How Ukraine's victory could reshape the world
It is looking increasingly plausible that Ukraine could succeed in clearing the Russian invader from its lands. The impact of this will be felt within NATO and across the Indo-Pacific region.
By Jack Burnham
(photo credit: Reuters)
AFTER NEARLY SEVEN MONTHS of prolonged fighting, an end to the Russo-Ukraine war may now be in sight. Ukraine’s recent offensive, which has re-captured thousands of square kilometres of territory and forced a Russian strategic withdrawal, has once more raised the distinct possibility that Moscow may be militarily defeated on the battlefield. Deemed a near impossibility only several weeks earlier after a long stalemate, a Ukrainian victory – aided by Western weapons and Russian exhaustion – would have significant and long-lasting ramifications for Kyiv’s desire to join NATO, the West’s post-conflict relationship with Moscow, and the Indo-Pacific region more generally .
A Ukrainian victory would once more raise the possibility of its entry into NATO, renewing a long-standing debate within the alliance that will be further complicated by Kyiv’s military success, the imminent entry of Sweden and Finland, and the potential for future conflict in Ukraine. While Ukraine has repeatedly expressed a desire to join NATO since 2008, the alliance has so far declined to consider its candidacy. Despite this refusal, multiple NATO states, including Canada, have engaged in capacity-building missions in Ukraine since 2014. These interventions have proven critical to Ukraine’s strength as its Western-trained officer corps has been highly capable of exploiting tactical advantages on the battlefield, demonstrating a military whose operational prowess aligns with NATO standards.
The intra-alliance debate over the question of Ukraine’s entry into NATO has also been complicated by the alliance’s decision to offer membership to Finland, a country that similarly shares a long border and a rivalrous history with a revisionist-bent Russia. By demonstrating that its Open Door policy remains active, NATO has effectively indicated that it is willing to accept states that will be militarily difficult to defend from Russian aggression, provided they are capable of fulfilling the democratic and financial obligations of membership. Despite Ukraine’s status as a developing democracy, a military victory will offer clear evidence that it can fulfill the membership criteria.
But the most significant challenge to Ukraine’s entry into NATO would be the stability of a post-conflict settlement. The prospect of any future conflict with Russia may limit NATO’s desire to extend an Article Five guarantee given the possible necessity of direct intervention by nuclear-armed states. For instance, if Russia was forced to retreat from the Donbas but continued to occupy the Crimean Peninsula, NATO allies would have to intervene, unless the status of Crimea was settled as part of an all-parties peace agreement. More worrisome is the possibility that Ukraine’s successful offensive may also lead Kyiv to expand its war aims and seize Russian territory, as a bargaining chip to be used in future negotiations. This behaviour would likely erode NATO’s desire to extend security guarantees to Ukraine, as such a decision may invite moral hazard and significantly undermine the Alliance’s stated commitment to the principle of collective defence.
A Ukrainian victory may also have significant consequences for any Western attempt to re-engage with Moscow, whether through precipitating the fall of Putin’s regime or repeating the failures of the Versailles Treaty. While Vladimir Putin’s regime has so far remained stable amid mounting losses, a military defeat may impose far higher casualties if its armed forces attempt a futile defence rather than fully retreating. This cost, combined with the psychological trauma of defeat heightened by a propaganda campaign tying the survival of Russian society to victory in Ukraine, may pose a devastating blow to the public popularity that forms the basis of Putin’s regime. Further, the war has also re-introduced to a new generation of leaders the challenge of re-integrating a defeated great power into the international system. As with the Allied Powers’ desire to impose harsh punishments on Germany following the First World War, the desire by the Americans to further weaken Russia militarily after its potential defeat may lead to tragic consequences for Eastern Europe. While Putin’s regime has already embraced a militant form of nationalism as a core element of its political ideology, Russia’s humiliation by the West may intensify these trends, leading to the rise of a more extremist element that will be more willing to use much greater force to achieve its strategic objective of re-establishing a Russian empire.
Beyond the confines of Europe, a Ukrainian victory would also resonate within the Indo-Pacific region, particularly as China, who sought to strengthen its ties to Russia prior to the invasion, continues to intimidate Taiwan. While a Russian military defeat would not necessarily cause Beijing to end its outreach to Moscow (a fellow autocracy aligned against the United States) it would likely cement Russia’s status as a junior partner within the developing Sino-Russian relationship. Further, Russia’s potential loss to its smaller neighbour would reinforce the stunning incompetence of its military, which was once considered one of the world’s preeminent fighting forces as measured by its adoption of modern equipment, its logistical prowess, and its rapid deployments. This misjudgment may also raise questions over the West’s perceptions of China’s military strength, whose outward appearance is similarly impressive but remains untested in combat. A Russian defeat would also further highlight the importance of a dedicated, well-trained civilian militia operating congruently with a professional military for resisting a numerically superior opponent, validating Taiwan’s dedication to its civil defence program.
Despite its successes and barring a complete collapse of Russia’s military, the pace of Ukraine’s offensive will likely slow in the coming months as Russia consolidates its forces before counter-attacking the exhausted Ukrainians. However, Ukraine’s initial triumphs have highlighted the potential outlines of its strategy for achieving victory on the battlefield, an outcome that would significantly complicate NATO’s decision to accept Ukraine as a member state, the West’s future relationship with Russia, and the contours of a potential Sino-Taiwanese conflict. Despite the West’s wishes, the fog of war will not clear once the guns fall silent.
Jack Burnham is a candidate in the Masters of Public Policy program with the Max Bell School at McGill University. He has an interest in international defence and security and hopes to continue with his research into power transitions within the international system and great power competition.
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