In the broader global framework of uncertainty and change, it is likely that the struggle over the future European security order will continue until one or the other side is too exhausted to continue. One can envisage the following three basic scenarios after the war in Ukraine, with the two first ones based on the assumption that there will be no principled change in Russia’s vision of European security, and the third one – more idealistic but unfortunately less likely – predicated on a radical change inside Russia.

  1. European security will be defined by a dual order with a limited Russian sphere of influence. A possible and perhaps most likely outcome is a new balance of power, with the liberal rules-based order further strengthened among Western countries, while Russia will be forced to accept a new de facto sphere of influence that is geographically much more limited than the former Soviet or tsarist empires. The EU and NATO, remaining the main pillars of the European order, will enlarge to countries that wish to join and meet the conditions. Ideally (1a), the new balance will entail the complete restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. However (1b), it can also emerge in a situation where part of Ukrainian territory remains occupied for years or even decades. (Remember the decades long occupation of the Baltic states, which was not de jure recognized by the West, or the Cold War division of Germany and creation of the Soviet-controlled German Democratic Republic, which was not de jure recognized by the Federal Republic of Germany and its allies). Hence, the disintegration of the Russian empire may be prolonged for many more decades.
  2. A new order based on a realist balance of power emerges, with Russia regaining parts of its sphere of influence. In this scenario, the West would experience a collapse of the existing liberal rules-based order as a result of a change of power in a major western country or another significant shock. This may happen if the next presidential election in the US is won by Donald Trump or another similar candidate who may profoundly undermine democracy in the US and/or American commitments to NATO, European security, and the rules-based international order. Putin is, in fact, hoping for such a scenario and trying to prolong the war of attrition in Ukraine until the time when US support would erode and Russia’s chances for victory would improve. Radical populist forces may also gain power in Europe, which could weaken Western unity and support for Ukraine and undermine both NATO and the EU. The collapse of NATO and/or the EU might turn into a fatal blow to the western liberal order as we know it. So far, however, the two organizations have proved to be adaptive to shifts in the geopolitical environment, as well as domestic changes in member states; thus, it is not beyond imagination that they would survive a radical populist leader in a major member state. This assumption is supported by the case of Italy: despite radical right-wing populists leading the government since October 2022, the country’s policy towards Ukraine has not seen a substantial shift. Similarly, a second Trump presidency might continue US support to Ukraine so as to avoid a major defeat to Russia.
  3. The rules-based order in Europe prevails and is adopted by Russia. This is the most idealist and, at least in the short to medium term, most unlikely scenario. It may occur if Russia is clearly defeated in Ukraine, experiences radical domestic change, takes responsibility for the war crimes it has committed in Ukraine, and defines a profoundly new course and model for its development. However, Russia’s development after the Cold War suggests that even a radical domestic change and collapse of the Kremlin’s external influence do not necessarily alter the deeper ideational basis of its foreign and security policy (notably a realist understanding of its great power status and sphere of influence). The security services have maintained a strong grip on the country’s foreign policy since the early days of the USSR; without a fundamental change in both the society and the security apparatus, any domestic political change is unlikely to take the shape of a long-lasting systemic transformation. Furthermore, Russia today lacks any viable political alternatives to the current regime, and those that do exist are either unknown to the domestic audience or have limited popularity. It is also questionable whether the opposition that does exist is actually willing to undertake the kind of political reforms necessary to truly change Russia. The West can increase the likelihood of this scenario, above all, by helping Ukraine to win the war and making Russia bear responsibility for its war crimes. The ability of the West to directly influence Russia’s domestic development is very limited. The West would be well advised to treat the first scenario as the most likely one. Defeat in Ukraine – albeit necessary – might not be sufficient to lead Russia to the conclusion that it cannot benefit from further aggression and should reconsider the very fundamental ideas of its foreign policy. As long as the worldview that underlies Russia’s foreign policy does not change, any new balance of power will be temporary and under threat of renewed aggression once Russia has regained strength. In order to make it more sustainable, the West would need to ensure credible deterrence and defense, as well as consistently weaken Russia’s ability to rebuild its military might. It is in the interest