Heavy price: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky pays tribute to fallen Ukrainian soldiers in January 2023. UPI / Alamy Stock Photo
Given the difficulties facing the US and EU in securing buy-in for the latest round of assistance to Ukraine, it is worth considering the consequences that a Russian victory would entail.
The Russian war in Ukraine has finally taken on the character of a protracted one, and as is characteristic of any protracted war, degrading the enemy’s will to continue the struggle has become one of the most important goals on which the military and non-military efforts of the Kremlin are focused. The missile attacks on Ukrainian cities over Christmas and New Year, as well as the persistent work of the Russian special services to undermine support for Ukraine in NATO and EU countries –carried out with the help of numerous agents of influence including politicians, journalists and experts in these countries – are both designed to achieve this goal.
In Ukraine, despite already almost two years of devastating conflict, more than 74% of the population are still in favour of continuing the war until the complete liberation of all occupied territories. In the West, however, both public attitudes and the attitudes of ruling elites are showing signs of fatigue, putting at risk the volume of military-technical assistance to Ukraine. The failure of the US government to secure approval from Congress to finance aid to Ukraine for 2024 is an example of the success of Russian efforts, albeit indirect. Clearly, if the level of support for Ukraine in US society remained at the level of an absolute majority, as it was in 2022, refusing to vote for the allocation of aid would be tantamount to political suicide. Yet at the end of 2023, despite the fact that 50% of Republican Party voters still support sending weapons and military equipment to Ukraine, such a refusal has become a political reality.
Given that the threat of ending or at least reducing the amount of aid to Ukraine will only grow in the future, it is worth assessing the consequences of a complete or even partial victory for Russia. For Ukraine, the consequences are mostly clear. Putin does not hide his genocidal intentions to destroy Ukraine as an independent state and Ukrainians as a separate people. The continuation of the war is necessary to achieve these goals, as it allows not only the physical destruction of those Ukrainians who are ready to offer armed resistance (so-called ‘demilitarisation’ in the terms of the Kremlin's ‘special military operation’), but also the creation of conditions incompatible with normal life for millions of civilians – both in the occupied territories and in other areas – forcing them to leave Ukraine and seek refuge in other countries (so-called ‘denazification’, which is essentially nothing more than ethnic cleansing).
Thanks to the help of the West, Ukraine is currently able to deter Russian aggression along the contact line, inflict significant daily losses on Russian troops, and destroy most of the missiles and drones with which Russia is attacking civilian infrastructure, as well as disable the use of Russian aircraft. Although the threat to the civilian population remains, Ukrainians prefer to stay in their country, and even those who went abroad in the first months of Russia’s aggression are gradually returning to Ukraine. The number of Ukrainian refugees in Europe is gradually decreasing: of the 8 million Ukrainians who fled the war in 2022, only about 4 million remain in Europe. But such a situation is extremely fragile, and depends directly on the provision of aid to the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
Even a short-term loss of the Armed Forces of Ukraine's ability to deter Russian aggression will inevitably upend the current equilibrium. Ukrainians will undoubtedly continue the struggle even in such a scenario, but it will increasingly bear the character of an irregular insurgent war, under the conditions of which it will be practically impossible to keep large territories under Ukrainian control, and even more so to protect the civilian population. It is enough to look at Syria to imagine the nature of such a confrontation. The methodical use of airstrikes and the destruction of cities that resist Russian troops would not leave Ukraine with much of a chance even in the medium term.
The unwillingness of the US to provide Ukraine with enough weapons to win a war with Russia calls into question the US’s readiness to protect individual NATO countries from Russian aggression
It is obvious that if Ukraine loses support from the West, Putin may well achieve his goal of destroying Ukrainians as a people and erasing the largest country from the map of Europe. Despite the obvious tragedy of this situation for Ukraine, the consequences of its defeat for the West and especially for the US as the leader of the free world would be no less catastrophic.
Despite the fact that the West prefers to consider this war as a bilateral conflict between Russia and Ukraine, the Russian leadership perceives and positions it as a one-on-one confrontation with the US and NATO, where Ukraine serves only as a proxy. This perception is widespread not only in Russia itself, but also in other autocratic states and countries across the Global South. Thus, any situation that can be passed off by Russia as a victory – that is, any achievements resulting from its aggression – will be perceived by these countries as a direct defeat of the West and the US in particular. At the same time, such a defeat would be perceived as a military one, where the West – led by the US – did not have sufficient military means to support the operations of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, even though it did not have to participate with its own troops. This would undoubtedly have a very negative impact on the perception of the US as the world's leading military power; it would encourage countries such as China, Iran and North Korea to continue their own military expansion; and it would also force the countries of the Global South to seek special relationships with these countries, displacing the US as an international security broker. This would further undermine the US position in the Global South, which is already at its weakest since the end of the Cold War. Not only would this lead to a weakening of the West’s ability to use the military infrastructure of these countries, but it would also limit access to their markets, as well as the ability to obtain strategic materials from them.
