Despite weeks of warnings and dire intelligence assessments, Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine still came as a shock. Even hours before missiles started flying, it still seemed possible that Russian President Vladimir Putin could back down and use a face-saving offramp to avoid what will surely be a catastrophic war for his own country as well as Ukraine.
Hours into the war, we are already witnessing Europe’s worst security crisis in decades, but we still don’t have a good idea of what’s to come. Here are some of the fears that the invasion has sparked, for Ukraine and beyond.
It’s still unclear, even at this point, exactly what Russia’s goals are in Ukraine. In his Thursday morning speech declaring war, Putin said the military operation was aimed at the “demilitarization and denazification” of Ukraine, which strongly suggests he wants to overthrow Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s government. On the other hand, he said Russia did not plan to “occupy” Ukrainian territory. It’s hard to see how he does the first of those things without the second. It’s possible he’s keeping his options open.
Russia could still opt for a short, sharp strike to decimate the Ukrainian military, humiliate its government, force Zelenskiy to make painful concessions and perhaps expand the territory held by the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. A precedent for this kind of war might be Russia’s five-day invasion of Georgia in 2008. The operation in Ukraine already appears to be much larger than that one, which killed roughly 850 people, including troops from both sides and civilians in Georgia.
But there is also the possibility, according to publicly released Western intelligence assessments over the past few weeks, that the Russian military will attempt to seize and hold large parts of Ukrainian territory outside the eastern Donbas region or march into the capital, Kyiv, and other major cities to overthrow the Ukrainian government and arrest or kill Russia’s political enemies. In the latter scenario, a U.S. official quoted by NBC News estimated that between 25,000 and 50,000 civilians could be killed or wounded in the first two weeks. The bad news is that these same intelligence assessments were mostly correct in the lead-up to the invasion.
Few give Ukraine’s military (around 200,000 active personnel to Russia’s 850,000) much of a chance of defeating Russia in a conventional war, but it’s far stronger than it was when fighting first broke out in eastern Ukraine in 2014 and has received substantial military aid, particularly in recent weeks. This time, the Russians certainly don’t have the element of surprise on their side and will be fighting on unforgiving (in some places even radioactive) terrain. It could be a very bloody fight.
There’s also the possibility that the war could turn into an insurgency against the occupiers, with ordinary citizens — many of whom now have combat experience after eight years of conflict — taking up arms, and the U.S. and European countries providing support. If Russia ends up waging a full-on counterinsurgency in Ukraine, including urban warfare and airstrikes on populated areas, a better guide to what it would look like might be Russia’s two wars in Chechnya in the 1990s, where estimates suggest more than 150,000 people were killed. Ukraine’s population is more than 40 times larger than Chechnya’s.
Some 1.5 million people had already been internally displaced within Ukraine since 2014. This number will rise substantially now — already there are flows of refugees crossing into Poland, a country poorly equipped to handle them. Europe writ large could see the largest flood of refugees since the migrant crisis caused by the war in Syria in 2015. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said this week that as many as 5 million Ukrainians could be displaced by the war. Other countries including Hungary have announced plans to accept refugees, and many Ukrainians in the east may flee to Russia itself, as they did after 2014. U.S. military troops stationed in Poland and other Eastern European countries have been preparing to play a role in the refugee relief effort.
In the long run, war could accelerate Ukraine’s already severe depopulation trend. Amid economic stagnation, ongoing conflict, low birthrates and high levels of out-migration, Ukraine’s population has declined by more than 11 million since the fall of communism.
There’s no comparing what Ukrainians are experiencing to the effects war will have outside the country, but global disruptions are likely. The war is already creating havoc in global energy markets — the price of oil spiked north of $100 as the first bombs fell — and the trend may continue, particularly if Russia plays the strongest economic card it has to counter Western sanctions: slowing or entirely cutting off energy supplies to Europe. The impact will be especially severe in Eastern European countries that rely on Russia for 100 percent of their gas; the Czech Republic and Latvia are in that category. It’s unlikely we’ll see European consumers losing power or heat entirely, but prices could go up substantially. Plans are in the works to step up shipments or liquefied natural gas to Europe in the event of a crisis. Last week, the Biden administration dispatched officials to Saudi Arabia to press the kingdom to pump more oil amid fears that war would raise global energy prices.
In the long run, it’s probably a good thing both for Europe’s security and for the planet if the continent were to cut its addiction to Russian fossil fuels, but in the short term, consumers will bear the brunt of the disruption.
Energy isn’t the only commodity to keep an eye on. The White House has warned the U.S. semiconductor chip industry to diversify its supplies, anticipating Russian retaliation if the U.S. slaps severe export control sanctions on the country’s electronics industry. In particular, the war may threaten global supplies of the key minerals used in chip production. Thirty-five percent of the palladium used by the industry is sourced from Russia, and 90 percent of the United States’ semiconductor-grade neon supplies come from Ukraine.
Ukraine is also one of the world’s largest wheat exporters and one of the top wheat suppliers to countries in North Africa and the Middle East. Egypt gets around 15 percent of its wheat from Ukraine. Wheat prices have already been driven higher by war fears, and wheat futures surged to a nine-year high Thursday.
The hours before the war began saw cyberattacks taking down the websites of several Ukrainian banks and government departments, as well as a “wiper” attack destroying data on the machines of several organizations. So far, Russia does not appear to have used its full cyber capabilities, which, as Grid’s Benjamin Powers recently reported, could cause widespread global chaos. That may change.
The more severe scenarios would be something along the lines of the attack that knocked part of Ukraine’s power grid offline in 2015, or an earlier strike that crippled much of Estonia’s internet in 2007. The damage wouldn’t necessarily be limited to Ukraine itself. In 2017, malware known as NotPetya targeted Ukrainian banks and government agencies before spreading to other countries and causing billions of dollars in damage. Authorities in the U.S. and U.K. have been warning companies and government agencies to prepare for “spillover” from the Ukraine conflict.
Then-Secretary of State Colin Powell’s “Pottery Barn rule” — you break it, you own it — still applies. If the U.S. backs Ukrainian resistance to a Russian invasion, and if that resistance appears to be failing, political pressure on the administration to do more will grow. Biden has drawn one line in the sand, ruling out sending U.S. troops to Ukraine. “That’s a world war when Americans and Russia start shooting at one another,” he has said. But the U.S. is deploying more troops to Eastern Europe, and with NATO-Russia tensions running as high as they are, it’s not hard to imagine how things could spiral out of control. There have been reports already of Russian airstrikes near the western Ukrainian city of Ivano-Frankivsk, which is just a few hours’ drive from the borders of four NATO member states.
Even before the war began, NATO planes were regularly scrambled to shadow Russian aircraft in the Arctic. The Russians have responded to what they see as provocative moves by NATO ships and aircraft in disputed waters around Crimea. Just last week, according to CNN, U.S. fighter jets escorted three Russian aircraft that had entered coalition-restricted airspace in eastern Syria. It’s worth recalling that Americans and Russians actually have shot at each other in recent years. In a little-discussed incident in 2018, as many as 300 Russian military contractors from a Kremlin-linked firm, embedded with pro-regime sources in Syria, were killed in a U.S. airstrike in Syria. Both countries brushed that incident under the rug. With all eyes on Ukraine, it might be harder to move on from such provocations.
During the Cold War, the U.S. and Soviet Union barely avoided catastrophic conflict on several occasions, crises that began with basic misreadings of each other’s intentions. We won’t necessarily be so lucky in the future.