independent in the long run the same as they are now according to Russia’s understanding;
- “request” to join the Russian Federation;
- or return to a non-centrally governed Ukraine if their pro-Russian attitude is ensured and the West does not want to collapse the Russian economy either.
It is difficult to imagine that Russia would use military means to pacify West Ukraine, which has a strong national identity and a history of partisan warfare, as it would be much more convenient to have a state that is at least more or less acceptable for the majority of the Ukrainian population. Naturally, that would not be democratic or economically prosperous. The latter matter would probably be something like Lukashenko’s Belarus before the coronavirus pandemic and the great protests of 2020.
But we can be almost certain that the Ukrainian masses would not put up with such a situation, and the intensive wave of emigration that has been present for many years now would only become stronger. (The population of the country decreased to 43 million from the over 51 million in 1991, even if we disregard territory losses. And the figure of 43 million probably underestimates the effect of emigration.) So if Putin manages to stabilise such a Ukraine, it would be a place inhabited by an increasingly elderly and scarce population with a stagnant economy, which could only be kept alive with economic help from Russia. And even without Western sanctions, that would only be possible as long as the prices of energy, raw materials, and food sold by Russia are sufficiently high.
The worst-case scenario
The darkest possible scenario is the country being torn apart. If the Russians continue to be met with strong and constant resistance, and they are unable to break it, then the Western third of the country might become a Western sphere of interest—in a way that is not recognised by Russia, of course. And the Central, Southern, and Eastern two thirds or half of the country could be run by a pro-Russian government, with the necessary military and economic support from Russia—which would not be recognised by most of the world in turn.
For Russia, this would be more resource-intensive a scenario than it was in Belarus, but we do not doubt that Putin is ready to mobilise the necessary resources. After all, he even decided to start a war that most in the West thought to be inconceivable and the like of which has not been seen in Europe since the end of the Second World War.
But the question is whether these resources will be available to the Russian president or not, and that is why the weight and duration of Western sanctions is key. Even if they cannot guarantee to save Ukraine from military collapse, they could still have an important role in preventing the worst of the above scenarios happening to the country.
So far Putin’s invasion into Ukraine has not gone to plan, the Russian losses to date are high and western sanctions dealing a body blow to the Russian economy that will only grow worse in the coming. And yet the Russian leader seems even more invested in his campaign to conquer Ukraine, lured in by the growing stakes of the most ambitious and dangerous gamble of his 22 years in power.
Russia may be an authoritarian regime, but it cannot suppress all dissent, just as the Soviet Union could not suppress discontent with the war in Afghanistan. Casualties will increase opposition to the war. Moreover, Putin might have been misled by advisers who were too scared to tell him how poorly the war in Ukraine is going and how damaging Western sanctions have been.
Is it possible to predict the future of the war in Ukraine?
According to the phrase, we can predict everything, except the future. After all, counter to what in the minds of Europeans, the Ukrainian struggle is about liberation from Russia’s colonialism and the struggle for democracy against authoritarianism. However, Ukrainians empirically know that today’s battle is not just about freedom and democracy. For Ukrainians, it is a battle for the existence as a nation.