After a year of war, possible scenarios-Autor Gral.(ret) PhD. Stefan Danila
“According to brieﬁng notes that Milley shared with the Washington Post, the first and most fundamental problem facing Biden was how to ‘underwrite and enforce the rules-based international order’ against a country with extraordinary nuclear capability ‘without going to World War 3.’ Milley offered four possible answers: ‘No. 1: Don’t have a kinetic conﬂict between the US military or NATO with Russia. No. 2: Contain war within the geographical boundaries of Ukraine. No. 3: Strengthen and maintain Nato unity. No. 4: Empower Ukraine and give them the means to ﬁght.'” [i]
Almost a year has passed since the announced but hardly believable invasion of Ukraine by Russian armed forces. Predicted, warned about, perhaps even expected by some, “Operation Denazification and Demilitarization of Ukraine” was launched on the morning of February 24, 2022, a date that I wish would not become as important in human history as September 1, 1939.
There is a lot of talk about Ukraine and possible scenarios, at least in Europe, as the most important topic. It is worrying that our lives have been and are being influenced by what is happening not far from Romania, all the more so as we have no direct contribution to the outbreak of this conflict and we have felt the consequences of a war in the vicinity from the very first days.
Energy crisis, inflation, rearmament, a NATO concept with a significant increase in war-ready forces, food crisis warnings, arms flows, heated debates in TV studios and on social media, presidents generals, prime ministers or defence ministers, all these were consequences of a military aggression that set out “to restore the historical right of the Russians”.
The consequences of the war are affecting us more and more, in various forms, from filling up our cars, to electricity and gas bills, to the litre of oil or sugar, to bank repayments and giving up holidays, to losing our jobs, cars or homes, to accepting (at first it was support!) thousands of refugees we meet on the street, in shops, in traffic. We received requests for support and offered support.
The disapproval of aggression by a large state against a smaller state is overwhelming, but, as in any prolonged effort, there is fatigue. More and more people want this war to end, no matter who has to give in. Violent conflict can only be prevented by deterrence when both sides realise that they have more to lose by going to war, but the situation is different after the violence has started. It is well known that once armed confrontation has begun, returning to negotiations means that at least one side feels that it has more to lose if fighting continues or war continues until actual defeat.
The call for the Ukrainians to give in seems to hide the idea that Ukraine will not be able to defeat Greater Russia, that David will not be able to defeat Goliath. Increasingly, the ‘right of the strongest’ is being invoked even by renowned theorists such as the renowned Professor John Mearsheimer, or former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who are already blaming the US and NATO for fuelling Ukraine’s impossible dream of NATO membership. And these currents are gaining more and more followers, amid the resentment of the consequences mentioned. Beyond rights and principles, one’s own needs are more important, the sacrifice of well-being cannot be supported with words, flags and videos, even if the latter reveal cruelty and destruction. Victims become the culprits, and any extra demand touches the sensitivities of more and more citizens, especially those from neighbouring countries.
The warnings sent out by intelligence services, especially US military intelligence during 2021, were very precise and generated serious analysis before the war began, and some were made public, others not. We now know about the military recommendations made by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the US Armed Forces Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, as quoted at the beginning of this text, following intelligence received in October 2021.
Since the beginning of the war, “red lines”, i.e. actions that could lead to escalation, have been identified both by the Russians and by the democratic world, the states that stood by Ukraine, identified by the Russian leadership as the U.S., NATO and the EU. The U.S. imposed sanctions on the Russian Federation and some Russian citizens, measures that were also taken by the European Union shortly afterwards. This was followed by support with equipment, ammunition and recently even heavy weapons, modern tanks.
Analysis of the situation on the front, up to date, is a topic on the programme of all the news channels, there are more and more experts, more or less knowledgeable, who know every tactical move in detail. Unlike other countries, which have understood the importance of strategic communication since the beginning of the war, the Romanian Ministry of National Defence, which is responsible for this area, remains in the shadows, after a few amusing outbursts. The vanity to appear on the screen and the desire for notoriety are great, and the place left vacant by those in charge of communication to prevent intoxication with fake news or misinformation must be filled by someone!
I will avoid getting into the game of the “expert on duty” who analyses the fighting forces, the available or presumed resources, I will limit myself to a simple description of some possible scenarios, without claiming to have identified them all, and the possible consequences for Romania, so that it is clearer to us which side we are on. I will also avoid quotations or juxtapositions that could lead to syntax analysis, and their mere ordering could lead to labelling as “pragmatic”, i.e. eager to end the war at any cost, or “idealistic”, advocating the defence of democratic values at any cost, or pro-American, much less likely, “Putinist”. This approach is intended to help steer the actions and attitudes of individuals and the state in the direction that is best for Romania, for our interests.
