The ongoing war in Ukraine, which began with the Russian invasion on February 24, 2022, has raised profound questions about European security, the post-Cold War international order, and the ambitions of the Russian leadership under Vladimir Putin. The roots of the conflict, however, stretch back many years prior, bound up in complex historical, geopolitical and ethnic tensions surrounding Ukraine’s relationship with Russia and the West.
After gaining independence with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine sought to chart its own course as an independent state, balancing relations between East and West. However, Russia has sought to keep Ukraine within its sphere of influence, using natural gas as a tool of coercion and annexing the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 after Ukraine’s pro-Western Euromaidan Revolution.
The leadup to the 2022 invasion saw Russia make demands for binding security guarantees from the West that Ukraine would not join NATO or host NATO troops and weapons. The refusal of the US and NATO to accede to these demands set the stage for a wider war, as Russia sought to militarily alter the security environment in Europe to its advantage.
The ongoing conflict poses fundamental threats to the European security architecture, international norms against changing borders by force, and the nuclear nonproliferation regime. It also threatens global economic and food security, given Ukraine’s status as a major grain exporter. This article will examine the complex historical background of the Ukrainian question in detail, analyze the security interests at stake for the various parties, and assess the implications of the ongoing war for regional and global order.
Part 1 – Historical Background
Early History of Ukraine
To understand the contemporary Ukrainian question, it is important to briefly review the history of Ukraine and its complex relationship with Russia. The territories that today make up Ukraine have historically been subject to rule by various powers, including the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Ottoman Empire, the Tsardom of Russia, and the Austrian Habsburg monarchy. This carved up Ukraine into east and west, helping give rise to divergent political orientations.1
Ukraine began to take shape as a distinct national idea in the 19th century, forged around language and culture. This was manifested in 1917 with the establishment of the Ukrainian People’s Republic following the Russian revolution and collapse of the tsarist empire. However, it was soon incorporated into the Soviet Union.2
Under Soviet rule, Ukraine was subject to forced collectivization, political repression and the devastating Holodomor famine in the 1930s instigated by Stalin, which killed millions of Ukrainians. During World War Two, parts of western Ukraine were occupied by Nazi Germany, while eastern Ukraine was among the areas hardest hit by fighting on the Eastern Front.3
In the postwar period, Ukraine was an important industrial and agricultural center within the Soviet economy, though expressions of Ukrainian national identity were harshly suppressed. The 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident in northern Ukraine fueled rising anti-Soviet sentiment. By the late 1980s, political movements like Rukh pushed for reform and greater autonomy for Ukraine within a loosening Soviet system.4
Ukraine’s Independence and Relations with Russia
Ukraine finally achieved independence in August 1991, when the failed hardline coup against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow led Ukraine’s parliament under President Leonid Kravchuk to declare sovereignty. In December 1991, Ukraine joined Russia and Belarus in formally dissolving the Soviet Union.5
As an independent state, Ukraine now faced the monumental tasks of building national institutions, transitioning to a market economy, and orienting its foreign policy during a uniquely fluid moment in European affairs following the end of the Cold War. Russia under President Boris Yeltsin initially pursued a cooperative relationship with Ukraine.
But tensions soon emerged over issues like the status of Crimea, which Nikita Khrushchev had administratively transferred from Russia to Ukraine in 1954. Crimea holds deep significance in Russian history and culture as the home of the historic city of Sevastopol, base of the Russian Black Sea Fleet since the late 18th century.6 There were also growing energy disputes, as Ukraine depended heavily on cheap natural gas imports from Russia.
