The US is at war with Russia: 4 scenarios from here
Ian Bremmer's Quick Take: Hi everybody. Ian Bremmer here, and a world at war over Ukraine. A lot to talk about. I think the first thing which is really important is to recognize that we are at war right now with Russia. We do not have American troops fighting on the ground in Ukraine and will not. That is true also for all of NATO, but there is an enormous amount of military equipment being sent to help the Ukrainians defend themselves. And that is of course being used against Russia, which has invaded Ukraine and also the wide and deep sanctions that have now been taken by the Americans and by the Europeans against Russia, particularly in terms of freezing a big piece of their sovereign debt, as well as actions to remove their top banks from SWIFT and the financial transaction system. This is meant to cripple the Russian economy. It is meant to force the Russians towards capitulation on Ukraine and barring that to undermine the Russian government.
Now that's what the Americans did with the Iranians when those sanctions were imposed as well. And I'm sure the Iranians saw the Americans at war with them, but the Iranians didn't have any ability to really threaten the Americans. The Russians of course, that's different. And so I do think it's important to understand that from Putin's perspective, his interest in lashing out, not just in consolidating control over Ukraine, but also in causing damage to the West, I think is now something that is serious, is significant, and we should be thinking about. Potentially in terms of cutting off energy supply for a period of time in the winter, even though that would cause further economic damage in Russia, certainly in terms of cyberattacks and disinformation attacks against the United States, against the Europe more broadly. And potentially in terms of harassing NATO ships, aircrafts, on borders, "accidents", I say. These sorts of things that are indeed very deeply dangerous and potentially escalatory.
So it's important to understand that when you are bringing this kind of a fight with a country that is, okay, not the biggest economy, I guess the 11th largest economy roughly the size of Texas, but from a military capability, from a technological capability, is actually vastly greater. That when President Putin says, "I'm going to increase the alerts on our nuclear weapons," he's sending a message that this is not just about Ukraine. And I think that it is important to take him seriously. Not in the sense that forces the West to capitulate, but rather that you have to plan to manage what could be a Cuban Missile Crisis. And none of us want that. None of us want that.
Now, looking at where we are going forward, I think I put forward four broad scenarios and I'll talk briefly about all of them. I'm not very optimistic here. The thing to be optimistic about is the fact that the United States and Europe are much more aligned. The EU today is stronger than it was two weeks ago in almost an unspeakable fashion. NATO is stronger today than two weeks ago in almost an unspeakable fashion. That will continue. Germany is much more committed to the European and the trans-Atlantic security order than they were before. That's all the positive news. But the negative news, when you look at the scenarios is where we go.
First negative news we talk about, the likelihood of negotiations playing out in a useful way. They've just finished the first round, who knows if there'll be a second round of negotiations between the Ukrainians, the Russians on the Belarus border. I suspect that the reason Putin is doing that first is because the Chinese want him to. They want a negotiated outcome. They're pushing him hard. They're Russia's most important friend on the global stage. And so it's important for him to at least pretend to listen to them or be seen to be listening to them. And also that if the Russians feel like they need to attack Ukraine much more broadly and kill a lot of civilians, which they have not done thus far, they've generally not been targeting civilians so far, that has the potential to be extremely unpopular inside Russia, including with people that are quite close to Putin in the military vertical, in the security vertical, and that is a danger. And so they need to justify it or try to justify it. One way to try to justify it would be going through these talks, having them fail. Another would be potential false flag attacks. We'll see where that goes. So I think the likelihood that negotiations succeed are low.
They're just far apart, these sides. Very far apart. The Russians would've to pull all their troops out, they'd have to go back to the Minsk agreement. They'd have to no longer recognize the independence of the broader Donbas. It is very hard to see Putin doing that, especially because doing that, given the damage that's already been wrought upon his economy would show a lot of weakness domestically to someone that probably has a lot of enemies. And that's a dangerous thing to do when you know that the alternative to being in office is probably dead. So, there's a lot at stake for Putin here and not being seen as failing at the biggest and boldest act, also most evil, that he's taken since he's become President. Okay. So that's the negotiating scenario.
Then another scenario would be that he backs down. Negotiations don't work and he backs down. I'm skeptical on that for the same reason, though it is conceivable that as a bully, getting punched in the face, like when the Iranians had been escalating, escalating, escalating, and the Americans didn't really do anything. And then finally the Americans had enough and President Trump decides that he is going to kill Soleimani, the head of the Iranian defense forces and the Iranian response was nothing because they knew that any escalation was really going to be the end of them. It's possible that Putin recognizes that and is willing to take the risk at home. It's more likely that happens if he's able to maintain strong consolidation of power at home, but it's possible. That would be the second option. I think that's more likely than negotiations succeeding, but still relatively unlikely.
A third is that Putin's forced out and that's not likely at all right now, but it could become more likely. A couple things that could make it more likely. First, watch the Russian troops, because they're being asked to fight against Ukrainians and in many cases, they'll have neighbors, relatives, friends that are living there. In many cases, especially as we start talking about killing civilians, you're going to see soldiers lay down their arms, you'll see bomber pilots defect. If that happens in large number, the impact that will have on Ukraine's position and social media, as well as in Russia, even if they try to shut everything down, could be severe. So that's one way that you could start to see significant challenges that would then manifest themselves into Russia and around Putin. The second would be if the demonstrations get to be a lot bigger on the ground. We've seen 6,000 Russians so far that have been arrested, I'm sure those numbers will go up, that have been participating in anti-war demonstrations. They'll go up because now we have anti-war and the economy imploding. Now those are aren't violent demonstrations, but if they became violent around the Kremlin and suddenly the Russians are shooting on their own people, of course that's a way that you could lose a lot of support among the higher echelons. And then finally, there's the oligarchs. And there are several oligarchs that are being very careful in not opposing Putin, but saying they don't really support the war. They wish they could find a climb down. Roman Abramovich, who is an oligarch that is somewhat close to Putin, not one of the closest, nonetheless trying to facilitate negotiations. So that's interesting. And those are not a fundamental threat to Putin, but nonetheless is an interesting way of seeing which way the wind is blowing. And then finally, of course, the security vertical itself. The people on the Security Council who all were on television last week, all saying to a man, "Yes, Mr. Putin, we'll support you no matter what." A couple, including the head of the Security Service, saying maybe we should work on negotiations, cutting him off and showing he has power. Right now again seems like a very strong group, but again, the consequences of even being seen to consider sedition is, you're dead. So we got to watch that group carefully. And if any of them are suddenly removed, we don't hear for them for a while, that would also be very interesting. So that's the third scenario.
And then the final scenario is he escalates. And right now that seems the most likely. It seems like you're going to see a lot more bombing of Kyiv. You've got thousands more troops that are streaming into the country still. You've got a lot more military capacity in terms of equipment, including this massive four-mile column that's streaming towards Kyiv. And I do think that for Putin, it is removing Zelensky, especially now that he's become this global folk hero. And that requires a lot more civilian damage in Kyiv.
So for now, at least I think we're heading towards more escalation. We'll see what that means. Of course, the danger is that the worse that gets, the more you've broken the relationship between the US, Europe and Russia in a way that is truly irreparable and in a way that implies... Remember, for the last 30 years, we've talked about a peace dividend from the Cold War, a peace dividend that we all benefited from. It's gone now. So now we're living in a world without that peace dividend. What does that mean? How much is that going to hurt us? We're about to find out.
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