The first possible and, I believe, necessary scenario to be considered would be that of Ukraine’s surrender. The likelihood of this scenario may increase amidst the destruction of critical infrastructure, the loss of lives (not only on the front, but also among the civilian population, sometimes quite far from the front), the lack of combat means. In the first phase it could mean the surrender of positions and the surrender of frontline forces, gradually and progressively leading to surrender, a situation with rather low probability at this point, it could be the result of a strong mass movement driven by the collapse of the will to fight among the population (also still unlikely), but also by the liquidation of the Ukrainian political leadership through a lightning action by Russian special forces, followed by a spontaneous popular anti-war movement.
The first hypothesis would be possible amidst the physical exhaustion of the military, the lack of ammunition and the triggering of an offensive by Russian forces. The strong motivation of the military to defend their country, backed by the effective support with ammunition, equipment and weapons from states supporting Ukraine, makes this hypothesis only theoretical.
The second hypothesis, of a popular anti-war movement, would have a major impact on the troops on the frontline, could turn the situation upside down and could mean the downfall of the current political leadership and the establishment of a not necessarily pro-Russian leadership from the outset, but rather an anti-war one, eager to make peace.
The consequences could mean an indefinite truce and accelerated peace negotiations. Russia will not cede the territories already seized, but will instead demand the territory of the four regions as drawn by their so-called representatives in the Moscow show of 30 September 2022. Ukraine should withdraw its applications to join NATO and the EU, and amend its constitution to this effect. Ukraine will have to repeal its education and minority laws. It could be possible that Russia will also demand the stationing of Russian bases on Ukrainian territory in response to the presence of NATO troops near Ukraine’s border. Ukrainian public opinion could become hostile towards NATO and the EU, as a result of frustrations over NATO and EU’s direct non-involvement. Most likely, there will be a change of political leadership in Moldova with pro-Russian forces.
The Russia-NATO relationship will be that of the Cold War, with continued sanctions and tensions. Russia-EU relations will be equally tense, with the EU continuing to seek solutions to avoid dependence on Russian energy and mineral resources. China will be the main beneficiary of peace, getting involved in reconstruction and providing a market for Russian and Ukrainian products.
Romania would return to NATO and EU border state status amid strained relations with Russia. Relations with Ukraine could become extremely tense as Ukrainian public opinion shifts attention from the previous enemy, Russia, to the West, and Romania is among the most vulnerable.
The third scenario, that of removing the Ukrainian political leadership by force and imposing a pro-Russian regime, would have much the same consequences, with the maintenance of a potential anti-Russian attitude among the Ukrainian population. The imposition of Moscow’s conditions would be very quick, but the likelihood of triggering Ukrainian popular uprisings and maintaining pro-Western attitudes would be high.
The second possible scenario, without establishing an order according to the level of probability, would be the Russian armed forces giving up the fight, exhausted, without real motivation, influenced by the Ukrainian offensive, by the Ukrainians’ will to fight for their own country. It could happen gradually, becoming contagious against the backdrop of the Russians’ own social network. The Russian commanders would lose control of the troops and they would surrender, under the conditions of providing humane treatment, over and above the conditions of the POWs, even with the provision of transportation to the desired area/country.
The consequences could be a rapid change in the front line, the recapture of vast territories, minus Crimea and perhaps the Donbass area. The Russian Federation would trigger general mobilisation and could be open for negotiations and a temporary truce. Social unrest could erupt in Russia, leading to the establishment of a more radical, nationalist government. The strikes on the territory of the Russian Federation and Belarus would continue, the conflict would remain open. Russia will not declare defeat.
States supporting Ukraine would have time to strengthen Ukraine’s defence capability. As well as to support Ukraine’s reconstruction. Sanctions against Russia will remain, with the same economic implications. China will benefit from Russia’s resources, but may take a reserved attitude to the conflict.
The Republic of Moldova could maintain its European course, consolidate with EU support, and the Russian Tactical Task Force could be put under pressure with the support of Ukrainian forces, which would isolate any route to Russia for it, be evacuated or disbanded.
Romania could contribute to strengthening Ukraine’s defence capacity as well as to its reconstruction, could provide assistance to speed up the process of its accession to the European Union.
