It has been one week since Russia mounted a massive invasion of Ukraine. The Ukrainian people have thus far mounted a valorous defense of their country and have thwarted Vladimir Putin’s plans for a swift victory.
Still, the situation on the ground changes by the day and Russia remains the dominant military power. This begs the question: What happens if Russia wins this war?
Liana Fix is a resident fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Washington, DC. Along with co-author Michael Kimmage, she recently wrote an essay in Foreign Affairs describing the ways a Kremlin-controlled Ukraine would transform Europe — and international relations more broadly.
We kick off discussing what a Russian “victory” might look like in Ukraine before having a broader conversation about the many ways that such an outcome would upend Europe as we know it.
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Transcript lightly edited for clarity
What are the Various Ways that Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine Could End?
Liana Fix [00:02:43] Well, I think the very basic assumption of Russian victory would be that Russia has controlled political and more or less military control of Ukraine. This means a Russian victory could be either a scenario of regime change, that Russia is able to take Kyiv and to install a pro-Russian compliant government. It could also be a scenario of a partition of the country, and it could also be the scenario of a Ukrainian defeat and surrender, which gives Russia the opportunity to occupy most of Ukraine. That is certainly the basic level what Russia wants to achieve. It is political control and detaching Ukraine from the West. So, making it impossible for Ukraine to cooperate in any way with the European Union or with NATO in the future.
If Russia does succeed in winning the war or capturing large parts of Ukraine, how might the West react?
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:03:37] So if that eventuality occurs, what would you expect to be the response from, say, Europe and the United States?
Liana Fix [00:03:51] What we see now is that the fate of Ukraine really has become a test case for liberal democracy and for free societies—for the right of every nation state to decide their own fate. And the international public outcry that we’ve seen now also demonstrates to what extent a war of aggression—criminal war—is something which, especially in Europe, is not ignored. But remind Europeans, and the German can say this quite explicitly, reminds Europeans of our own history in the 20th century. So, if Ukraine will lose this war, even if there will still be guerilla fighting, a resistance movement insurgency, but if it loses political control to Russia, there’s certainly no scenario imaginable where the West would accept a Russian government in Kyiv. So, the West would try to support a Ukrainian insurgency, perhaps support a Ukrainian government in the west of the country if there’s a possibility to have this or a government in exile, similar to the scenario that we saw with the Baltic states during the Soviet times, when the West never accepted the Soviet occupation, and for instance, in Washington, the embassy buildings of the Baltic states were kept. This would be the task for the West, to wait for the times when Ukraine will regain its territorial integrity and civil achievements.
What is a permanent state of economic war?
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:05:33] And one of the outcomes in that scenario that that you discuss and describe is what you call a state of permanent economic war with Russia. What would that look like? What would that entail? And I feel like we’re already seeing signs and signals of what that will be, but I would love to have you sort of flesh out that idea of a quote permanent state of economic war with Russia.
Liana Fix [00:06:00] I mean, NATO has excluded that it will sort of get into a warlike situation with Russia because this could potentially lead to nuclear war and a catastrophe for everyone. So, it is really reduced to economic warfare against Russia and supporting Ukraine in its resistance. And economic warfare is exactly what you said, what we’ve seen from the US an even stronger response than initially expected, trying to take away the resources that Russia has the wealth that it has acquired over the years, targeting even the Russian central bank, which is very much the lifeline of the Russian economy because it’s the insurance with sort of the money that the Russian president has saved every day and every week for the rainy days. So, targeting also the central bank is quite a big step. What we have not yet seen so far are Russian countersanctions but those are very much to be expected. Russian countersanctions could be on energy supplies, but also cyber-attacks on Europe and the United States, and those can go quite far. I mean, cyber-attacks on critical infrastructure would be a catastrophic scenario.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:07:20] I mean, to me, at least, that seems like the other shoe that’s ready to drop. I mean, we’re speaking on March 1st, and I have not seen a lot of commentary on how Russia may respond to economic sanctions, punishing economic sanctions, with cyber-attacks. And it seems like I said that that’s sort of bound to happen at some point.