During Leonid Kuchma’s presidency from 1994-2005, Ukraine cautiously balanced between Russia and the West, reflecting the ethnic and linguistic divides within the country – mostly Ukrainian-speaking and nationally orientated in the west, and Russian-speaking and Russia-oriented in the east and south. Kuchma maintained close ties with Moscow but also pursued some cooperation with NATO and the European Union.7
Ukraine under Kuchma was plagued by corruption, however, and Kuchma himself was implicated in events like the 2000 murder of journalist Georgiy Gongadze. Gongadze’s death became a rallying cry for the reformist opposition.8
The 2004 presidential election emerged as a major turning point. Viktor Yanukovych, Kuchma’s handpicked successor and Moscow’s favored candidate, faced off against reformist former Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko. After Yanukovych was declared the winner in a rigged vote, massive protests broke out alleging electoral fraud, becoming known as the Orange Revolution. The Supreme Court invalidated the results and ordered a re-vote, which Yushchenko won.9
Yushchenko sought to reorient Ukraine’s trajectory toward deeper integration with Europe and the West. But hampered by political infighting and his own ill health after being poisoned, Yushchenko was unable to deliver the degree of change hoped for by his supporters.10 Yanukovych made a comeback in the 2010 presidential election, appealing to the Russian-leaning portions of the electorate.
Yanukovych Presidency and Euromaidan Revolution
As president, Yanukovych initially continued Ukraine’s balancing act between Russia and the West, despite his own political orientation toward Moscow. But his government grew increasingly authoritarian and corrupt, alienating much of the population.11
A major turning point came in November 2013, when Yanukovych rejected a proposed association agreement with the European Union, swayed by pressure and financial incentives from Moscow. For pro-Europe segments of Ukrainian society, this crystallized the threat of the country falling back decisively into Russia’s orbit, sparking massive protests centered around Kiev’s Maidan square.12
The Euromaidan protests, also called the Maidan or Revolution of Dignity, swelled over the winter of 2013-2014, denouncing Yanukovych’s corrupt rule and violation of democratic norms. In February 2014, clashes between protesters and security forces turned deadly, with over 100 killed. Yanukovych fled the capital and was impeached by Ukraine’s parliament for failing to maintain order.13
These events outraged Moscow – in Putin’s view, a Western-backed coup illegally overthrew a democratically elected, pro-Russian leader in Ukraine. In response, Putin secured authorization from Russia’s parliament to use force to protect Russian speakers in Crimea. Russian special forces and troops without insignia (the “little green men”) quickly seized control of the peninsula and key military sites. A Crimean referendum was hastily organized in March to secede from Ukraine and join Russia – which Western nations considered illegal and under Russian coercion. Russia formally annexed Crimea shortly thereafter.14
For Putin, this was an emotional as well as strategic decision, aiming to “correct” the perceived mistake of allowing Crimea to become part of an independent Ukraine after 1991. It was the first time since World War Two that Moscow forcibly annexed territory in Europe. But Russians celebrated the return of Crimea as righting a historic injustice and restoring national pride.15
War in the Donbas
The fallout from Euromaidan also sparked conflict in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, where separatist groups declared independence from Ukraine as the Russian-backed Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics” in April 2014. Heavy fighting broke out between Ukrainian forces and the Russian-supported rebels.16
Russia provided arms, financing, troops and advisers to assist the Donbas separatists, though Moscow officially denied being a direct party to the conflict. The brutal fighting undermined the newer Western-friendly government in Kiev, preventing it from consolidating control and progressing with economic and political reforms after Yanukovych’s fall.17
By early 2015 the frontlines largely stabilized despite low-level combat simmering on a frequent basis, a reality that continued over the following years. Russia exercised control behind the scenes in the breakaway Donbas republics, keeping Ukraine in a perpetual state of insecurity and conflict. The fighting has claimed over 14,000 lives as of early 2022.18
The Minsk Process
A series of ceasefire and implementation agreements were negotiated in the Belarusian capital Minsk in 2014 and 2015, known as Minsk I and II. Their aims were to halt fighting in the Donbas, withdraw heavy weapons, and establish a political settlement granting the region autonomy within Ukraine.
