Three scenarios for the future of Russia-West relations
This essay was originally published by New Eastern Europe.
Understanding the future of relations between Russia and the West depends largely on how the war in Ukraine plays out. In this way, three possible scenarios need to be examined: a Ukrainian victory, a Russian victory, and a long, drawn-out stalemate.
Putin’s genocidal war against Ukraine has fundamentally changed Russia’s relationship with the collective West, making a return to any form of partnership impossible for the foreseeable future. It would be hard to envisage western governments dealing with the current Putin regime in Moscow as long as it remains in power and refuses to accept responsibility for its war crimes and crimes against humanity (and the damages it has inflicted on Ukrainian infrastructure). Furthermore, the manner in which Putin has raised the stakes even further by proclaiming the annexation of four more Ukrainian provinces seems to preclude any negotiated solution.
In these circumstances, the West can only continue to fully support Ukraine militarily, politically and economically until Russia finally withdraws its troops from Ukrainian territory. Containment and deterrence are once again key elements in defining the West’s approach to Russia in an effort to preclude any further escalation into a full-fledged war between Russia and NATO. Although the Russian use of a tactical nuclear weapon cannot be discounted, such a situation would only lead to an almost complete breach in relations with Russia and would probably contribute to further isolation. This is also true regarding Russia’s relations with the Global South, including China.
It is difficult to predict how the outcome of this war will affect not only Ukraine and Russia, but also the collective West and the Global South. Whether a multilateral rules-based order could be restored and how the main players and regions will fit in, all remains to be seen. In this respect, the eventual outcome of the war will be decisive. Broadly speaking, we can envisage three possible scenarios: 1) a Ukrainian victory, 2) a Russian victory, and 3) a long, drawn-out stalemate.
A Ukrainian victory
A Ukrainian victory could be defined in different ways. The fact that Moscow has already not succeeded in forcing Ukraine back into its Russkiy Mir (Russian World) could be seen as a victory for Ukrainian courage and its love of freedom and independence. Yet, whatever the outcome of this war, it will be a long road to full reconstruction and reconciliation, both internally and certainly in relation to Russia and Russians.
As far as a restoration of territorial integrity is concerned, there could be several possibilities. A full victory could entail a push back of the Russian armed forces and occupation from not only the territories Moscow has recently claimed to annex “forever”, but also a return of Crimea to Ukrainian control. Other options include a return of the territories occupied since February 24th 2022 or the restoration of Ukrainian control over the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (those parts of Donbas occupied since 2014 and recently proclaimed independent by the Kremlin).
Whatever form a Ukrainian victory could take, such a victory would have enormous consequences, both for Ukraine and for Russia. As mentioned before, Ukrainian reconstruction would be a major endeavour that could not be accomplished without large-scale international support, comparable to the Marshall Plan after the Second World War. A major issue would also be whether Russia can be forced to pay for at least part of the war damages it has inflicted on Ukraine and especially, whether the West could use the frozen assets of the Russian Central Bank of approximately 300 billion US dollars for rehabilitation and reconstruction.
In this undertaking, the EU should play a central role as Ukraine has now acquired candidate status and aspires to fast-track membership. However, negotiations on EU membership will still be based on conditionality and will require a difficult internal reform process to consolidate the rule of law and combat corruption. Meanwhile, the US has financed the lion’s share of military and other support to Ukraine and it is about time the EU takes on a more substantial role, at least in revamping its support to Ukraine financially and economically, and paying its fair share in these efforts.
In the meantime, a Ukrainian victory would imply a Russian defeat, not only ostensibly militarily, but also politically. A Ukrainian victory would mean the end of Putin’s dream of re-establishing a Russian empire and forcing Ukraine to be part of its Russian World, dominated by Moscow, influenced by Russian culture and its definition of so-called traditional values. This would not be the first time in history when a military defeat would also lead to internal regime change. The “Fortress Russia”, based on repression and legitimised by propaganda, would have to face the consequences of military defeat: politically, economically and morally.
As the Russian regime has taken full responsibility for starting this war, this could very well lead to the end of Vladimir Putin’s regime, especially in the case of a fundamental split in the current elite, leading to something like a palace coup. But there are also other possibilities, such as a new “time of troubles”, with individual regions attempting to gain independence or engaging in internal civil wars. This would not only threaten domestic stability but also raise serious questions about control over nuclear weapons.
On the other hand, a Russian defeat could also lead to a hardening of the regime under a (new) nationalist and revanchist leader, who would wait for another chance to impose his will on other parts of his Russian World, including presumably Ukraine. At this moment, a democratic revolution in Russia seems to be the least probable option, as more than half a million (mostly young) Russians have left the country since the beginning of this phase of the war on February 24th. The potential for change seems to have been decreasing accordingly and the loyalty of those who have stayed behind still has to be put to the test.
In the case of a Ukrainian victory, the future of Russia-West relations will be decided by the fate of the current regime, or the outcome of regime change in Moscow. The possibilities of a revanchist regime, suffering from a Weimar-type syndrome or widespread instability with separatist movements from the North Caucasus to ethnically defined entities in Siberia, should not be discounted. In such cases, the West should mainly react in an attempt to contain instability within the current Russian borders. A revanchist regime in Moscow could also only be contained and deterred from taking its chances against Ukraine again by ensuring that it could not regain its military strength and restart the war all over again. In all such instances, a constructive relationship with Russia would hardly be feasible, as internal problems would distract from external endeavours. Moscow’s relationship with Beijing could also take precedence over rebuilding relations with Europe and the West.
