What to Watch For if Russia Invades Ukraine
By Aaron Hirschi
News reports from Europe indicate two potentially dangerous events occurring on the borders of NATO. The most glaring is the report of Russian large scale troop deployments near the Ukrainian border indicating a possible invasion in the next few months. The other report is on the smaller yet volatile migration movements along the Belarussian-Polish border. These two circumstances coincide with Europe’s weak energy situation and the global perception of American weakness created by the mismanaged withdrawal in Afghanistan. Although the risk of war in this region remains low, the possibility of a regional war during a time of European energy shortages would threaten the world with a global depression next year.
How could Ukraine spark a depression? The biggest impact on global markets would of course be related to oil and gas prices. Three of the primary pipelines that feed the European Union go through Ukraine and any invasion would likely stop hydrocarbon delivery for weeks in the best-case scenario. The effects of this on Europe would be compounded by Europe’s shortage of gas reserves. Additional consequences include potentially a new wave of refugees who would almost certainly head towards the already economically vulnerable Germany, triggering a major political crisis in the EU’s largest economy. The many follow-on consequences would spread beyond the Eurasian region and impact everywhere and potentially send the already fragile economy of the United States into recession if not depression. All of this depends on what actually occurs on the NATO-Russian-Ukrainian border region in the next few months.
Thankfully, one clear indication as of this writing is NATO doesn’t seem intent on intervening to protect Ukraine with direct military support. Given the reported number of Russian troop movements, NATO would have to mobilize now in order to provide sufficient support to the government in Kiev. Ukraine is not worth a world war but the West could still provide intelligence support and some logistical support in an effort to increase the costs for Putin’s invasion. Russia will likely take the more pro-Russian regions in the eastern and coastal provinces quickly in a few weeks. If the invasion goes well, Russia could either compel Kiev to surrender and allow a Russian puppet to take power. If Ukraine resistance is stronger than anticipated, Russia would carry on to take Kiev and western Ukraine. If this happens, the war could take several months and thousands getting killed. Even though Ukraine cannot stop the Russian Army, the Ukrainian armed forces have shown great resilience against superior odds and could protract the war longer than is commonly assumed. These developments alone could cripple the European Union economically at least until summer of 2022 and this is not factoring in non-combat actions of either Ukraine or Russia.
If the Ukrainian government is smart enough to realize they cannot win a conventional fight, they may take a page from Russia’s history on dealing with invaders. Ukrainian forces could carry out a mobile defense delaying Russian formations as long as possible while Ukraine destroys rail, bridges, airfields, power stations, and other critical infrastructure. This could include potentially destroying the gas pipelines to not only inflict financial cost on Russia but also revenge against the NATO countries that abandoned them, especially Germany. Russia on the other hand will unleash cyber-attacks knocking out power grids in Ukraine and neighboring countries to disrupt any aid. Another possible feint by the Russians would be to help Bosnian-Serb leader Milorad Dodik to secede from Bosnia at the same time to cause more chaos in Europe. This would hinder NATO and severely discredit the EU as a peace bringer. So much political and humanitarian chaos combined with a global surge in petroleum prices will paralyze Europe and reverberate throughout the world economy.
Both China and the United States would be economically exposed as already strained supply chains would have to deal with very large spikes in fuel prices. This situation would create the perfect trap for Putin to use on the current U.S. administration. If President Biden does nothing, he implicitly condones Russian imperial expansion and would likely infuriate about half of Europe. If Biden acts and places severe sanctions on Russia’s oil and petroleum industry, it will further cripple the European Union and infuriate the other half of Europe. Either way, the political fall-out would likely impact the Biden Administration the same way China’s fall to the Communists impacted Truman’s presidency.
There are no good answers for the West if Putin decides to take Ukraine in the next few months. So, what can help mitigate the damage if this happens? The best option is Poland. NATO might consider supporting an idea like one France similarly proposed in World War II but never carried out. As Germany advanced, France and Britain considered merging into one superstate to counter Hitler’s empire. If invaded, Ukraine’s government could initiate a contingency to place western Ukraine into Poland’s sovereign control, effectively making the western third of Ukraine a part of Poland and part of NATO. Part of this effort might include having both Ukraine and Poland adopt a Switzerland concept of national conscription with everyone having a firearm before any invasion. It would not stop Russia, but it might make Ukraine a little less palatable as a target. This could reduce any refugee crisis as Russia would not likely risk NATO confrontation and it also would help Ukraine have a safe harbor to wage an economically damaging insurgency on Putin’s Russia. This would keep Russia stuck in Ukraine the way America was in Afghanistan, making further Russian imperial adventures unlikely. Thankfully, there are historic ties which would make such an event plausibly palatable with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth used as a basis for legitimacy.
There is one additional bonus of strengthening Poland as both a political player by such an action. Poland would control all land routes of Russia’s pipelines, giving Poland increase diplomatic influence and economic influence while increasing Poland’s military stature in NATO. For the last two centuries, continental Europe’s major land powers have been Germany and France. Modern Germany’s risk averse and passive nature makes this less than ideal. America would be better served if it helped move European NATO from an Anglo-French-Germanic-centric alliance to an Anglo-Visegrád Group-centric one because they would more likely fight for Europe than modern Germany. Although a Russo-Ukrainian war may not happen in the next few months, the reality is world circumstances have never been better for Putin who fears losing Russia’s old sphere of influence. Economic and political circumstances all favor Putin for the time being but it is fleeting. There never has been and may never be a better time to take back the Ukraine. One more thing we can look out for in 2022.
Aaron Hirschi served in the US Army and formerly worked in the Pentagon, now works in a non-descript Federal building somewhere in Washington DC.