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Four Weeks Into The Russia-Ukraine War: Four Potential Outcomes – Analysis

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Vladimir Putin’s envisioned blitzkrieg in Ukraine did not come to fruition. After four weeks of fighting, Russian and Ukrainian forces are still battling, and the Blitzkrieg is a distant memory. Russian troops have taken up positions in the country’s north, south, and east, but they are still stumbling over major cities such as Kyiv, but also Kharkiv, Mariupol, and Mykolaiv, which are being bombarded by Russian artillery.

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The war appears to be going on indefinitely, raising an important question: How will the situation evolve in the coming weeks or months? At this point, four scenarios are emerging, which may overlap.

Scenario 1: A Diplomatic Solution

The possibility of a diplomatic settlement does not appear to be dead. Far from it, according to various negotiators, Ukraine and Russia have made significant progress. According to the Financial Times, the two sides have been talking about a 15-point plan since March 14. One of the main issues is whether Ukraine could be neutral.

On March 16, the Kremlin’s spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, mentioned the situation in Austria or Sweden: “This is a very hot topic right now,” he said. Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, followed suit, mentioning a future agreement “with very specific terms.”

Sweden and Austria models

Moscow has raised the issue of Ukraine’s non-membership in NATO from the start. This was in addition to the desire to establish a pro-Russian regime in Kyiv, which appears to have vanished now. Indeed, French President Emmanuel Macron, among others, had already attempted to reassure Vladimir Putin about the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO, which has long been blocked by the alliance. And, for the past ten days, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has repeatedly stated that his country “will not be able to join NATO,” as if leaving the door open for talks. 

Are the talks attempting to establish a Swedish or Austrian model? Sweden was neutral during WWII and a member of the non-aligned movement throughout the Cold War. When the country’s occupation by the four Allied troops after World War II ended in 1955, Moscow imposed neutrality, modeled after Switzerland’s, a condition of Sweden’s independence. Austria essentially served as a buffer zone between the East and the West during the Cold War, but the nations around it are now all NATO members, with the exception of Switzerland and the small Liechtenstein. Austria’s military is relatively tiny and underfunded. According to the World Bank, it spent 0.6 percent of GDP on defense in 2020, the second-lowest proportion in the EU after Malta, and much below the EU average of 1.3 percent. Austria is a NATO member and participates in UN-mandated missions under NATO leadership, such as the KFOR peacekeeping force in Kosovo, however, unless they are functioning under a U.N. Security Council authorization, foreign powers are not normally permitted to utilize or transit through Austrian territory.

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These models appear unlikely to be used as the foundation for negotiations. Mykhailo Podolyak, one of Ukraine’s negotiators in the talks with Moscow, crossed all the i’s and dotted all the i’s: “Ukraine is now engaged in a direct conflict with Russia. As a result, the model must be Ukrainian.”

As a result, the nature of Western guarantees remains central to the negotiations. A 1994 agreement (the Budapest Memorandum) already prohibited Russia from threatening Ukraine with economic or military pressure. In the aftermath of Russian aggression, Ukraine will require far stronger guarantees than a new document of this type.

Ukraine would keep its own army but would not allow “foreign” armaments or military bases to be stationed on its soil (its laws already prohibit it). This neutrality, however, would be framed by the “participation” of other countries, who would ensure that Ukraine maintains its… territorial integrity. Volodymyr Zelensky alluded to this idea in his address to the American Congress on March 16, mentioning the possibility of “new alliances” outside the framework of NATO. In the event of an agreement based on these principles, the Kremlin would undoubtedly struggle to present as a “victory” a situation that, in fact, would be more “locked in” than the one that existed before the invasion began.

According to other Financial Times sources, the agreement would also include provisions regarding the Russian language in Ukraine, where it is widely spoken despite the fact that Ukrainian has become the sole official language. Moscow has also justified its invasion by claiming that it is protecting Russian speakers in Ukraine from what it claims is a hostile environment and “Neo-Nazi genocide” by “neo-Nazis.”

