My last essay provoked a lot of comment, including suggestions for taking the analysis a bit further, and trying to look at some of the longer-term consequences for the West of the end of the war in Ukraine, and of its political and military failure there. Here’s a modest attempt, then.
It’s not a prediction. Not only do I not believe in predictions, but it has to be remembered that events are moving at a speed, and with a complexity, that means that what I write now may easily be out of date by the time you read it. In my essay on Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, written a few months ago, I should have mentioned the poor Brigadier Pudding, who spent his spare time writing a book entitled Things That Can Happen in European Politics, only to discover that there were so many possibilities, and so many interactions, that he was unable to keep up with current events (never mind predict the future) and the book was actually going backwards.
That said, it is possible to identify certain directions in which things may (or more importantly may not) go. I want to start with the negative side, because that’s a way of putting some of the more extreme scenarios we read about into some sort of context. I do not suggest that any of these extreme possibilities is inherently impossible, since almost nothing in international politics is, but for the reasons given below I don’t think we should spend that much time on them.
The first possibility is catastrophic political and economic failure. At the beginning, pundits thought this might happen in Russia: they have gone quiet about that recently. Others, though, have seen the end of the “American Empire,” the dissolution of NATO, violent conflict and even civil war in some western states, multiple bank failures, and whole economies crashing, all by the end of the year. The difficulty here is two-fold. On the one hand, yes, the wider economic consequences of the war in Ukraine, including (limited) de-dollarisation of trade, vulnerability of complex and sophisticated supply chains, fuel price increases, and the slow movement of economic power away from the West, could have quite significant implications in the near future. Or they might not, because they are also embedded in a series of other problems, that are not specifically related to Ukraine but linked in some cases—inflation, de-industrialisation, poverty, increasing dependence on imports, political systems breaking down and increasing economic inequality, about all of which I’ve written several times. It’s clear that the West is in for a very uncomfortable time over the next few years, and beyond. But predictions about individual, catastrophic consequences, specifically related to the war in Ukraine, seem me to be very dangerous. History suggests that one of the extreme or more extreme predictions will come true, or partly true, but that will probably be by pure chance, and it will probably be the last thing we would expect, anyway. So NATO won’t close down next year, or even the year after: international politics doesn’t work like that.
On the other hand, one of my consistent points in these essays is the need to distinguish between underlying patterns of events and shifts in power on the one hand, and specific circumstances, often unknowable in advance, which set off a particular chain of disastrous events, on the other. The fall of the Soviet Union, the coming to power of the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran, or for that matter the recent civil war in Ethiopia are such examples: the ingredients were there but the crisis could have come earlier, later, or conceivably not at all. The same is likely in this case: some direct or indirect consequences of the end of the Ukraine war could set off a catastrophic chain of events somewhere, but will not do so automatically, nor without a necessary prior leavening of human stupidity in the wrong place at the wrong time. So let’s not get too excited about individual apocalyptic predictions in the short term.
The second possibility is business as usual. On this theory, defeat in Ukraine would swiftly be consigned to the memory hole, just like Afghanistan (it is argued), and the ultras in Washington and Brussels would start gearing up for a war with China. I don’t think this is feasible either. Afghanistan had effects that were essentially localised and temporary. That will not be the case with Ukraine. Depending on the exact scenario (and I’ll come to that in a second) failure of western policies in Ukraine will have long-term and significant consequences for the West as a whole. The most obvious consequences will be economic, but the really interesting ones lie elsewhere. For example, for the last decade Kiev has been a suburb of Washington, London and Brussels. But it will simply be necessary for the Russians to announce that they can no longer guarantee the safety of western leaders visiting Kiev, and the relationship will start to unravel, even if the Ukrainians want to keep it. Irrespective of the exact regime that follows Zelensky’s, the West is increasingly likely to be frozen out of relations with Ukraine. There will be no juicy construction contracts for western companies to rebuild areas under Russian control. Western leaders and businessmen might find themselves increasingly unwelcome and embarrassing guests. (The Chinese, on the other hand, may be noticeably present.) Most importantly, perhaps, very large and well-equipped Russian forces will be deployed well forward, uncomfortably close to the very borders of NATO. Russian aircraft may patrol the Ukrainian-Polish frontier with the reluctant acquiescence of Kiev. Almost every day will bring the risk of a new political humiliation for the West, and increasing proof of its gradual loss of status. These are not things you can hide, especially in countries and international organisation that have become used to the idea that they are the natural rulers of the world.
