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How Will the Russia-Ukraine War Reshape the World? (Part 4)

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How Will the Russia-Ukraine War Reshape the World? (Part 4)

A brave new world

As in the “nuclear apocalypse” scenario, Russia has launched a tactical nuclear missile inside Ukraine opposite the US/NATO safe haven in Poland that is supplying training and military equipment to the Ukrainian resistance. Many in the United States want to hit a Russian city with cruise missiles in retaliation, appalling European leaders who see in such a move the start of a nuclear Armageddon. European pressure convinces Washington to hold off on military action just as China intervenes to force Russia to take its nuclear forces off high alert.

The shock of the first use of nuclear weapons in nearly eight decades triggers widespread fear that Russia’s strike could become a nuclear version of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand that sparked World War I. The United Nations (UN) secretary-general convenes a peace conference in which China, Israel, and the European Union (EU) work closely together to broker a settlement.

A ceasefire is imposed in Ukraine, policed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and UN peacekeepers (some from China’s People’s Liberation Army). Over the next nine months, the warring parties agree to a deal that ensures the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine and the easing of Western sanctions against Russia so long as Moscow adheres to the bargain.

As part of the agreement, Ukraine adopts a new posture as a neutral state, a strategic buffer between East and West, defined in a new federal constitution approved in a referendum. It pursues economic ties to the EU and, to assuage Russian concerns and facilitate reconstruction in eastern Ukraine, it also joins Putin’s Eurasian Economic Union. It retains the ability to arm itself for its own defense within limits agreed to as part of larger NATO-Russia conventional arms limits and confidence-building measures. Crimea is recognized by the UN as part of Russia after its inhabitants vote to join the country in an internationally supervised referendum.

Donetsk and Luhansk become semi-autonomous regions under the new Ukrainian constitution. As part of new European security arrangements, Western European countries successfully pressure the United States and Eastern European NATO members to rescind the Alliance’s 2008 promise to extend membership to Ukraine and Georgia. A reinvented OSCE plays a larger security role in the region. But NATO’s charter is unchanged, leaving its open-door policy in place in theory.

Building on the global backlash against Russia crossing the nuclear Rubicon, the UN secretary-general leads an effort to ban all tactical nuclear weapons and return to the goal of nuclear disarmament. There is a growing nuclear disarmament movement in Europe as well. The United States and Russia negotiate START III, agreeing to reduce deployed nuclear warheads to one thousand each. Additional accords governing conventional force reductions curb US and Russian force levels and weapons systems.

Well after the peace conference ends the war in Ukraine, with Russia’s 2024 elections drawing near, a group of oligarchs and senior military and intelligence officials deliver an ultimatum to Putin: resign or face war-crime trials. Putin decides to retires to his dacha to write his memoirs. The Russian people, seeking reform, renewed ties with the United States and the West, and to not become dependent on China, elect a coalition government that includes the onetime exiled businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky and formerly imprisoned dissident Alexei Navalny. Still, even under new leadership, it takes Russia years to repair and diversify its economy, and incrementally rebuild trust and reshape ties with the West.

The peace negotiations over Ukraine help spark an economic rebound across the world. China’s efforts to mediate the conflict, which included exerting pressure on Russia by refusing a financial bailout of Moscow, lead to a reset in Sino-US ties. That, in turn, results in a framework for competitive coexistence, with strategic decoupling of the tech and (to some degree) financial sectors, along with a more businesslike relationship between the two powers.

Many in Congress nevertheless press the US administration to not ease up on countering assertive Chinese behavior against Taiwan and in the South and East China Seas. The growth in Chinese soft power because of its role in initiating peace talks worries Washington, as the great powers continue to eye each other warily while avoiding direct conflict. Consensus among democracies and like-minded governments on trade and technology rules and standards spurs China to limit its ambitions and scale back its industrial polices, leading to reform of the World Trade Organization. With a post-Putin Russia and a more cooperative China, the Group of Twenty (G20) acquires more cachet and begins to address other global governance issues from climate change to ethical standards for artificial intelligence.

