21 September 2022

What comes next if Russia loses in Ukraine?


What next for Ukraine?

The preoccupation of the media, and in many parts of the political world, seems to be the threat that the Russians might go for the nuclear option – whether tactically or strategically. Vladimir Putin has egged on this interpretation with his latest statement that Russia will use ‘all means at our disposal’ and that he ‘isn’t bluffing’. His threatening to use nukes is also a clear admission that his forces have abjectly failed when it comes to conventional warfare.

But for all Putin’s rhetoric, Russia using tactical nuclear weapons is just one of several possible outcomes from the current situation. Moreover, its likelihood is very low. We must hope that other more likely possibilities are being reviewed at the highest levels in Western governments; and that plans are being made to take advantage if those outcomes do come to pass.

Let us look at a possible taxonomy of outcomes from the Ukrainian war and hazard a guess as to the likelihood of each:

  1. The Ukrainian army collapses, and the Russians achieve their goal of occupying all of the east and all of the south of Ukraine – or, even, the entire country. Any of this is now, at most, at a 10% probability – but it’s still not impossible
  2. Ukraine finally agrees to negotiate a peace deal with Russia that involves giving up the Crimea, and possibly the Donbas. Those bien pensant Western thinkers who predict such an outcome are massively underestimating Ukrainian determination to drive Russia out, and the Ukrainians’ realpolitik understanding that to reward Russia for its behaviour merely invites future attacks. I would put this outcome at less than a 15% probability. 
  3. Deadlock: the war grinds on for months or years, with advancing and retreating front lines, but little change in who holds what territory. The probability of this often-mentioned possibility is small, say 5%. The reason for the probability being so low is that the only thing to make such an eventuality likely would be if Nato powers fully cut off their supply of arms to Ukraine, and that is not likely to happen. It could just about be that the Russian army stiffens its spine, and is able to prevent further Ukrainian gains, but deadlock of that sort will only work in the short term. As sanctions bite and, more importantly, death tolls rise and become more visible to the Russian people, Russia will find it impossible to persist in its warlike stance for more than, say, another 18 months. Deadlock in this situation is disequilibrium, and ultimately results in one of the other scenarios laid out here 
  4. Russia continues to lose ground, and employs a nuclear option of some sort. It’s pushing it to say that this has as much as 5% likelihood.

The above (admittedly wet-finger-in-the-air) possibilities only add up to a 35% overall likelihood. If so, that implies that the probability of Russia actually losing the war is roughly 65%. Western opinion has been and still is very slow to come round to understanding that – just as it earlier failed to understand the burning desire of the Ukrainian people to be free of the Russian yoke, living in a full democracy. It is that burning desire which makes Ukraine’s victory the most likely outcome of this war.

What, then, are the variations of that ‘Ukraine wins’ outcome? Let’s focus on two:

  1. Russia is driven out of Ukraine (possibly – I hope not – being given Crimea to keep as a sop). Putin manages to hang onto power, or is either driven out or weakened, with other gangsters taking power in his place.  I consider this the most likely outcome: let’s say 40%.
  2. Russia is driven out of Ukraine; the Russian army retreats to its barracks with mass desertions and internal divisions; popular uprisings take place in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and elsewhere; Democratic politicians are released from jail; democratic norms are restored to Russian politics. Most observers of Russia shake their heads and sorrowfully discount any such possibility. But if one remembers the movement that took Yeltsin to power in 1991, and the likely popular anger that will result from a Russian defeat in the Ukraine, it should not be so quickly discounted. The probability of this outcome can be argued to be at least 25%.

These last two scenarios, which I would argue are together much more likely than the pessimistic possibilities so constantly chewed over by Western commentators, would open up all sorts of opportunities for a better world – and, indeed, a better Russia. There may well be further internal fissure – we have already seen that happening in Kazakhstan and  in the Armenia/Azerbaijan conflict.

At some point, a major opportunity may present itself for parts of Europe and the Caucuses to break free from Moscow’s yoke.

Belarus: The people of Belorussia have made it quite clear that they hate the current dictatorship and wish to join the democratic part of Europe. Lukashenko was only able to hold on to power with Russia‘s help. With thoughtful assistance from the Baltics, Poland and Ukraine, and no longer able to rely on Russia’s support, the dictatorship could easily be toppled.

Transnistria. This second fortress outpost of Russia – lawless, benighted – only exists thanks to Russia‘s threatening posture. Between them, Ukraine and Moldova could absorb it if they made the move at the right time

South Ossetia and Abkhazia: these provinces of Georgia are kept as ‘independent’ Kremlin outposts only by Russian military force: they exist in a state of open corruption, lawlessness and gangsterism. Then Georgian leader Mikhail Saakashvili made a premature attempt in 2008 to reconquer South Ossetia, and was punished for it by Putin. At whatever time the Russian army might become neutered, however, it will be time to re-occupy these provinces (in addition to the further Georgian land occupied by Russian forces in 2008), and re-integrate them into Georgia.

These are, of course, just scenarios – but they raise the question of whether a collapse in Russian military power is being properly considered by Nato. Are plans being made to safeguard thousands of Russian nuclear warheads in that eventuality?

Further questions arise too: Should Putin fall, will we make sure to get hold swiftly of the documentary proof of all the villainous murders executed since he came to power, both abroad on our people and inside Russia itself on its own people? Will we think of how to negotiate with either a more, or quite possibly a less, reasonable government inside Russia, in order to get the gas flowing again and energy prices down? And, above all, are we making contingency plans with our Nato partners to take the necessary steps, outlined above, to further shrink the modern version of the Russian Empire?

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Jon Moynihan is Chairman of Ipex Capital, the technology-focused Venture Capital company.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.