What next for the world if Russia loses in Ukraine?

The outcome would have widespread consequences and could rewrite Cold War history books

Vladimir Putin
A ‘weakened Putin’ might try to cling to power in a ‘dispirited’ country
(Image credit: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Vladimir Putin could be planning to flee to South America as his war in Ukraine turns into a “disaster”, according to reports.

Amid mounting military losses, the Russian president is “doing his best to keep out of the public eye”, said The Times. As such he is planning, the paper said, to dodge his traditional ice hockey match with his bodyguards and his annual state of the nation address to parliament.

Abbas Gallyamov, a former speech-writer for the president, said the Kremlin is preparing safe havens for Putin in case Russia suffers a humiliating defeat and he is forced to flee. He cited a Kremlin source who said that Putin would escape to Argentina or Venezuela, under a plan thought to be codenamed “Noah’s Ark”.

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What did the papers say?

Forecasts of defeat for Russia have grown after the UK’s defence secretary announced a “bleak” set of figures on Russian military losses, said Business Insider.

“We can say that we estimate over 100,000 Russians are either dead, injured, or have deserted,” Ben Wallace told the House of Commons, following a similar estimate from the top US general Mark Milley last month.

Wallace painted a wider picture of Russian setbacks, announcing that Moscow has lost 4,500 armoured vehicles, 63 fixed-wing aircraft, 70 helicopters, 150 unmanned aerial vehicles, 12 naval vessels, and over 600 artillery systems.

As the prospect of a Russian defeat in Ukraine becomes more realistic, so does discussion of its wider implications.

Defeat for Russia “would open up all sorts of opportunities for a better world – and, indeed, a better Russia”, wrote Jon Moynihan for CapX. A “major opportunity” could arise that would allow parts of Europe and the Caucuses to “break free from Moscow’s yoke”.

However, he added, the West would need to negotiate with “either a more, or quite possibly a less, reasonable government” inside Russia, “to get the gas flowing again and energy prices down”.

A Russian defeat would be regarded as bad news in Beijing. Xi Jinping would be “displeased”, wrote Pavel K. Baev for Brookings, as “every step Russia takes down the de-escalation ladder and away from confrontation with the West” would “signify a setback for China”.

Beijing would become “irrelevant”, he said, and though this “might seem mind-boggling” given its current power, China would pay the price for “influencing the trajectory of the Ukraine war, from its shocking start to the gradual disgraceful end”.

However, wrote Janusz Bugajski in the Washington Examiner, Beijing might seek to benefit by exploiting the “failing state” through “arranging cheap energy deals and beneficial investments”. It might also bid for the “eventual absorption of Russia’s far eastern regions that nationalists claim as Chinese territory unfairly appropriated by Moscow in the 19th century”.

The “Russian elite and all those ultranationalists who dominate the media” would have to “contemplate a world in which Russia and many of its leaders remain under Western sanctions, with a weak and globally isolated leader” and Russia “carrying little weight on the world stage”, wrote John McLaughlin, a former acting director of the CIA, for Grid.

Russian military and security service leaders “might act as a kind of informal ‘politburo’” and inform Putin that they can no longer support him, and that it is time for him to retire “with some honour intact”. However, if he refused, there might be a “slow fading away” for a “weakened Putin” and Russia “would for a time simply exist as a dispirited and weak country”, in stark contrast to his “early years in power” when Russia “had attained a place of significant influence and respect in the world”.

What next?

Were Moscow to discover it could not defeat Ukraine, this could even rewrite the history books, argued defence editor Michael Peck, for Forbes, as it would open the question of whether Russia could ever have conquered Europe.

He concluded that “the answer is a definitive… maybe” but added that based on the “fumbling Russian military in Ukraine” it is likely that Soviet tank columns would have “barely crossed the West German border before they ran out of gas”.

This would shed a new light on 50 years of Cold War speculation, in which “fear of Soviet tank columns blitzing across the Rhine led to massive peacetime defence budgets, forced generations of young men to be drafted into uniform, and made novelists like Tom Clancy rich”.

Other dictators would be dismayed by a Russian defeat, said the head of Britain’s armed forces. The West’s collective response in Ukraine has brought “real victory within our grasp” and sent a powerful message to other authoritarian states, said Admiral Sir Tony Radakin.

There would also be ramifications for diplomacy and public relations, argued Mick Ryan for Foreign Affairs. Were Kyiv to defeat the Russian military, Ukraine’s “international influence campaigns” would become a “model for other democracies to study and emulate”.

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