A new world, whatever the scenario

The scenarios above illustrate the various ways geopolitics could be transformed depending on what trajectory the conflict over Ukraine takes next. But in several respects the geopolitical chess pieces are already in different positions on the board than they were before hostilities erupted.

Europe, for example, will never be the same again. It has assumed a more robust role in this crisis than many would have predicted beforehand, with Germany turning away from seventy-five years of relative pacifism and the European Union (EU) uniting to phase out its dependence on Russian energy. More broadly, the war has provided a new impetus for closer collaboration among most democracies. Even if there is a ceasefire and peace settlement, Russian decline has accelerated.

In the United States, the Biden administration’s plan for pivoting to Asia to counter China has been upended. The United States will increase its attention on—and flow more resources and forces to—Europe for the remainder of Biden’s term. There is more of an open question when it comes to China: Given Xi’s closeness to Putin, the war in Ukraine offers Beijing an opportunity to become a peacemaker. But will it grasp the opportunity?

This section examines the enduring changes in the world that are evident so far and how our scenarios could further impact the movement of these repositioned chess pieces.

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How Will the Russia-Ukraine War Reshape the World? (Part 3)

A nuclear apocalypse

Despite valiant, grassroots Ukrainian efforts to sabotage Russia’s invasion, a number of the country’s cities are reduced to rubble. In such circumstances, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy refuses to negotiate with Moscow. In the West, pressure builds for forms of intervention beyond arms shipments and humanitarian assistance. The United States and other NATO members step up supplies of weaponry to a steadfast Ukrainian insurgency, providing it with clandestine training and a safe haven on the Polish side of the border. The war grinds on as the pace of Ukrainians exiting the country accelerates. Armed militias continue the fight even in parts of Ukraine “pacified” by Russian troops and call on the West for more active help.

In Russia, meanwhile, Western sanctions are crushing ordinary people in worse ways than during the country’s 1998 financial crisis. There is a large-scale exodus of members of the middle class—scientists, engineers, teachers, tech professionals, and other white-collar types, many under the age of forty—that risks forfeiting Russia’s future. Despite burgeoning inflation, the Kremlin authorizes a special “victory bonus” to all Russian citizens to boost its domestic support. Moscow bans wheat exports and freezes the cost of rent and food essentials in major cities. Russian police brutally suppress growing protests against the harsh tactics of the Russian military in Ukraine.

The Kremlin is increasingly worried about how much the Russian military is stretched in trying to hold Ukrainian territory while fighting an active insurgency. When Russia’s intelligence service, the FSB, alerts Putin to the safe haven for Ukrainian insurgents in Poland, the Russian president recalls the Soviet nightmare in Afghanistan and becomes determined to squash such assistance. At the United Nations Security Council, Russia’s permanent representative shows pictures of the Central Intelligence Agency-run training base and the stockpiles of lethal arms there.

Then comes a sharp escalation that shatters the global taboo against nuclear-weapons use that has prevailed since the end of World War II: Putin authorizes his forces to detonate a tactical nuclear missile on the Ukrainian side of the border with Poland in a lightly populated area, not directly hitting the US/NATO safe haven but nonetheless sending a forceful message about his opposition to its existence.

In response, Poland invokes NATO’s Article 5 to rally other Alliance members to its defense. NATO convenes an emergency summit. US hawks call for a proportional nuclear response, but the Biden administration decides to first deliver an ultimatum to Putin, backed up with a credible threat of nuclear retaliation. The United States sets out the terms for ending what is now a much-widened NATO-Russia conflict: Russia must immediately withdraw troops from all of Ukraine, including Crimea and the Donbas region. There will be no promise of keeping Ukraine out of NATO. For all US sanctions to be dropped, Russia must pay reparations for the damages it has caused in Ukraine. European leaders like French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz argue against what amounts to demanding an unconditional surrender from Russia. But with emotions running high against the backdrop of an unprecedented nuclear conflict in Europe, they are outvoted.