Assuming that these diplomatic talks are not merely a Russian diversion, as Ukrainian negotiators have repeatedly suggested, this plan would also call for the withdrawal of Russian forces from the front lines that existed before February 24. Then there are the issues of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the status of the Donetsk and Lugansk republics, and Russia’s reparations for Ukraine’s destruction.

Economic outcome

The markets would welcome this scenario because it removes uncertainty. The assets that have been under attack the most since the invasion of Ukraine would be restored. Russian defeat would put the West in a strong position, and Moscow’s regime could change. Sanctions against Russia would be lifted in part. The European Union (EU) may then reconsider its relationship with Russia and, as a result, its energy supply. The flow of gas and crude oil would resume, and prices for metals and agri-food products would fall. The euro would rise against the U.S. dollar. Concerns about high inflation would dissipate.

Scenario 2: Partition of Ukraine

Can the Russian army hope for significant or symbolic victories before negotiations with the Ukrainians reach a critical juncture? If the diplomatic track heats up, both sides will want to take advantage of military gains in order to negotiate from a position of strength. This is particularly true of Vladimir Putin. Because, even if the planned invasion of Ukraine fails, the Russian army still has far superior firepower to the Ukrainian army. This superiority means that, despite some localized Ukrainian counter-offensives, it retains the initiative. So far, Ukraine can show that it has been able to fight off a much more powerful, but clearly less motivated, enemy.

Since the beginning of the invasion, Russian forces have been advancing primarily in southern Ukraine, along the Black Sea. They have besieged Mariupol’s port, starving and bombing the population. Further west, Russian armored vehicles are stumbling on Mykolaiv, the last town before Odesa, the “pearl of the Black Sea.”

However, Russian generals may have plans to move north along the Dnieper River, which could serve as a future natural border. This maneuver would allow Moscow to catch the Ukrainian army from behind, which has been entrenched along the separatist republics of Donbass since the beginning of the conflict in eastern Ukraine in 2014. There is little information available about the fighting on that front. However, military experts believe that the majority of Ukrainian regular troops are in that region. An encirclement of these forces would be devastating to Ukraine’s resistance. This would give Russia control over eastern Ukraine, possibly in conjunction with a conquest of the Black Sea coast which to pave the way for Ukraine’s partition.

However, accumulating victories—for the time being, the Russian army has only taken one major city, the port of Kherson (south)—does not imply control of the territory, as evidenced by Ukrainian demonstrations, which send a strong message to Russian soldiers that they are occupiers. On March 15, the Kherson airport, in Russian hands, was bombed. The mayors of the city, as in other cities, was deposed and replaced by pro-Russian elected officials. Moscow also proposed a referendum on self-determination, similar to the one on Crimea’s accession to the Russian Federation. Even if the 2014 referendum had been held under normal conditions, without the threat of armed men sent by Moscow, it is safe to assume that the majority of the peninsula’s population supported a return to Russia. However, the situation today is quite different now. Russia cannot claim to be protecting Russian speakers while bombing them in Kharkiv and Mariupol. The Kremlin may refer to Russian and Ukrainian historical unity, but this does not change the fact that Russian soldiers are considered occupiers.

Faced with the hostility of the Ukrainian population united by this invasion, the Russian army will have difficulty maintaining control of the conquered territories. A protracted guerrilla war would ensue. Moscow would undoubtedly rely on auxiliary forces, such as the Syrians being recruited or Ukrainian collaborators who could be overseen by Wagner’s mercenaries. The diversity of combatants would result in a fragmentation of Ukrainian territory, each with its own conflict dynamics, a process known as “balkanization,” as seen in the wars in the former Yugoslavia. In a nutshell, the confrontations would continue for many more long months, even years.

