Analysis: The Future of Ukraine

What should happen in Ukraine? The conflict is a humanitarian disaster, and a catastrophe for both the Russian and Ukrainian people. Clearly, a quick peace would be in many people’s interest. However, there are outside powers who would benefit from a long and destructive war.

The conflict in Ukraine may develop in a number of ways. We will consider seven likely scenarios, and analyse their probability, as well as the factors that tend towards one outcome or another.

Case 1: Home In Time For Samovar

A quick Russian conquest of Ukraine was the primary expectation of most of the Western media class, and may have been Putin’s expectation as well. However, all indications show that the Russian Army is performing poorly in Ukraine. It has made relatively minor territorial advances across rural areas, and has struggled to take major cities, with Melitopol in the south being the largest occupation to date.

In the event of a Russian victory, significant areas of Ukraine would likely be annexed by Russia, particularly in the East of the country. Russia would prefer to take land along the south coast in order to reduce Ukraine’s access to Black Sea ports, and thus increase its economic reliance on Russia. Ukraine would either be restored under a puppet regime, or under the present government with the added conditions of disarmament and military neutrality.

While we cannot rule out a sudden Ukrainian collapse, or a Russian strategic innovation that turns the tables on Ukraine’s well-defended cities, this is perhaps the least likely scenario as of Day Five.

Case 2: You Shall Not Pass

On the other hand, Ukraine does not appear to have the offensive power to drive Russia’s Battalion Tactical Groups (BTGs) out of its territory, preferring to inflict heavy casualties on Russian armour in combat focused around defensible cities. If the war drags on much longer without Russian progress, there may be a collapse in Russian morale or logistics, or alternatively a successful Ukrainian counterattack.

As time goes on, the huge influx of modern Western weapons into Ukraine from NATO may turn the tide of the war and inflict a humiliating defeat on Russia.

In this scenario, where the Russian Army is defeated in the field and driven out of Ukraine, the ramifications for Russia will be catastrophic. Its regime will have expended blood and treasure, wrecked the national economy, and ruined the country’s reputation on the world stage. Defeat will be supremely unpopular with Russian nationalists who comprise the majority of Vladimir Putin’s support base. We can thus expect huge upheaval in Russia, including possibly a complete collapse of the ruling structure.

In view of this possibility, it is unlikely that the regime will allow this scenario to transpire, and may see itself forced to escalate instead — even to the extent of nuclear weapons (case 7, below).

Case 3: Negotiated Peace, Status Quo Ante Bellum

If the Russian regime is not prepared to use nuclear weapons, another way of extricating itself from the possibility of a military defeat would be a negotiated peace.

Russia has three demands, reiterated multiple times by Putin in his speeches and public statements:

  • Recognition of the Crimea as Russian territory
  • Military neutrality of Ukraine, i.e. a commitment to join neither NATO nor the EU
  • Demilitarisation and ‘denazification’ of Ukraine

Naturally, there are many other open questions in the two countries’ relations. What will be the fate of Donetsk and Luhansk, the two separatist republics? What about the future of the Russian language in Ukraine, and the interests of ethnic Russians there? Or the supply of water to the North Crimea Canal from the Dnieper River? Precisely what limits would be placed on US/EU interference in Ukraine? The list goes on.

A ‘status quo ante bellum’ would restore both countries to their pre-war boundaries, but would these be the pre-2014 boundaries (bar the Crimea) or the pre-2022 boundaries? Both sides would like to resolve the East Donbass question, since this will otherwise form the basis of future conflict. Nonetheless, a peace treaty without Ukrainian concessions would be disastrous for Russia, for the reasons outlined in Case 2 above, and so this outcome is also unlikely. What price might Ukraine pay for peace?

Case 4: Negotiated Peace, Ukrainian Concessions

Let us consider again Russia’s three demands:

  • Recognition of the Crimea as Russian territory
  • Military neutrality of Ukraine, i.e. a commitment to join neither NATO nor the EU
  • Demilitarisation and ‘denazification’ of Ukraine

In the build-up to negotiations in Belarus on Day Five, Ukraine has stated that it is willing to consider ‘neutrality’ — though the vagueness of this term leaves room for future American/EU political and economic subversion of the country, as we will discuss in a subsequent analysis. The sticking points will be the recognition of the Crimea, territorial concessions, and ‘demilitarisation’.

There is a strong argument for the recognition of the Crimea: the peninsula has a majority Russian population, and Ukraine cannot take it by force unless NATO intervenes or Russia collapses. Until Khrushchev’s transfer of the region to the Ukrainian SSR in 1954, the region was decidedly considered a part of Russia; those of Putin’s ilk clearly consider both the transfer of Crimea and the national independence of Ukraine to be historical accidents. Recognising Crimea will thus change nothing on the ground, but provide Putin with a concrete concession with which to appease Russian Nationalists.

