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9 Dec, 2021 15:56

What would happen if Ukraine & Russia went to war?

What would happen if Ukraine & Russia went to war?

Ukraine is back in the news with a vengeance. The most intense war-scare of the eight-year-long conflict has broken out, with accusations of military escalation flying from all sides. Thankfully, none have yet come to fruition.

Behind the rhetoric lies a real and ongoing crisis. Even the comparatively limited conflict in Donbass up until now has already done severe damage. According to Ukraine’s foreign minister, about 14,000 people have been killed in the fighting, and the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs counts 3.4 million in need of assistance and protection, including nearly 1.5 million who have been internally displaced.

There is no way to be certain what exactly is happening at the moment. The US and Kiev accuse Russia of preparing a massive attack on its neighbor, while Moscow warns that any war would come only from Western and Ukrainian threats and actions. Are we looking at a moment of brinkmanship and hardball diplomacy? Or is this a genuine run-up to an all-out conflict? Or will it perhaps be both, in retrospect? 

Two things, however, are clear enough. First, once you’re on the brink, escalation can occur even when no one really wants it; events can overtake plans. Second, in the case of escalation beyond the current level of conflict, the consequences are likely to be extremely severe. What could they look like in detail?

The US and NATO have ruled out a direct, military response. As long as that – wise – restriction remains in force, Ukraine will not become a battlefield where Russia and NATO clash head-on. That means that the spreading of war beyond its borders is not impossible but improbable. The same holds for an escalation to a nuclear level. 

In a large-scale land war between Russia and Ukraine without direct, military Western intervention on Kiev’s side, three things are likely to happen. The fighting would occur on Ukraine’s territory. In view of its superiority in men, arms, and capabilities, Russia would win. Yet, finally, it would pay a high price: at least parts of the Ukrainian military are much better prepared than in 2014, and they have experience and more robust morale now. Moreover, US President Joe Biden has promised to continue arming Ukraine and go “above and beyond” what it has already received.  

In sum, it would be unrealistic to expect anything but hard fighting and severe losses on both sides, not to speak of the mess any large-scale, long-term occupation would become. This would not be a re-run of Russia’s comparatively easy victory over Georgia in 2008. 

One implication of the above is that Russia’s likely victory in Ukraine might turn pyrrhic. Yes, Moscow would win, but it could also suffer serious damage to its freshly rebuilt military forces. In addition, a costly war would greatly stress its domestic politics. In that case, immoral Western cynics who have dreamed for years of, in effect, sacrificing Ukraine to weaken Russia by creating a new Vietnam” or “Afghanistan,” as US Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) said last week, might see their nastiest dreams come true. There’s hope for de-escalation in the probability that Moscow recognizes this risk as well.

At the same time, such a war would also have international consequences. For one thing, the US and its allies have signaled that they would impose massive economic sanctions. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has said in response that the country would be prepared. But that, clearly, is part of negotiating tactics. Experienced Russian foreign policy expert Dmitri Trenin feels that such sanctions would not add anything substantially new to those already in place. Here he is wrong. 

The US has announced that it would lead the West in sanctioning Russia to create “significant and severe harm.” This threat should be taken seriously, for two reasons. First, precisely because Washington is unlikely to go to war, it would have little choice but to exact a heavy, visible economic toll. And ironically, since sanctions have already been overused, now only the most disruptive ones are left in its arsenal. If the US did not use them in case of large-scale war, its international credibility – already badly undermined by Donald Trump, Afghanistan, and general dysfunction and lack of professionalism – would suffer unacceptable damage. 

Second, what is true for America internationally also holds for Biden and his already less than popular administration domestically. Especially after years of hysterical American Russia Rage, being seen as not “tough” enough on Moscow would cost prestige and votes. In sum, a major Russian-Ukrainian war is likely to lead to sanctions significantly worse than before. Yet such a sanctions escalation would hurt not only Russia. 

The roughly €10 billion spent on the Russian-German pipeline project, Nord Stream 2, would have to be written off. While the pipeline has been completed, the project is under threat even now: Persisting hostility in parts of the European Union and now also among Germany’s newly installed ruling coalition means that there still is a risk of it never being certified. A large-scale Russian-Ukrainian war would finish it off. Washington is explicitly demanding an end to the pipeline in that case, and it would get its way. 

