On 25 February 2022, InterRegional for Strategic Analysis held a discussion panel entitled, "The Day After: What Happens After the Russian War on Ukraine?" featuring Dr. Samuel Ramani, Lecturer of International Relations at the University of Oxford and Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in Britain. The panel addressed developments in the Ukrainian crisis after the Russian intervention in Ukraine, the implications of this intervention, and possible scenarios for the crisis.
Dr. Ramani began his analysis of the Ukrainian crisis by emphasizing the many historical factors that have contributed to worsening relations between Ukraine and Russia. In this framework, he pointed to the following key factors:
1. Ukraine’s attempt to balance Russia and the West: Since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine has gone through internal division and conflicting approaches. Specifically, foreign policy has been divided into two approaches: the first involves identifying with Russia and following its example, while the second involves following the West. This difference in approaches quickly took on a geographic and regional aspect amid the differences between eastern and western Ukraine. While the East is inclined to follow Russia, the West prefers to follow Europe and the Western system in general. However, Ukraine has not taken a decisive step on this issue and has tried to please both sides on many occasions.
2. Impact of the Orange Revolution on Ukrainian politics: The Orange Revolution in 2004 was a key turning point in Ukraine’s foreign policy, especially since the revolution led to a new government in Kyiv that leaned toward the West. During this period, Ukraine became more integrated into the Western system and increased its efforts at rapprochement with the European Union, including Kyiv’s serious steps in 2006 to join the NATO alliance. Thus, at this stage, the features of a strong trend toward the West coalesced, which was met with a Russian attack and the promotion of the narrative that the Orange Revolution was merely a conspiracy of the United States.
3. European Union accession talks and the loss of Crimea: Dr. Ramani pointed out that the situation in Ukraine deteriorated further in 2013, when Ukraine’s EU accession talks came to light. Despite Kyiv’s attempts to placate Russia’s fears, Russia intervened in Ukraine in 2014, which led to the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. The situation between the two countries was basically a "frozen peace" until it exploded on 24 February 2022.
Dr. Ramani pointed to several main reasons that can explain Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine, including the following:
1. Moscow seeks to reshape European security: This time, the Russian war is not entirely about Ukraine, especially as there is no significant change in the situation on the ground between Russia and Ukraine, nor with regard to the ceasefire, and Western countries have emphasized on more than one occasion that they are not seeking to include Ukraine in NATO. Accordingly, it seems that Russia is using the current military intervention to reshape the outlines of European security, compel the West to show more respect for Russia, and control future NATO expansions.
2. Impact of domestic pressure inside Russia: In both 2014 and 2022, the Russian intervention in Ukraine was linked to the Russian domestic situation. Russia’s position cannot be understood globally without considering what is going on inside Russia and its domestic circumstances. In this framework, Dr. Ramani explained that Russia is facing numerous domestic political, economic, and social challenges. For example, some reports in recent years have noted that Russian President Putin is not able to meet the demands of citizens, which may have pushed him to offer concessions to demonstrators in 2018.
3. Exploitation of Russian national narratives against Ukraine: There is a dominant account within Russia about the nature of the relationship between Russia and Ukraine. Long-standing narratives are that Ukraine is an artificial country, that Russia and Ukraine are one people, and that Ukrainian politicians are pro-West neo-Nazis who threaten Russia’s national security. These narratives, which have been repeated by the Kremlin and Russian media over the past weeks, are essentially widespread domestic narratives that feed, in one way or another, the Russian military intervention in Ukraine.
4. Russia’s desire to control the Donbas region: There is one major motivation for Russia to intervene in Ukraine: its desire to dominate the Donbas region, undermine Ukrainian sovereignty, and confirm the presence of a pro-Russia regime in Kyiv. Putin has also spoken about the demilitarization of Ukraine and that one of the goals of this process would be to change the current regime in Ukraine. This shows that Russia does not want Ukraine to make sovereign decisions.