Putin agrees to a negotiation but refuses the terms presented by the United States and its allies. NATO reacts by firing several conventional cruise missiles to destroy a Russian military base in Ukraine close to the Russian border. Likening the NATO attack to another Nazi invasion, Putin wins the backing of the Russian public even as members of the Russian elite seek to unseat him without success. Russia retaliates by launching two more strikes with tactical nuclear missiles, this time over the border in Poland.

A series of nuclear-weapons exchanges ensues: the United States hits Russian military targets while Russia hits NATO bases in Germany and US facilities in Guam and Alaska. Despite the focus on military targets, thousands of civilians are killed in the strikes amid mounting worries about more deaths to follow from radiation poisoning. Both the United States and Russia use artificial intelligence and offensive cyberattacks to take out each other’s nuclear command-and-control infrastructure in space. In contrast to World War II, the fighting is concentrated in Europe, as China (which, along with France, unsuccessfully tries to mediate between the belligerents) and countries in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America stake out neutrality. Nevertheless, World War III has begun.

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How Will the Russia-Ukraine War Reshape the World? (Part 2)

A double cold war

Peace talks between Russia and Ukraine have been deadlocked for several months, as the Ukrainians held out hope that new Western military supplies would tip the balance of the conflict in their favor. But with several Ukrainian cities turned into rubble, it becomes clear that no one can truly win the war.

France and Germany make new efforts to get both sides to consent to a peace deal in which Ukraine would become a neutral country akin to nonaligned Austria, agreeing to excise the goal of NATO membership from its constitution contingent on the total pullout of Russian troops from the country. The harder issues, such as a permanent status for Russian-annexed Crimea and the two breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, are tabled for the moment. After several unsuccessful attempts, Zelenskyy and Putin strike a ceasefire deal under pressure from not just Paris and Berlin but also Washington. The European Union (EU) offers increased humanitarian and development assistance to Ukraine and some reduction in sanctions against Russia so long as the Kremlin removes all its troops from Ukraine except those in contested areas of the country. The EU also helps with the resettlement of refugees in their homes in Ukraine.

With the ceasefire holding and Russia beginning to withdraw its forces, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz propose a broader peace conference that would jumpstart arms-control talks between NATO and Russia. Their intent is to avoid a new cold war in Europe. Washington, however, is opposed to the idea of the conference, with many US foreign-policy elites believing that Putin has not paid enough for his unjustified invasion of Ukraine. Leading members of Congress from both parties urge the president to not lift even some of the stiffest financial sanctions on Russia—a step Macron and Scholz believe is needed to strengthen the tenuous peace. The US position is bolstered by opposition to the Franco-German initiative among several of the EU’s eastern members.

While the US administration refuses to bow to congressional pressure to revoke the New START nuclear arms-reduction treaty with Moscow, it does not feel in this climate that it can back Franco-German efforts to launch NATO-Russian negotiations on placing restrictions on conventional weapons. Heeding growing calls by Eastern European allies for reinforced support against Russia, the United States and its Western European allies begin adding new forces along the new East-West divide at the borders of Poland and the Baltic states. Russia and Belarus mirror these moves.

Having followed through on his plans for fortifying Germany’s armed forces, Scholz urges stronger EU defense. Macron reiterates his proposal to extend France’s nuclear weapons as a European deterrent against any aggressors.

Oil prices come down but remain in the range of seventy-five to ninety-five dollars per barrel. Europe accelerates its efforts to bolster renewable-energy sources, including nuclear energy. EU economic growth, after a recession in 2022-23, amounts to less than 1 percent on an annual basis following the war, while the United States experiences higher growth at 2 percent and China drops below 5 percent. As global growth plunges below 4 percent, there is a growing realization that the world may be mired in an extended period of slow economic development. Price spikes and riots escalate in parts of Africa and the Middle East that were dependent on Ukrainian wheat exports.