Economic outcome

With a sustained cease-fire and meaningful progress in implementation of agreements the global economy would quickly return to its early 2022 growth trajectory. The value chains that had broken down during the war and contributed to inflation would re-establish themselves. To control inflation, central banks would continue to normalize monetary policy and gradually raise interest rates. This scenario would also be reassuring to investors. The United States and the European Union would start to ease sanctions against Russian businesses over time.

Scenario 3: The Flow of Foreign Arms Continues.

NATO has repeatedly stated that direct intervention in Ukraine by confronting Russia is not an option. Despite President Zelensky’s dramatic appeals in front of the American Congress, U.S. President Joe Biden will not deviate from this course, claiming that involving the U.S. army or NATO would result in “the third world war.”

Nonetheless, the issue of Western arms deliveries to the Ukrainian army is becoming increasingly vital for Kyiv. To the point where, in the face of a Russian army whose offensive appears to lack coherence (but not brutality), these deliveries now appear likely to make the country’s invasion much more difficult.

Following their meeting with Zelensky in Kyiv on March 15, the Polish, Slovenian, and Czech prime ministers appear to be more determined than ever. So much so that, in the aftermath, Polish officials assured that their country had not given up on delivering 28 MiG-29 fighter jets to the Ukrainian army, as they had attempted before the U.S. and NATO objected to it.

Joe Biden signed off on an additional $800 million in military aid to Ukraine shortly after Zelensky’s speech at Congress. The prospect of providing the Ukrainian army with more effective air defense systems, such as the S-300, has been mentioned for several days in Eastern Europe. These Russian-made systems are in the arsenals of a number of former Soviet bloc countries.

The Biden administration also stated its willingness to provide Ukraine with a hundred “kamikaze drones“ manufactured in the United States, which can be controlled from long distances and precisely target Russian tanks and artillery positions. Will these weapons be sufficient to alter the course of the war? “Caution is recommended. Russia is a formidable military power,” stated NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg of Norway following a meeting of NATO defense ministers on March 16.

On March 13, Russia launched a series of long-range missiles, most likely from Russian territory, at a Ukrainian military base near the Polish border. These shots were fired more to warn the West than to disrupt the flow of military equipment, some of which was allegedly passing through this base after passing through Poland or Romania. With Russian forces largely absent from western Ukraine, it is difficult to counter this influx without risking provoking an accident and spilling the conflict into NATO territory. For the time being, the Russian army may choose to attack only the Ukrainian communication routes through which these arms convoys pass. However, by harassing Russian forces from a distance and making it more difficult for them to advance, the Russian general staff may be persuaded to deploy more resources and attack the population even more brutally.

Economic outcome

This is the worst-case scenario for the world economy, with massive destruction and a war that would last a very long time. It would mark the return of the Iron Curtain in Europe, the strengthening of the Russia-China axis, the continuation of sanctions against Russia, and the demonstration of the Kremlin’s desire to annex other territories. Deglobalization, price increases, and inflation would all result from such a scenario. Ukrainian resistance will result in significant political instability, as well as in the markets for energy, metals, and agricultural products. In this scenario, finding alternative energy sources will become imperative and urgent for Europe.

Scenario 4: A Protracted War Shattering the EU

What if Vladimir Putin, who is in trouble in Ukraine, decides to prolong the conflict in order to destabilize the EU? No government has dared to publicly defend this scenario three weeks after the war began. This option, however, will be on the table when the leaders of NATO’s 30 member countries meet in Brussels on March 24, just ahead of a new EU summit. Indeed, it is impossible to rule out a larger-scale war at this point, especially if Ukrainian resistance grows bolder, prompting the Kremlin to play the escalation card to avoid a stalemate in the hope of fracturing the West and forcing NATO out of its defensive role. This would allow the Russian government to feed its anti-Western propaganda and, as a result, justify the aggression unleashed on February 24.

