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A Russian victory in Ukraine would have major international economic, political and security implications.

This assessment was issued to clients of Dragonfly’s Security Intelligence & Analysis Service (SIAS) on 22 February 2024.

  • President Putin’s continued dismissal of Ukraine as a country suggests that taking political control of Ukraine remains Russia’s overarching goal for the war
  • Conflict between Russia and a NATO member state is still very unlikely in the coming year, even if Russia were to win

Western governments have started to consider the prospect of victory for Russia in Ukraine. International military aid to Kyiv – vital to its ability to defend and retake land – has slowed in recent months. At the same time, Russia has moved its economy to a war footing and has an advantage in many of the war’s key drivers, such as manpower and availability of artillery. This has prompted European leaders to warn that Russia must not be allowed to win in Ukraine, and to revisit their assumptions about the possible implications of a Russian victory.

Victory for Russia would have major consequences for international security and stability. These include hundreds of thousands of people fleeing from Ukraine, disruption to global supply chains and the militarisation of NATO’s borders with Russia. Ukraine’s government would perhaps govern from western Ukraine or in exile from a neighbouring country. For Russia, a victory would provide an immediate boost in domestic support for President Putin. But Moscow would face long-term challenges, not least in funding a costly occupation with no clear exit strategy.

Victory for Russia means political control of Ukraine

Putin’s primary objective for the war is likely to remain securing political control of Ukraine. This appears to have been Russia’s goal from the very beginning of the invasion, when it tried to assassinate Zelensky. It continues to be the Russian leadership’s stated aim. Putin has said publicly, as recently as December 2023, that Russia is seeking ‘denazification’ and ‘demilitarisation’. Western officials cited in international media on 21 February said Putin had not abandoned his aims of ‘subjugating Ukraine’. Moscow also unveiled plans in late 2023 to raise defence spending by 70% and to boost the size of its military by 15% this year.

There is little doubt that a Russian victory in this form would have profound implications for Ukraine, international security and stability, and for Russia itself. We have outlined below what we assess as being some of the most likely implications for each.

Victory for Russia devastates Ukraine politically and economically

The conflict would shift into an insurgency phase, with lower-intensity fighting between the remnants of the Ukrainian armed forces and the Russian military. There have been frequent assassinations and attacks in the occupied territories and in Russia during the war. Remnants of the Ukrainian military would be unlikely to accept a Russian occupation. Russia could not eradicate all resistance to an occupation either; the Ukrainian military consists of hundreds of thousands of people.

There would be significant political instability in Ukraine. Ukraine’s government could either relocate to western Ukraine or to a neighbouring country. At the beginning of the conflict, President Zelensky discussed with the US whether to move the government to Lviv, near to the border with Poland. The Ukrainian government would have to deal with the political fallout of losing the war with Russia and adjust to governing in exile, potentially without control of many major cities.

Insecurity would spread across Ukraine. That is because of ensuing unrest and probable protests in free parts of the country at the loss of territory. Current opinion polls suggest Ukraine’s population is strongly against territorial concessions to Russia. Other consequences include disruption to provision of law and order in the free territories, owing to a governance vacuum should Ukraine’s government be forced into exile. And in the occupied territories, there would very likely be human rights violations, based on reports of atrocities conducted by Russian troops.

There would be profound social implications in Ukraine. Most prominent is the potential for hundreds of thousands of people to flee westwards, either to western parts of Ukraine or to central Europe, straining essential services in unoccupied territories. Crimes against Ukrainian culture are probable in the occupied territories. Russian occupying forces have reportedly restricted the use of Ukrainian language, handed out Russian passports, destroyed cultural artefacts and burned Ukrainian-language books.

Economic devastation for Ukraine would follow. This stems from the loss of large and economically-important portions of territory – including potentially the capital or Black Sea coastline. Prolonged disruption to supply chains would also be probable, because of the loss of territory and an exodus of civilians from Ukraine. Many fewer Western businesses would want to invest in Ukraine for many years.

Russia struggles to secure a lasting victory

The immediate aftermath of a Russian victory would secure Putin’s domestic position. The validation of his decision to engage in a conflict with Ukraine and the West would deter any internal challenges to his leadership. His personal popularity would rise, as after the occupation of Crimea in 2014. But we doubt that this would last. An occupation without an exit strategy carries economic and political costs for any regime. Already, the wives of Russian husbands fighting in Ukraine have formed a movement called ‘Way Home’ and hold peaceful, often weekly protests in Moscow.

Russia is likely to require a long-term military presence of at least a few hundred thousand troops to consolidate any victory. This owes to the strength of Ukraine’s resistance over the past two years and the size of the territory. The initial February 2022 invasion force reportedly consisted of 190,000 troops, but even this appeared too small to hold and occupy territory at the time. Russia needed 80,000 troops in the early 2000s to suppress an insurgency in Chechnya, with a population of one million and over a far smaller territory.

