One year on – Assessing where we are and clarifying the Ukraine war scenarios


Dear Partners in thought,

As we go into its first anniversary, it is useful to try clarifying where the war in Ukraine may lead—all the more given the massive production of opinions and the fluctuating situation on the battlefield and in the world capitals. In the absence of scenarios for how this war could develop, it is also necessary to realise where the current conflict may evolve, this in a realistic and sober way.

The first and unquestionable conclusion is that Russia (read Putin and the Kremlin) lost so far, and massively. Russia did not take Kyiv in a week. Russia did not take it in 11 months. Its armed forces have even retreated from parts of invaded Ukraine, surprisingly showing poor military management and “command and control”, understandably poor morale and aged equipment. If anything, Russia showed weaknesses at all key levels, doing away with any myth of traditional military strength. Mobilisation, also botched, drove many young men, among them qualified professionals, away from Russia, including in areas which were not targeted like key urban centres, drawing a blow to the long-term prospects of the Russian economy. Western sanctions will gradually be felt throughout the country and its many sectors, if only in terms of key industrial spare parts and, for many, no longer having access to Western goods and lifestyle, or enjoying the pretence of living in a free society. Reasons for invading Ukraine—from following the example of Peter the Great in returning territories, to liberating brothers from neo-Nazis—have been laughable, furthering the decline of the image of Russia, which is becoming gradually isolated. Even China is now adopting a far more cautious and practical de facto approach to the war, leaving Moscow only with the active support of the likes of Iran or North Korea. Russia’s image has been further destroyed by targeting civilian infrastructure (supposedly as it built most of it in Soviet days) and the many atrocities its army and the infamous Wagner Group mercenaries have committed in Ukraine. Russia will gradually face a dual battlefield in Ukraine and at home, the latter to maintain a domestic support that, despite a century of a traditional and well-engineered quasi-“Stockholm Syndrome,” is gradually declining—and is bound to further decrease over time. It is hard to see how the Kremlin hopes to “win” anything today at any level, or to see Putin backing down in the face of reality—which are dangerous factors for Europe and the world.

The second conclusion is that Russia united the West to an unprecedented level while giving rise to a strong Ukrainian identity. Ukraine has now become a fully-fledged nation as shown by the clear response of its citizens to the invasion.  NATO has been given a new and needed fresh wind, and is looking to welcome Sweden and Finland who changed their longstanding minds on defence matters, assuming that a tricky Turkey does not use its right of veto for quasi-existential purposes. Germany very quickly decided to launch a massive and un-heard of defence spending programme, even while still battling with demons of its past. While Germany’s post-WW2 focus was always very practical (the economy first) it became too hard not to becoming more engaged in its support of Ukraine. The recent Leopard 2 tank developments have shown the conundrum of either not helping Ukraine enough militarily, thereby facilitating a Russian victory, or providing it with offensive-type weapons, and then also potentially sliding into a direct NATO-Russia conflict—the latter still not being an unlikely scenario. Largely speaking (and acting as one) the West has also managed the energy shocks arising from the invasion surprisingly well. Even though, for most of Europe, its prior dependence on Russia was partly designed to integrate the latter more into a globalised and thus peaceful world. Lastly, it is clear that Western unity was also required to prevent copycats in other parts of the world like Taiwan, especially at a time when China was more aggressive towards it in 2022 as it struggled to define the new course it now seems to have hopefully achieved.     

It is clear that Ukraine cannot win (nor indeed regain its invaded territories) without Western assistance. NATO countries have gradually provided defensive weapons, notably anti-missile ones, and gradually shifted to light and not-so-light tanks like the UK Challenger, French AMX-10, German infantry Marder vehicle and now Leopard 2 and soon US Abrams tanks. Military jets like F 16s are likely to be the next step in assisting Ukraine through various ways. NATO is clearly sliding into a phase where it is indirectly—via Ukrainian troops for now—at war with Russia (the recent terrorist attack on the French railways cable network by a yet unnamed “foreign group” is an example of things to come alongside initial cyber-attacks).  Germany’s wavering government stance, while showing flip-flops and being unproductive in terms of clearly wanting to defeat Russia, put its future prospects of relations with Ukraine and other CEE countries at risk—as demonstrated by a statement from the German PM, that jets were out of the question, following previous similar ones regarding the provision of Leopard tanks.  It is also fair to stress that Germany has provided much financial assistance, and that many German leaders (including Annalena Baerbock, current Minister for Foreign Affairs and impressively ex co-leader of the Greens), have been unequivocal regarding Germany’s need to support Ukraine from the onset of the invasion. While fully supporting Ukraine with full-range military equipment and training, the West should also ensure that Kyiv focuses on regaining territories lost since February 2022 but does not aim, feeling strong enough, at recouping Crimea, this to give Moscow a peace escape route, however wrong in nature, and given the affinity of the Crimean population with Russia.         