How might Russia respond to Western sanctions with countersanctions? Could Russian cyber-attacks be involved?
Liana Fix [00:07:43] Absolutely and these are the two sort of competitive advantages that Russia has: the energy resources and its cyber capabilities, which are very good. In all the other areas, of course, restricting exports would be of metals and so on would be significant. But those two elements energy and cyber, are really something which would also hurt the West. And this spiral would continue. So, if Russia has counter sanctions against the West, then the West would again respond with sanctions so we would see this back and forth of economic sanctions and basically, to some extent, the end of the idea of a globalized economy where everyone benefits from being closer together and interacting freely with each other because now dependency becomes a threat.
What effect would Russian attacks have on the EU?
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:08:30] And how does that change Europe? That scenario in which Europe and the United States are locked in this economic warfare with Russia, perhaps under the threat of cyber-attacks, in what ways does that change Europe or the European Union, even as we know it today?
Liana Fix [00:08:50] I think the European Union has already changed in a way which was just unimaginable before Wednesday, I mean, the fact that Germany has decided to raise its defense spending above 2 % and to dedicate a significant amount of money to rebuilding the German Bundesrat, the German army, is a complete sea change from a German perspective. I can’t even stress this enough how extraordinary that is. And the same with the European Union, who is now really dedicating a lot of resources. So, what we see is that the European Union, for the first time when it comes to security policy, actually feels under threat so the European Union felt under threat when it came to financial and economic policy, the financial crisis, Greece and so on and tried to get all its resources together to survive this crisis. But now it’s for the first time a security crisis where Europeans feel threatened by Russia and not only Ukraine, by Russia, but Europeans and European Union is in full defense mode now. Now it’s all about defending the union, defending the member states, not deterring Russia anymore, but literally defending the European Union. And it does seem to be willing to go down the whole way.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:10:11] Well, let me ask, so with the EU shifting into defense mode and Germany taking these extraordinary steps of building up its army and increasing defense spending and levels, that would be unthinkable just like a week or two prior to us speaking like, you know, does that entail a lost opportunity costs for the European Union to develop in other ways? In other words, you have this looming threat of Russia now imposing itself over all of Europe. And it seems that Europe is undergoing like this kind of fundamental shift in in response to that. Like what’s lost in that shift?
Liana Fix [00:10:53] I think it’s lost the idea that Europeans had for a long time that they are an island of peace, that they are sort of the post-modern society that doesn’t need the military anymore, although of course it was always protected by the United States, but this was how some Europeans like to think of themselves as being sort of this 21st century post-modern island of peace and prosperity. And I think this illusion, which was put into question over the last couple of years, this illusion is now gone. I mean, this is very clear. I mean, it will be about economic and cyber warfare with Russia, but we will also see a number of security crises. We will probably not see a NATO-Russia military escalation, but we will see crisis if we have a border that stretches from Estonia to Turkey with the Russia occupied Ukraine that will be military on the territory, missiles on the territory. So, Europe has to prepare to relearn strategic, military, and geopolitical thinking.
Could increased funding for European militaries reduce their social services spending?
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:12:06] Do you suspect in the future in the coming months and years as the EU sort of rededicates itself to military expenditures and military buildup, that this may come at the expense of like social spending and then like that that beautiful social welfare state that we liberals in the United States admire in Europe?
Liana Fix [00:12:29] I mean, you can certainly not have it all but in Cold War times, Germany still had its social welfare state and spent much more on the military so I’m sure this will be an argument that some would like to make. In Germany, this was in the past a prominent argument that we need kindergartens instead of tanks, but I think if you look at the public opinion right now, almost 80 % of Germans support the buildup of the German army. And I think the one of the reasons is also that we almost, I mean, we don’t start from scratch, but compared to the UK and France, the German army is just in a very bad shape and people know this. So, it’s perhaps not about rearmament, but really about bringing the army we have into a shape which is useful and can make a contribution to the alliance, especially if we have elections 2024 upcoming and no one feels entirely sure about how this is going to go.