There are few signs that victory would bring economic relief. IMF forecasts for Russia in late January predict a GDP rise of 2.6% this year, despite sanctions and the costs of the war. But Russia’s positive growth appears mainly driven by increased military spending, so that any post-war reduction in this could undercut Russia’s short-term economic prospects. Occupations are expensive, forcing governments to balance funding their overseas presence against sustaining growth in popular living standards at home.

It is plausible that the remnants of Ukraine’s military intelligence service (HUR) would continue to mount attacks inside Russia. These remnants would be free of the constraints of operating within a formal governmental and military structures, and of avoiding alienating international allies through attacks inside Russia. HUR has carried out frequent assassinations and attacks inside Russia in the past two years. This includes a car bombing in Moscow in August 2022 and a bombing in a cafe in St Petersburg in April 2023.

Victory heightens international economic and political uncertainty

A Russian victory would undermine Western countries’ legitimacy as security providers. This is through showing that Western military commitments can fade after a few years, and be hostage to domestic political divisions and electoral cycles – something which could embolden future aggressors. Recriminations within the EU and US about the failure of the Western strategy on the war, and an acceleration in EU plans for ‘strategic autonomy’ from the US, are among other plausible repercussions.

Western governments would have to try to assimilate and support hundreds of thousands of refugees, similar to the initial wave of migration in February 2022. Then, there appeared little major backlash to refugees fleeing the conflict. But with far-right parties gaining popularity and political polarisation over supporting Ukraine greater now than in February 2022, a second time around we would expect tensions between local residents and refugees, as well as a further boost for far-right parties.

Global economic uncertainty would ensue. This applies especially to commodity price volatility, particularly in gas and agricultural exports. Ukraine is a key transit point or export hub for these. And a consequence of sustained Western governments’ sanctions on Russia is a further reduction in trade between Europe and Russia in the long term, and an increasing dependence of Russia on economic links with China and Iran.

A Russian victory is likely to result in militarisation of NATO’s land borders with Russia, including in Finland and Estonia (but also Poland, depending on the scale of the territory Russia is able to take). NATO officials have also recently said that member states need to prepare for the possibility of war with Russia in the next decade. Estonia warned on 12 February that Russia planned to double its military presence along its shared border in the coming years. NATO is also currently holding the largest military drills since the Cold War through till May, consisting of roughly 90,000 personnel.

Emboldening other regimes

Western countries and governments have warned that victory for Russia could encourage China, Iran and North Korea in their disputes with other countries. This is plausible, but to varying degrees. The Director of the CIA, Bill Burns, has said over the past two years repeatedly that President Xi of China had been ‘sobered’ by Russia’s losses in Ukraine. Whether other world leaders are emboldened or deterred by a Russian victory depends on their perception of the costs of any victory, and whether this is something they are willing to incur.

Victory for Russia would not significantly – in our assessment – drive up the currently low risk of war between Russia and NATO. Denmark said on 9 February it ‘cannot be ruled out’ that Russia will attack a NATO member in the next three to five years. Defence ministers from Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania also agreed on 19 January to fortify their borders with Russia, suggesting they feel at particular risk of attack. But Putin’s overwhelming focus appears to be on controlling Ukraine. He frequently dismisses Ukrainian statehood and does not appear to repeat similar claims about other countries to the same extent.

Alternative definitions of victory

It is plausible that Putin’s war aims will change. The most likely way this can take place is if Putin viewed the perceived costs of the conflict as greater than the benefits of victory. At present, there is little sign that the costs of war have compelled him to abandon his objective of political control of Ukraine. But neither Russia nor Ukraine have the resources to sustain indefinitely the current intensity of fighting. This means it remains possible that Putin downsizes the war’s aims and unilaterally declares ‘victory’.

There appear two potential alternative definitions of victory for Russia:

  • Major occupation without regime change: This may include Russia occupying in full the four regions it pronounced as ‘annexed’ in September 2022 (Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, Donetsk and Luhansk), but also large portions of Odesa and Kharkiv regions
  • ‘Freezing’ of territorial status quo: Russia could plausibly abandon its ambitions for political control over Ukraine and settle for Kyiv accepting Russia’s control over the currently-occupied territories, alongside Ukrainian concessions on not joining NATO

Both outcomes would still have major geopolitical ramifications similar to those likely in the event of regime change, but less pronounced. This includes resistance in the occupied territories and militarisation of NATO-Russia borders. Both outcomes leave Ukraine’s government in place, and so its ability to continue to deepen ties with Western countries in the long term. But Ukraine’s government is likely to  face a high risk of destabilisation in either alternative outcome, owing to the political fallout from losing its sovereign territory.

Image: Russia’s President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with the leadership of military-industrial complex enterprises in Tula, Russia, on 23 December 2022. Photo by SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images.