The Ukraine war could be seen as the war also opposing—again to date only indirectly—the old powers that ruled the world for centuries (some could even daringly call it “the war of the white man”, if forgetting the many Russian minorities being mobilised as less problematic for the Kremlin, and the fact that Japan is a clear supporter of Kyiv). Key non-Western nations seem not much directly involved in the conflict from a strategic standpoint. China clearly would prefer a return to peace so global trade could still prevail, but still keeps a neutrality not devoid of measured criticism towards Moscow (which the West is welcoming after months of unclarity) while India is thinking more about its future as the most populous world nation and how to maximise its status to the point of enhancing energy supply from Russia.  Many developing countries in Africa, Latin America or the Middle East refused to condemn Russia at the UN at the time of the invasion, this for diverse reasons including not wanting to be aligned with the West. While nominally neutral, South Africa recently welcomed Foreign Minister Lavrov, showing some “understanding” for the Russian position while fragile states Mali and Burkina Faso have welcomed the Wagner Group and sent France back home (at the same time countries like Angola, Botswana and others, at times with trade ties with Russia, still condemn the invasion).  Saudi Arabia and many of the Gulf countries are taking a practical stance in relation to the conflict, for many reasons driven by sheer economics. It is clear that the Ukraine war is also seen by many emerging countries as a way to obtain the best deals, trade or otherwise, from the West or Russia. All that being said and seen, the Ukraine war is clearly perceived by the unified West as a return to previous centuries, where neighbours would invade neighbours. The West is thus focusing on other means of managing international relations productively and peacefully, hence its unwavering, if at times domestically challenging, support for Kyiv (as a key matter of geostrategic principle, admittedly) and all the more given its location in the centre of Europe.  

There are not many scenarios on offer given the irrationality of the Kremlin and what clear defeat would mean to both sides. The West most likely faces an ultimately binary outcome: either Putin stops, more likely but not only via a coup, or a WW3-type conflict facing NATO countries and Russia could happen either though miscalculations or clear decision-making of last resort. Russia could not win, all the more so, given its poor showing against Ukraine. However, the potential damage tied to the latter may be immense, especially (but not only) for Europe. In a far worse repeat of history (Napoleon’s France, Hitler’s Germany) the Russian military would be eventually destroyed if facing a coalition comprising the US, the UK, France, Germany and other NATO members. The risk of nuclear conflagration, triggered by an overwhelmed Russia for tactical purposes, or even targeting Western capital cities, especially in Europe, would be real, but might not lead to actual strikes, as it would also very likely trigger a quick regime change in Moscow—many in Putin’s inner circle being loyal to date but not crazy.  

A direct conflict of the West via NATO with Russia, while highly possible an outcome, is clearly not to be desired. However, it looks like the best way to deal with Russia, while avoiding a conflict, is to be strong—and unwaveringly so. Being weak or half-hearted in supporting Ukraine would only help Russia achieve its goals from another era, while not preventing a later wider conflict or encouraging the Kremlin from further geographical expansion, like in the Baltics. While the risk of direct conflict is real for NATO, being strong for its members is the only way to either make Putin stop, however unlikely it would be, or foster a coup driven by practical judgement on the part of the Russian elite (obviously not the ultra-nationalists). It would not be unthinkable for the West to also explore ways to facilitate such a latter option, and help and even entice those Russians—be they part of the current leadership, security apparatus or oligarchy—who really want a sound future for their country that could again “one day” return to the global community.

Warmest regards,