If Russia Wins

Tom Nichols / The Atlantic
If Russia Wins Russian soldiers in Ukraine. (photo: Creative Commons)

Republican obstructionism could lead to global disaster.

Ukrainian defenses are in danger of being destroyed and overrun because House Republicans refuse to provide ammunition and aid. If Russia wins this war, the consequences could be catastrophic.

What Could Happen

Ukraine is fighting for the lives of its people and its very existence, and it is running out of ammunition. If the United States does not step back in with aid, Russia could eventually win this war.

Despite the twaddle from propagandists in Moscow (and a few academics in the United States), Russia’s war is not about NATO, or borders, or the balance of power. The Russian dictator Vladimir Putin intends to absorb Ukraine into a new Russian empire, and he will eradicate the Ukrainians if they refuse to accept his rule. Europe is in the midst of the largest war on the continent since Nazi panzers rolled from Norway to Greece, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine is by far the most important threat to world peace since the worst days of the Cold War. In a less febrile political era, defeating Russia would be the top priority of every American politician.

The Republicans in Congress, however, remain fixated both on their hatred of Ukraine and on their affection for Russia. Their relentless criticism of assistance to Kyiv has had its intended effect, taking a bite out of the American public’s support for continuing aid, especially as the war has been crowded out by the torrent of more recent news, including Donald Trump’s endless legal troubles and Israel’s campaign in Gaza.

And so it’s time to think more seriously about what might happen if the Republicans succeed in this irresponsible effort to blockade any further assistance to Ukraine. The collapse and dismemberment of a nation of millions is immediately at stake, and that should be enough for any American to be appalled at the GOP’s obstructionism. But the peace of the world itself could rest on what Congress does—or does not do—next.

First, what would it even mean for Russia to “win”? A Russian victory does not require sending Moscow’s tanks into Kyiv, even if that were possible. (The Russians have taken immense losses in manpower and armor, and they would have to fight house-to-house as they approached the capital.) Putin is reckless and a poor strategist, but he is not stupid: He knows that he doesn’t need to plant the Russian flag on the Mother Ukraine statue just yet. He can instead tear Ukraine apart, piece by piece.

The destruction of Ukraine would begin with some kind of cease-fire offered by a Ukrainian leadership that has literally run out of bullets, bombs, and bodies. (The average age of Ukraine’s soldiers is already over 40; there are not that many more men to draft.) The Russians would signal a willingness to deal only with a new Ukrainian regime, perhaps some “government of national salvation” that would exist solely to save whatever would be left of a rump Ukrainian state in the western part of the country while handing everything else over to the Kremlin.

The Russians would then dictate more terms: The United States and NATO would be told to pound sand. Ukraine would have to destroy its weapons and convert its sizable army into a small and weak constabulary force. Areas under Russian control would become, by fiat, parts of Russia. The remaining thing called “Ukraine” would be a demilitarized puppet state, kept from integration of any kind with Europe; in a few years, an internal putsch or a Russian-led coup could produce a new government that would request final union with the Russian Federation. Soon, Ukraine would be part of a new Russian superstate, with Russian forces on NATO’s borders as “peacekeepers” or “border guards,” a ploy the Russians have used in Central Asia since the 1990s.

Imagine the world as Putin (and other dictators, including in China) might see it even a few years from now if Russia wins in 2024: America stood by, paralyzed and shamed, as Ukraine was torn to pieces, as millions of people and many thousands of square miles were added to the Kremlin’s empire, and as U.S. alliances in Europe and then around the world quietly disintegrated—all of which will be even more of a delight in Moscow and Beijing if Americans decide to add the ultimate gift of voting the ignorant and isolationist Trump back into the White House.

The real danger for the U.S. and Europe would begin after Ukraine is crushed, when only NATO would remain as the final barrier to Putin’s dreams of evolving into a new emperor of Eurasia. Putin has never accepted the legitimate existence of Ukraine, but like the unreformed Soviet nostalgist that he is, he has a particular hatred for NATO. After the collapse of Ukraine, he would want to take bolder steps to prove that the Atlantic Alliance is an illusion, a lie promulgated by cowards who would never dare to stop the Kremlin from reclaiming its former Soviet and Russian imperial possessions.

Reckless and emboldened, emotional and facing his own mortality, Putin would be tempted to extend his winning streak and try one last throw of the dice, this time against NATO itself. He would not try to invade all of Europe; he would instead seek to replicate the success of his 2014 capture of Crimea—only this time on NATO territory. Putin might, for example, declare that his commitment to the Russian-speaking peoples of the former Soviet Union compels him to defend Russians in one of the Baltic states. After some Kremlin-sponsored agitation close to the Russian border, Russian forces (including more of the special forces known as “little green men”) might seize a small piece of territory and call it a Russian “safe zone” or “haven”—violating NATO sovereignty while also sticking it to the West for similar attempts many years ago, using similar terms, to protect the Bosnians from Russia’s friends, the Serbs.

The Kremlin would then sit on this piece of NATO territory, daring America and Europe to respond, in order to prove that NATO lacks the courage to fight for its members, and that whatever the strength of the alliance between, say, Washington and London, no one is going to die—or risk nuclear war—for some town in Estonia.

Should Putin actually do any of this, however, he would be making a drastic mistake. Dictators continually misunderstand democracies, believing them to be weak and unwilling to fight. Democracies, including the United States, do hate to fight—until roused to action. Republicans might soon succeed in forcing the United States to abandon Ukraine, but if fighting breaks out in Europe between Russia and America’s closest allies—old and new—no one, not even a President Trump, who has expressed his hostility to NATO and professed his admiration for Putin, is going to be able to keep the United States out of the battle, not least because U.S. forces will inevitably be among NATO’s casualties.

And at that point, anything could happen.

The world, should Russia win, will face remarkable new dangers—and for what? Because in 2024 some astonishingly venal and ambitious politicians wanted to hedge their bets and kiss Trump’s ring one more time? Perhaps enough Republicans will come to their senses in time to avert these possible outcomes. If they do not, future historians—that is, if anyone is left to record what happened—will be perplexed at how a small coterie of American politicians were so willing to trade the safety of the planet for a few more years of power.

EXPLORE THE DISQUS SETTINGS: Up at the top right of the comments section your name appears in red with a black down arrow that opens to a menu. Explore the options especially under Your Profile and Edit Settings. On the Edit Settings page note the selections on the left side that allow you to control email and other notifications. Under Profile you can select a picture or other graphic for your account, whatever you like. COMMENT MODERATION: RSN is not blocking your comments, but Disqus might be. If you have problems use our CONTACT PAGE and let us know. You can also Flag comments that are seriously problematic.

rsn / send to friend

form code