Earlier this month, as the Russian military bore down on Ukraine, Foreign Affairs published an influential article asking what was at the time an imponderably terrible question: “What if Russia Wins?”
An invasion, argued Liana Fix and Michael Kimmage, would herald a “permanent state of escalation between Russia and Europe” characterized by direct economic warfare and the ever-present threat of open hostilities. Moscow would hold a gun to Europe’s collective head, destabilizing the continent’s political institutions and threatening the integrity of the NATO alliance. That outcome would have been horrifying enough, but it was the most thinkable of the possible outcomes that would result from a full-scale Russian campaign of regime change in Ukraine. In the interim, Ukrainian resistance and the West’s response to Russian aggression have taken the prospect of a swift victory off the table. We’re now forced to confront what is in some ways an even more unnerving crisis than the one that would have followed the outright conquest of Ukraine: What if Russia loses?
As dawn broke on the fifth day of Russia’s campaign in Ukraine, Moscow had still not secured any of its primary strategic objectives. Ukraine’s major population centers remained in Kyiv’s control, the skies over the country were still contested, and Ukraine’s elected government remained intact. Western intelligence clearly underestimated the capacity of Ukrainian forces to resist the Russian onslaught, and the Kremlin seems to have neglected the tactical and logistical preparations needed to quickly occupy and pacify the country.
Moscow also underestimated how the West would respond to a naked landgrab on the European continent. In response to Russia’s aggression, the geopolitical status quo that prevailed for decades melted away over the course of a single weekend. A new order is rapidly supplanting the old one, and it is entirely disadvantageous for Russia. All of Europe and partner states in the Pacific region, including Japan, South Korea, Australia, Singapore, and others, have locked arms in a campaign of crippling economic warfare against Moscow. Moreover, from Russia’s strategic perspective, its actions have compelled Europe’s more accommodationist powers to engage in the conflict.
Germany has abandoned pacifism. The German chancellor announced this weekend that his country would raise defense spending to two percent of GDP, scuttle the Nord Stream II pipeline, invest in liquid natural-gas terminals, and export lethal armaments to Ukraine. Sweden and Switzerland have abandoned neutrality. Bern will join the West’s sanctions regime, denying Russia a financial haven and an avenue to launder money, and Sweden is sending thousands of anti-tank weapons to the Ukrainian front. Passive actors like Denmark and Belgium are dispatching weapons and even irregular fighters to the frontlines. Putin-friendly figures like Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Turkey’s Recep Erdoğan have fallen in line with the West. The European Union is finally acting on its ambitions to serve as a defense force by shipping fighter aircraft across the Ukrainian border. And non-aligned states including Sweden, Finland, and Kosovo are making noises about seeking NATO membership.
In one breathtakingly foolish maneuver, Putin has demonstrated the limits of Russian military capabilities and birthed into existence a new European political covenant of the sort that Western hawks have spent decades unsuccessfully advocating. The Kremlin’s actions have left Russia politically isolated, economically devastated, and militarily boxed in. As much as these conditions are of material benefit to the West, they are also extremely dangerous.
How does Putin deescalate the crisis he inaugurated? Such an outcome is hard to envision now. The tactical setbacks Moscow is experiencing in Ukraine and the collapse of Russia’s strategic fortunes in its regional environment will tempt Russian policymakers to escalate the conflict in order to deescalate it. Vladimir Putin’s decision to announce the activation of Russia’s strategic nuclear arsenal is a clear signal to the West that it must pare back its support for Ukraine. It’s quite possible that Moscow could label Western nations providing material support to Kyiv co-belligerents in an active war against Russia. It could violently interdict weapons shipments into Ukraine, or conduct cyberattacks on vital elements of Western civilian infrastructure. Already, NATO-aligned naval vessels have found themselves in Russia’s crosshairs. Whether by accident or as a shot across NATO’s bow, it’s not hard to imagine a Russian strike on a Western asset that cannot be ignored.
At the moment, there is precisely no appetite in the West for allowing Russia a face-saving way out of this crisis. Moscow misjudged its adversaries. The West misjudged Russia. And Ukraine couldn’t possibly have imagined the outpouring of support for its efforts to sustain the fight. Everyone’s assumptions about how this conflict would play out proved inaccurate. Those assumptions will need to be replaced with new assumptions. There will, therefore, be a lot more fighting to come until all parties have discovered and reestablished a durable equilibrium in the region. At the moment, Putin has a lot to prove, and the stakes as he views them are quite possibly existential—both for his regime and the greater Russia he has set out to reconstitute. As unappetizing as the prospect is, Western policymakers must consider the circumstances that Russia needs in order to confidently deescalate this situation.
This is an exquisitely delicate moment. Among Ukraine’s Western supporters, the temptation toward triumphalism will be difficult to reject, but cooler heads must prevail. Ukrainian’s national ambitions cannot be sacrificed, or the West will be menaced further by revisionist actors all over the globe. But the Russian regime also needs a soft place to land if it is expected to accept a meaningful peace that doesn’t leave Ukraine a broken nation in a perpetual state of semi-frozen conflict on the borders of NATO. Today, with bullets flying, bombs bursting, and a burgeoning humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in real-time, that’s a hard pill to swallow. But a failure to make those preparations today could produce an infinitely more terrible set of circumstances tomorrow.