This terrifying spiral could be triggered in two ways. The first possibility is that one of the European countries bordering Ukraine will be tempted to take advantage of the Russian army’s difficulties by organizing, or directly supporting, strikes against its armored convoys. The Polish General Staff, despite having proposed in vain to deliver its MiG-29s to the Ukrainian Air Force (the U.S. and NATO have rejected this option, but Joe Biden will no doubt be questioned on the subject again during his visit to Warsaw on March 25), has not formally ruled out this option for the time being, especially since information brought back from the military field over the last two weeks confirms the Russians’ structural weaknesses. Russia’s command of the sky is inadequate. Its helicopters’ missions are hampered by the delivery of Western surface-to-air missiles. The thaw of the soil and the gradual disappearance of the frozen layer reduces the mobility of armored vehicles. Isn’t now the time to retaliate, assuming that Putin will not resort to the use of tactical nuclear weapons? The unavoidable result, however, would be a Russian move toward the EU’s most vulnerable countries or its most vulnerable neighbors, such as Moldova. The conflict would inevitably devolve into a regional one.

The second possibility for conflict extension is preventive Russian strikes on Ukrainian bases near the EU’s borders, as happened on Sunday, March 13 in Yavoriv, 20 kilometers from Poland. The possibility of missile launches designed to put NATO’s defenses (particularly the Patriot anti-missile batteries) to the test cannot be ruled out. Already confronted with a worsening humanitarian situation in besieged Ukrainian cities, with the consequences for public opinion (demonstrations, political pressure, etc.) in favor of greater direct involvement, NATO’s members would be obligated to respond under the terms of Article 5 of the Charter, which guarantees their collective security. Added to these hypotheses are the risks of accidental strikes, air or sea incidents, which would be unavoidable in these times of general mobilization of Russian and allied forces.

What comes next? A formidable test for the EU, with the risk of some countries being hesitant to commit and others being determined to take up arms. Fortunately, all of this is geopolitical fiction for the moment. Nobody thinks it’s likely to happen. No one believes such an escalation is possible. As was the case prior to February 24, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine…

Economic outcome

This scenario is similar to the first one, i.e., Russia is unable to rule Ukraine entirely. The sense of failure will grow stronger as the number of people killed and property destroyed grows in the coming weeks and months. Propaganda will not suffice to reassure the Russian people, potentially leading to regime change in Moscow. This would be an excellent opportunity to reshape European-Russian relations. If the standoff continues, Russian and Ukrainian energy exports, as well as mining and agricultural raw materials, would suffer. Price increases would be unavoidable, reducing household disposable income and heightening the risks of a world recession.

References

Ukraine and Russia explore neutrality plan in peace talks | Financial Times. “Ukraine and Russia Explore Neutrality Plan in Peace Talks | Financial Times.” www.ft.com, March 16, 2022. https://www.ft.com/content/7b341e46-d375-4817-be67-802b7fa77ef1.

“Factbox-Russia Suggests Sweden or Austria as Military Model for Ukraine.” SWI swissinfo.ch. www.swissinfo.ch, March 16, 2022. https://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/factbox-russia-suggests-sweden-or-austria-as-military-model-for-ukraine/47438648#:~:text=%2D%20Austria%20is%20a%20partner%20to,a%20U.N.%20Security%20Council%20mandate

Military expenditure (% of GDP) – Austria | Data. “Military Expenditure (% of GDP) – Austria | Data.” data.worldbank.org. Accessed March 24, 2022. https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/MS.MIL.XPND.GD.ZS?locations=AT

Ukraine and Russia explore neutrality plan in peace talks | Financial Times. “Ukraine and Russia Explore Neutrality Plan in Peace Talks | Financial Times.” www.ft.com, March 16, 2022. https://www.ft.com/content/7b341e46-d375-4817-be67-802b7fa77ef1

Zelensky will address Congress in a virtual speech on Wednesday. “Zelensky to Address Congress in Virtual Speech – The New York Times.” www.nytimes.com, March 14, 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/14/world/europe/ukraine-zelensky-congress-speech.html

