It’s the big question keeping the world on edge: How does this end?
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war of choice in Ukraine is a world-historical event, marking the final act of the post-Cold War period and the start of a new era, yet unwritten. The spectrum of possible outcomes ranges from a volatile new cold or hot war involving the United States, Russia, and China; to a frozen conflict in Ukraine; to a post-Putin settlement in which Russia becomes part of a revised European security architecture. With the West leveling unprecedented sanctions against Russia in record time and the real potential for a descent into nuclear war, we are in uncharted territory. It is difficult to see how Putin “wins.” But he cannot accept defeat.
What follows are four scenarios for how this war could conclude and the alternative geopolitical futures that might result, transforming international relations over the course of the next two to three years. We develop scenarios not to predict the future but to help decision makers imagine what could happen next and devise ways to prevent the worst case. The only certainty about the war over Ukraine is that all existing certainties have been shattered.
A new world, whatever the scenario
The scenarios above illustrate the various ways geopolitics could be transformed depending on what trajectory the conflict over Ukraine takes next. But in several respects the geopolitical chess pieces are already in different positions on the board than they were before hostilities erupted.
Europe, for example, will never be the same again. It has assumed a more robust role in this crisis than many would have predicted beforehand, with Germany turning away from seventy-five years of relative pacifism and the European Union (EU) uniting to phase out its dependence on Russian energy. More broadly, the war has provided a new impetus for closer collaboration among most democracies. Even if there is a ceasefire and peace settlement, Russian decline has accelerated. In the United States, the Biden administration’s plan for pivoting to Asia to counter China has been upended. The United States will increase its attention on—and flow more resources and forces to—Europe for the remainder of Biden’s term. There is more of an open question when it comes to China: Given Xi’s closeness to Putin, the war in Ukraine offers Beijing an opportunity to become a peacemaker. But will it grasp the opportunity?
This section examines the enduring changes in the world that are evident so far and how our scenarios could further impact the movement of these repositioned chess pieces.
Perhaps the most remarkable change stemming from the war in Ukraine is the awakening of Europe from its post-Cold War slumber. As the world’s biggest marketplace, Europe has long punched below its weight.
Ukrainian refugees are being welcomed with open arms despite their numbers reaching far beyond the over nine hundred thousand refugees who came to Europe in 2015 to escape the wars in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Back then, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to admit Syrian refugees split the EU, boosting populists and the radical right. This time around, more unity has suddenly been achieved—with all twenty-seven EU members agreeing to take in Ukrainian refugees for at least one year, with rights to work, housing, and health care.
The EU has even taken the unusual step of getting out in front of the United States, with Germany unilaterally suspending its Nord Stream 2 natural-gas pipeline with Russia and the bloc moving first on stronger financial sanctions against Moscow. Most importantly, Germany, having discarded its pacifist posture, is now re-militarizing as its assumptions crumble about Russia’s intentions and the power of economic ties to reshape geopolitics. The fervent faith in economic interdependence that long characterized German foreign policy is no more. Wielding its economic prowess and new military investments, Germany wants to take a leading role in international affairs.
Germany’s sea change hasn’t just resulted from developments in Ukraine. Many Germans and other Europeans have lacked trust in the United States since then-US President Donald Trump denigrated Germany and the NATO alliance. Despite Biden’s efforts early in his administration to repair this damage, many Germans and Europeans are appalled by the divisions and partisanship they see in US politics.
With Scholz’s announcement of a new defense fund of one hundred billion euros and a new commitment to spending 2 percent of gross domestic product on the military, the transatlantic balance will begin to shift; over the medium term, the United States may see European members demanding a greater say in NATO policy toward Russia. This major war in Europe has been so great a shock that the EU will continue to build up its military power no matter how the fighting in Ukraine ends. It would not be surprising if—as posited in one of our scenarios—French President Emmanuel Macron’s force de frappe (military strike force) becomes a European deterrent against Russia and other nuclear powers with the involvement of Germany and in combination with the United Kingdom. At the same time, European leaders are unlikely to welcome a return to the days of the Cold War. That is why in our scenarios Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz remain out front in trying to engage Putin and establish a peace settlement.
Whatever scenario comes next, there is little doubt that Russia will enter a period of faster decline. Only in the case of an early end to the fighting, a peace settlement, and Putin’s ouster (as in the “brave new world” scenario) could Russia hope to stem its loss of power. Even then, distrust of Russia in the West will remain for generations.
In cutting all ties—economic, political, and social—with the West, Putin is gambling on a deepened economic and military partnership with China and sustained ties with India, Gulf nations, Brazil, Iran, and other developing countries that may become part of a new nonaligned bloc. But is China really prepared to risk its financial standing and access to US and EU markets—adding up to more than one trillion dollars of trade per year—to prop up an ever-needier Russia as China’s economy stumbles?
Even if Russia is assured of some support, obtaining that assistance will most likely involve giving over its crown jewels, such as energy and minerals assets, to Chinese investors at fire-sale prices now that Western companies are beating down the door to leave the country. Moscow’s deepening dependence on Beijing will no doubt grate on the Russian psyche and spur resentment in China.
With a deep recession already baked in for the foreseeable future, Putin is also counting on the quietism of the Russian public. But as the situation deteriorates, with growing popular unrest, one can imagine (as we describe in the “frozen conflict” and “nuclear apocalypse” scenarios) a coup d’état attempt by a cabal of senior siloviki (the security elite) and irate oligarchs, or Putin’s peaceful removal from office (as in the “brave new world” scenario). It will take time for Western sanctions against Russia to be reversed even in the best case, and it will be hard for Western companies to go back into the country until a different regime takes power. In all the scenarios, Russia will come out of this crisis more dependent on China.
