Like everything else, the war between Russia and Ukraine will one day come to an end. For the short four-or-so weeks that it’s been happening, the war has threatened to draw in the rest of the world on a few occasions but ultimately, it’s turned into a slog for Russia and a boon for western unity. Russia was expecting this to be a quick in and out – Kyiv falls in a few days, the people welcome Russian liberators the way Christ was welcomed into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, Zelensky is chased off and some pro-Moscow guy is installed. Bing-bang-boom, everyone’s happy – at least from the Russian side. Well, as we all know, it’s not the case at all. It’s been a long, brutal month for both sides.
How it started: It seems with a lot of bad intelligence. Putin’s military, security service and intelligence agencies all seem to have underestimated the Ukrainian military and the resolve of a people with everything to lose while at the same time overestimating Russian abilities in this theatre. Even the reason it started has become cloudy. The official line is the prevention of genocide in the eastern regions and the ‘de-Nazification’ of the Ukrainian government. Why is this really happening? No, it’s not that, it’s not even Ukrainian ascension into NATO – that was never really going to happen anyways, but more on that later – it was all about Russia not wanting a fully democratic, west-leaning country on its border giving his own citizens ideas he didn’t want them to have. Ukraine was becoming a thriving democracy with an improving economic base and a threat to everything that the Russian government stood for. Given that it borders Russia, has a long history with Russia and, truthfully, has cultural, religious, and linguistic ties, the direction Ukraine was headed in was too much for Moscow and yes, there’s more to it than that but that is the general reasoning. The Special Military Operation started with high hopes, it seems. That changed soon thereafter.
How it’s Going: In the first couple of days of the invasion, Russia was running on sheer adrenalin – it seemed like a quick run through eastern Ukraine with the plan of being in Kyiv by the weekend. As we all know, that notion ended abruptly once both the scope of the Ukrainian resistance and the ability of Russian forces came into full view. Things quickly bogged down, and casualties started to mount. Granted there are conflicting reports of the number of dead soldiers, but we can almost be certain that they are, more than likely, higher than both Russia and Ukraine are reporting for their respective sides. Its not going well for either country but it looks like it’s going better Ukraine, at least for now.
It's become obvious at this point that NATO is sitting this one out and rightfully so. The specter of a larger war in Europe is a far greater worldwide threat than the fate of Ukraine. Sure, there’s moral support and even some weapons transfers but that’s going to be as far as its going to go. For all the efforts Zelensky is doing to try and expand the number of belligerents, it’s not going to happen UNLESS Russia does something that will invoke an Article 5 response. They won’t. They, like everyone else, has too much to lose in a situation like that.
Some are hinging the need for western help to Ukraine is predicated on the argument that Ukraine was a candidate for NATO. That’s not entirely true. Yes, Ukraine wanted this a great deal (and that desire as cooled since the invasion) but NATO didn’t really want Ukraine. Politics aside, given the relationship that Russia and Ukraine had, nothing good could have come from that arrangement for anyone, including Ukraine. It would force American and EU troops into an area that geopolitically is far more important for Russia than it is for the west. The international friction this would cause and what would be the ensuring result would be far bigger than what we’re seeing today. Why? Because Russia would completely feel cornered at that point. Not only did they lose territory when the USSR fell, not only did they lose influence on the world stage, now NATO is literally on their ENTIRE European border? The assumption is that this wouldn’t stand for long and while it may have taken longer to prepare for such an event, Russia would have eventually rolled into eastern Europe, be it through Ukraine or the Baltics and actually kicking off World War III.
How it will end: Pretty badly for everyone involved, but for different reasons.
Ukraine will more than likely be left as a rump state. For peace they will have to accept several Russian demands, including enshrined neutrality and loss of the eastern disputed areas. The Crimea isn’t on the table, that’s now just Russian territory and no longer part of Ukraine and not a discussion topic. Zelensky will more than likely maintain power, but he’ll be President of what exactly? Half a country with minimal functioning infrastructure, no economy, a shell-shocked population, and ruins. There’s no longer an option where hostilities will end and Ukraine will maintain what it used to be. Russia was expecting a 7-day operation, ending with the installation of a Moscow-friendly leader in Kyiv. With that not happening, Russia is going scorched earth, preferring a broken half-country on their border to the alternative.
Russia will not lose this war. They’ll get battered and bruised and their economy will come close to collapse but they will beat Ukraine – meaning they will get most of the peace conditions they want. A triumph here, however, does not mean that they will actually come away with anything. Russia’s military, economy and reputation will be in shambles. Even in victory, President Putin’s position will be politically precarious. Russia will have sacrificed a lot, A LOT, for this war and many people will be unhappy. President Putin is a survivor however, so he may very well be politically fine. Russia will not break up because of the results of sanctions, world isolation or even an internal uprising – that notion is as absurd as it is scary for the whole world but the country will not have the same stature internationally – leaving things open to one of the winners of this adventure – China.
China has been generally sitting in the sidelines throughout this whole crisis. Not condemning Russia but also not helping them. Saying that this is the US and NATO’s fault but falling short of any formal criticism. China sees an emerging opportunity here and they are doing what they have always done best; watching and waiting. They know that even in victory, Russia is going to pay a heavy domestic and international price for this, and this will open the door for China to be the sole leader of in the East. They will buy up a lot of Russian infrastructure under the guise of helping a friend economically but what will be accomplished is China having a (significant?) say in Russian affairs.
Finally, the Western alliance. NATO was losing its way and had some significant and growing cracks in the alliance – same with the European Union. Russia’s actions changed all of that nearly overnight. Quite frankly, President Putin did more for western unity in one month than former Chancellor Angela Merkel or any other western leader could have done in a decade. The resolve and the unity of the west will be one of the biggest by-products of this crisis, and one that will push China and other eastern powers to coalesce as well.
In the end, under any other circumstances this would be nothing more than just another regional war, but the implications will make it one of the pivotal events of the early 21st century. The results of this conflict will reverberate geopolitically for decades and could be the catalyst for accelerating a redoing of the world order – an order that will result in eastern and western camps, pretty much of equal strength and equal influence.