20.02 Review

Pigeons or Ostriches? The United States' tough stance towards post-war Russia is expected to strengthen the alliance between Moscow and Beijing, according to RAND experts

It is difficult to predict the outcome of a major war, but agreements reached as a result have long-term consequences. RAND Corporation experts have outlined four scenarios for the postwar situation, which differ in terms of both the conditions that arise by the time the conflict ends and Washington's choice of a 'soft' or 'hard' line toward postwar Russia. Choosing a soft line would create better conditions for Ukraine's post-war reconstruction and its integration into the EU, but would require abandoning its integration into NATO. Choosing the hard line would push Russia and China towards deeper technical and military cooperation. Experts clearly favour 'détente' scenarios, believing that they would allow the US to focus more on its strategic rivalry with China. RAND adopts this point of view and has suggested a de-escalation strategy in relations with Moscow from the outset of the war. However, such a strategy could backfire if Washington's soft line is perceived in Moscow and Beijing as a sign of weakness.In this case, it may not decrease but rather increase the likelihood of both a new clash between Russia and Europe and an escalation around Taiwan. And, the US will once again find itself needing to fight on two fronts.

The outcome of a major war usually has powerful long-term consequences. Agreements at the end of the First and Second World Wars reshaped nations and states in Europe so decisively that it is still felt today. However, as history shows, assumptions about the post-war future made by politicians during the war often turn out to be completely false, write experts from the RAND Corporation in their latest report, where they attempt to envision the consequences of the Russia-Ukraine war and formulate possible US strategies in the postwar world.

Having discarded the most radical scenarios, the analysts focus on two intermediate outcomes. The more negative one envisions a prolonged war of attrition that ends with a fragile ceasefire agreement. Ukraine suffers significant territorial losses. Russia is also fairly depleted, but is supported by China, which assists it with arms supplies. Ukraine is economically depleted but continues to dream of territorial revenge. Geo-economic fragmentation in the world intensifies due to secondary sanctions. The situation in Europe prevents the US from focusing on the Indo-Pacific region, and there is a lack of consensus within NATO.

In the second scenario, the war ends relatively quickly with a durable ceasefire agreement. Ukraine's territorial losses are moderate, and it concentrates on its economic recovery. Russia is sufficiently depleted by the war that its military-industrial complex struggles to replenish its armaments. Meanwhile, it continues to focus primarily on security goals. Its relations with China remain not too close, and NATO's unity, on the contrary, is preserved.

For these two scenarios, experts are trying to model a more 'hard' and a more 'soft' course of action for the United States. For the negative outcome, this results into two scenarios — 'Extended Instability' and 'Localised Instability'. The first is the result of a 'hard' line that involves active containment of Russia. The US deploys additional forces, as well as medium-range missiles and missile defence (BMD) infrastructure in Europe, while refusing to negotiate arms control with Moscow. This provokes Russia and then China into a new nuclear race. Increased security cooperation with Ukraine, including through NATO, escalates tensions in the region to a new level. The ceasefire on the border between Russia and Ukraine remains fragile, with both sides preparing for a new war and Moscow looking for an opportunity to launch a preemptive strike to prevent Ukraine's NATO membership.

The 'Localised Instability' scenario will occur if Washington realises that it has spent too many resources on the conflict in Ukraine with little return and shifts its attention to the Indo-Pacific region. The US reduces its military presence in Eastern Europe, which allows Moscow to take a similar step. Washington's less 'hard' line causes concern in Eastern European countries, but is favoured by allies such as Germany. Tensions between the US and Russia decline, with Russia abandoning its plans to attack any NATO country. Ukraine abandons revanchist intentions and offensive operations, concentrating on defence. The risk of a new war between Moscow and Kyiv is lower than in the first scenario but remains high.

The 'Cold War 2.0' and 'Cold Peace' scenarios arise in response to an unfavourable outcome for the Kremlin in the confrontation. Washington's choice of a 'hard' line is aimed at continuing to exert pressure on Moscow, inflicting even greater damage. In fact, it involves the same steps as in the 'hard' scenario of the first type ('Expanded Instability'), such as increasing and developing nuclear capabilities, deploying additional forces and missile defence systems in Europe, and integrating Ukraine into NATO. In addition, the US actively counters Russia's influence in the post-Soviet space and prepares to admit Georgia to NATO. Lacking resources for a symmetrical response, Moscow relies on hybrid attacks, including interference in elections and operations in the information space. The ceasefire regime in Ukraine is observed, helping Kyiv initiate reforms with EU assistance, ensure the return of refugees, and stimulate private investments. Europe's economic situation remains good, but for the US, the confrontation with Russia and China results in a slowdown in economic growth. In both 'hard' scenarios, the US is forced to divert resources and attention away from the Pacific arena, while the pressure it puts on Russia provokes closer technological and military cooperation between Russia and China. 

Finally, in the most favourable scenario, according to RAND, known as the 'Cold Peace' scenario, the US abandons 'hard' containment of Moscow, leading to a gradual reduction in tension. This is the classic scenario of what was called 'détente' during the Cold War. Washington demonstrates readiness for negotiations on arms race limitation and conventional forces in Europe, providing assistance to Ukraine in strengthening its defensive capabilities but refraining from integrating it into NATO, agreeing to its neutral status. The US also refuses to expand its influence in the post-Soviet space and to integrate Georgia into NATO. Moreover, Washington demonstrates its readiness to negotiate with Moscow on easing sanctions. The experts emphasise that both 'soft' scenarios increase the possibilities of Ukraine's post-war economic recovery and its successful integration into the EU.

Since the beginning of the war, the RAND Corporation, a renowned think tank that develops strategies for the US government, has been on the side of the 'doves,' that is, that part of the US political establishment that believes that America is not interested in a prolonged war in Ukraine, as it diverts resources away from Washington's strategic rivalry with Beijing. The RAND experts view such a war as a kind of 'trap' and argue that Putin's Russia has demonstrated its weakness and is not an existential challenge to US interests (→ Re:Russia: Prolonged War or Imminent Defeat?). This position is also evident in this recent report, in which the experts favour soft strategies and consider the last scenario to be the most preferable.

Compelling arguments on this side revolve around the idea that reducing tension is a crucial factor in Ukraine's post-war recovery, while an increase contributes to closer integration between Russia and China. The weakness of the 'soft' scenarios is that they ignore the revisionist nature of Putin's policy (→ Kirill Rogov: The global rise of revisionism). In other words, de-escalation by the US will be perceived by the Kremlin as a manifestation of weakness, insufficient strength for a 'two-front war', and will therefore push it not towards de-escalation in response but rather toward provoking further tensions. From this perspective, strategic coordination between Moscow and Beijing already exists, and a favourable outcome of the confrontation in Ukraine would strengthen both Putin's position domestically and internationally and the positions of the 'hawks' among the Chinese leadership — potentially bringing the likely escalation around Taiwan closer rather than farther away.