China’s new predicament
President Xi Jinping wants a more self-sufficient China. But he must also worry about the price to be paid in the post-Ukraine war strategic environment, in terms of his global ambitions, if China entirely turns its back on the West. While the Russian economy has had many ups and downs and only enjoyed robust growth for a few years in the early 2000s, the Chinese economy experienced three decades of rapid, unbroken growth—until recently, that is. Now Xi faces deep economic malaise, with an investment-driven, state-controlled model that no longer works. While the Chinese leader is committed to at least rough alignment with Putin, his fear of sanctions and international isolation will likely limit that solidarity. Besides buying Russian commodities, for example, China could forge closer technology ties since Russia has been cut off from semiconductors and other high-tech goods by Western, Japanese, and Taiwanese sanctions. But China itself is a major importer of semiconductors and may not be able to replace some high-end chips that Russia will need.
The Ukraine war will also help Beijing gauge what the world’s response would likely be to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. The rapidity and the fury with which the United States, Europe, and major Asian economies (Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Australia) slapped severe sanctions on Russia almost certainly came as a shock to China’s leaders. The swift Western response will give ammunition to Chinese proponents of more fully decoupling the country’s financial system from the West. Beijing’s goals as part of its Made in China 2025 initiative to become self-sufficient in key high-tech areas, and China Standards 2035, an effort to shape trade and technology standards and rules, seem even more urgent.
On the other hand, the reputational and economic damage that China may suffer as a result of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine could rekindle old suspicions and historic distrust that have plagued Sino-Russian ties, including border disputes that led to a brief shooting war in 1969. That could provide opportunities for US-China ties to improve.
China has a chance to play a much larger role on the world stage if Xi can persuade Putin to stop his war and agree to peace negotiations. At the moment, China is reluctant to do so. In the “brave new world” scenario, however, the prospect of World War III persuades China to intervene and bring Putin to his senses, laying the groundwork for a durable peace settlement between the West and Russia.
The United States’ bittersweet success
The crisis over Ukraine has presented the United States with a complex brew of challenges and opportunities. It has brought the transatlantic alliance together, even if it is propelling European countries to build more independent capabilities as well, which constitutes a diplomatic win for the Biden administration. Yet the Russian invasion also marks the definitive end of the US-run liberal international order that was founded after the Cold War.
The White House, moreover, should be concerned by the low popularity of the president, whose approval rating has hovered in the low forties for some time. A late March NPR/Ipsos poll found that most Americans think Biden has not done a good job of handling the war in Ukraine. Even if there will be no direct US military engagement inside Ukraine, spiraling energy and food prices could boost already-high inflation numbers in the United States.
China remains the main challenger for the United States, and few expect Beijing to temper its ambitions much even if Russia emerges from this crisis weakened. China now also knows the US playbook for responding to military interventions by its adversaries, but it probably also assumes that the United States would intervene militarily in the case of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. If the Chinese Communist Party decides to go forward with long-deferred market reforms to restore economic dynamism, the Biden administration will have an opening to develop a framework for managing competition with China and achieving a stable competitive coexistence.
The nonaligned movement’s opening
One underappreciated dynamic in the crisis over Ukraine has been the response of a significant group of nations that have largely remained neutral: India, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Vietnam, Egypt, Turkey, Brazil, and other developing states, all of which have been affected by the economic fallout of the war. For example, the Sunni Arab states’ rapprochement with Israel, refusal to increase oil production or sanction Russia, and discussions about trading oil to China in yuan suggest that they are hedging their bets amid declining US interest in the Middle East.
There is a tendency to confuse Western consensus with global consensus, but we should face the reality of a multipolar world. This nascent grouping may evolve into a new nonaligned bloc or network, further fragmenting the global system. Moreover, many of these nations have economic or arms-supply ties to Russia and major trade and investment ties to China. If past is prologue, they are likely to play the West and a Sino-Russian pole against each other for advantage, depending on the issue.
The developing world’s loss of decades-long gains
The nonaligned movement would be fueled in part by the developing world’s growing plight, first triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the past two years, the middle classes in these countries have sunk back into poverty, stoking discontent and political instability. Not fully recuperated from slow economic growth during the pandemic and encumbered with higher debt levels, many developing countries now face higher food costs and, for the non-energy exporters, greater energy burdens as a result of the war in Ukraine.
The slower global economic growth that our scenarios predict, along with the retrenchment and fragmentation of globalization, would be unwelcome developments for most of the world’s nations. Their future will likely involve more civil conflict and impoverishment. Although they will be reluctant to align with either the United States and its allies or China and Russia, many developing countries will probably be susceptible to Chinese influence, given China’s massive investments in regions such as Africa and Latin America. With much of the developing world on the front lines of climate change, a breakdown in global cooperation could bring less help on that score too.
Global crises typically end by either ushering in a peace that lasts for decades or setting the stage for a succession of recurring conflicts. The 1919 Treaty of Versailles, which John Maynard Keynes equated to a “Carthaginian peace” crushing Wilhelmine Germany, ostensibly ended World War I but actually laid the groundwork for the even deadlier World War II. By contrast, the 1814-1815 Congress of Vienna, which included not just those that defeated Napoleon but also France, ended twenty years of conflict and brought about almost a century of peace among the major European powers.
As our scenarios show, if the West wants to build a more permanent peace, it needs to have strategic empathy, grasping the perceived interests, red lines, and minimal requirements of both Ukraine and Russia in order to find a solution that reconciles differences for the long haul.