Russia, meanwhile, becomes increasingly dependent on Chinese and other Asian markets for its sluggish economic recovery, and speeds up the export of its energy eastward. China expands its Cross-Border Interbank Payment System to allow the two neighboring powers to increasingly bypass the Belgium-based SWIFT international payment system. Russia and China settle more trade in digital yuan, reducing the need for dollars. China also launders Russian gold reserves, which are believed to be worth some one hundred billion dollars, by converting them into yuan that Russia can use to buy Chinese goods.

In light of China’s support for Russia, Washington widens the new cold war that’s emerging to Beijing in addition to Moscow. The United States sanctions some Chinese banks and calls on its allies to blacklist an expanding list of Chinese technology firms. European leaders, for their part, are reluctant to take on China but don’t feel they are well-positioned to resist US demands. The United States cuts off exports of semiconductor chips to China as well, causing distress to its own industry and accelerating China’s efforts to build technological self-reliance. The US government also ends its posture of “strategic ambiguity” on Taiwan, declaring that it would intervene militarily in response to any Chinese aggression against the island, while the Taiwanese debate declaring independence from China. Moscow and Beijing, in turn, deepen their political cooperation.

Xi sees advantages to the expanding cold war with the United States. He revs up his nationalistic rhetoric, rallying support for the regime’s fight with the West and suppressing growing unease with his rule among those in the Communist Party who want to introduce market reforms to boost the country’s shaky economy and find an accommodation with the United States.

In this environment, an informal bloc of nonaligned nations emerges that includes India, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Vietnam, Turkey, and Brazil. Most of these countries maintained good relations with Russia during the Ukraine war despite Western pressure to isolate Moscow. Dependent economically on their trade with China, they also want good relations with Beijing.

International cooperation on everything from climate change to common economic challenges, global tech standards, and development assistance for poorer countries becomes harder. The internet further splinters, as the increasing US-China rivalry leads each power to recruit as many countries as possible to its side on digital matters. Global economic growth continues its downward trend and de-globalization advances. International multilateral institutions, from the United Nations to the World Trade Organization and World Health Organization, go into decline.

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How Will the Russia-Ukraine War Reshape the World? (Part 1)

It’s the big question keeping the world on edge: How does this end?

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war of choice in Ukraine is a world-historical event, marking the final act of the post-Cold War period and the start of a new era, yet unwritten. The spectrum of possible outcomes ranges from a volatile new cold or hot war involving the United States, Russia, and China; to a frozen conflict in Ukraine; to a post-Putin settlement in which Russia becomes part of a revised European security architecture. With the West leveling unprecedented sanctions against Russia in record time and the real potential for a descent into nuclear war, we are in uncharted territory. It is difficult to see how Putin “wins.” But he cannot accept defeat.

What follows are four scenarios for how this war could conclude and the alternative geopolitical futures that might result, transforming international relations over the course of the next two to three years. We develop scenarios not to predict the future but to help decision makers imagine what could happen next and devise ways to prevent the worst case. The only certainty about the war over Ukraine is that all existing certainties have been shattered.

A frozen conflict

Russia’s war effort in Ukraine drags on for more than a year, as the civilian death toll continues to rise. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy remains in Kyiv, even with his life in persistent danger from Russian-directed assassination attempts.

In 2023, global oil prices stay over one hundred dollars a barrel, as Europe struggles to wean itself off Russian energy. The harsh winter in 2022-2023 has prompted European Union (EU) countries to begin rationing energy supplies, depriving industries of needed power and forcing schools to close during the worst weather because of the difficulty of heating classrooms. Europe plunges into recession. Even though the United States is spared a recession, the high price of gasoline continues to anger Americans. The Democratic Party loses control of both the Senate and House of Representatives in the November 2022 midterm elections, dramatically weakening US President Joe Biden’s ability to advance his policy agenda.