The third possibility is “escalation” leading inevitably to some kind of nuclear war. I’ve already pointed out several times that escalation only means anything if you have something to escalate with, and somewhere to escalate to. Rhetoric and threats, which have been NATO and the EU’s practice until now, are of no value here. NATO’s ground forces are too weak and too dispersed to intervene. NATO’s air forces would do … what? If all the aircraft engaged in the current NATO air exercise were suddenly to turn East, few if any would even reach the line of contact before running out of fuel (or being shot down of course.) And how would they affect the battle? The theory behind military exercises like this is that you send a political message about your determination to stay involved and your willingness to escalate. But when you have nothing to stay involved or to escalate with, it all becomes a bit pointless. Who are you trying to convince, apart from yourselves and your own publics? In reality, exercises and troop and aircraft movements are one of the very few options available in the repertoire of states confronted with crises, and it is likely we will see more of them over the next months and years, not because they are likely to be effective, but because there are not a lot of alternatives.
And then, of course, there are nuclear weapons. Since this has been mentioned quite bit, let’s spend just a moment on the question. Now first of all, I don’t think that anyone in the West has been sufficiently crazy to think of trying classic nuclear brinkmanship, meaning a threat to attack Moscow with nuclear weapons if the Russians did not withdraw from Ukraine. Such a threat would amount to national suicide for the US (and others) if it was carried through, and national humiliation if it wasn’t. No doubt somewhere in the sewers of Washington there are people who are deluded enough to think this is an acceptable course of action, but in real life I don’t think they will have much influence. The same goes for “demonstrative” use of nuclear weapons in very small numbers, somewhere, which belongs in airport best-sellers and political science textbooks, not in real life.
So we are back to tactical, or as I would prefer to call them “battlefield” nuclear weapons, about which there has been some heavy breathing recently. Now, a little history is in order here. Nuclear weapons were not originally developed according to a military requirement, and from the beginning the military has had the problem of finding an operational role for them, beyond their purely political functions such as deterrence and signifying Great Power status. As nuclear weapons became physically smaller, there was the possibility of their use in the battle itself, enabling powerful strikes on troop concentrations, airfields and headquarters, which would otherwise be very difficult to destroy. And as battlefield nuclear weapons could be delivered with increasingly greater accuracy, the yield could go down to even sub-kiloton levels, bearing in mind that the effect of an airburst weapon falls off as the cube root of distance, so accuracy means a lot. By the end of the Cold War, the result was a plethora of systems: free-fall bombs, rockets, artillery shells and even small demolition munitions. (There were also maritime versions but they are not relevant here.) Exactly how many there were remains debatable, but the West put more emphasis on them, because from the beginning western governments saw no hope of maintaining anything like the same size of conventional forces as the Warsaw Pact.: a commitment which in the end did a lot to destroy the Soviet economy. So battlefield nuclear weapons were the only answer: if WP forces ever advanced as far West as a point in Germany known as Line Omega, then the military would ask for what was called “nuclear release.” On the Soviet side, early use of nuclear weapons seems to have been taken for granted: all Soviet equipment was designed to be used in a nuclear (and biological and chemical) environment;
With the end of the Cold War, all this began to seem a bit pointless. The British and the French gave up their tactical nuclear weapons, and the US got rid of all of theirs except for a number of free-fall bombs. Exact figures are not known, but open sources suggest they may have about 200, some of which at least are variable yield weapons, and perhaps half of those are stored in secure facilities in Europe. Nobody really knows how many weapons the Russians have retained, but it is certainly more than the US, because their military doctrine is still concerned overwhelmingly with land/air warfare. So in theory, it would be possible to use air-dropped nuclear weapons against Russian troop concentrations in the Donbas, now, or in some future iteration of the crisis. In practice, not so much, for two reasons.
First, is it even possible? There are no Ukrainian aircraft, as far as I know, fitted to release nuclear weapons (and that assumes there are any Ukrainian aircraft at all.) So specially fitted NATO aircraft would have to be moved to bases in Ukraine, specially adapted NATO aircraft would have to fly the weapons, under conditions of great security, to specially protected air bases in Ukraine close enough to the line of contact that NATO aircraft could make a return trip, and finally NATO aircraft would have to get there and (preferably) back again through air defences which have so far proved to be extremely effective. I don’t know, but I rather suspect that free-fall bombs like the B-61 are already armed once the aircraft takes off, so a NATO aircraft shot down anywhere over Ukraine could potentially cause a nuclear explosion, or at best widespread nuclear pollution. Second, these weapons may be “tactical”, but they still have an effect over a wide area. Even a “small” 1 kiloton weapon would kill or damage everyone and everything with a radius of a kilometre or so: those who did not die of blast or fire might well become sick or even die of radiation poisoning in the weeks and months that followed. It’s hard to see any circumstances where NATO, however stressed, thinks a dozen or so of these would be a good idea, no matter how many Russian soldiers are killed in the process.
