The Lasting Strategic Impact Of the War in the Ukraine

The Emeritus Chair in Strategy is circulating a working draft of a new analysis of the war in Ukraine. It is being circulated for comment and corrections, which should be sent to Anthony H. Cordesman at acordesman@gmail.com. It is entitled The Lasting Strategic Impact of the War in the Ukraine. It is available on the CSIS website at https://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/2023-07/230705_Cordesman_StrategicImpact_WarUkraine.pdf?VersionId=DbYdDMdHvBcZ5wfVhMkBQXWA39GRRMYJ, and a downloadable copy is attached to the end of this transmittal.

This analysis differs sharply from most other analyses of the war—which focus on the current fighting and the prospects for some decisive set of battles between the Ukraine and Russia. It provides a detailed analysis of the war’s potential strategic impacts in three different ways. First, how the fighting between Russia and the Ukraine might proceed or end, and the potential real-world outcomes of any settlement. Second, the war’s lasting impact on the confrontation between Russia, NATO, and the West. And finally, its global impact, including its impact on Russian and Chinese relations.

The Strategic Impact of the Probable Outcomes of the War on the Ukraine and Russia

In broad terms, it concludes that the attempt of Yevgeny Prigozhin to use his Wagner forces to move on Moscow provides yet another warning that the course of the war can suddenly change in unpredictable ways because of the decisions of a single individual, a given military offensive, or shifts in the level of outside support by other nations.

At the same time, there is a significant possibility that the fighting in Ukraine will go on for years, that it will unleash broader forces that will make any settlement or “peace” highly unstable, and that the war will lead to a new and lasting form of Cold War between the West and Russia, as well as have broader global impacts.

It already seems all too likely that any form of conflict termination, and an apparent end to the fighting, will create an enduring level of political confrontation and arms race between Ukraine and Russia in a war that will last as long as anyone like Putin is in power and as Ukraine has strong independent leadership. Any formal end to the fighting may also end in the kind of settlement that leads to recurrent violent incidents and an ongoing political and economic struggle as Ukraine seeks to rebuild and establish ties to NATO, while Russia and Ukraine remain hostile in every way short of ongoing fighting.

The Strategic Impact on the Broader Confrontation between Russia and the West

It seems equally likely that any form of conflict termination between Ukraine and Russia will leave NATO and the West engaged in a broader form of a new Cold War and engaged in a broader and enduring regional arms race that has major political and economic dimensions. It is already clear that it is likely to involve a nuclear as well as conventional arms race and that one changes the current nature of nuclear deterrence and how any actual use of nuclear weapons is likely to take place.

Russia’s future internal stability may depend heavily on the degree to which Putin can at least claim some kind of victory and on whether Russia can develop more unified and effective military and security forces and eliminate rivals like its Wagner mercenaries. In practice, this means holding on to all the territory it seized in 2014 and probably a significant part of the territory Russia has been able to seize in Eastern Ukraine. Moreover, Russia will need to substantially rebuild, modernize, and expand its military capabilities to recover its prewar status as a major power, although it also has the option of shifting to a greater reliance on nuclear forces.

At the same time, much of the future stability of Europe and the success of extended deterrence in the West will depend on how well the different members of NATO are able to create and maintain more effective forms of deterrence and warfighting capability. So far, most NATO countries have pledged to spend more and make major improvements in modernization and readiness. It is not yet clear, however, that all of these plans will be implemented or how well NATO can achieve more effective levels of interoperability and integrated force planning and tactics.

NATO leaders have also talked about making Ukraine part of NATO, but it is unclear how much support Ukraine will actually receive from the United States and European states in actually establishing stronger ties to NATO and the European Union. The same is true of the levels of aid Ukraine will receive in the future. Both Slovakia and Hungary have only shown limited support of Ukraine since the start of the war, and Turkey has drifted towards closer relations with Russia for other reasons. The polls that show a lack of support for the added NATO military spending also show a decline in support for aid to Ukraine, and many NATO countries, including the United States and key countries like Germany, have growing “right-wing” political elements that do not support aid.

The Global Strategic Impact

These tensions and power struggles will affect the rest of the world as well. Putin has repeatedly stated that Russia will seek to decouple its economy from its dependence on Europe, the West, and its “rules-based” system. He has indicated that Russia will seek to create new economic and strategic ties to China and other non-Western states and try to expand its influence outside Europe and in the rest of the world to increase Russian influence relative to the United States and its strategic partners.

Some of Putin’s goals are almost certainly unrealistic, but they do make it likely that the confrontation between Russia and the West will continue to grow at a global level even if some kind of ceasefire or settlement is reached between Ukraine and Russia. This will be particularly apparent in the case of China. The new Cold War and arms race between Russia and the West will increasingly be linked to the political tensions, economic confrontation, and arms race between China and the United States and its strategic allies.

Quantifying Current Trends

There is no way to predict the exact forms that each of these three ongoing levels of struggle will take. There are too many major uncertainties in each case, and much of the data that can be used to assess the forces that may shape events are conflicting or uncertain. This analysis does, however, highlight many of the quantitative trends shaping these outcomes. It examines more probable ways the fighting between Ukraine and Russia might develop, how it might impact the broader regional confrontation between Russia and the West, and how it might impact broader global struggles between Russia, China, and the rest of the developed world.

It explores the key data and trends that are available on each of these three levels of competition and potential conflict and provides quantitative analyses of the trends where possible. It also describes key uncertainties, how the war in Ukraine is influencing the broader trends in Western and Russian conventional and nuclear forces, and the level of global economic and military competition between the major powers. 

The analysis has the following table of contents:

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Table of Content