How might Russian aggression shape major elections in other European countries?
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:13:38] Well, I wanted to ask you about the impact on European elections that this conflict and like this permanent state of war and conflict with Russia, the European Union, and NATO. How does that inform or perhaps influence or otherwise impact potentially domestic politics, big elections that are coming up in major European countries?
Liana Fix [00:14:04] That’s a big topic which is really dominating the discussions right now in Europe and what we definitely would see are more and more attempts of the Russian side to influence European public opinion and European elections because sort of undermining transatlantic unity is something which will certainly be one of the main priorities of Russia in the years to come, especially with a view to the U.S. elections, as I’ve just said. So, they will try to use everything that there was in society to provide a fertile ground for populists. And I think the resources that will be dedicated to that, we’ve seen this in the past, disinformation, election meddling and so on. But I think the resources that Russia will dedicate to these topics will increase significantly in this state of geopolitical and economic warfare that we will be in. So, I think the first test will be the French elections which will take place in April, and we’ll see whether Macron’s position as a world leader trying to bring peace will help him in these elections or whether the citizens of France will rather want him to focus more on domestic policy. I think that that’s going to be the first test case.
How will Turkey and Turkish politics be affected by Russia’s war on Ukraine?
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:15:29] I want to also ask you about the unique case of Turkey. What sort of decisions does Turkey need to make right now? And in a future in which, again, Russia and the West and NATO, of which Turkey is, of course, a member are locked in this conflict?
Liana Fix [00:15:50] Turkey has been really good at fence sitting in the past, so developing relations with Russia, using Ukraine as a balancing factor against Russia, being part of NATO but still buying arms from Russia. This will be much more difficult in the future because there will be pressure by NATO on Turkey not to undermine efforts towards Russia. And at the same time, the balancing role that Ukraine had for Turkey in the past sort of having close relations with Ukraine to keep Russia at some distance will be more difficult. And we see this dilemma for Turkish politics already over the question whether to close the passage for Russian ships. I think the times we are heading to will be more clear-cut times. It will be very clear that this is about autocracy, democracy, about war and peace. And in these times, where the outlines and the contours become clearer, it will be more difficult to do fence sitting or to sit between two stools.
How will NATO change given the now imminent threat of Russian aggression across their member countries?
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:17:00] So you would imagine that Turkey would more firmly align itself with NATO’s position?
Liana Fix [00:17:06] It would certainly try to keep it sort of some room for maneuver, but I think the pressure by NATO will be strong, especially if NATO, will be sort of back to its core mission defending European member states and not out of area exercises, not democracy building, the very core mission that NATO was founded for. And Turkey will be very much expected to, if not fall in line entirely, then at least not to hinder efforts or to strengthen the adversaries of NATO.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:17:37] And that actually leads to my next question, which is, you know, what is the future for NATO in a situation in which, you know, Russia and NATO are locked in this kind of conflict, a cold conflict with various elements—economic elements, cyber elements, potentially even military elements. I mean, I’m old enough to remember the early 2000s in which people were questioning the very idea of NATO and whether or not it needs to exist in this kind of post-Cold War world. And then, of course, you had NATO being actively involved in in Libya and in Afghanistan, but it seems now we cannot foresee a future in which NATO is being sent on far-flung missions around the world.
