The war in Ukraine has changed the international landscape in Europe in ways which few pundits predicted. The bulk of the political changes which the war has unleashed are thus emerging while stakeholders learn and adapt as they go. The trajectory of developments that the war in Ukraine has set in motion, supported by historical analogies, allows to identify a number of the war’s possible outcomes. Two of those concern scenarios where Russia either loses the war, or becomes entangled in a semi-frozen and continuously engaging conflict. In both cases, assuming that Russia’s leadership with its anti-Western rhetoric remains in place, the burden of sanctions in form of lack of foreign investments, limited access to international capital markets and lesser revenues from hydrocarbon exports should in the long run reduce Russia’s relevance in the international realm. While this appears to have become precisely the goal which the West now wishes to achieve, a waning but unrelentingly aggressive Russia would produce new challenges that need to be thoroughly thought of in advance and addressed preventively.
Russia’s international posture of the past few decades reveals a pattern of behavior and reliance on leverages intended to increase its geopolitical relevance, notably by weaponizing energy and employing military coercion. Today, however, the progressing shift away from Russian hydrocarbons due to sanctions and decarbonization, combined with the deterioration of Russia’s military capacities following its setbacks in Ukraine make it likely that the Kremlin will in time lose much of the leverage on which it has heretofore relied. Yet its excessive reliance on the incomes from sales of hydrocarbons without diversifying its economy, combined with faltering demographics and a shrinking GDP are only cementing Russia’s current nefarious political course. A paradox of sorts, it was rendered possible by the parasitic nature of the Russian governance system, where the state is in position to enforce its preference to pursue arbitrarily determined goals at the expense of and contrary to the interest of its citizens. It is a vestige of Russia’s imperial past, and while as a governance model it could function relatively effectively in times when Moscow had seemingly unlimited human resources at its disposal, i.e. at most until the breakup of the Soviet Union, the same modus operandi is unsustainable with today’s economic and demographic parameters of the Russian Federation. And yet in spite of the lack of Soviet numbers, under Putin’s rule the Kremlin attempts to resuscitate the Soviet might, starting with restoring the latter’s governance praxis. One glaring example of this reorientation towards the past is its recent decision to bring back a quasi-Soviet organization of the Russian army, which under the new proposal is said to expand to 1.5m troops.
Russia’s perseverance is rooted in the antiquated way in which it sees the world’s political dynamics. It is the last large power whose logic of growth its leaders understand through the lens of the need to pursue territorial expansion. For other major powers in today’s international realm, access to global markets deprived territorial expansion of its status of a measure by which states weigh and increase their power. While there are certain exceptions to this rule beyond Russia – think China’s quest to conquer Taiwan or to appropriate swathes of seas whose bedrocks lie rich in resources – territorial absorption is no longer the default paradigm deciding a state’s power. Russian thinking, however, remains entrenched in this otherwise secluded view, and the Kremlin will adapt the means to preserve it rather than adopt a different outlook. In Putin’s view, absorbing Ukraine is the only way out of the disadvantageous geopolitical configuration which it has due to his own faulty assessment found itself in. This is the reason for Russia’s all-in approach and the blatant disregard for the lives of its own military personnel at a time of significant strain on the availability of combat-available population at its disposal.
It is through the prism of the above considerations that Russia’s determination to conquer Ukraine needs to be understood. Its invasion of Ukraine burned most of the remaining bridges linking it to the West, some of which Russia actually needs. And while the Kremlin may not have anticipated the extent of the West’s reaction to the invasion, the consequences of which imperil Russia’s present mode of economic functioning, a year into the widespread bloodshed it has become clear that Putin and his entourage have put all eggs in one basket. They are clearly determined to pursue the already chosen course of action in apparent conviction that in spite of the costs and dangers incurred, long-term commitment to the goal thus set will yield the results sought. And they certainly are aware that the war in Ukraine is, as Andrew Michta described it, a “system-transforming war”, and not a mere inflection point. It is therefore crucial to bear in mind that Russia is in all likelihood not willing to leave the warpath even if crushed by the huge fallout from the conflict.
As Moscow faces increasing hurdles in battlefield and energy markets but gives no signs of relenting, the West should beware od the risks associated with Russian geopolitical ingenuity. The Kremlin has a record of resorting to and combining measures from different spheres of activities in order to achieve palatable outcomes. In its thinking there is no distinction between the states of war and peace, but a continuous space in which colliding interests are pursued by evolving means. Think the little green men in Crimea in 2014, a phenomenon to which few international legal scholars had a ready answer to, or the broad and repetitive interference with the US elections by Russian hacker groups. These are just two among the plethora of examples of how Putin and his cronies innovate to surprise and pursue outcomes in ways which democratic, rules-abiding governments struggle to answer. Being the agent of chaos that it is, the Kremlin sees international disorder as a natural habitat, an environment where war and peace are two sides of the same coin. With its overall resourcefulness dwindling, Russia can only be expected to expand the kinds of operations where greatest impact is possible at the least expense and with least accountability. It is therefore crucial to identify and target the spheres where the Kremlin might display its inventiveness and explore new leverages next.
Western decision makers and intelligence communities are well aware of many of the tricks in Putin’s hybrid warfare playbook. The first set of those concerns the sphere of energy security. In addition to tactics currently observed, e.g. blackmailing of Ukraine-supporting receivers of Russian fuels, the Kremlin may employ more consequential tactics against the West without triggering NATO’s Article 5. Should a long winter in Russia’s relations with the West settle in, the latter’s brainchild that is the green energy transition may become countered in ways barely seen today. These could take form of attempts to incapacitate onshore and offshore energy infrastructure, whether by cyber or physical means. A particularly important vulnerability lies in the software and networks underpinning the functioning of grids and other energy connections. A sophisticated cyber-attack targeting a grid operator or an electric plant may engender more cascading damage than a physical attack whose perimeter may be pinpointed and limited. Such acts may be carried out through groups that are formally independent but loosely associated with Russian security services, and thus without direct causality between the Russian state and the perpetrators. Another, already observed in Europe example of Russian hybrid warfare is the use of “useful idiots”, i.e. sympathizers of the Russian cause stirring domestic trouble in countries supporting Ukraine. Take Poland for instance, where far-right groups actively oppose what they call “Ukrainization” of the country. In various such cases links between such groups and Russia have been revealed.
The above examples are only demonstrative, as there may not be a complete list of the hybrid tactics which the Kremlin may decide to employ. Rather, these and similar examples should put on guard Western decision makers and the state security and civil services. Their overall approach should be one of caution and adaptability. Intelligence gathering, sharing and ingenuity helped the West build the resilience against Russian encroachments during the Cold War era, and then the Soviet Union suddenly collapsed. Resuscitating and sustaining such resilience now when technology is rapidly evolving is key to resisting and ultimately defeating the Kremlin. After all, just as in the post-World War II decades, now again time is working against the Russians.