Another possible scenario is that of a “frontline freeze”, i.e. US and EU involvement in peace negotiations with the Russian Federation, with Ukraine in the background. This scenario would be possible under great pressure from its own citizens, as Ukraine’s resources are exhausted in the face of the Russian offensive. It could involve reaching a ceasefire agreement along a certain line. This alignment could be a dividing line between the European Union and Russia. That is to say, Russia will retain the territories it has conquered and there is a possibility that Russia will no longer recognise Ukraine as a state, as a subject of international law. The remaining territory of Ukraine could become part of the EU, recognised by almost all UN states, except Russia and possibly its allies, who could discuss any issues related to Ukraine only through EU representatives.
The consequences would be disastrous for Ukraine, but could mean restored economic relations between Russia and the EU, even if Cold War hostility were present. For the US, it could mean a withdrawal from Europe to resolve internal and Asia-Pacific problems, but this is extremely unlikely at this point.
For Moldova and Romania the consequences would be similar to the previous scenario.
Another scenario would be the cessation of military support for Ukraine, possibly under pressure from domestic public opinion, without involvement in the peace process or not accepted in peace negotiations by the Russian Federation. From this scenario one could easily enter the assumptions of the first scenario, which would lead to a Russian victory, with all other consequences.
The most serious scenario, but one that cannot be neglected, is that of direct US involvement in the conflict, through the creation of a coalition of the willing that would effectively support Ukraine in the struggle with forces. The minimum prerequisites for such a coalition exist through the group of states participating in Ukraine’s arms support, the Rammstein Group, as well as from the moral obligation of the signatory states of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, which guaranteed Ukraine’s territorial integrity in exchange for the surrender of nuclear weapons on its territory to the Russian Federation. These states are the US and the UK, and this scenario is very likely if nuclear means are used against Ukraine, as this is clearly prohibited in the Memorandum.
The consequences could be disastrous. In a first stage, Russian forces could be relatively easily defeated by the alliance in a united and combined operation, including Crimea could be liberated in a few weeks and Ukraine’s pre-March 2014 borders would be restored. Russia’s reaction could be difficult to control, as it would invoke statehood endangerment and use nuclear weapons against participating states. The greatest danger is the launch of the second missile or nuclear bomb, i.e. the US response or Russia’s insistence. Mutual destruction would be extremely difficult to stop.
China is likely to openly position itself against a coalition against Russia, which could mean confirming the outbreak of World War III.
Romania is under fire from short and medium range ballistic missiles and the Deveselu missile system does not protect us. Missile defence is almost non-existent at the moment, which would make any major target in Romania an easy target for Russia.
There is also a scenario in which the parties would accept a ceasefire and a peace of circumstance, with a negotiated demarcation line, with tensions and conflict kept low, towards a freeze, but with economic relations between the EU and Russia eased, with the transfer of energy, oil and gas from Russia to Ukraine secured by EU guarantees or contracts.
For this scenario, both sides should realise that every hour of war means more destruction and loss of life, and for Ukraine it would mean accepting the loss of particularly important territory.
In international relations, in the reality of the world we will live in, such a scenario would mean an accelerated arms race and most probably the reopening of many conflicts worldwide, based on the principle of imposition by force. It would mark the bankruptcy of US hegemony, its inability to lead the world on the principles set out in the UN Charter. The UN would become an obsolete institution, and the EU could experience destructive upheavals. There are many analyses, with reference to already existing situations, from post-World War II peace treaties to Korea, but it is hard to predict the end of a war. For now, the only certainty is that war produces death, destruction and collateral damage for the whole world.
Ukraine will face big problems in either scenario amid demographic problems. War deaths and massive migration westwards have reduced the population by almost a third, and the prospect of a significant number returning to the country is high only for a scenario in which at least part of Ukraine remains under the control of the European Union. In the other scenarios, Ukrainian refugees will remain in the European states where they settle, and this could be a growing problem for the European Union, which is also faced with migration flows from the south. There may be a clash of migration flows, as well as the rise of radical, right-wing, anti-migration nationalist movements. Romania and Bulgaria’s entry into Schengen seems to be an increasingly distant dream, regardless of the over-optimistic messages of Romanian politicians.
So Pandora’s box has been opened, the hope that wisdom will find the solutions to return to a state of peace diminishes with each day of confrontation. We may still be able to sit in our armchairs, popcorn in our arms, and bet on one side while watching “operations experts” who not only have never conducted or led them, but have never actually seen them or have sufficient information. That’s because the person responsible in the field for public information and the conduct of information warfare is still unconscious, and that is the Ministry of National Defence itself.