Russia-Ukraine: structural analysis of a zero-sum game

The only winner of this zero-sum game will be China, which will win without firing a shot. The interests of a spectator like India will be seriously affected. The United States must remember that its main and worthy rival is China. Russia is a power in decline.

Located on the Great European Plain, which stretches from the Pyrenees Mountains, through France, Germany, Poland and beyond St. Petersburg east to the Ural Mountains, Russia has weak natural defenses with the exception of its depth, which it has used in the past to suck in and escape invaders. The Russian-Georgian conflict in 2008, Russia’s annexation of Crimea to Ukraine and the creation of an autonomous “Donbass” region in eastern Ukraine stem from a need for depth and strategic access. Russian civilization began in Ukraine and gradually in Muscovy for security, and “Ukraine” means border regions. There is therefore the emotion of a cultural and historical connection of Russia with Ukraine, and the “tsar” of the Russian people has always aspired to include Ukraine in his domain. However, Ukraine has terrible memories of domination by other powers. It was called the “breadbasket” of the Soviet Union, had a large number of Soviet nuclear weapons and was home to the Black Sea Fleet when the Soviet Union collapsed. The Budapest agreement in 1994 and subsequent Minsk agreements denuclearized Ukraine and effectively recognized it as a buffer state between NATO and Russia. About 15% of Ukraine’s population is of Russian origin concentrated mainly in the east, which also has some of its major cities. Eastern Ukraine feels close to Russia, while Western Ukraine feels closer to Western Europe and wants to be with the EU and NATO. For a long time, Ukraine had a pro-Russian leader who blocked popular desire to join the EU, and a succession of events culminating in the “Maidan” revolution forced him to abdicate in 2014. The current leadership of Ukraine leans towards Ukraine. join NATO and the EU. The alignment of Belarus and Ukraine with NATO is a nightmare for Russia, which has positioned itself in such a way that Ukraine remains a buffer state between Western Europe (NATO) and Russia . Ironically, the “in-between” states that stretch from the Baltic States to Romania to Poland, with Poland as their anchor, have the same fear of Russia. Strategically, Russia is also interested in splitting NATO and reducing the role of the United States.
In the current crisis, Russia has set conditions for the withdrawal of its forces from the Ukrainian borders, which the United States and NATO could not publicly accept. Of the various options open to it, Russia has baffled strategic experts by opting for a full-scale, multidimensional invasion of Ukraine from multiple directions. Having incurred the considerable risk and cost associated with an invasion, it looks like Russia will go all the way and force regime change in Kyiv. Since a siege of Kiev can last a long time, Russia may choose to take it by force, risking a high level of casualties and damage if the defenders resist. A successful invasion will have to be followed by occupation and pacification of the country. Pacification, however, will require much more effort and resources, and carries the risk of continued civilian casualties. The Ukrainian leadership and army could undertake an organized withdrawal to the west, where popular support will be stronger. Russian forces in Ukraine bring them even closer to NATO forces. A direct comparison to the Soviet experience in Afghanistan may be overstated, but Russian supply lines will be extended and support for long-running unconventional warfare like an insurgency will likely be available. The United States and other countries have announced strong and sweeping financial, trade, technology and access punitive sanctions against Russia and some of its leaders, which will harm to the Russian economy in the long term. Additional sanctions are likely if the human costs of conflict force the world to act. The United States and NATO have declared that they will not intervene militarily because Ukraine is not part of NATO.
The invasion-regime change-pacification option entails considerable costs and risks for Russia, and the long-term benefits for Russia are unclear at this stage. Structurally, the interests of Germany and the United States diverged more than at any time since World War II. Russian exports of raw materials gave it considerable influence over Europe. The Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline supplying gas to the west, bypassing Ukraine, has increased its room for manoeuvre. Russia supplies about 40% of the gas through pipelines and 50% of Europe’s crude oil demand. It is a very large exporter of aluminium, palladium and neon, which are essential inputs for industry. Ukraine is a major exporter of agricultural products and raw materials. NATO as an alliance was barely functional after 2003. US credibility was weak after the withdrawal from Afghanistan, it was increasingly inward-looking and the pivot to the Asia-Pacific was more of an imperative for the United States than focusing on Europe. The Russian economy was doing reasonably well, with foreign exchange reserves exceeding $600 billion, a debt-to-GDP ratio of just 18%, a strong current account surplus and a favorable scenario for crude oil and gas prices. These benefits should reverse after the invasion. Small European countries, and countries like Sweden and Finland that are not yet part of NATO, would conclude that only an alliance with the United States can ensure their security. NATO is now reinvigorated and more aligned than at any time since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. As a frontline state now, and also as an anchor for “in-between” states, Poland will become more important and will be strengthened. A Germany-Russia-China alignment, while highly unlikely, was about the only one that could possibly challenge the United States in the foreseeable future, and such an alignment is stalled by the rise of Poland positioned between two declining powers. , Russia and Germany. US military deployments will increase in countries like Poland, which borders Russia. Nuclear and threshold states will feel that nuclearization is the ultimate guarantee of security. Russia no longer has the ideological, military, political or economic weight that the Soviet Union had for a long time, and the desire for “empire” is now anachronistic. A long-running conflict in Ukraine and Cold War 2.0 will drain Russia, and its economy will suffer serious long-term damage. Structurally, a greatly weakened Russia will also be vulnerable in Central Asia or the Far East compared to China. The proximity of Russian and NATO forces is a risk in itself. Even a cyber incident, whether planned, unplanned or malicious, can have serious consequences.
The abandonment of Ukraine by the United States would endanger its alliances and seriously damage its prestige and credibility as a reliable partner. This will alarm Taiwan, Japan and other partners, strengthen China’s influence and push Japan towards increased militarization, which is not in Asia’s long-term interest. Europe makes a sad appearance of not being able to manage its affairs despite all its wealth, its institutions and its technology. The invasion and sanctions will create shortages, cause disruptions, increase inflation and damage agricultural and industrial market economies around the world. In the case of India, only 0.5% of its exports and 1.5% of its imports are with Russia. However, India has critical dependencies on Russia for military hardware, military technology and geopolitical support. There is a strong public feeling in India that Russia is a reliable and proven ally, and the current situation can only damage its reputation. The only winner of this zero-sum game will be China, which will win without firing a shot. The interests of a spectator like India will be seriously affected. The United States must remember that its main and worthy rival is China. Russia is a power in decline, and the United States can come back to manage it after leading China for the next two decades.
So it’s a zero-sum game, and deals will have to be made. NATO and Ukraine must put aside the question of Ukraine’s entry into NATO or even into the EU. Oil prices will rise and then fall. Russia will get some security, the US will retain its alliances and prestige, and the space to manage China. Ukraine will have to live with compromise, otherwise it could be destroyed. The world will breathe easier and move on to the next round of the Great Power Games.

Vivek Joshi is a consultant with A-Joshi Strategy Consultants Pvt Ltd and has over 25 years of international management experience. He is the author of a book “Start-up to Scale-up: Entrepreneur’s Guide to Venture Capital”, and publications listed on

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