A Russian victory in Ukraine is highly likely to destroy NATO, at least in its current form. From its creation, the Alliance was an agreement between the US and Europe, according to which the US undertook to protect Europe from the Soviet threat. In exchange for this, among other things, European countries made their military infrastructure available to the US, undertook to develop their own defence capabilities, and recognised the undisputed military leadership of the US in the event of a war with the USSR. After a brief period of uncertainty regarding NATO's goals that followed the collapse of the USSR, the main threat to the Alliance once again emanates from Russia. The unwillingness of the US to provide Ukraine with enough weapons to win a war with Russia, where the US is not required to send its own troops, calls into question the US’s readiness to protect individual NATO countries from Russian aggression, where sending US troops would be the only option. Moreover, given the trends in US policy towards abandoning the Eisenhower Doctrine in favour of isolationism, there is a real threat that in the foreseeable future the US government may even reconsider its commitments to providing military aid to European countries.
It is obvious that without US troops, and especially without the US nuclear umbrella, European countries will not be able to defend themselves in the event of a full-scale war with a nuclear state. Awareness of the high risk of losing US protection may force the leaders of European states to start looking for bilateral security arrangements with Russia or China, either of which may offer to step in as a security broker, as has already happened in the Middle East. Undoubtedly, the withdrawal of the US from Europe – which was and remains the principal goal of first Soviet and now Russian active measures – would be immediately capitalised upon by filling the resultant vacuum with Russian and Chinese influence. For the US, the loss of Europe would be equivalent to losing the status of leader of the free world, and together with the loss of European markets, it would mean the inevitable end of the era of US political, military and economic dominance.
Any attempt to conclude a peace treaty with Russia, according to which Ukraine could survive in some form despite the loss of territory and sovereignty, would just be another Minsk Agreement
A Russian victory in Ukraine would destroy the modern system of global nuclear security, pushing the world into an inevitable period of nuclear war. The destruction of Ukraine, which in 1993 gave up the world's third-largest arsenal of nuclear weapons after receiving security guarantees from Russia, the US and the UK, would be an absolute argument in favour of the idea that the only means of protection against aggression by nuclear states is the possession of nuclear weapons of one’s own. The combination of Russian conventional aggression with threats to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine, as well as the willingness of other guarantors to sacrifice Ukraine to Russia in order to avoid nuclear escalation, would leave no room for any misreading. More and more non-nuclear countries would seek to acquire their own nuclear weapons. Given the increasing number of countries possessing nuclear arsenals, their practical use in a conflict is only a matter of time. Breaking the taboo on the use of nuclear weapons would create a new reality, the tragic characteristics of which are hard to imagine.
At the same time, there is no alternative to defeating Russia in Ukraine. Any attempt to conclude a peace treaty with Russia, according to which Ukraine could survive in some form despite the loss of territory and sovereignty, would just be another Minsk Agreement – namely, giving Putin the strategic pause necessary to prepare the next phase of aggression. There is no way to force Putin to follow through on such a deal, even if it were made, and no reason to believe that he would voluntarily refrain from carrying out his original plan to destroy Ukraine.
Meanwhile, defeating Russia in Ukraine remains quite achievable and requires only a review of approaches to supporting Ukraine in this war. In the current confrontation, Russia is at the limit of its capabilities, directing about 30% of its state budget to supporting the war. In 2023, the war cost Russia about $100 billion. Russia will retain the ability to continue the war at this level as long as the prices of gas and oil – the sale of which remains the main source of financing for the Russian budget – remain high. At the same time, the costs of supporting Ukraine on the part of the Western coalition remain lower than the costs for Russia, despite the obvious economic advantage of the West. Moreover, the cost of supporting Ukraine is still less than the cost of the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which the US government estimates cost taxpayers $1.7 trillion. For comparison, the total military aid to Ukraine from the US for the entire duration of the full-scale war has amounted to about $46 billion. Such a situation gives the Russian leadership the impression that the West lacks commitment to achieving a Ukrainian victory and encourages them to continue their aggression.
It is believed that an advantage in forces and means of 3 to 1 is necessary for an effective offensive. This rule could also quite easily be applied to the financing of military operations. The only thing needed to win this war is to be ready to send three dollars to support Ukraine for every dollar allocated by Russia. In 2024, Russia will once again spend about $100 billion on the war. The West doesn’t even have to spend its own money to apply the 3 to 1 rule: by a strange coincidence, exactly $300 billion of Russian reserves are now blocked in accounts abroad.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Oleksandr V Danylyuk
Associate Fellow - Expert in Russian multidimensional warfare