So these are the things which in my view are unlikely ever to happen. (I can’t say they are impossible, as I have indicated, but then few things in politics are.) So let’s move our attention to the more likely consequences, and to do that we need to have a baseline scenario against which to work. I suggest the following, bearing in mind that the actual outcome could be somewhat more radical.
The Ukrainian Armed Forces are effectively destroyed as an entity. Small groups (perhaps up to battalion level) remain in being, but they have little if any ability to affect operations. The Russians have occupied the areas of Ukraine that have voted to join Russia, and the coast up to Odessa. They have hundreds of thousands of heavily-armed troops deployed in the eastern third of the country, and a presence in the rest of it. There is a new government in Kiev, which regards good relations with Russia as its major priority. Western advisers and trainers have, at least notionally, withdrawn from the country, and no more western equipment is being sent.
Now this, I stress, is a minimum likely outcome. But however you look at it, it represents a defeat for NATO and the EU, and a new reality that will have to be lived with. Let’s consider some of the likely responses, starting with the most obvious one: denial, as far as possible of the new reality. This is the typical behaviour of any group in difficulty, and notoriously the behaviour of organisations with strong institutional egos. It’s simply impossible that NATO would ever say “we got it wrong” or “we ****** up,” whatever individual governments or individuals themselves might think. Politics doesn’t work that way: the most that could ever be admitted is that others failed to do what they should have done, or even betrayed us. So every attempt is going to be made to pass off a defeat as a victory. How? Well, let’s fantasise about the 2024 NATO Summit, and let’s do them the favour of drafting a short communiqué. It would run something like:
We, the Heads of State and Government of NATO, have gathered in Hobart, Tasmania, to reaffirm our commitment to the security and prosperity of Europe and the strength of the transatlantic link, as well as to the values and principles which have guided the Alliance since its inception. We renew our thanks to the Government of Australia for hosting the meeting and for providing nuclear-hardened accommodation for the duration.
We welcome the participation of the Ukrainian Government in Exile by Zoom from the Cayman Islands, and the participation of the governments of Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Vanuatu as observers, and as representatives of the wider international community.
We recall with pride that NATO’s firmness of purpose and readiness to make sacrifices has resulted in the complete defeat of Russian attempts to invade and occupy by force the territories of Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic States, and we express our renewed determination to oppose, by economic and if necessary other means, any further Russian moves in this direction.
We have established a Working Group under the joint chairmanship of the Deputy Secretary General and the Deputy Chairman of the Military Committee, which will report to the next Summit on possible measures to develop the Alliance, to continue to preserve and enhance the security of Europe.
If you have ever been involved in this kind of thing, you’ll appreciate that this is only a mild parody. But why are tangible measures never proposed? Why is everything always disguised in a fog of words that can mean anything to anybody. Well, in practice, you can consider the process of deciding policy, and even more describing policy, as a giant exercise in drawing Venn diagrams. Where there is enough overlap, an idea or a piece of language will make its way into the box marked “consensus.” Some nations may be strongly in favour, although often for different reasons; others may be prepared to go along with the idea or the language, again for different reasons. Some may not particularly care, others still may be unhappy, but decide that there are other more important battles to fight, or they may sell their acquiescence for concessions elsewhere. So one of the basic facts to bear in mind about any multilateral policy, or any expression of it, is that it means different things to different people, and always represents a compromise of some kind. For texts, this is what is called Negotiating History, ie the way the text came to be as it is, with all the false starts, sordid bargains, horse-trading, unsuccessful proposals and painful compromises. It represents a massively understudied area, by the way, both in the evolution of policy itself, and the way that policy is subsequently described.
The problem arises, of course, when a fragile compromise policy like this runs into the buffers, and has to be re-thought. As I’ve pointed out, you should never underestimate the importance of inertia in international politics, particularly when large numbers of states are involved. Continuing to do the same thing, no matter how dumb, is always easier than trying to find a consensus for change.
In essence, this is why NATO’s (and the EU’s) position over Russia/Ukraine is now almost impossibly difficult. For a start, there never was “a” NATO policy towards Russia, but a series of not-very-coherent national and multilateral policies which had different dimensions, even within individual countries. It would be delightful to think that, somewhere in a bunker under NATO HQ there has been a Top Secret team of NATO staffers working for ten or twenty years on ways of bringing down Russia and its current government. But international organisations don’t work like that, and NATO certainly doesn’t. Rather, there have been perhaps half-a-dozen national and multilateral policies, which have developed with new governments and changed situations. We can list a few of them, bearing in mind that they are seldom completely distinguishable from each other.