Dr. Ramani hypothesized that there are three main scenarios for the Russian military intervention:
1. Explicit regime change in Ukraine: It is clear that the main objective of Russia’s military operation is not to occupy Ukraine, but to change the governing regime there. This objective can be achieved several ways, one of which is temporary occupation and control of Kyiv and the overthrow of the current president. Moscow could also use other tactics, such as cyberattacks aimed at temporarily obstructing Ukraine’s state apparatus, thus putting further pressure on the regime. Moreover, Moscow may try to mobilize pro-Russian elements inside the Ukrainian parliament in order to foment chaos and put pressure on Ukrainian authorities.
2. Russia freezes the current conflict: This scenario assumes that Russia is conducting a limited military operation in which it expands its sphere of influence in eastern Ukraine. After that, Russia will turn to diplomacy, the field situation on the ground will be frozen, and Russian forces will not advance toward ending the control of the governing regime in Ukraine.
3. Regional military expansion: This scenario represents an extreme vision of Russian military expansion in which Moscow will conduct more extensive military operations outside Ukraine, especially in Georgia, the Baltic countries, and Moldova. This scenario is less likely compared to the previous scenarios.
Although the three previous scenarios are verifiable, they also face a number of major limitations and challenges:
1. Fierce resistance from the Ukrainian army: According to Dr. Ramani, many observers were surprised by the capabilities of the Ukrainian army to persevere in the face of Russian air strikes. While Russian forces did take control of Chernobyl and a military airport in Kyiv, it remains to be seen whether or not Russian forces will continue to control these areas. Some areas have been very difficult for the Russian forces to control because of their strong hostility to Russia. According to British intelligence reports, Russian casualties reached unimaginable levels on the first day of the invasion, foreshadowing that this will not be the easy battle that Moscow thought it would be.
2. Impact of Western economic sanctions on Russia: Western sanctions on Russia, whether implemented or contemplated, are more disruptive than ever. We have seen attempts by Britain to impose more sanctions on Russia than in 2014. The most significant sanctions include considering the removal of Russian banks from financial systems, Britain’s efforts to convince the West to expel Russia from the SWIFT system, and sanctions proposed by other countries, such as the US restricting Russia’s permission to access technology and semiconductors from Taiwan and Germany’s halting of the Nord Stream gas pipeline.
3. Emergence of domestic reaction inside Russia against the war: Many prominent Russian figures oppose the Russian invasion of Ukraine—something that did not happen in 2014—and the hashtag "no to war" has spread widely on social media. Moreover, some polls have shown that a sizable percentage of Russians reject military intervention in Ukraine. Overall, there is concern for the state of Russia’s economy and its impact on the consequences of the war, as well as for Russia’s image in the world, and the moral dilemma over launching the war for Russia’s stated reasons.
The Russian intervention has brought about several major repercussions:
1. Russia’s attempt to leverage its network of alliances: There are actors that can help Moscow in its conflict in Ukraine, including Belarus, which provides Moscow with logistical support. This may have prompted some actors, such as Britain, to demand sanctions against Belarus similar to those being imposed on Moscow. On the other hand, other countries, like China and India, will try to help Russia by giving it access to wheat and gas commodities and exports and helping Russian currency and exports. There are still other countries that will help passively in the UN by voting for Moscow or abstaining from voting on resolutions that may be issued against Russia. Moreover, the issue of recognizing the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk has revealed many actors supportive of Moscow, such as Syria, the Houthis in Yemen, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and the Central African Republic. The Ukrainian crisis may also lead to consolidating relations among Russia’s security allies, such as the Eurasia Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which has proven to be an effective ally, as seen in Kazakhstan in recent months when forces aligned with the organization intervened to restore stability in Kazakhstan.