But key conditions of the agreements, primarily requiring Ukraine to enact autonomy legislation and hold elections in the disputed territories before regaining control of its border with Russia, proved unacceptable to Ukraine. With Moscow’s backing, the separatist authorities also rejected moves to reintegrate into Ukraine. The Minsk Process essentially froze the conflict but failed to meaningfully resolve it.19
Post-2014 Relations and Crimean Standoff
After the Euromaidan Revolution, Ukraine under President Petro Poroshenko firmly set its sights on eventual NATO membership, increased military cooperation with the West, and integration into the European Union. But endemic corruption continued hindering reform efforts. The conflict with Russian-backed separatists and an economic crisis following the loss of Crimea weighed heavily on the country.20
The election of political novice and former comedian Volodymyr Zelensky as president in 2019 represented a rebuke of the Poroshenko era. Zelensky focused initially on domestic reforms and sought renewed negotiations with Moscow to help end the Donbas conflict, though little progress occurred. Russian passport distribution and economic integration efforts in the separatist republics signaled creeping annexation by other means.21
The status of Crimea remains a severe sticking point hampering relations. Ukraine continues to insist Crimea is illegally occupied, with regular protests by Crimean Tatars, the indigenous Turkic population opposed to Russian rule. But Russia has consolidated administrative and security control over the peninsula, hosting a major naval base in Sevastopol. Energy reserves in the Black Sea give Crimea heightened strategic value, with potential affecting future negotiations.22
While Zelensky expressed willingness for some concessions to Moscow if it helped restore Ukraine’s territorial integrity, he maintained a firm line on not recognizing Russia’s claim to Crimea, or allowing it leverage in Ukraine’s foreign policy orientation toward the West. Russia’s military buildup in 2021 and increasingly uncompromising rhetoric highlighted the limits of negotiation.23
Part 2 – Security Interests and Demands
Having reviewed the complex background of the Ukrainian question, we will now examine the key security interests at stake from the perspective of the major parties – Russia, Ukraine and the West – that underlie their negotiating positions and demands in the period before the 2022 invasion.
Russia’s Security Interests in Ukraine
Russia views Ukraine as vital to its geostrategic interests, considering it part of Russia’s rightful sphere of privileged interests and a buffer against NATO enlargement eastward. Moscow sees an independent Ukraine integrated with the West as a threat, recalling invasions by Poland in the 17th century and Germany in the 20th that came through Ukrainian territory.
Securing regional hegemony requires control over Ukraine – inhibition of its potential NATO membership, restrictions on Western military access, and leadership amenable to Russian prerogatives. Russia also covets Ukraine’s natural, industrial, technological and human resources.24
Russia seeks recognition of Crimea as an inviolable part of Russia. Renewed control over Donbas gives Moscow leverage over Ukraine’s future political and economic orientation, with an option for potential seizure of the region or a land bridge to Crimea if needed.25
For Putin, reversing the post-Cold War expansion of Western institutions into the former Soviet sphere is a legacy goal, and the colored revolutions including Ukraine’s Euromaidan represent Western-engineered plots to undermine Russia that cannot go unanswered. Bringing Ukraine decisively back into Moscow’s orbit would be a major achievement.26
Ukraine’s Security Interests
As a nation that only recently gained true independence, Ukraine’s overriding interest lies in maintaining sovereignty, territorial integrity, democratic institutions and national identity. Fears of again being subsumed by Moscow motivate policies maximizing distance from Russia’s grasp.
Ending the Donbas war and recovering Crimea are national priorities. But giving Moscow leverage over sovereign decisions or rights limiting Ukraine’s trajectory toward the West contradicts core goals. An institutional anchor in Western structures like NATO and the EU provides a counterweight to Russian pressure.27
Ukraine wants Western military aid and political support sufficient to deter Russian aggression. But direct conflict with nuclear-armed Russia being inherently risky, Ukraine treads a careful line. Zelensky’s electoral mandate included resolving the Donbas conflict – but the Minsk agreements tilted heavily in Russia’s favor pose a dilemma between wanted peace and undesired concessions.28
Western Interests in Ukraine
The West views a democratic, stable and Westward-looking Ukraine as a major geopolitical success that could positively transform the region. But commitments remain limited by wanting to avoid severe conflict with Russia, and debates over the wisdom of NATO expansion.
Still, Russia forcibly remaking the European order poses major threats. Allowing unilateral border revisions invites future aggression that could directly threaten NATO allies like the Baltics. Weakness could encourage Russian adventurism and expansionism detrimental to the international norms and institutions underpinning Western security.
