Ukrainian boy praying
April 17, 2024

What happens if Ukraine loses to Russia?

UCR experts on the threat to Eastern Europe and beyond

Author: Jules Bernstein
April 17, 2024

A vote in the U.S. House of Representatives on continued aid to Ukraine could take place as early as Friday. The funding has faced fierce pushback among some members of the Republican party, who have threatened to end Mike Johnson’s six-month tenure as speaker over it. 

In the rush of coverage about the fight in Washington DC, it is important to understand what is at stake if Russia prevails in its war, not only for Ukraine, but for the rest of Eastern Europe and the world at large. 

Here to provide some of that context are two UCR faculty with expertise on Eastern European politics.

Paul D’Anieri is a professor of political science and public policy who studies politics in the former Soviet Union, focusing on Ukraine and on Ukraine-Russia relations. He is the author of the recently updated book “Ukraine and Russia: From Civilized Divorce to Uncivil War.”

Question: What do you think the cascading effects will be if the U.S. does not come up with additional funds to help Ukraine in its fight against Russia?

Answer: Whether anyone likes it or not, the U.S. will play a large role in deciding the outcome of this war. Arming Ukraine will force Russia to eventually come to some kind of agreement, most likely a cease-fire in which Russia retains control of much Ukrainian territory. If Ukraine does not receive substantial arms from outside, Russia’s greater industrial capacity, along with its ability to source weapons from North Korea, Iran, and China, will eventually prevail, and Russia will conquer the rest of Ukraine, with all the consequences that will bring for Europe and the U.S.

Q: Can you describe a few of those likely consequences?

A: The consequences of a Russian victory are hard to predict, and the disagreement about whether the U.S. has a stake in helping Ukraine stems in large part from disagreement about those consequences. In order of likelihood, the consequences may entail:

·      A massive exodus (in the millions) of Ukrainians westward, leading to a refugee crisis in Europe and beyond.

·      Significant violence and human rights abuses aimed at the Ukrainian population, including large-scale killing of civilians. To the extent this occurs, the refugee crisis will increase.

·      Confrontation between Russia and the states of Central Europe, including Russian interference in their internal politics in order to subvert their democracies or stir up secessionist movements.

·      A crisis in U.S.European relations.

·      China may become more emboldened to attack Taiwan.

Q: Some Eastern European countries are shoring up their defenses, convinced that Russia will now try to invade them too. What is the likelihood of Russian aggression against countries other than Ukraine?  If it is likely, which countries are most at risk?

A: This is a really important question, as the debate over U.S. aid to Ukraine hinges in part about predictions of what Russia will do if it wins the war. We cannot know for sure, but a standard practice in security policy is to be prepared for what MAY happen. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has caused everyone to revise upward their estimates of Russia’s territorial aims and its willingness to use force. The Eastern European countries are sensibly reacting to that. 

At the same time, most of the countries in question are members of NATO, and some argue that Russia would not attack a NATO country due to the possibility that the entire alliance would respond. The country most at risk is probably Moldova, which is not a NATO member and in which the Russian army has been supporting a secession movement since 1992. (Baltic States and NATO members) Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were once part of the Soviet Union, are too small to defend themselves, and would be hard for NATO to defend with conventional weapons. Much of Poland was also part of the Russian empire until World War I.

For the Baltic states and Moldova, the risk is obvious, and it is assumed that Russia has operatives on the ground in these countries ready to abet an invasion. 

Q: If you think Russia is likely to invade one of these countries, do you think they will wait until they have some kind of resolution to their fight in Ukraine?

A: That seems likely. For Russia to stage another significant territorial invasion while still bogged down in Ukraine, it would need to mobilize, train, and equip a much larger force than it now has. Using missiles, drones, or aircraft, of course, would not require that, but such weapons are badly needed in Ukraine.

Q: How rock solid is Article 5, the NATO agreement that states, in essence, that if one member nation is attacked, all others will provide aid and military support?

A: The reality is that we will not know until it is really tested by a Russian attack on a NATO member. The nightmare scenario is this: Russia conquers one or more of the Baltic states. Geographically, taking that territory back once it was conquered might be difficult and costly for NATO forces. Might NATO countries decide they don’t want to fight for it? What kind of counteroffensive could the European NATO members muster if the U.S. decided not to participate? This is the scenario that is driving increased defense spending in Eastern Europe, but it’s not clear which countries will ever be able to develop the capacity to hold off a Russian invasion without help from bigger countries.

Q: Some believe that to save Ukrainian lives, Ukraine should just surrender to Russia. Do you believe this as well?

A: While it seems at first glance that lives could be saved by capitulating, it is not clear that this is the case. Russia’s treatment of Ukrainians in occupied areas has been pretty brutal. Going back to earlier generations, we know that Russia summarily executed tens of thousands of Polish officers and elites after invading eastern Poland at the outset of World War II. Thousands if not millions of Ukrainians were sent to the Gulag under Soviet rule, and the best estimates are that roughly 4.5 million Ukrainians starved to death in the “terror-famine” imposed by Moscow in the early 1930s. Rhetoric from Russian leaders has widely been seen as genocidal toward Ukraine and Ukrainians, meaning that these historical examples are not irrelevant.

Piotr Gorecki is a Polish native and UCR professor of history who studies the economic, social, and legal history of medieval Poland. 

Q: Is the outcome of the conflict inevitable? Has any country ever successfully thwarted Russian aggression?

A: Russia is an extremely difficult and persistent adversary, but I do not agree with the notion that they are unvanquishable. The Ukrainians could push them back. 

In the 1920s, Poland did. A substantial fragment of Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union was successful, but then it was eventually stopped. Also, the Russians did not win in Afghanistan. 

Russians have been extremely competent at two kinds of war. One is the kind of savage war of attrition where the other side is not properly armed, which is the situation right now in Ukraine without continued funding from the U.S. The other kind of war in which Russia excels is fighting through the back door against highly vulnerable regimes. 

Q: In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea. And now they have invaded Ukraine, trying to annex the rest of the country as well. Are there events in history that have led to a Russian mindset that justifies this aggression and expansionism? 

A: The archbishops of Moscow, in the 14th and 15th centuries, developed a clear sense that Moscow was meant to be the third Rome — the other two being Rome itself and the holy Roman empire. Today, Putin is strongly influenced by the extreme right wing religious national thinkers in Russia who are interested in a revival of that third Rome ideology, that Moscow should be the center of the religious universe, and that it has a God-given right to expand. Their sense of entitlement writ large across the globe is just immense. 

Another source of Russian expansionist mindset is — and this part I don’t fully understand — the terror that if Russia does not control all the borders and zones near it, it will collapse. There is a terror of Russia somehow disappearing. Putin does keep saying that Ukraine is an existential threat. What that means to him, I think, is we are either dominating others or we are collapsing and worthless.

(Cover image: Anastasiia Stiahailo/iStock/Getty)

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