Washington Post. “Ukraine’s Military Adapts Tactics after Enduring Russia’s Initial Invasion – The Washington Post.” www.washingtonpost.com, March 5, 2022. https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/2022/03/05/ukraine-military-strategy/

CNN. “At Least 3 Russian Military Helicopters Blown up in Ukrainian Strike on Kherson Airport.” edition.cnn.com, March 16, 2022. https://edition.cnn.com/europe/live-news/ukraine-russia-putin-news-03-16-22/h_7e8b9319ba415fbd37cd47e2a1562ba8

BBC News. “Ukraine Rebels Hold Referendums in Donetsk and Luhansk – BBC News.” www.bbc.com. Accessed March 24, 2022. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-27360146

Washington Post. “Analysis | Why Biden and the White House Keep Talking about World War III.” www.washingtonpost.com, March 17, 2022. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2022/03/17/why-biden-white-house-keep-talking-about-world-war-iii/

Vox. “The US Shut down Poland’s Plan to Send MiG Fighter Jets to Ukraine – Vox.” www.vox.com, March 13, 2022. https://www.vox.com/2022/3/13/22975269/ukraine-poland-us-mig-fighter-jets-military-aid-escalation

The White House. “Fact Sheet on U.S. Security Assistance for Ukraine | The White House.” www.whitehouse.gov, March 16, 2022. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2022/03/16/fact-sheet-on-u-s-security-assistance-for-ukraine/#:~:text=President%20Biden%20today%20announced%20an,start%20of%20the%20Biden%20Administration

Euronews. “Will US-Made Switchblade ‘suicide Drones’ Boost Ukraine’s Arsenal?” www.euronews.com, March 17, 2022. https://www.euronews.com/next/2022/03/17/switchblade-drones-what-are-these-kamikaze-weapons-and-how-can-they-help-ukraine

NATO. “Press Conference by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg Following the Extraordinary Meeting of NATO Ministers of Defence.” NATO. www.nato.int, March 16, 2022. https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/opinions_193194.htm

Polityuk, Pavel, and Natalia Zinets. “Russian Strike on Base Brings Ukraine War Close to NATO’s Border | Reuters.” Reuters. www.reuters.com, March 13, 2022. https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/ukraines-zelenskiy-warns-desolation-if-russia-tries-take-kyiv-2022-03-13/

NATO. “Extraordinary NATO Summit – Brussels, 24 March 2022.” NATO. www.nato.int. Accessed March 24, 2022. https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_193325.htm

Richard Rousseau

Richard Rousseau, Ph.D., is an international relations expert. He was formerly a professor and head of political science departments at universities in Canada, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and the United Arab Emirates. His research interests include the former Soviet Union, international security, international political economy, and globalization. Dr. Rousseau's approximately 800 books, book chapters, academic journal and scholarly articles, conference papers, and newspaper analyses on a variety of international affairs issues have been published in numerous publications, including The Jamestown Foundation (Washington, D.C.), Global Brief, World Affairs in the 21st Century (Canada), Foreign Policy In Focus (Washington, D.C.), Open Democracy (UK), Harvard International Review, Diplomatic Courier (Washington, C.D.), Foreign Policy Journal (U.S.), Europe's World (Brussels), Political Reflection Magazine (London), Center for Security Studies (CSS, Zurich), Eurasia Review, Global Asia (South Korea), The Washington Review of Turkish and Eurasian Affairs, Journal of Turkish Weekly (Ankara), The Georgian Times (Tbilisi), among others.

One thought on “Four Weeks Into The Russia-Ukraine War: Four Potential Outcomes – Analysis

  • March 25, 2022 at 11:35 pm
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    Ukraine will not be joining NATO. Russian victory. Russia & Ukraine are identical people . Trying to separate them will not work. Russia and Ukraine are neighbors and will remain so.

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