Territorial concessions are a murky territory: having committed to recognising Donetsk and Luhansk, Russia may not be able to cede these territories to Ukraine. On the other hand, the mass evacuation of 700,000 Russians from this region to mainland Russia at the start of the conflict may have laid the ground for the concession of the two territories without quite such a severe political fallout. Ukraine is unlikely to cede Mariupol or the Ukrainian-held regions of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, since they have both economic and symbolic value for the country. They may recognise the separatist republics in exchange for peace if the war goes badly.

Beyond this, there will likely be no Ukrainian territorial concessions unless the nation is defeated in the field.

Case 5: ‘Forever War’

The worst case scenario for both Ukraine and Russia is the ‘forever war’: a conflict that drags on for many months or years, laying waste to the manpower and economies of both nations.

Such a scenario would be very favourable for NATO, however. The bloodletting of Russia over a long period without any Western boots on the ground is a dream scenario for the US State Department, especially as it enables the large-scale manufacture and sale of deadly weapons which fuels the military-industrial complex. It is perhaps for this reason that the US has opposed peace talks thus far by imposing the precondition of a unilateral Russian withdrawal.

The Syrian Civil War is still ongoing after more than 10 years, and the proxy conflict in East Ukraine was a limited scale ‘forever war’ until last week. This scenario is at least as bad for Russia as an outright defeat, and may push the Kremlin towards the nuclear option. For Ukraine, a long war on its territory might persuade Zelensky to make concessions of sufficient magnitude to achieve peace.

Given the poor performance of the Russian Army so far, we suspect that Putin will quickly lose patience with a long and costly conflict, and seek another option: either negotiations or escalation. The ‘forever war’ scenario is thus fairly unlikely, in our estimation.

Case 6: Direct NATO Intervention

A hot war against Russia on European territory has been unthinkable for several decades. The West appears to enjoy a vast superiority in military technology at present, but Russia holds the world’s largest nuclear arsenal. The implications are obvious. In addition, NATO is currently making great gains from this war without firing a shot. Unless Russia makes significant gains, direct intervention would thus be idiotic.

However, one factor has changed the strategic calculus: Twitter. This information sharing system has created a competitive arena whereby serious decision makers and ordinary people alike strive to outdo each other in ‘virtue-signalling’. In other words, they are competing for status by displaying the greatest degree of moral righteousness according to the issue of the day — where ‘moral righteousness’ is synonymous with ‘adherence to a media-driven emotional narrative’.

The impact of Twitter has been to create ‘fanaticism competitions’ which lead Western decision-makers into unrealistic fantasy worlds, and cause them to make catastrophic decisions. It is quite conceivable that the important decision-makers have neither heard nor understood Russia’s multiple threats of nuclear attack over the past week. It is also conceivable that senior politicians will declare war in order to win the virtue-signalling status competition on Twitter. In which case, God help us all.

The direct intervention of NATO opens a long and convoluted tree of possible escalations. By all present indications, NATO forces would obliterate Russia’s conventional military in short order. This would place the Russian regime in a position of choosing between certain destruction or nuclear escalation.

Case 7: Nuclear Escalation

Nuclear warfare is very different from the popular imagination. We are no longer in a position where the detonation of one offensive nuke leads inevitably to a climate disaster, nuclear winter, or the end of the human race. The amount of nuclear material in national missile stockpiles has actually reduced significantly since the Cold War. Russia holds the world’s largest nuclear stockpile with 6,400 warheads, a far cry from its Cold War peak of 45,000.

There is also a wide range of options on the table for Russia when it comes to Weapons of Mass Destruction. It might, for instance, deploy the 40,000 tonnes of chemical weapons in its arsenal (last counted in 1997). There are certainly relics from the extensive Soviet biological weapons programme that could see the light of day, aside from the infamous Novichok nerve agent. In the face of a bad outcome of the war in Ukraine, such drastic asymmetric methods may be the regime’s only choice in order to ensure its own survival.

In terms of nuclear weapons, Russia possesses nukes both large and small. Putin is unlikely to order a surprise Armageddon strike, i.e. the synchronised launch of Russia’s entire nuclear arsenal, since this would see the entire Russian Federation glassed by Western nukes for no discernible gain. The deployment of a single nuclear weapon — for example, a small-scale tactical nuke deployed against a concentration of NATO military assets — would be much more likely to produce the desired repulsion of the West and preserve Putin’s regime.

Whether that single nuke would then lead to a rapid escalation of nuclear strikes, or cause NATO to realise the severity of the stakes in Ukraine for Russia, is uncertain. Rather than delve too deeply into morbid speculation, we will simply conclude by stating that Russia’s WMDs are not off the table if the war in Ukraine goes poorly, and Western leaders should thus think long and hard about their role in Ukraine.

To be clear, we do not think the conflict will end in nuclear war. However, for the first time in many years there is a small but real chance of nuclear weapons being used in anger. Through continued ignorance of the motivations of Russia’s autocratic regime, and complacency born of virtue-signalling moral outrage, Western leaders risk sleepwalking into the abyss.

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