The current Ukrainian crisis has shown that calculating the costs and benefits for any particular side in a conflict cannot lead to absolute or definite outcomes, with one side being declared at some point the winner and the other the absolute loser. Western countries are attempting to depict themselves as the ultimate winner, however long or short the crisis may be, due to the effectiveness of the recent economic sanctions and political embargo imposed on Russia. However, the current and potential gains and losses indicate that the final winner has not yet been determined, and short-term benefits may contain risks that turn into heavy losses that are difficult to reverse. Thus, as part of an attempt to undertake a final accounting of this seemingly difficult calculus for all parties, it is important to identify the actual and potential costs and benefits of Russia’s war on Ukraine for Western nations in some detail. This may prompt a reconsideration of the absolute judgments bandied about in foreign takes on the repercussions and outcomes of the war and Russia’s post-war future.
The main calculations of actual and potential gains for the Western nations vis-à-vis the ongoing war in Ukraine can be highlighted as follows:
1. Unprecedented international political isolation of Russia: The Western nations estimate that the important element adding momentum to the economic sanctions—which the regime in Moscow has long experienced—is the unprecedented political isolation facing Russia. Although Russia has always had some allies that support it down the line regardless of its pattern of conduct, the current crisis has seen these countries’ positions diverging from the main ally, Russia, even if only for appearances. All the Arab countries, including those with strong ties to Russia (such as Egypt and Libya), voted in favor of the UN General Assembly resolution condemning Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine, except for Algeria, Iraq, and Sudan, which abstained. Furthermore, the UAE changed its vote of abstention in the Security Council to support of the General Assembly, not to mention the unanticipated voting positions of Cuba, Iran, Zimbabwe, and Venezuela, which were expected to vote against the resolution, not to abstain or vote in favor. Furthermore, Western nations have succeeded in passing a similar resolution within the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency, focusing on the security and safety of nuclear facilities in Ukraine, with 26 members in favor, five abstentions, and only two against.
2. Russian army’s significant material losses: If Putin’s military victory seems inevitable given the major imbalance of military power in his favor, this victory will come at a huge human and material cost for Moscow. Western support for Ukraine has contributed to the destruction of a great deal of Russian military equipment and the death and detention of some Russian soldiers. The West estimates that Russia has already paid a heavy military cost, though it has not officially acknowledged this, evidenced by its inability to invade major Ukrainian cities after more than two weeks of military operations that began on 24 February 2022. Western countries attribute this to Russia’s exaggeration of its capabilities and its underestimation of Western support for Ukraine.
3. Putin caught in domestic crossfire: After the harsh economic sanctions imposed on Russia by the US and its allies, Western decision-makers believe that political victory is inevitable as a result of Putin’s lack of options. The Russian president’s extension of the war means the continuation of the economic sanctions that are bit by bit disintegrating the backbone of the Russian economy, which in turn increases the possibility of a coup against Putin by senior Kremlin men in order to save what can be saved. At the same time, Putin’s withdrawal from Ukraine and his ending of the war now would be considered an official declaration of defeat without any real gains, which could also ultimately lead to a coup. Thus, decision-makers in the West estimate that Putin has already gone past the point of no return where there is no room to maneuver: any move forward or backward could lead to the overthrow of Putin or at least to the collapse of his image and political status internationally.
4. China’s strategic dilemma: The Sino-Russian alliance is considered a given in international relations at the current time, with the two powers joined in political, military, and economic associations, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and BRICS. Their positions are very close in the Security Council, and they agree in terms of the deterioration of their relationships with the US. However, the West believes that Russia’s intervention in Ukraine has put China into a real diplomatic quandary: China must steer a middle course, neither condemning Russia nor supporting it directly, either economically or militarily, in order to maintain China’s complex economic relationships with Europe and the US itself. Moscow may consider this insufficient amid the severe economic sanctions imposed by the Western nations. Furthermore, China has not fought any major battles outside its territory since 1979, as opposed to Russia, which has intervened militarily in Georgia, Ukraine, Syria, and Libya. Thus, China finds itself in an awkward situation and has been given a difficult choice to abandon its decades-long policy of non-intervention in third-party affairs. The West believes that all these factors are capable of restricting Beijing’s ability to act in Russia’s favor, which is considered a net gain for the West.
