The early winners and losers in Putin’s war

It is five weeks into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine. Actually, there are two wars: a Russian war waged mainly against Ukraine’s cities and civilian population, and a war fought by Ukraine’s armed forces against Russian troops. Russia is winning the former; Ukraine is winning the latter.

Ideally, negotiations will lead to a ceasefire and a lasting settlement. But it is equally if not more likely that the conflict will continue for some time, especially if Putin decides to embrace a strategy that reduces the exposure of his troops to combat and rejects a negotiated outcome on terms the government of Ukraine could accept. ‘Limited war, no peace’, to paraphrase Trotsky, would be the result.

Who would be the winners and losers in such a scenario?

It’s easiest to point to the biggest loser: Russia. It’s clear now that Putin will be unable to achieve the political objectives he likely sought, namely, to march into Kyiv and replace Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government with one friendly to the Kremlin. Putin’s war of choice may have destroyed much of Ukraine physically, but the unprecedented sanctions and economic isolation his decision has wrought are destroying Russia economically.

In addition, many talented Russians have voted with their feet and left the country. Russia’s army has been decimated (losing as many as 15,000 soldiers in a month) and exposed as something of a Potemkin force, one that will take years to rebuild.

The calculation is more complex when it comes to Ukraine. The resilience of its leadership, society and armed forces are a marvel. Its national identity is more robust than ever and Ukraine’s staunch resistance has strengthened its young democracy.

But that strengthening has come at a great cost. An estimated 10 million Ukrainians—a quarter of the population—are internally displaced or refugees. The economy has been wrecked. Rebuilding will take a lot of time and a lot of money.

NATO, although untested militarily, is a big winner so far. It is more united and stronger as a result of Russia’s aggression. It also benefits from the poor performance of the Russian armed forces, which appear to be no match for the Western alliance, and from an American president who believes in it.

Germany and its new government and chancellor are another big winner. Implicit in the response of Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s government is the understanding that the legacy of Scholz’s predecessor, Angela Merkel, is now decidedly more mixed, because she allowed Germany to become so dependent on Russian energy.

Scholz’s decision to cancel the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, commitment to doubling defence spending and willingness to funnel arms to Ukraine represent dramatic, significant changes. The only disappointment is that it will take years for the German economy to wean itself from Russian gas, a reality that provides critical ballast to Russia’s economy.

US President Joe Biden has also gained. He has for the most part skilfully managed a policy of supporting Ukraine, penalising Russia and, by rejecting calls for putting ‘boots on the ground’ or establishing a no-fly zone, done so without risking World War III.

Biden has also brought America’s allies together, something sorely needed after four years of Donald Trump and a mishandled US withdrawal from Afghanistan. His one major slip has been to corner Putin further by calling him a war criminal and hinting at regime change when the goal of US policy ought to be to get Putin to stop the war and avoid escalation of any sort.

China and its president, Xi Jinping, are in a worse position strategically than they were just a month ago. By associating so closely with Putin, Xi has exposed himself to criticism for a flawed judgement that damages China’s reputation and raises the risks it will be targeted with secondary sanctions.

While China has long sought to divide the West, its alignment with Russia has done the opposite, alienating Western Europe, where it had been making significant economic inroads. It will also lead to a much tougher US policy towards China and highlight the costs China could face if it were ever to move militarily against Taiwan.

Otherwise, there are many more losers than winners, as befits a war. The United Nations and especially the security council appear feckless. The war is bad for global efforts to slow the spread of nuclear weapons. Ukraine gave up its stockpile 28 years ago in exchange for an assurance of its territorial integrity, only to be invaded twice since 2014. The crisis has likewise been bad for efforts to combat climate change, which at least temporarily appears to have taken a back seat to measures designed to promote energy security.

It is also a bad crisis for those who have been arguing that territorial conquest and wars between countries were a thing of the past or those who have argued in recent years that things have never been better. Events have also worked against the arguments of those on the left and right alike that the biggest danger to international security is American overreach and that the United States can safely turn inwards.

Last but far from least, there is the matter of what this conflict will mean for world order. Russia’s invasion violated the most basic tenet of what stability exists in the world: that borders are not to be changed by the threat or use of force. Much will hinge on whether Putin gets away with his gamble, or whether the price he is forced to pay exceeds any gains. That, more than anything else, will determine history’s ultimate verdict regarding what was won and what was lost in Putin’s war.