Preserving Ukraine’s ability to choose its own path is an important principle. But poor governance and corruption have hindered Ukraine’s case for deeper Western integration. Some advocate engaging Moscow to alleviate insecurity over NATO growth. But this risks selling out Ukraine’s interests, and serious divisions exist on how far to accommodate Russia’s demands versus deterring military action.29
Russia’s Security Demands
In late 2021, as Russian forces again massed heavily along Ukraine’s border while denying invasion plans, Moscow issued a sweeping set of demands as the price for avoiding conflict.30
Russia called for firm written guarantees that NATO would halt its eastward expansion and never admit Ukraine or other post-Soviet states like Georgia to the alliance. Additionally, NATO must roll back deployment of troops and weapons from states entering after 1997, including former Warsaw Pact countries like Poland, Romania and the Baltics that directly border Russia. Moscow demanded firm limits on deployment of offensive military capabilities in those states as well.31
These proposed security guarantees represented an effort to decisively end NATO enlargement, establish Russia’s sphere of interest, and reverse the post-Cold War expansion of Western influence near Russia’s borders. While framed as defensive measures against Western threats, in reality they posed fundamental challenges to the sovereignty and chosen orientation of multiple countries – above all Ukraine.32
Reactions to Russia’s Demands
The United States firmly rejected Russia’s demands as “non-starters,” refusing to slam closed NATO’s open door policy or allow Russia an escalatory veto over alliance membership. Instead, Washington proposed renewed arms control measures and military transparency initiatives to alleviate Moscow’s alleged security concerns. But progress remained unlikely without concessions on Ukraine’s NATO aspirations.33
NATO also emphasized its open door policy as a core principle, while remaining intentionally ambiguous on timeframes for potential Ukrainian membership. The alliance offered further dialogue with Russia, but refused to compromise on the ability of Ukraine or other countries to choose their alignments. 34
For Ukraine, the notion of acquiescing to demands that would politically shackle it to Moscow while Russian troops stood ready to invade was unacceptable. President Zelensky continued pursuing diplomatic solutions but insisted matters fundamentally concerning Ukraine’s security orientation and territorial integrity could only be decided in direct discussions between Kyiv and Moscow rather than in Washington or NATO headquarters in Brussels.35
Russia ultimately considered the Western responses inadequate. As the military buildup around Ukraine continued, Moscow repeatedly warned NATO and the US of unspecified “military-technical measures” absent acceptance of its demands. With the sides locked in seemingly irreconcilable positions, the risk of large-scale armed conflict became increasingly acute.36
Part 3 – The 2022 Russian Invasion of Ukraine
The failure to reach agreement on European security and Ukraine placed the continent on the precipice of the most significant armed conflict in Europe since the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. On February 24, 2022, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine from multiple directions, starting the largest war in Europe since World War Two.
Invasion of Ukraine
In the early morning hours on February 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “special military operation” to “demilitarize and denazify” Ukraine in a fiery speech laden with historical grievances. Moments later, missiles began raining down across Ukraine and Russian ground forces poured across the borders from Russia and allied Belarus in the north.37
The offensive came from multiple axes – a thrust toward Kyiv from the north through Chernobyl; an advance on the eastern city of Kharkiv near the Russian border; a drive westward from Donbas toward Ukrainian-controlled territory; assaults from Crimea heading northwest toward Kherson and the strategically vital port city of Mariupol; and smaller incursions from Belarus seeking to envelop Kiev.38
Putin likely anticipated a rapid decapitation of Ukraine’s leadership and collapse of its will to fight. But Ukraine mobilized to vigorously defend itself, surprisingly frustrating Russian aims. Fierce Ukrainian resistance and effective use of Western-provided anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles blunted Russian momentum outside major cities. Russia’s military showed poor planning, coordination and logistics, taking significant casualties.39
But through massive, indiscriminate artillery and rocket barrages, Russia pummeled urban areas like Mariupol and Kharkiv in a brutal wearing-down strategy. Regular reports emerged of Russian forces killing civilians and damaging hospitals, schools and homes, leading to massive humanitarian suffering and condemnation of likely war crimes. 40