2. Rising importance of China’s role in the world order: The current crisis in Ukraine may enhance the importance of China’s role in the international context. China can play a central role and may present itself as a guardian of peace and a diplomatic player in the current crisis. While Beijing has expressed its solidarity with Russia in its confrontation with the so-called "color revolutions" and its opposition to the expansion of NATO, it does not necessarily support Russia’s military actions. China does not want Russia’s behavior to be unpredictable and without restraint because that may harm China’s interests. China has numerous economic interests in Central and Eastern Europe, where it is implementing large infrastructure projects in Belarus and expanding its economic presence in the Balkans, especially Serbia, as well as in Georgia and Armenia. Hence, China does not want Russia to destabilize these areas due to its major economic investments under the Belt and Road Initiative. Overall, China wants Russia to have an independent foreign policy that does not harm Chinese economic interests.
3. Rising Turkish weight and influence in the Ukrainian war: Dr. Ramani noted that Turkey may have a role in the crisis at this time by showing solidarity with Ukraine and demonstrating its ability to contribute to supporting NATO. However, it is reluctant to impose sanctions on Russia. On the other hand, drones are an important tool of Turkish influence – these aircraft appeared in the Donbas region for the first time in November 2021, and Turkey is interested in exporting them to Ukraine, in addition to projects with Ukraine to manufacture drones. According to Ramani, these aircraft may pose a threat to Russia, especially since they have proven effective in military operations against Russian targets in Libya and Syria.
Furthermore, Turkey can use the sea straits (the Bosporus and the Dardanelles) against Russian ships to prevent them from crossing. Turkey could also have used the incident of a Turkish ship that was mistakenly bombed by Russia off the coast of Odessa on February 24, to decide to close the sea straits, but this did not happen, perhaps due to fears that this decision would antagonize Russia. Nevertheless, Turkish-Russian relations are not expected to witness a severe crisis over the Ukrainian situation, particularly since the two countries have a set of joint interests and understandings on certain issues, such as Syria. Furthermore, Turkey does not want to open a new conflict front, especially with the existence of areas for military cooperation between Turkey and Russia. Finally, Turkish intervention in Ukraine is not new, as Turkey is an important partner in Black Sea security.
4. Proposed alternatives to the Minsk Agreement to regulate Russia’s relationship with Ukraine: The keynote speaker explained that the Minsk Agreement has already expired. Hence, it can be said that the Minsk agreement has collapsed, and Belarus will not be an arena for a successful new negotiation between the Russian and Ukrainian presidents. In this framework, the situation appears open to a number of scenarios, including a direct understanding between Putin and Ukrainian President Zelensky, which may gain the support of France and Germany. Through this understanding, a new formula for Russo-Ukrainian relations can be hashed out; however, this formula will remain subject to many doubts, given that Russia will maintain many demands, such as recognition of Russian control over Donetsk and Luhansk and other demands that will be difficult for Ukraine to accept. Thus, there may be no agreement in the near future.
5. Re-analysis of Putin’s personality: The current crisis is prompting renewed interest in analyzing Russian President Putin’s personality and way of thinking. Such an analysis yields three main observations. First, the Russian president is primarily occupied with establishing a historical legacy for himself that can endure for many years. The steps he has taken in the past—whether against Georgia, the annexation of Crimea to his country, or his current action against Ukraine—flirts with the dreams of some institutions inside Russia to possibly restore the legacy of the Soviet Union. The second observation involves Putin’s desire to build a system that guarantees survival and continuity. This is perhaps evident from the attempts to spread his ideas, so-called "Putinism," and to identify a loyalty system within new generations of military and political elites loyal to him, consistent with his ideas about Russian greatness and its global position and influence. The third observation concerns the rise of a narrow circle of decision-making inside Russia that can be called a "national oligarchy." Decisions—including the decision to intervene militarily in Ukraine—are not those of Putin alone but are associated with a group of military, political, and economic elites that encourages the Russian president to make certain decisions that they support.
