Russia and Ukraine: How it's Started, How it's Going, and How it's Going to End
N. Anthony Alexiou
The Track of an El Al flight from Tel Aviv to Toronto forced to make a hard turn to avoid the onset of hostilities over Ukraine
Like everything else, the conflict between Russia and Ukraine will one day come to an end. For the several months 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 few long, brutal months 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 started being all about Russia not wanting a fully democratic, west-leaning country on its border – now its about saving face at home – and sort of abroad but that ship has really already sailed. Given that Ukraine 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. It went south quickly and never really got better.
How it’s Going
For Russia? Not well. The conflict has dragged on for far too long and it has exposed the shortcomings, disorganization and, quite frankly, the weakness of the Russian military. They’ve come close to losing all the gains they have made to a Ukrainian military that looks like its fighting for their lives (because they are). Russia has had a few victories – namely holding Europe hostage over gas – though the destruction of the Nord Stream pipelines changed that calculus. Granted, Russia is not done yet but its very much painted into a corner. The annexation of the four Ukrainian territories today would look like it’s raised the stakes but, in reality, it hasn’t – it’s just given Russia an offramp that will probably be ok for most involved. We’ll talk about that in a bit.
For Ukraine? It’s looking up for now but it’s probably not going to end that way. They have beaten back the Russians almost to their border. Their supplies of weapons from NATO has been probably one of the only reasons they have seen this level of success defending their country but those look like they’re going to be drying up sooner than everything thinks. Ukraine want’s HIMARS from NATO. US President Biden has already made it very clear that it will not be happening. It’s one thing to help a country defend its territory but something else entirely giving them the ability to go on the offensive. NATO has gone about as far as it’s willing to go but unfortunately, I don’t think Ukraine has realized this yet.
Zelenskyy said today that he’s fast tracking Ukraine’s NATO application. He’s wasting his time – it’s not going to happen. Policy aside that forbids a country from joining NATO when they’re in the middle of a conflict, given the relationship that Russia and Ukraine had, nothing good will come of that 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. Even after the end of hostilities in the region, even with a weaker Russia, the international friction this would cause and what would be the ensuring result would be far bigger than what we’re seeing today.
How it's Going to End
It won’t end with nuclear weapons. No one wants to see those used. Nuclear weapons will not cause Ukraine to capitulate and it would force NATO’s hand. There is no scenario where Russia uses nukes and the west doesn’t respond militarily. Putin knows this and understands that rhetoric is one thing but pulling the trigger opens a box that no one will be able to close. No, this ends conventionally and far sooner than you think and the annexation of the four Ukrainian territories is the first step.
The way we see it, once the pomp of the annexation is completed, Putin will declare victory and an end of the Special Operation. He’ll move all of his troops into the occupied territories and fortify (for an area that size, about 300,000-ish personnel, rotated in and out, should suffice). With the end of formal hostilities, the west is going to tell Zelenskyy that it’s done. Ukraine, if you want to keep fighting, that’s on you but NATO isn’t going to supply you with anything else (if you noticed, NATO started setting this up a few days ago by saying they were ‘running out of weapons’ to give to Ukraine). Of course, sanctions from the west will be redoubled and given that Serbia, China, Iran, India and everyone else that was at least friendly to Russia no longer is, they’ll probably stick. The occupied areas will devolve into a guerrilla war that will probably go on for a couple of decades. More specifically…
Ukraine will more than likely be left as a rump state. For peace they will have to accept the 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 – especially once NATO military support dries up. They won’t be happy with what they’ll be forced to accept and, in the end, they’ll have gotten the shortest end of a short stick.
Russia will not lose the conflict. At least not according to them but they’re not coming out of this OK. In the end, they will have accomplished their main objective; the control of Russian majority land in Ukraine. 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 operation and many people will be unhappy. The west might let Putin take the Ukrainian territory he wants but between heavier sanctions and severely diminished international standing, he’ll pay a high price for them. Russia’s alliances have proven to be lukewarm at best and its influence, already waning before this adventure, is now nearly non-existent. For decades this country will be an international pariah, standing on the fringes of the community of nations.
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 is one of the big winners. They have been generally sitting on the sidelines throughout this whole crisis. Not condemning Russia but also not helping them though Xi’s cool stance to Putin in Samarkand is very telling of how much support Beijing is actually offering (spoiler: not much). 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 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.
The United States. A weakened Russia with diminished influence was about as good as it was going to be for the US, then the Nord Stream pipelines were destroyed. Even if things between Russia and Europe improved enough for gas to start flowing again, the infrastructure no longer exists making Europe reliant on US fuel now, at least until they find alternatives (which will take years). With Russia relegated to bit player on the international stage, the US can refocus on the Far East and what will be the sole leader of the eastern world, China.
The Western Alliance wins big too, unexpectedly. 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.
N. Anthony Alexiou is the Founder and Principal of The Minotaur Group