19.12.23 Review

The Worst is Near: A Russian victory over Ukraine would lead to a complete overhaul of European security, and it would cost significantly more than the military aid Kyiv needs

Russia lost almost 90% of the force that invaded Ukraine in February 2022, but has managed to rebuild its military capabilities faster and on a larger scale than anticipated. In this situation, a reduction in Western support for Kyiv could lead to the occupation of the entire territory of Ukraine. In such a scenario, the balance of power in the European security system would be critically disrupted, and for the first time since Soviet times, Russia would pose a real conventional threat to the countries of Europe — having a military force capable of carrying out a large-scale invasion in close proximity to NATO's borders. Russia's economic capacity to increase its military threat will also grow. Restoring the balance of power and organising effective deterrence require the US, NATO, and the EU to invest resources and efforts that significantly exceed what is needed by Ukraine to resist Russian aggression and even to fully liberate its territory, but as it stands voters and politicians in Europe and the US do not realise this. Furthermore, a Ukrainian defeat would worsen the American position in containing the Chinese threat in the South China Sea. These are the main conclusions of a report by the US Institute for the Study of War, examining the scenario in which Ukraine suffers a complete defeat.

The volume of financial support for Ukraine from allies has decreased by almost 90% in recent months compared to the same period in 2022. Moreover, in December both the US and the EU failed, for various reasons, to release the next package of much needed military aid to Ukraine. Roughly $110 billion in aid to Ukraine is stuck in the political debate going on in Brussels and Washington, Bloomberg laments in its overview 'What if Putin wins?' Without this support, CNN notes, Ukraine will soon begin to run out of ammunition: first long-range missiles, then air defence missiles, as well as artillery shells and short-range missiles, including the Javelin anti-tank and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. Reuters estimates that Ukrainian forces have already begun to conserve artillery shells, preventing them from effectively resisting the Russian army.

This opens the way to a military victory for Moscow, which would lead to catastrophe for the entire European security system and would deal a serious blow to the position of the US — the scale of these negative consequences is not fully realised or is being critically underestimated today, according to the report 'The High Price of Losing Ukraine Military-Strategic and Financial Implications of Russian Victory' by the American Institute for the Study of War (ISW). Moscow's victory would put the EU and the US in the position of having to invest much more money to contain Russia than needs to be provided to Ukraine today to counter Russian aggression.

While the Ukrainian armed forces have destroyed, according to US intelligence, almost 90% of the military force that invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Russia has managed to reproduce its military potential faster and on a larger scale than expected. Therefore, the scenario of full occupation of Ukraine by Russian troops should be seen as a possibility in the event of a sharp reduction in Western military aid to Kyiv, according to the ISW analysts.

Before February 2022, European NATO countries, with the exception of the Baltic States, were not facing the threat of a conventional attack from Russia. The closest Russian ground forces to the NATO border were an airborne division and a motorised rifle brigade stationed near the Estonian and Latvian borders, as well as an equivalent division-sized unit in the Kaliningrad region. The remaining Russian troops were located more than 500 kilometres from NATO's borders.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has worsened the security situation along NATO's European borders, but successful defensive and counteroffensive actions by the Ukrainian Armed Forces have preserved the balance of power and the security of the eastern borders of Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania. However, in the event of a Russian victory, Russian forces could advance into the western part of Ukraine and establish new military bases near the southeastern borders of NATO. In particular, the 18th and 25th Combined Arms Armies, as well as the 8th Guards Combined Arms Army (each with approximately six mechanised divisions or 18 regiments) could be stationed there. In Belarus, Russia may deploy additional airborne and motorised rifle divisions. In this scenario, the military balance along the borders of Europe and NATO would undergo a significant shift.

In addition, the analysts note that, thanks to the combat experience gained, Russian troops will pose a much greater threat to European countries than they did before 2022. Amid the erosion of the sanctions regime, the Russian defence economy will allow Moscow to build up its combat potential over time, using, among other things, the production resources from the occupied Ukraine and Belarus. As a result, for the first time since the 1980s, the Russian army will emerge as a potential major conventional military threat to Europe, able to mount an offensive in a short period of time involving at least eight divisions, backed by significant reserves, including the 1st Guards Tank Army, and supported by a dense air defence network, including the S-300, S-400 and S-500 systems.

Military analysts underscore that this is a fundamentally new situation for European security. A military response to contain such a threat would require significant additional resources from NATO. The US would have to transfer additional troops to the alliance's eastern borders and transfer a significant number of stealth aircraft to European allies for countering Russian air defences. The cost of all these measures for the American budget would be 'astronomical,' according to the ISW analysts. Moreover, their implementation will seriously impact the global security situation. In particular, the ability of the US to effectively contain China in the South China Sea will decrease, as this containment relies heavily on the same stealth aircraft that would be needed to protect Europe's eastern borders.

All of these scenarios can be avoided by helping Ukraine resist Russian aggression and regain control of its territory, including Crimea. According to the ISW experts, control over the Crimean peninsula makes Russia the dominant power on the Black Sea and allows Russian aircraft to threaten NATO's southeastern flank and deploy long-range air defence systems on the peninsula. The positions of the Russian air defence system in the east of the Kherson region also put pressure on NATO. If the war ends with the current status quo, these threats will still require a response from the alliance, but the costs would not be as large as in the catastrophic scenario of Ukraine's defeat.

The ripple effect of the West's defeat in Ukraine will be felt around the world, according to Bloomberg's sources within European political circles, and will far surpass the effect of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. For Europe, it will also result in another colossal and uncontrollable wave of refugees. And the credibility of the West's promises will be critically undermined. Voices are already questioning today whether the US and NATO will really be ready to engage in a full-scale conflict if Russia initiates military action against the Baltic states', the publication writes. Moreover, the declining trust in the alliance's resolve increases the likelihood of such a scenario, which until recently had seemed unimaginable.