In a previous article I mentioned that the current conflict in Ukraine is the epilogue of the events of 2014. An end to the war, that will cause consistent changes for the world as we know it. It’s not just about how the map of Eastern Europe will look like, it’s also about how the war in Ukraine will shape the world (maybe for the next 50 years).
The current Russian aggression against Ukraine has all the markers of being just the beginning of a long series of crises that will transform the entire arena of international relations. The extent of the crises and transformations that we will face depends only on how the war in Ukraine continues or ends. What is worrying at the moment is that Russia is not willing to compromise: Moscow has engaged in this conflict in a logic of all or nothing. An all in – military, economic, diplomatic, political and social – that Moscow can neither win nor abandon.
Russia is preparing for the marathon, it was never about a sprint.
The regrouping of Russian forces and the offensive in Eastern Ukraine show that Moscow is not yet ready to really engage in a process of de-escalation.
As the Institute for the Study of War was assessing (April, 18), Russia’s goal seems to be the control over Donetskand Luhansk oblasts. The picture of Russia’s military/ political objectives in Ukraine is complemented by the announcement of the Deputy Central Military District Commander, Rustam Minnekayev, that Moscow is seeking to control the Donbas and the southern parts of Ukraine.
What does Russia want? Worst case scenario: Russian statements and Western press assessments regarding reconfigurations on the Ukrainian fronts lead to the scenario that Russia seeks to control the administrative regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, along with the major southern Ukrainian cities – Odessa and Mikolaiv. Most likely, the military control will quickly be translated into annexation to Russia.
Control over Odessa is necessary not only to cut off Ukraine’s access to the sea and to protect Crimea, but also for the annexation of Transnistria. Such developments would allow Moscow to control both Ukraine (a kind of encirclement, given Belarus’ undeniable loyalty to Russia) and the Republic of Moldova.
The scenario described above is maximum that Russia could realistically hope to obtain and catastrophic for Ukraine and the entire Euro-Atlantic community. Unfortunately, it is not impossible because Moscow still believes in such developments (as evidenced by Minnekayev’s statement).
The international press feels that Russia has depleted its military resources, misjudged Ukraine’s ability to withstand an invasion, and faces unprecedented opposition from the West.
All these perceptions may be true, but it is very likely that Russia chose the path of war knowing that many unknowns/ variables may appear along the way, and what matters is the achievement of the goal and not how this goal is actually being achieved.
In the war for Ukraine, Russia relies on the West’s lack of unity and the prospect that, if the war lasts long enough, Westerners will gradually lose interest and become more concerned with other issues – e.g., their own standard of living and/ or economic losses caused by the perpetuation of war. From this perspective, the instrumentation of the war in Ukraine – to generate other crises that would weaken the unity of the West – may be Russia’s goal from the very beginning.
The crises that Russia is betting on
1. Energy. The EU’s decoupling of natural gas imports from Russia would certainly be a blow to the Russian economy, but at the same time it would also affect the economies of European countries. At least rhetorically, Russia seems ready for such a prospect, but at the European level the mere mention of the scenario shows the fractures within the EU. Cyprus and Hungary have so far expressed their reluctance about total independence from Russian oil and gas, while most of the EU countries are making contingency plans and trying to identify alternative sources. The EU has not yet proven to be a monolithic unit even regarding the refusal to pay Gazprom’s bill in rubles.
While the EU is still debating about reducing the energy dependence on Russia, Moscow may decide not to fulfill its obligations on oil and gas exports. Such a scenario was frequently debated by analysts, even before the war in Ukraine, and it was assessed that it would generate an economic and social disaster for the EU (and Russia). In such a scenario, it would be quite difficult for the current European leaders to explain to their citizens why they must continue to oppose Russia.
2. Economic. Closely dependent on the energy crisis, some signals have already begun to appear in the European media about the risk of a recession in Germany. For the time being, just the perspective of such a risk is on the table, but the prolongation of the war only brings this perspective closer to reality.
The risk of recession looms over the US as well, as evidenced by Goldman Sachs forecasts. In addition to the war, the risk of an economic crisis in the United States also exists in the field of the real estate. Analysts point out that such a crisis is not imminent (the situation is not the same as in 2008), but panic – especially amid escalating nuclear rhetoric/ NATO involvement in the conflict – could lead to unpredictable situations.
3. Food. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has already warned that the war in Ukraine could lead to a food crisis, price increases and severe famine in African countries. It should be noted that a food crisis is only exacerbated by the current conflict in Ukraine, with signs of such a development dating back to the COVID-19 pandemic, which profoundly affected production and distribution chains, including in the food industry.
The prospect of a food crisis is a topic dear to Russian propaganda, especially in relation to African states. Russia has consistently used the rhetoric of “European colonialism” to build alliances in Africa, and a potential food crisis gives the propagandists a new narrative: “The West is attacking Russia to starve Africa, which depends on Russian deliveries of wheat and corn”.
4. Refugees. Russian propaganda has already flooded the European social media space with narratives such as: “refugees consume European citizens’ money”, “they occupy jobs of the ordinary citizens”, “refugees export violence and crime”. As time goes on, such messages will intensify, fake news about refugees will spread, and Moscow hopes that the issue of the Ukrainian refugees will sow divisions in European societies and lead to pressure on political leaders to give up supporting Ukraine.
There is a good chance that all of these crises that Russia is counting on will really “hit” the Euro-Atlantic community. And the really important issue is that they can take place at the same time and may not be the only ones – I did not mention “powder kegs” such as Taiwan and the Western Balkans, where Russia’s conduct and the international reaction are carefully assessed by various international actors.
The buzzword for the future will therefore be “crisis”, and the transformations that will follow will most likely not be to the liking of the West or Russia.Once the Pandora’s Box is opened …