of the West not to allow Russia to impose its sphere of influence on any country. Knowing Russia’s plainly expressed ambitions, it would not be content with subordinating any single country; success in one country would encourage it to proceed elsewhere to other “lost territories” that Russia considers its own. Russia has to be forced to accept a new balance of power that does justice to the sovereignty of its neighbors. No country should be left in a grey zone between Russia and the West against its will. Being in a grey zone has proven to be not a way to increase stability but an invitation for Russia to strengthen its control through malign influence, destabilization, and in some cases use of force. Ukraine’s full integration into NATO and the EU will be crucial for building sustainable security in Europe and will require a serious commitment from both organizations to a years-long accession process. One of the lessons learned from the Russian aggression is that political and economic relations are closely interlinked, but not in the way Western countries previously assumed. Decision-makers must learn from the mistakes of the post-Cold War era and avoid recreating unhealthy economic dependencies. They should avoid placing themselves once again in a position where influenced by economic interests, they become vulnerable to Russian political influence. Western businesses should be dissuaded from returning to Russia before thorough societal changes have occurred. Companies may be learning this lesson in any case, as they have been reminded in a harsh manner that property rights are not safeguarded in Russia and there is no rule of law to protect them. Premature normalization of economic ties must not be allowed to legitimize Russia’s imperialist ambitions since this would push Europe towards another conflict. Trust between the West and Russia has been destroyed and will not easily be restored. Even after the war, Russia cannot be trusted to respect its international commitments and agreed norms. However, an aspiration to rebuild a common framework of norms and institutions is likely to re-emerge on both sides after the war, provided there is a change of power in Russia. While an attempt to restore a mutual commitment to basic security norms – such as the resolution of conflicts by peaceful means and respect for internationally acknowledged state borders – is desirable, it is important to avoid repeating the wishful thinking of the post-Cold War era. Lack of trust will unavoidably overshadow future efforts to engage with Russia on arms control. It is important not to allow Russia to instrumentalize negotiations on arms control in order to weaken western defense and deterrence or gain concessions regarding the core principles of the European security order. Western policies need to be built on a realistic assessment of Russia’s self-defined security interests and the limits that western Russian disagreements on the European security order impose on mutual commitments and cooperation. The most important means to prevent the return of war and build stability will be credible deterrence and defense, supported by western unity on major strategic matters. Furthermore, clear communication with adversaries will be essential to reduce the risk of the kind of misjudgments that paved the way to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Looking beyond Europe, the ramifications of Russian-western relations and the lessons learned from past mistakes have implications for Europe’s engagement with China and the Indo-Pacific. The war in Ukraine underscores the linkages between European security and the Indo-Pacific. The Chinese political and economic support to the Russian war effort, although not without limits, is in contradiction to the western aim of protecting the liberal rules-based order. The partnership between Russia and China is motivated by their shared interest to bring an end to US hegemony and promote a world order that protects authoritarian rule. If Russia’s efforts to restore its sphere of influence by use of force were successful, this would increase the risk of China resorting to military force in pursuit of its geopolitical goals. The war in Ukraine has also created a completely new potential for Chinese involvement in the future of European security – i.e., engaging as a partner of Russia in future peace negotiations. In this global context, Europeans should not only insist on continued engagement of the US in Europe but also strengthen their ability to defend themselves while contributing to the US-led efforts to uphold deterrence in the Indo-Pacific. Coming back to Russian-western relations, although a new balance resembling the Cold War is often described in negative terms, it would undoubtedly be a better option for European states and citizens than the current hot war. It could also be more sustainable than illusionary efforts to build a common order with Russia. As long as Russia does not profoundly change, a more proactive containment policy – centered on the Russian Federation within its internationally recognized borders – can help its neighbors protect themselves against aggression and malign influence. Furthermore, the establishment of a geographically new line of containment might push Russia towards domestic change in the long run, however unlikely it might seem right now. After all, the clear distinction between East and West played a major role in setting the stage for the USSR’s collapse.

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