Adam Zivo: What if Ukraine fell last year?
This war has been awful. The alternative would have been worse.
By: Adam Zivo
ODESA, Ukraine — It’s been a year since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The initial spasms of fear that paralysed the world last spring have now passed. War fatigue is setting in, especially because, at this point, the conflict seems regional – just a flight over some obscure towns.
However, the stakes remain as high as they’ve always been. To illustrate what this war is about, let’s consider what could’ve happened had Moscow achieved a quick victory. In the imaginary narrative below, every sentence is backed by real-world reports suggesting that these events were very possible outcomes.
Ukraine falls within weeks. The majority of the country is annexed, but western Ukraine is permitted to survive as a dismembered rump state under the rule of a pro-Russian puppet government. This landlocked fragment of Ukraine, economically crippled and shorn of its agricultural and industrial wealth, primarily offers the illusion of a buffer zone between Russia and Poland. Its cities are flooded with refugees.
In the annexed parts of Ukraine, Russian occupiers hunt and eliminate local cultural, political and intellectual leaders. The process goes smoothly thanks to the kill lists assembled just before the invasion. Journalists and human rights advocates disappear. LGBTQ activists are subjected to special cruelties before they die.
Civilians are put under close surveillance. Any expression of Ukrainian identity is met with arbitrary beatings or other, more severe punishments. Ukrainians are indiscriminately interrogated in a nation-wide network of torture chambers. Fingernails are pulled out. Neighbours and friends vanish, their bodies quietly tossed into mass graves.
Ukrainian art and history are banned. Books are destroyed. Teachers are imported from Russia to instruct Ukrainian children that their culture doesn’t actually exist. The children learn that they are actually just little Russians who have been cruelly alienated from Moscow. Ukrainian culture faces widespread liquidation.
Empty homes are given to Russian settlers and supporters, with no compensation paid to the Ukrainian owners who live in Europe as refugees. After a while, Ukrainian business leaders are forced to transfer their holdings to Russian entrepreneurs, many of whom have government or criminal connections. Assimilating Ukraine’s defence industry is a priority.
Ukrainian guerilla fighters resist as best they can, blowing up some infrastructure and killing wayward occupiers, but Russia maintains firm control over key cities and industrial centres.
Millions of Ukrainians leave for Europe. Unlike our current reality, where a significant portion returned home, all of them stay in exile. The refugee crisis strains Europe and is particularly acute in Poland, which must prepare for direct war with Russia while absorbing far more people than initially expected.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, having repeatedly signalled his desire to reestablish Russia’s old empire, has now boosted his country’s population by at least 30 million people while gaining access to new agricultural, industrial and military assets. His domestic support is astronomical.
As there is no need for mass mobilization in Russia, last autumn’s mass exodus of young Russian workers never happens. The 100,000 Russian IT specialists who, in the real world, fled abroad last autumn ultimately stay at home, where they help build Russian wartime capacities amid sanctions.
Several eastern European states, led by Poland, demand that their NATO and EU allies do more to stop Russian advances.
Germany refuses to take the situation seriously and calls for diplomatic engagement with Moscow. Corrupt German elites are quietly relieved that, as they had hoped, Ukraine fell quickly and disruptions to Germany’s economy were minimal.
The Germans know that energy blackmail is an issue, but, in the absence of a hot war, see little reason to fix the problem. There is no energy divorce between Berlin and Moscow, even though Eastern Europeans once again condemn Germany for essentially recreating the Molotov Ribbentrop Pact between Hitler and Stalin.
Tensions between Berlin and eastern Europe produce a protracted EU and NATO political crisis, throwing those institutions into disarray. In tacit criticism of the status quo, Eastern European states begin to make alternative alliances that bypass Germany (and, to a lesser extent, Hungary), but these newer, smaller agreements further undermine confidence in NATO.
The United States offers some support towards Eastern European defence, but is reluctant to overcommit in the region due to rising tensions in Asia, where Russia’s success has emboldened China and accelerated Beijing’s plans to annex Taiwan. The U.S. lacks the capacity to fight two fronts at once and China is the more important adversary.
Allies express doubt at the value of American support, given the loss of Ukraine and the humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Grateful that Moscow has successfully undermined the west, China intensifies its cooperation with Russia. Beijing grows less concerned about whether this will anger the U.S. and its allies, who now seem somewhat impotent.
Sensing trouble, Japan ramps up its defence spending, infuriating China and inflaming regional tensions. The possibility of an Asian hot war becomes less theoretical, which further cements the Sino-Russian alliance and deepens American reluctance to overinvest in Eastern Europe.
Russia and Serbia strengthen their alliance and, with Moscow’s approval, Serbia initiates destabilizing conflicts with Kosovo and Bosnia, throwing the entire Balkan region into disarray and burdening the west with another military and refugee crisis.
As Kosovo’s government is propped up by NATO, the US is forced to intervene lest it seem like a weak ally. However, Russia, supported by China, threatens retaliation if NATO bombs Serbia like it did in the 1990s. Discussions about the possibility of deploying American ground forces are unfruitful and stoke an isolationist backlash in the US.
Taking advantage of this hesitation, Serbia begins to destabilize Montenegro, a new and vulnerable NATO member state. Hoping to avoid a trap, NATO doesn’t respond, undermining confidence in NATO’s Article 5 mutual defence clause.
With NATO undermined, Russia is later able to successfully annex the Baltic states on the grounds of “protecting” local Russian-speaking communities, which Moscow alleges is being persecuted by “Russophobic” western-backed governments.
Poland is the next target. The prospect of conflict with a large EU and NATO state raises unprecedented fears of escalation and nuclear war. With war approaching its doorstep, Germany finally begins to take the Russian threat seriously and stops importing energy from Moscow. Both sides amass troops around Poland, with Russia assembling waves of forcibly conscripted Ukrainians to use for meat wave tactics.
Europe’s belated war preparations put it at a disadvantage – the EU is facing a stronger, larger and more experienced Russia. Amid this conflict, observers throughout the west wonder what could have prevented all of this.
They imagine a world where Ukraine hadn’t fallen and Russia’s warmongering had been quarantined to east Ukraine’s Donbas region. In this imaginary world, Beijing, frustrated by Moscow’s miscalculations and surprised by the west’s resolve, adopts a more cautious foreign policy that limits Sino-Russian cooperation. In both Europe and Asia, a brittle peace remains which, though imperfect, is preferable to a chain of wars.
The observers sigh. If only they had been so lucky to live in that alternative reality.
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