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Russia-Ukraine: Structural analysis of a zero-sum game

NewsRussia-Ukraine: Structural analysis of a zero-sum game

The only winner in this zero-sum game will be China, which will win without firing a shot. Interests of a bystander like India will be hurt seriously. The US needs to remind itself that its main and worthy rival is China. Russia is a declining power.

Sitting on the Great European Plain, which extends from the Pyrenees mountains, through France, Germany, Poland and beyond St Petersburg to east Ural Mountains, Russia has weak natural defences except for its depth, which it has used in the past to suck in and exhaust invaders. The Russia-Georgia conflict in 2008, the annexation by Russia of Crimea from Ukraine, and the creation of an autonomous “Donbas” region in eastern Ukraine arise from need for strategic depth and access. Russian civilization started in Ukraine and gradually to Muscovy for security, and “Ukraine” means the borderlands. There is, thus, emotion of a cultural and historical connection of Russian with Ukraine, and the “czar” of the Russian people has always aspired to include Ukraine in its domain. However, Ukraine has terrible memories of domination by other powers. It was called the “bread basket” of the Soviet Union, had a large number of Soviet nuclear weapons, and was the home of the Black Sea fleet when the Soviet Union collapsed. The Budapest agreement in 1994 and the subsequent Minsk agreements denuclearized Ukraine, and effectively recognized it as a buffer state between NATO and Russia. About 15% of the population of Ukraine is of Russian origin concentrated mainly in the east, which also has some of its large cities. Eastern Ukraine feels close to Russia, while western Ukraine feels closer to west Europe, and wants to be with the EU and NATO. For a long time, Ukraine had a pro-Russia leader who blocked the popular desire to join the EU, and a succession of events culminating in the “Maidan” revolution forced him to abdicate in 2014. The current leadership of Ukraine is inclined for Ukraine to join NATO and EU. Belarus and Ukraine aligning with NATO is a nightmare for Russia, which has been positioning so that Ukraine remains a buffer state between western Europe (NATO) and Russia. Ironically, the “intermarium” states stretching from the Baltic states through Poland to Romania, with Poland as the anchor, have the same fear of Russia. Strategically, Russia is also interested in dividing NATO, and reducing the role of the United States.
In the current crisis, Russia put conditions for withdrawal of its forces from the Ukraine borders, which US/NATO could not publicly accept. From the various options available to it, Russia has confounded strategic experts in opting for a large scale multi-dimensional invasion of Ukraine from multiple directions. Having incurred the risk and considerable costs associated with an invasion, it appears that Russia will go all the way and force a regime change in Kiev. Since a siege of Kiev can last for a long time, Russia may choose to take it by force, risking a high level of casualties and damage if the defenders resist. Successful invasion will have to be followed up with occupation and pacification of the country. Pacification, however, will require much more effort and resources, and carries the risk of continuing civilian casualties. The leadership and military of Ukraine may undertake an organized westward withdrawal, where the support from the population will be stronger. Russian forces in Ukraine bring them even closer to NATO forces. A direct comparison with the Soviet experience in Afghanistan may be a stretch, but Russian supply lines will be extended and support for long drawn unconventional warfare like an insurgency is likely to be available. The US and other countries have announced strong and sweeping financial, trade, technology and access related punitive sanctions on Russia and part of its leadership, which will damage the Russian economy in the long run. Additional sanctions are likely if the human costs of the conflict force the world to act. The US and NATO have stated that they will not intervene militarily because Ukraine is not a part of NATO.
The option of invasion-regime change-pacification entails considerable costs and risks for Russia, and the long term advantages for Russia are not clear at this stage. Structurally, the interests of Germany and the US were diverging more than at any time since World War II. Russian export of raw materials gave it considerable leverage over Europe. The Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline supplying gas to the west, bypassing Ukraine, increased its manoeuvring room. Russia supplies about 40% of the gas through pipelines, and 50% of the crude oil demands of Europe. It is a very large exporter of aluminium, palladium and neon, which are critical inputs for industry. Ukraine is a significant exporter of agricultural products and raw materials. NATO as an alliance was barely functional after 2003. The credibility of the US was low after the withdrawal from Afghanistan, it was increasingly inward looking, and the pivot towards Asia-Pacific was more of an imperative for the US than focussing on Europe. Russian economy was doing reasonably well, with foreign currency reserves exceeding $600 billion, a debt to GDP ratio of only 18%, a strong current account surplus and favourable scenario for crude oil and gas prices. These advantages are set to reverse after the invasion. Smaller European countries, and countries like Sweden and Finland which are not yet a part of NATO, would conclude that only an alliance with the US can keep them secure. NATO is now reinvigorated and more aligned than at any time since the 2003 Iraq invasion. As a frontline state now, and also as the anchor of the “intermarium” states, Poland will become more important and will be strengthened. A Germany-Russia-China alignment, though very unlikely, was just about the only one which could conceivably challenge the US in the foreseeable future, and such an alignment is blocked by the rise of Poland positioned between two declining powers Russia and Germany. Military deployments of the US will increase in countries like Poland which borders Russia. Nuclear and threshold states will feel that nuclearising is the ultimate guarantee of security. Russia does not have the ideological, military, political or economic clout that the Soviet Union had for a long time, and a desire for an “empire” is anachronistic now. A long drawn out conflict in Ukraine and Cold War 2.0 will drain Russia, and its economy will suffer serious long term damages. Structurally, a severely weakened Russia will also be vulnerable in Central Asia or its Far-East with respect to China. Close proximity of Russian and NATO forces is a risk in itself. Even a cyber incident, planned, unintended or rogue, can have serious consequences.
The US abandoning Ukraine will endanger its alliances, and severely damage its prestige and credibility as a reliable partner. It will alarm Taiwan, Japan and other partners, boost influence of China, and push Japan towards increased militarisation, which is not in the long-term interest of Asia. Europe cuts a sorry figure at not being able to manage its affairs despite all its wealth, institutions and technology. The invasion and the sanctions will create shortages, cause disruptions, increase inflation, and hurt economies of agriculture and industrial markets worldwide. In the case of India, only 0.5% of its exports and 1.5% of imports are with Russia. However, India has critical dependencies on Russia for military hardware, military technology and geopolitical support. There is a strong public sentiment in India that Russia is a proven reliable ally, and the current situation can only damage its standing. The only winner in this zero-sum game will be China, which will win without firing a shot. Interests of a bystander like India will be hurt seriously. The US needs to remind itself that its main and worthy rival is China. Russia is a declining power, and the US can come back to manage it after managing China for the next two decades.
So it is a zero sum game, and deals will need to be struck. NATO and Ukraine need to park the issue of entry of Ukraine into NATO or even EU. Oil prices will go up and then down. Russia will get some security, the US will retain its alliances and prestige, and space to manage China. Ukraine will need to live with the trade-off as it can get wrecked otherwise. The world will breathe easier and move on to the next inning of the games of great powers.

Vivek Joshi is an Advisor with A-Joshi Strategy Consultants Pvt Ltd, and has more than 25 years of international management experience. He is the author of a book “Start-up to Scale-up: Entrepreneur’s Guide to Venture Capital”, and publications which are listed on http://expertstrat.com/publications-videos/.

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