Liana Fix [00:18:24] Absolutely. I mean, the soul-searching of NATO that you just described will be over, and I think some in NATO will probably be happy about it because all the other missions that NATO dedicated itself to were never as successful as NATO’s Cold War mission defending Europe. So, this will be definitely sort of a task that is to some extent well known for NATO, but to the other extent, more dangerous because the Cold War at some point became a stable relationship whereas right now, we are in an escalating relationship. The only part that will be a significant challenge for NATO is that it’s not only about Russia, that China is also watching very closely what is happening in Ukraine and also the priorities of the United States will be not to focus only on Europe, because China will remain one of the big challenges, both in terms of democracy versus autocracy, but also in terms of aggressive foreign policy if we think of Taiwan. So, this sort of two adversaries or challenges, Russia, and NATO, and dealing with both at the same time will be a stretch for NATO.
If Russia is successful in occupying Ukraine, will United States foreign policy have to change?
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:19:43] And that sort of leads me to my next question, which is how would a Russian victory in Ukraine, however, it’s defined whether it’s a toppling of the government, an occupation of large portions of the country, would that change U.S. foreign policy in any sort of fundamental way, do you think?
Liana Fix [00:20:05] I think it will be for U.S. foreign policy, it must be a partly reorientation towards Europe. But again, the dual priorities of Europe and China will be there. And to some extent, it will certainly also be probably a battle in U.S. domestic politics about how much the United States should get engaged. I mean, this was a discussion, now everyone because of the war, very mobilized and in solidarity with Ukraine. But I remember when I was on a call in a TV show, there were also a lot of callers who were asking, ‘Oh, why do we have to care about the Ukraine border? We have to care about the Mexico border,’ you know, like this kind of thinking and sentiments in some parts of the population.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:21:00] I’ve been on C-SPAN before, too. I know how it goes.
Liana Fix [00:21:02] Yes, that’s exactly the one.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:21:06] I figured.
Liana Fix [00:21:08] And I think this should not be underestimated, especially if we look at China, the question would certainly be in some parts of this, this very big and beautiful country, why we should care about China. And this direction of U.S. foreign policy is certainly something which will be a point of discussion in 2024 and beyond.
How might Russia act if it succeeds in occupying Ukraine?
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:21:37] So we’re speaking about a week after Russia mounted its war in Ukraine. It’s not been a swift victory for the Russian forces. However, you know, Russian victory is very much still an option, however unfortunate it may be. Assuming there is a Russian victory and Putin achieves his aim of destabilizing Ukraine, installing some sort of political figurehead in Ukraine or otherwise, you know, seizing just lots of territory. What would be some inflection points you would be looking towards to suggest to you how, like the next years or months would unfold following a Russian victory of some sort?
Liana Fix [00:22:22] I would look at, in the scenario that you just described, I would look at Russia’s assertiveness and boldness after that. So, if they manage to get Ukraine under their control, it will be at quite significant costs, especially the occupation part, will be very difficult. So, will they withdraw to a sort of consolidation after this war? Or will they continue to make more demands, such as European security, rolling back NATO, U.S. nuclear weapons have to get out of Europe. So, will we see a Russian Victory but a Russian victory at high costs where Russia has to sort of reconstitute itself and reorient itself? Or will we see even more immediate aggressive actions afterwards? And the other point that I would look at is the Russian society and the Russian elites. I think at the moment, it’s certainly exaggerated to hope that there will be any significant reactions. I mean we do see defections right now, but just on a very small scale and small actions by the society. But are there any signs that suggest, especially given that sanctions will hurt much more in two or three years when all the reserves are used, that elite disapproval, societal disapproval is growing? I mean, no one expected a revolution in Belarus, and suddenly it was there. There were some signs before. So, this is definitely something in case of a Russian victory I would look at. So, are they more assertive in their foreign policy or are they fine with Ukraine having it under their control? Will they go further towards Europe and how is the situation at home and with the Russian Elite?
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:24:24] Well, Liana, thank you so much for your time.
Liana Fix [00:24:27] Thank you.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:24:30] All right, thank you all for listening, thank you to Liana Fix. And again, I do encourage you to check out her article in Foreign Affairs magazine. All right, everyone, stay safe and we’ll see you next time. Bye!