Russia, meanwhile, is in dire condition. Despite the Russian Central Bank’s deft management of an impossible situation, inflation climbs rapidly amid interrupted supplies of basic food staples and less-than-anticipated Chinese assistance. Russia’s military hierarchy understands that the war in Ukraine is unwinnable, and there are rumors of a loose coalition of irate oligarchs and military and intelligence siloviki with designs on forcing Putin’s ouster and installing former President Dmitry Medvedev in his place. The country’s intelligence service, the FSB, averts a palace coup, and Putin sends dozens of generals to a prison camp.

In early 2023, with the warring sides stalled and no end in sight to the low-intensity conflict, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz grow anxious to mediate a ceasefire. Almost ten million Ukrainians have emigrated to the (EU), where the deepening recession stokes public opposition to admitting more refugees. European leaders are prepared to offer incentives to Putin: the lifting of some sanctions once Russian troops end their fighting and start reducing their presence in Ukraine.

Under pressure at home, Putin pulls back a portion of his troops from Ukraine but keeps enough there to continue to control much of Ukraine’s coastline, ensuring a land bridge between the Donbas region and Crimea. French and German leaders are disappointed with the partial Russian withdrawal and reciprocate by doing away with sanctions only on those oligarchs who have reportedly been involved in plots to remove Putin. The EU also temporarily lifts an embargo it had imposed on Russian energy, though principally to help with the recovery of European economies. The Biden administration does not eliminate its own energy embargo. But in the hope that oil prices will start to decline with the presidential election cycle beginning in mid-2023, it turns a blind eye to the importation of Russian energy by other countries, including European allies.

Talks with Putin, led by France, Germany, Turkey, and Israel, are protracted. Moscow wants assurances that NATO will stop providing arms to the Ukrainian resistance and will rescind its 2008 pledge to admit Ukraine and Georgia to the Alliance. The United States won’t give in, even though Zelenskyy has conceded for some time that Ukraine’s dream of NATO membership is no longer feasible. The Ukrainian president will accept neutrality so long as the five permanent members of the United Nations (UN) Security Council (the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, and France) plus Germany and Turkey become guarantors of Ukraine’s security. Zelenskyy is unwilling, however, to concede independence for his country’s breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.

With negotiations stuck on these points, Washington wants to double down on providing military supplies to Ukrainian forces while France and Germany still hope to reach a détente with Moscow and worry about Putin sending back the troops he has withdrawn. Poland and other Central European nations back the US position, particularly since Zelenskyy does not want the pressure on Russia to ease. He insists that if Ukrainian forces get more military assistance, they have a good chance of repulsing all remaining Russian forces.

As the US presidential campaign heats up while the fighting in Ukraine does as well, the Biden administration convenes a special NATO summit to decide next steps. Both the United States and its European allies believe the conflict’s current course is not sustainable. EU publics are increasingly angry about the cost of housing and the challenge of supporting millions of Ukrainian refugees amid a recession. In the United States, the administration fears a wipeout for Democrats in the 2024 elections as gas prices and inflation remain elevated and the economy underperforms. In the Middle East, Egypt has been rocked for two years by ever more violent food riots as the price of bread soars. Europeans fear a repeat of the Arab Spring with more instability, terrorism, and refugees. The United States and European countries are also finding it harder to enforce other countries’ compliance with Russia sanctions. Russia might not sell as much oil and natural gas to Europe as it once did, but it is finding plenty of buyers for discounted Russian energy elsewhere. Western leaders worry that the initial shock of the sanctions has worn off and that most ordinary Russians are learning to adapt to them. Having survived elite plots to replace him, Putin has reasserted control over the country.

At the NATO summit, Biden announces that the West has two options. The first is to pressure Zelenskyy and Putin into a ceasefire and limited peace agreement, though this would carry the risk of a fragile peace. The second is for the West to step up its military assistance to Ukraine in the hope that a Ukrainian military breakthrough will force Putin to make major concessions, though this would incur escalation risks such as Russian targeting of supply depots along the border with Poland or Romania. While Biden may only glimpse this at the time, the former option is more liable to lead to something like our second scenario (“a double cold war”) while the latter option is more likely to bring about situations akin to our third (“a nuclear apocalypse”) or fourth (“a brave new world”) scenarios.