This possibility may make the opponents of Nord Stream 2 happy. Yet there is a flip side: If Russia concluded that Nord Stream 2 is dead in any case, one incentive to avoid major war would be lost. Pondering that simple fact has – notwithstanding predictable outcries and pearl-clutching – nothing to do with “blackmail.” It’s just realistic. A recent statement by US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan seems to hint that Washington may understand this. If it wishes Nord Stream 2 to be a lever of influence on Moscow’s decisions, then the latter needs a realistic perspective of the pipeline coming online in case of compromise.

At the same time, Russia would exact a price that Western Europeans especially would feel. It is inconceivable that the West escalates the sanctions regime while Moscow dutifully delivers gas. 

A second cost that would affect both Ukraine and its neighbors would come with immense human tragedy: A large-scale war would not only cost lives but also uproot large numbers of Ukrainian civilians. In fact, the country’s minister of defense, Oleksii Reznikov, has recently warned of 3-5 million refugees in case of major war. He may, of course, be trying to scare the West, especially the European Union, to shore up support for Kiev. But he still has a realistic point as well. 

The same is true for his observation that both Russia and Ukraine are among the major global wheat exporters, with Russia the top exporter and Ukraine in fifth place. This doesn’t mean that a large-scale war between them would lead to starvation. But the disruption of production in Ukraine and any sanction effects on Russian agricultural exports could create scarcities and affect prices.

Two types of possible new sanctions would target Russia’s finances directly. First, the US has repeatedly hinted that this time it may try to cut Russia off from the SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication) banking network. Based in Belgium, SWIFT plays a crucial role by linking over 11,000 banks to facilitate financial transactions. Threats to exclude Russia from it were made already in 2014. Since then, the Russian Central Bank has tried to set up an alternative system, but its reach is limited, and it could not simply replace the Belgian platform. 

It is difficult to predict what a SWIFT exclusion would cost Russia, but it would be very unwise to underestimate its effects. Especially because the US is considering other financial sanctions as well, such as targeting large Russian banks and Moscow’s sovereign wealth fund (the Russian Direct Investment Fund), the convertibility of the ruble, and the international market in Russian bonds. 

Of course, Russia is neither Iran nor North Korea. As some Russian observers are pointing out, it remains a much more resilient target of financial sanctions. The Kremlin, meanwhile, refuses to be drawn out: Since American sanctions plans have been leaked rather than officially announced, the spokesman of the Russian presidency, Dmitry Peskov, won’t comment on them. Nonetheless, there can be no doubt that, even as a matter of due diligence, the Russian government is paying close attention. It might well conclude that even the adoption of only a part of the measures now considered by the US would have palpable effects.

None of the above needs to happen, or, arguably, is likely to happen. Russia maintains it is not intending a large-scale invasion; negotiations will probably succeed in de-escalating the crisis again. But that’s no reason for complacency. In a saner world, we should not be where we are now: Talking about a major war in the middle of Europe as a real, if still improbable, possibility.

Fortunately, there are some reasons for hope. First of all, ratcheting sanctions up to what American politicians sometimes call a “nuclear” level would have one great disadvantage for the West: it would not only cause economic disruption that would also backfire, especially on Europe, but also, in essence, take sanctions as far as they can possibly go. After that step, sanctions would have run out of steam and been used up as a tool. And what if Russia successfully weathers that storm? In that case, the West would have done its worst – and it would not have been enough. Russia would emerge even more resilient than now. 

Second, the US is already more willing to at least engage in talks than before. It still obstinately repeats the tired and ill-founded mantra that Kiev must be able to join alliances as it pleases, come what may. But at the same time, we now see Sullivan stating that the West is prepared to discuss Moscow’s “strategic concerns.” That is a good sign.

Finally moving beyond banal reiterations that Russia has no “veto” or “say” to recognize that it has legitimate security interests and the power to make them count is a key condition to solving or at least containing this crisis. It’s time for a return of negotiation and diplomacy – it’s the only way to avoid conflict.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.