At some point Russia’s war on Ukraine will end. There will be agreements to end the war. But there is a larger question of how the world deals with Russia. That’s what I’m discussing in this post – not how the war ends. How the war ends has some bearing on subsequent relations with Russia, but given Russia’s history of the last thirty years, probably not a lot. I’m also not going to speculate on black swan events in Russia, like Vladimir Putin’s demise. Again, they can have an effect, but there are too many possibilities, and it’s too easy to slide into wishful thinking.
After the war, Russia will still be there. Most likely, it will not be put in a position of complete loss, although it could be humiliated – already has been humiliated – by the Ukrainian military. It will not split the way the Soviet Union did.
It’s the largest country on earth, and it will continue to be Ukraine’s and Europe’s nextdoor neighbor. NATO will continue to come up to its borders.
Relations with Russia after the war will partly depend on how the war ends, but over the thirty years since the breakup of the Soviet Union, the recapitulation of Russia’s history has been impressive. Relations will also depend on whether Putin remains in power, although that may matter less than we’d like to think.
We need to think about postwar relations with Russia now, though, because those expectations shape actions in the present, like aid to Ukraine and Europe’s choices in its defense.
This article is a good place to start. There will be modifications and even sharp turns, but the article provides a place to start thinking about how to live with Russia. I think it is paywalled, so I will quote generously. I’ll add some thoughts of my own. The author, Kristi Raik, is deputy director of the International Centre for Defence and Security, a think tank in Tallinn, Estonia.
Her bottom line is that postwar relations with Russia will be very much like relations with Russia during the Cold War: as an unambiguous enemy of Europe and the United States, isolated and trying to build a bloc of its own, and reaching into its neighbors militarily to preserve some of the aspects of a sphere of influence.
Russia never felt comfortable with post-Cold War developments in European security. It frequently complained about not being treated as an equal by the West—yet Russia’s and Europe’s definitions of equality are very different. For Russia, it means being on par with other great powers, notably the United States, and not with its sovereign neighbors, whose agency it has consistently denied. Because it does not see them as equals, Moscow also has little interest in what Berlin or Paris has to say, let alone Brussels. That clouds every aspect of how Russia views its neighbors. When hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians took to the streets during the 2004 Orange Revolution to protest against their corrupt and dishonest government—and again during the Maidan Revolution in late 2013 and early 2014—all Moscow could see was a supposed U.S. plot to weaken Russia.
Russia insists that it must be part of European security planning, and it would be a very positive development if it could be included, but this attitude toward equality with other nations makes it impossible. Attempts to include Russia during the 1990s foundered on this attitude.
Former U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski famously argued in the 1990s that Russia cannot be an empire without Ukraine. Russian propagandists claim that Russia can only exist as an empire or not exist at all. Rejecting this claim will be an essential precondition for a post-imperial Russia to emerge.
Another precondition will be for Russia to acknowledge its neighbors as sovereign states and not mere puppets doing Washington’s bidding. Where the Kremlin—echoed by so-called realists in the West—is profoundly wrong with regard to its Ukraine war is the idea that world history is written by the major powers. If that were true, the Baltic states, Finland, Poland, and Ukraine would have no reason to exist today as sovereign states. One of the big unintended consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is that it has demonstrated and strengthened the agency of Russia’s neighbors. A new power bloc in NATO now stretches from Scandinavia to the Black Sea. Poland and Ukraine are becoming leading military powers in Europe. Their contribution to European defense will be much needed in coming years and decades.
Rejecting empire and acknowledging its neighbors as sovereign states would be essential for security dialog with Russia. It is now difficult to imagine Russia taking these steps.
We should not expect a common understanding between the West and Russia on European security to emerge anytime soon—and certainly not as part of a negotiated agreement that would at least partially reward Russia for its dismemberment of Ukraine. It is therefore necessary to envisage a future European security order not with Russia but against it, aimed at deterring further Russian threats and defending European democracies against the Kremlin’s authoritarian, revisionist, and imperialist ambitions.
So it will be something like the Cold War again. Mutual distrust and suspicion. Occasional breakthroughs for arms control. Economic isolation of Russia. Europe will need to increase its defense, given the uncertainty in American politics.
Costanze Stelzenmüller has summarized the situation and prospects clearly and in detail here. Ruth Deyermond wrote a long thread on Russia’s use of frozen conflicts to reconstruct its sphere of influence. Here is the Thread Reader version and a relevant tweet from inside the thread.
The prospect of an intransigent and adversarial Russia after the war should also inform considerations of how to end the war. Whatever Russia offers must be extremely credible, with a heavy discount for Russia’s words and deeds since the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Cross-posted to Nuclear Diner