Over 4 million Ukrainians fled the country in the initial month of conflict, while tens of thousands joined territorial defense forces to directly participate in the resistance. Western powers implemented severe financial sanctions and provided military aid to Ukraine, while stopping short of direct intervention out of prudence and fear of nuclear escalation. 41
Battle of Kyiv
Russia’s initial aim of capturing Kyiv within days failed dramatically against unexpected Ukrainian resistance. A 40-mile Russian armored column approaching from the north became bogged down at the town of Bucha near the capital, plagued by logistical difficulties, Ukrainian ambushes and instances of low morale or surrender among Russian conscripts seemingly unaware they were invading.42
Fierce fighting also took place around the Antonov Airport northwest of Kyiv and the suburb of Irpin, where Ukrainian forces managed to stall the Russian advance and inflict losses. Long Russian supply lines were increasingly threatened by Ukrainian attacks in what became a rout, leading Russia
to abandon its push on Kyiv at the end of March, withdrawing forces back to Belarus and Russia. Moscow reframed the retreat as a goodwill gesture for peace talks, though the military reality of defeat was clear.43
The battle demonstrated Russia’s inability to capture major Ukrainian cities rapidly. Ukraine’s resistance safeguarded its capital and government, boosting morale and enabling Russia’s aims to be stymied. This represented a major victory for Ukraine’s defenses and a humiliation for what was reputed to be one of the world’s most powerful militaries.44
Fight for Eastern Ukraine
With its assault on Kyiv thwarted, Russia redirected efforts toward capturing the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, including the besieged port city of Mariupol. Securing the land bridge between Russian-held areas of Donbas and Crimea became an important objective, which would allow control over the Sea of Azov.45
Russia heavily bombarded cities like Kharkiv and Mariupol with artillery, missiles and airstrikes, causing immense damage. Mariupol suffered a devastating siege without water, power or supplies for civilians trapped in the city. But Ukrainian defenders managed to retain control of Kharkiv against expectations.46
In the south, Russia captured Kherson, giving it a foothold west of the Dnieper River. Fighting raged around Mykolaiv as Russian forces sought to push further west toward Odesa but met stiff resistance. Russian troops also made steady advances in capturing villages in Donbas, but urban areas like Severodonetsk held out. 47
Foreign military aid continued flowing into Ukraine, including heavier weapons like Western artillery, tanks and anti-aircraft systems that arrived in late April. These aided Ukraine’s ability to blunt Russia’s offensive in the east, which progressed far slower than Moscow anticipated. But Russia’s advantage in raw firepower led to grinding, attritional battles of artillery duels, with terrible cost for Ukraine’s forces and civilians.48
By late May, after flattening much of Severodonetsk, Russian forces finally captured the city in their main tangible gain after months of fighting. They also took adjacent Lysychansk, bringing all of Luhansk province under Russian control. But their Donbas campaign continued suffering heavy losses, while Ukraine retained hold of Donetsk province’s major cities. 49
Costs of War
The human toll of Russia’s invasion mounted horrifically. Thousands of civilians were killed in indiscriminate attacks, with deaths likely greatly undercounted. Over 14 million Ukrainians were displaced from their homes. Accusations of widespread sexual violence, torture and summary executions emerged from places like Bucha that Russian forces left in retreat. 50
Economic costs of the war grew severe as well. Beyond financial sanctions on Russia, the fighting disrupted Ukrainian agricultural production and access to the Black Sea, contributing to global food shortages and rising prices. European countries faced energy supply uncertainties due to reliance on Russian oil and gas. Escalating risks of accident or miscalculation at Ukrainian nuclear facilities like Zaporizhzhia alarmed international atomic regulators.51
Ukraine suffered devastating destruction of buildings and infrastructure across a broad swath of territory. But Russia also took significant military losses, with Western estimates of over 15,000 soldiers killed in the first three months alone, exceeding Soviet deaths in the decade-long Afghanistan war. High casualty rates led Russia to scale back more ambitious goals of toppling Ukraine’s government. 52
Setbacks caused domestic discontent in Russia, as an increasingly authoritarian Putin regime suppressed criticism and dissent. Russia found means to circumvent financial sanctions through oil exports to places like India and China. But sanctions still inflicted heavy damage on Russia’s economy, banks, technology access and consumer industry, with consequences likely to compound over time.53
The Need for Diplomacy
As the war dragged on, calls mounted for renewed diplomatic efforts alongside supporting Ukraine militarily against Russian aggression. Major global disruptions caused by the conflict highlighted the need to find a resolution before instability spread further.