Defending Every Inch of NATO Territory: Force Posture Options for Strengthening Deterrence in Europe

In light of Russia’s unprovoked war on Ukraine, the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security’s Transatlantic Security Initiative convened a task force of Atlantic Council experts focused on strengthening US and NATO force posture. This Scowcroft Center Issue Brief outlines the strategic context that NATO now faces, key principles for strengthening NATO’s deterrence posture, and a menu of recommended posture enhancements for the Alliance.

Strategic Context and Key Insights
■ We are now in a new era of sustained confrontation with Russia. It
is not a broad-based competition for influence across numerous domains (e.g. economic), as is the case with China; rather, it is a dynamic confrontation throughout the transatlantic theater, most heatedly along NATO’s eastern flank from the Arctic in the north to the Black and Mediterranean Seas in the south. Russia wishes to push its influence or direct control of territory as far west, north, and south as possible, especially in the former Soviet states.
■ Russia has now demonstrated both the intent and capability to mass forces to underwrite a sustained coercive-diplomacy campaign and invade the sovereign territory of another nation. Moreover, now that Russian forces have undertaken operations in Ukraine, Putin may decide to further threaten the territory and freedom of action of additional non-NATO members, such as Georgia, Moldova, and Finland—as well as NATO members themselves. Russia today has a preponderance of conventional combat forces in Eastern Europe.
■ No matter what happens next regarding Russian military operations in Ukraine and Belarus, the security environment in Europe and adjoining regions has been structurally changed for the worse for the short to medium term. Thus, NATO’s approach of deterrence by punishment—conducted by rapid reinforcement to its frontline allies—can no longer be NATO’s sole model for deterrence. Deterrence by denial must now gain greater weight in NATO’s strategic concept.
■ Based on Russian actions, the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act—and its restrictions on NATO’s eastern posture—is no longer relevant. We are in new, dangerous territory—a period of sustained tensions, military moves and countermoves, and major intermittent military crises in the Euro-Atlantic area that will ebb and flow for at least the remainder of the 2020s, if not longer.
■ In this environment, military tensions will likely be exacerbated by increased, aggressive Russian unconventional activities in the homelands of NATO and European Union (EU) members. We should expect Russia, feeling the impact of coordinated Western sanctions and other diplomatic measures, will ramp up the level and intensity of cyberattacks, election meddling, online disinformation,
covert activities, and support for extremists in homelands across the democratic world. On top of a local conventional-combat power imbalance between Russia and allied forces in Eastern Europe, and increasingly aggressive sub-threshold operations, the Alliance also
faces a highly dynamic strategic-forces balance. Russia has undertaken a long-term, sustained nuclear-modernization program that has produced several new types of offensive nuclear weapons. These novel systems present new threats to NATO, its outmoded conceptual approach to nuclear deterrence, and its aging nuclear force inventories.
■ In turn, the Alliance will need to assure its nuclear deterrent capabilities. Modernized and adapted NATO nuclear capabilities must be prioritized in order for the Alliance to effectively deter numerically superior Russian forces from attacking NATO’s eastern-flank members, from Norway in the north through Lithuania, Poland,
Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, and Turkey in the south.
While this conclusion may run counter to the Biden administration’s initial proposition to reduce US reliance on nuclear weapons in its national security strategy, itwould represent a clear-eyed reappraisal of the new security environment. That Biden administration commitment was made well before the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine. If President Biden were to wisely
decide to reassess this policy position, he would likely gain bipartisan and Alliance-wide backing.

Though deterrence of Russia will take on greater weight
in US defense planning, the threat posed by China will
still demand significant resources. Thus, though the
United States must play a leading role in shaping and
contributing to an adapted NATO defense posture, the
US capacity to contribute will be constrained by IndoPacific requirements necessitating increased contributions in Europe from European allies and Canada.