A Russian victory
Under the present circumstances, the scenario of a Russian victory could only be presented as an improbable outcome, especially after the recent successful Ukrainian counter-offensives. Although Putin could have presented a limited annexation at an earlier stage as a victory of sorts, such a scenario could only now be foreseen if the West would completely halt its support for Ukraine.
A Russian victory would imply reducing a quasi-independent Ukraine to a rump state, dominated by Moscow and forced to accept a successful annexation of the former tsarist provinces of the so-called Novorossiya region. Similarly, a Russian victory could also result in a more independent rump Ukraine, which would have lost about 20 per cent of its territory to Russia on a semi-permanent basis and which would depend on the West and institutions like the EU and international financial institutions for its economic survival. Whereas NATO membership would be out of the question in such a situation, the remaining part of Ukraine could still attempt to receive security guarantees from its western partners in order to prevent any further territorial aggression by Russia. In this context, a lot would depend on whether this outcome of the war would result in any formal political settlement, albeit on a temporary basis.
A Russian victory over Ukraine would also result in broader Russian claims and demands to rewrite the European security order in accordance with Moscow’s wishes. As expressed in its proposals to the US and NATO in December 2021, Moscow demands a complete rollback of NATO to the positions it occupied before 1997. Basically, this would leave the whole of Central and Eastern Europe without NATO guarantees to protect their sovereignty and territorial integrity and would leave these states at the mercy of the Kremlin. At the same time, the region’s non-NATO countries, like Moldova and Georgia, would have to fear for their independence in the case of a Russian victory in Ukraine. Therefore, such a situation should be prevented at all costs. Like many European leaders have stated, the war in Ukraine is also our war.
In Russia itself, the regime would feel vindicated by a victory and would present it as a revival of historical Russia and the result of a heroic struggle, similar to the victory in the Great Patriotic War. Any internal contradictions inside Russia would be side-lined, as the regime would justify any suffering on the part of the population as a necessary sacrifice for restoring the great nation to its rightful place in the world. However, in the longer term, it would be doubtful how Russia could survive its economic and financial isolation, especially in its relations with the West. Following the initial enthusiasm of parts of the population, the real consequences of Moscow’s actions would become clear and it would be doubtful whether support for the Kremlin could be sustained in the longer term. In such a situation, it could still be necessary to increase internal repression and isolate the country even more from the outside world. Russia’s dependence on China would also increase, turning the country even more into a junior partner of Beijing.
Relations with the West would be broken for a long time. It would be impossible to return to any form of business as usual, although in some European countries voices might be heard that some accommodation with Moscow would be needed. But in my opinion, the large majority of western countries would continue to stand by Ukraine and Moscow would remain almost completely isolated from the West. Diplomatic contacts would only serve to prevent any new escalation or resumption of fighting.
If the war turns into a long, drawn-out conflict, everything will depend on the ability of both sides to sustain their military efforts and restrain the other side from making substantial progress on the battlefield. In this case, a decisive factor would be the support of the West in not only preventing a Russian breakthrough or a further escalation into a direct NATO-Russia conflict (with or without the use of nuclear weapons), but also sustaining the Ukrainian economy. After all, this year the Ukrainian economy has suffered eight times more than the Russian economy and is nearing collapse. Although in the longer term the sanctions packages will hurt the Russian economy more seriously, in the short term Moscow can still profit from higher energy prices, even when selling with big discounts to countries like India and China. However, if the West succeeds in gradually closing any loopholes in financial, technological and energy sanctions, Russia’s options for continuing its war in Ukraine will be seriously hampered. Indications that Moscow had to buy ammunition and weapons from such countries as North Korea and Iran already point in this direction.
But the most important developments in this scenario will occur on the home front, not only in Russia, but also in the West. Until now the collective West has managed to fully support Ukraine militarily and financially and with humanitarian aid. Once winter comes, the rising cost of living and higher energy prices will have an impact on the willingness of the population in western countries to continue this support. In this respect, unity remains crucial to prevent the Kremlin from dividing the West and undermining support for Ukraine. In Russia, support for the “special military operation” seems to be already diminishing, as mobilisation is bringing the war home. This is also true for people in the bigger cities, who until now could ignore what was going on in Ukraine. Once the real effects of sanctions start hurting the broader population, repression and propaganda might not be sufficient to ensure at least passive support for the regime. Whether any serious divides open up between parts of the elite, or between the centre and the regions, is yet to be revealed. Still, sustained western support could drive the point home that the regime is facing a dead end.
In the meantime, any agreement along the lines of the previous Minsk agreements could only serve to halt military actions temporarily, while both sides re-arm and reposition themselves to restart hostilities from a stronger position. After all, Russia’s war aims (the “denazification” and disarmament of Ukraine) have not changed. And neither has Ukraine’s willingness to reconquer lost territory and re-establish full sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Containment and deterrence
As long as the present regime in Moscow remains in power, Russia-West relations will be based on containment, deterrence and a concerted effort to roll back Russian influence in Eastern Europe and within our own societies. Only fundamental change in Russia itself could bring about a new détente or a more constructive relationship. With the current Putin regime, such a reset remains totally unthinkable after its start of a genocidal war aimed at eliminating Ukraine as an independent state and nation. As long as Moscow still has the will and the capabilities to continue its aggression, this conflict will not be settled.
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