Small signs of possible progress emerged in July as Russia finally allowed some Ukrainian grain shipments to leave blockaded ports, mitigating food security impacts slightly. Prospects remained deeply uncertain given wide gulfs between Moscow and Kyiv’s positions. But if battlefield dynamics shifted, avenues for negotiation could open to at least end active fighting. 54
Major issues would include establishing security arrangements protecting Ukraine’s sovereignty; addressing the status of Crimea and Donbas; holding Russia accountable for war crimes; and providing security guarantees between NATO and Russia to rebuild stability. But diplomacy faced daunting hurdles.
Ukraine still refused territorial concessions while Russia occupied its land, demanding withdrawal first. Zelensky ruled out ceding territory to reach peace. Meanwhile Russia was unlikely to relinquish gains easily after paying such high costs, though avoiding further military quagmire was an incentive to negotiate for Putin. Frequent talk of Ukraine recapturing Crimea underscored the vast divides. 55
With the EU’s more cautious response to Russian aggression contrasting with strong Anglo-American support for Ukraine,Splitter differences could also emerge on whether to pressure Ukraine into unwanted compromises for an imperfect peace. But Kyiv warned against outsiders trying to impose solutions on Ukraine. Thus, while all sides ultimately needed an end to fighting, the conditions for peace remained distant.56
Part 4 – Global Implications and Impact on the International Order
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the most severe challenge to the international order in Europe since the end of the Cold War, with profound implications for regional and global security. The war fundamentally damaged the European security architecture established over decades, while undermining key principles of respect for state sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Several broader impacts stand out.
Challenging the Post-Cold War Order
Moscow explicitly seeks to overturn the post-Cold War settlement in Europe reflected in NATO enlargement, EU expansion and increased Western influence near Russia’s periphery. Putin demands what he views as just redlines against Western encroachment and a proper sphere of influence for Russia, using force as leverage.57
But Russia’s actions eviscerated frameworks like the NATO-Russia Founding Act, Paris Charter and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) that aimed to build a cooperative pan-European security architecture. Violating commitments to respect sovereignty and borders undermines trust. Russia’s participation in bodies like the Council of Europe is now ruptured.58
The invasion created Cold War-like divisions in Europe not seen for decades. A strengthened NATO reoriented toward deterring Russia emerges, while neutral states like Finland and Sweden now seek NATO membership, further expanding the alliance Moscow aimed to shrink. A new Iron Curtain descends between Russia and the West.59
Testing Western Unity
Russia’s actions exposed critical vulnerabilities underpinning European security, including dependence on Russian energy and lack of military capabilities for conventional territorial defense after decades of downsizing. But recognition of the threat prompted major increases in defense spending by NATO states like Germany to strengthen deterrence.60
Cracks did appear within NATO, however, over secondary sanctions on Russian energy. Unity against allowing Russia quick victory averted serious splits, but differing threat perceptions, memories of Moscow’s political influence, and economic ties complicate forging common policies toward Russia across European capitals going forward.61
Yet the invasion also demonstrated the staying power and adaptability of democratic institutions and social resilience in Ukraine in contrast to the brittle, coercive nature of Putin’s Russia – an encouraging sign for the ultimate vitality of Western ideals.62
Undermining International Norms and Institutions
Core tenets of the international order were severely undermined: respect for state sovereignty and territorial integrity, bans on conquest and annexation, mandates to peacefully settle disputes, and upholding human rights and humanitarian law. Russia trampled these principles across Ukraine.63
The invasion demonstrated the shifting balance between might and right in international relations as great power competition intensifies – the willingness to wield raw power and military force coercively as a conscious tool of statecraft by authoritarian regimes. This challenges the liberal international order’s emphasis on rules and norms.64