5. Strengthened NATO capabilities and joint European defense: The West believes that the Russian intervention in Ukraine immediately strengthened the justification for the existence of the NATO alliance, which, since the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact after the collapse of the former Soviet Union, has gone through several existential crises that threw into doubt its continued existence. The war in Ukraine has put an end to questions about the importance of NATO and the huge sums spent on its defense budget. Likewise, the war has strengthened operational cooperation within the alliance, which for the first time in its history has activated its rapid response force, first planned at the Prague summit in 2002. Furthermore, the West estimates that this shock is a sign of the true emergence of the European Union as a geopolitical power. For years, European countries have struggled to craft a joint policy in the area of defense, and the military operation in Ukraine has stimulated a serious and substantial discussion of this issue within EU corridors. On 27 February 2022, the EU agreed to “finance the purchase and delivery of weapons and other equipment to a country that is under attack.” Both Washington and the EU countries consider this development an important and long-awaited gain.
In addition to the above, the main existing and potential losses from Russia’s war on Ukraine for the Western countries can be presented as follows:
1. Inability to deter Russia at the outset: If economic and political sanctions have proven the West’s superior ability to clamp down on Russia as a superpower, this does not negate the fact that the West, led by the US, indeed failed to prevent this war from happening, which indicates the West’s weak means of deterrence. The inability to prevent the war has already caused vast material and human losses in Ukraine that cannot be overlooked, especially since Western countries have found themselves obliged to allocate more funds to compensate the families of victims and support the economic situation in Kyiv. Most recently, the US allocated USD 13.6 billion in aid to Ukraine as part of the appropriations bill passed on 9 March 2022.
2. Negative repercussions on the European continent: The economic sanctions have paralyzed wide sectors of the Russian economy, including banking and energy exports. These repercussions have had a considerable negative impact on the economies of Europe and the movement of global commerce, leading to rising global inflation levels. The price of a barrel of oil has increased to USD 120, car-manufacturing supply chains are further exposed to already existing structural deficits, and wheat prices have risen to their highest levels in 14 years, due to lack of supplies. All these economic effects have affected the Western countries themselves as well as their allies, and no one can deny or disavow these numerical losses, not to mention the huge losses of Western countries with major assets in Russia.
3. Opening of Belarusian front vis-à-vis Russian nuclear weapons: As a result of restricting Russia economically in general and geographically by the West (Russia’s neighboring countries are members of NATO), Western countries have begun to see a worrying rapprochement between Moscow and Minsk. On 27 February 2022, Belarus passed constitutional amendments allowing Russia to transfer nuclear weapons within the territory of its neighbor. Under these amendments, Belarus also relinquishes its status as a state free of nuclear weapons, which has prompted many Western countries to believe that the Ukraine crisis has increased the risk of nuclear proliferation in Russia’s favor.
4. Explosion of a new refugee and displaced person crisis in Europe: Just four days after the outbreak of war, the number of Ukrainian refugees fleeing to neighboring countries reached about 368,000. Of those, 200,000 are in Poland alone, and the numbers are still increasing with the continuation of war operations, especially in Romania and Hungary in addition to Poland. This crisis will partially affect the border security and internal stability of the European countries bordering Ukraine. These countries see this as the collective burden whose economic and social consequences everyone must bear in order to avoid worsening their internal situation amid the complex economic and social crises that are already afflicting their internal markets.
In sum, in the final analysis, the dire economic situation and political blockade that Moscow is undergoing cannot be overlooked. However, the idea of actual losses for the Western camp may push Putin towards further escalation and the adoption of a policy of endurance, in the hope of escalating internal pressures in these countries through global inflation and rising food and energy prices. It should be noted that time will play a pivotal role in determining whether some of the aforementioned gains and losses will flip sides, making today’s loser tomorrow’s winner.