6. Potential replication of the military intervention model in other regions: Dr. Ramani noted that the reaction to what is going on in Ukraine should not be exaggerated. The issue is not systemic but is also linked to local factors, some of which have played a role within Russia in incentivizing the military operation against Ukraine. In this framework, it is an exaggeration to say that what happened in Ukraine will prompt China to intervene in Taiwan. While there are some tensions between China and Taiwan, they do not indicate the possibility of a military escalation similar to what took place in Ukraine. Ramani added that "the model most likely to be repeated, if it occurs, will come from the direction of Iran, not China. The Ukrainian crisis may negatively affect the nuclear negotiations between Iran and Western nations, which may prompt Tehran to escalate in the region. Past experiences have shown that when there is turmoil in Europe and turbulent oil prices, Tehran emerges as a player in events through its intervention in regional conflicts.
7. Iran’s exploitation of the crisis to support its alliance with Russia: Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi demonstrated his support for President Putin in a joint call after the launch of the military operation in Ukraine. This is consistent with the nature of the relationship between Iran and Russia. Iran demonstrated its opposition to the color revolutions in eastern Ukraine, while Russia has supported Iran against the domestic protests that have taken place over the years. Moreover, there is rapprochement between the two countries on a number of issues, such as Syria, not to mention Russia’s importance to Iran in the nuclear negotiations. It should be noted here that Iran also has relationships with Ukraine and, thus, may try to play a role in placating the two sides.
8. Russia’s potential expanded use of cryptocurrencies: The panel’s keynote speaker noted that Russia has a long history in the field of cryptocurrency, and, in past years, it has tried to gather experts in this field. In this framework, these currencies may help the rich and the oligarchs ease the sanctions through the use of cryptocurrencies; however, banks will suffer greatly due to the sanctions, and the electronic ruble may be seen as an inappropriate or insufficient alternative to counter those losses. Nevertheless, uncertainty will remain over the state of cryptocurrencies in Russia: the central bank has refused to adopt Bitcoin, and there are divisions between the Kremlin, which finds benefits from its use, and President Putin’s economic advisors who oppose it.
9. Potential effect of Russian influence globally: The effects of Russian influence are expected to vary globally, as US pressure on Russia in certain areas, such as Syria, have a limited effect. Given that the Russian intervention in Syria does not involve a major cost, especially with the intervention of others parties to the conflict there, a major change is not expected in the dynamics of the conflict. However, with regard to Russia’s presence in Africa, the situation appears more complicated. On one hand, there is a heavy Wagner Group presence in some African countries, such as the Central African Republic; however, the current crisis in Ukraine may affect the presence of the Wagner Group there, whether in terms of financing—if the effect of sanctions on Russia’s financial situation increases—or if Moscow wants to replace the group and find new relationships with local agents. On the other hand, the Ukrainian crisis may affect relationships between Russia and some African countries. South Africa is the only BRICS country that condemns Russia at this time, which is unprecedented, and a country like Kenya seems to be concerned about Russia’s neo-colonial aspect and how it might affect Africa if Russian influence escalates there. However, Dr. Ramani does not expect Russia’s presence in Africa to change much.
Finally, Dr. Ramani concluded that the Ukrainian crisis will have a profound impact on Russo-Western relations because the sanctions imposed on Russia are profound, will have a major effect on Russia, and may have a clear impact on developments in the Russian military operation in Ukraine. The economic pressures on Russia may hinder the military operation, and pressure may also come from within Russia through groups opposing the military operation. At the level of the global repercussions of the crisis, it puts pressure on many countries that are now required to react to the crisis. This pressure is not limited only to countries that enjoy good relations with the West and Russia but also includes countries known for cooperating with Moscow, such as China and Iran. Despite its public support of Russia’s rhetoric regarding the crisis, China sees the Russian military operation as a threat to some of its economic interests in Eastern Europe. Likewise, Iran fears the repercussions of Russia’s intervention in Ukraine on the Iranian nuclear issue.