Institutions like the United Nations were hampered by gridlock and ineffectiveness at preventing conflict, though useful for criticizing and documenting Russian actions. Alternative forums like BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization took ambivalent stances on the war revealing their limited cohesion.65
Fueling Global Instability
The war and resulting geopolitical tensions risk exacerbating instability worldwide if diplomacy falters. Food insecurity, energy price shocks, and shortages of commodities like wheat or fertilizer impact vulnerable countries across Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Moscow’s blockade of Black Sea grain exports using Ukrainian seaports created a global food crisis. 66
Economic consequences spread globally given Ukraine and Russia’s importance exporting energy, food and minerals. Inflation rose worldwide, complicating recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic. Europe’s energy crunch provides incentive for strengthened ties between Russia and major powers like China and India.67
A protracted conflict could spur escalatory cycles of militarization and risks direct confrontation between Russia and NATO powers. It fuels global trends of rising nationalism, divisions and militancy. The conflict also distracts from cooperation on shared transnational threats like climate change, as Russian forces intentionally damaged environmental sites in Ukraine like coal mines.68
Heightened Nuclear Risks
The war is fraught with dangerous nuclear dimensions. Russia obliquely threatened nuclear weapon use against Western intervention. Any percieved threat to Crimea or Russia’s survival could trigger nuclear coercion. False warning risks are heightened amid communications break down.69
The Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant came under threat as the largest atomic facility in Europe. Ukraine worried Russia might weaponize the plant by cutting its power or deliberately releasing radiation. Attacks on nuclear sites or accidental damage could cause catastrophe well beyond Ukraine.70
Fears grew of Russia escalating to employ tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine if faced with conventional defeat. Putin aims to compel the West to limit support for Ukraine. NATO doctrine leaves potential nuclear retaliation ambiguous. But any Russian nuclear use would represent an unprecedented violation of the post-WWII nuclear taboo with uncertain consequences. 71
A Renewed Eurasia Arms Race
The Ukraine conflict spurred regional militarization in several directions. A severely weakened Russia still retains immense nuclear, cyber, space and conventional capabilities representing a long-term threat to its neighbors. States like Poland and the Baltics rapidly built up their armies. 72
Ukraine’s unexpected battlefield successes with Turkish-provided drones and Western anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles showed smaller states can effectively counter larger adversaries given sufficient modern weaponry and motivation. This could inspire military buildups by Russia’s nervous neighbors and fuel regional arms racing dynamics.73
Fighting also highlighted importance of controlling cyberterrain, electronic warfare and information spaces. Russia proved reasonably effective at degrading communications, spreading propaganda domestically, and launching cyberattacks in Ukraine. Other Eurasian states saw the need to develop cyber capabilities alongside conventional forces.74
Part 5 – Future Trajectories and Resolution Scenarios
As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues, several potential trajectories could unfold with vastly different implications for regional order. But any scenario faces major uncertainties and obstacles.
If battlefield conditions develop forcing Russia to deescalate militarily, some form of negotiated peace or “frozen conflict” becomes plausible. But Ukraine would only compromise from a position of strength after regaining territory, demanding Russia’s complete withdrawal. A bitter, wary peace or Cold War-style standoff between Russia and the West could persist for years.
Kyiv affirmed it would fight until recovering all occupied lands, including Crimea and Donbas. But Russia seems unlikely to relinquish its perceived gains easily. A deal might involve tacit Ukrainian acceptance of Russian control in Donbas, neutrality pledges, and gradual normalization of relations to enable lifting sanctions, while deferring the Crimea issue.75
But pushes for any settlement that even tacitly ratifies Russia’s dismemberment of Ukraine could rupture Kyiv’s alliances with supporters in Washington and London. Permanently accepting Moscow’sassertion
of regional hegemony through aggression, after such bloody conflict, would be a bitter pill for Ukrainians. Details around implementing autonomy for Donbas, border controls, and security guarantees will be highly complex issues to resolve.
