09 September 2022

Thinking the Unthinkable: Endgames in Ukraine?

Thinking the Unthinkable: Endgames in Ukraine?

Since December 2021, the Bureau für Zeitgeschehen (BfZ) – partnering with the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) – has been continuously developing scenarios on the mounting tensions, later on the unfolding war in Ukraine and its repercussions for the global order.

The aim: Getting used to ‘thinking the unthinkable’ and improving preparedness of decision-makers. Based on dozens of so-called ‘What-if-scenarios’, diplomats and think tankers from both sides of the Atlantic dwelled on the following questions:

  • What are in-/direct consequences of Russia’s war in Ukraine globally and how will these impact Western cohesion/ongoing Russian war efforts?
  • How do third actors position themselves in this complex situation and what may be ‘blind spots’ in our analysis?
  • What are potential escalation patterns in this conflict?
  • What if the war reached a stalemate and becomes another frozen conflict?
  • What will be the endgame in Ukraine and what will be repercussions for the regional/global security order?

Central findings:

In a stalemate scenario, there would be serious risk of Western war fatigue as states run out of instruments to sanction Russia and people will be increasingly frustrated due to the economic pain inflicted on them. Russia adjusts to the pressure and explores new ways of making business while decision-makers in the West face impatient electorates.

A full Ukrainian victory, pushing Russian forces back to pre-2014 borders, might trigger a Russian escalation (use of weapons of mass destruction, war against cities, provocation of NATO members), demanding a more resolute response from the US/NATO.

If Russia wins big in Ukraine and manages to take control of a significant share of territory, the world will see the re-emergence of block confrontation, massive rearmament (e.g., Poland going nuclear) and – ironically – a united West with a renewed purpose.

The West needs to control the narrative – this war is not only being fought on the battlefield; the longer the conflict lasts, the more it will turn into an economic war, a contest of (collective) wills and a fight over the future security order in Europe and beyond.