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.