Any deal might resemble flawed past conflict settlements like Minsk, freezing disputes without fully resolving them. For Putin, concessions could be framed domestically as correcting overreach while retaining some gains. But sustained Western sanctions could be Ukraine’s greatest leverage toward restoring its territorial integrity eventually.76
If Russia’s position in Ukraine further deteriorates, Moscow could opt for major escalation beyond the Donbas – annexing Kherson, attacking Odesa, mobilizing its population for war, or employing weapons of mass destruction. Concerns increased over Putin’s mindset as his rhetoric grew more aggressive amid Russian military setbacks.77
Escalation risks rise if Putin perceives the current campaign faltering in a way that threatens his personal hold on power. Lashing out aggressively could rally domestic war fervor. Russia might intensify attacks on Ukraine’s infrastructure or target Western arm shipments entering via Poland and Romania.78
Cyberattacks and influence operations could be unleashed directly against NATO states. Any territorial expansion of the war beyond Ukraine’s borders would severely test Western deterrence. Russia could manipulate energy exports or cut off flows entirely to pressure Europe into limiting involvement in Ukraine. 79
Faced with conventional defeats, Russia may consider employing tactical nuclear weapons – though still unlikely. Using nuclear force would hope to terrify the West into backing down and coerce Kyiv to capitulate. But that would unleash unknowable escalatory chains potentially ending in catastrophe. More broadly, prolonged global instability risks eroding norms against nuclear use over time.80
Although still difficult, the possibility emerged of Ukraine decisively defeating Russian forces and regaining all occupied territory – either through grinding attrition or a sudden collapse of Russia’s military position through internal discontent or battlefield reversals. Retaking Crimea would sever the land bridge to Russia and collapse remaining occupying forces in the south.81
This could be facilitated by Ukraine’s planned counteroffensives, mass mobilization, sophisticated NATO-standard capabilities like HIMARS rocket artillery enabling long range strikes on Russian logistic and command sites, steady weakening of Russia’s military manpower, and exhaustion of Moscow’s resources over a protracted insurgent-type war. 82
Under this scenario, Putin could be pressured into withdrawing from all Ukraine’s territory, abandoning his maximalist objectives. Russia’s international isolation and pariah status would continue until agreeing to demilitarize, pay war reparations, and be held accountable for war crimes. But Putin would likely have to be removed from power first for Russia to accept defeat.83
A problem with this scenario is that Russia’s nuclear deterrent likely prevents it from ever being outright militarily defeated. Its nuclear doctrine allows use if the state faces an existential threat. Hence, even in extremis Moscow retains escalatory options to force a ceasefire. A bitter peace or prolonged froze conflict thus seems more plausible than Russia’s unconditional surrender.84
Fragmentation of Russia or Ukraine
Less likely potential trajectories involve the breakup of Russia or Ukraine into smaller states. A disastrous war that removes Putin could precipitate the fragmentation of the Russian Federation given its multiethnic makeup and internal tensions. But in the near term, Russian elites would likely coalesce against external threats.
Alternatively, a scenario could unfold where occupied regions of Ukraine like Crimea, Donbas, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia end up separating permanently. But Ukrainian nationalism remains strong, and neither the West or Ukraine would recognize annexation of territories. Any fragmentation would likely come after years of failed negotiations and contested boundaries. 85
The war in Ukraine stands out as among the most significant European conflicts since WWII given the stakes involved and threat posed to the postwar order. Russia violated key principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity in pursuit of its interests in remaking the European security architecture forcibly and upending the regional status quo.
But Russia achieved nothing near the quick victories expected. Instead Ukraine fiercely resisted, exposing weaknesses in Russia’s military capabilities and the brittleness of Putin’s autocratic rule. While prospects for diplomacy and deescalation currently appear low, the war’s enormous costs mandate efforts by all sides to find a solution short of indefinite conflict or catastrophic escalation.
The outcome of the war will shape Eurasia’s geopolitical landscape for decades to come. A Russian victory would undermine European democracy and Western institutions. But an outright Russian defeat could spur positive transformations decreasing Moscow’s disruptive influence. Regardless of the war’s resolution, Ukraine has cemented its separate identity and aligned itself decisively with the West.
Through its struggle, Ukraine is speaking on behalf of all states large and small that desire freedom and wish to choose their own path without the threat of subjugation. Though the costs have been terrible, such aspirations never die. And in defending itself so courageously against aggression, Ukraine has already accomplished much, giving hope for a more democratic region in the long run.
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