As a military conflict pushing closer to nuclear confrontation of any since the Cold War, the Russia-Ukraine conflict has attracted much attention from the international community. For some time, the media and other observers have analyzed and calculated from different angles, trying to predict who will win. The truth is that there will be no winner.
For both Russia and Ukraine, this conflict has gone far beyond rational expectations. Whether or not the war continues, nothing can mask its enormous costs, nor can the conflict bring any benefits to either side. While no one can deny Russia's military superiority over Ukraine, the political, economic and diplomatic costs of this conflict have clearly exploded beyond the control of the Putin team.
If Ukraine continues to resist in the future with Western support, Moscow will likely be locked into its least-expected scenario — a protracted war of attrition. It will face the prospect of withdrawing troops in exchange for Ukraine’s recognition of the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and the legitimization of the status of Crimea, which it annexed earlier. Even at that, however, the effects of Western diplomatic isolation and economic sanctions are unlikely to disappear in the near future. The restoration of confidence in domestic investment in Russia is even more elusive and will further retard the process of the country’s economic and social development.
Many people have been surprised by Ukraine’s ability to resist in this conflict, but that does not change the fact that it has become the biggest loser. Even in the best of circumstances, it could not prevent the annexation of Crimea and the “independence” of two eastern regions. Not only is it difficult for the Ukrainian authorities to realize their dream of joining NATO, which they had been striving for before the conflict, but in the future Ukraine is also likely to become a battleground for long-term confrontation between Russia and the West, which will further affect postwar economic recovery and reconstruction. As the saying goes: “When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.”
It is conceivable that with the massive withdrawal of foreign capital and the serious destruction of Ukraine’s economic infrastructure and defense facilities, future reconstruction is destined to be especially difficult. No matter how much nationalism and international sympathy are stirred up by the Ukrainian authorities, they will not be able to redeem their own precarious fate, nor will they be able to avoid economic collapse, political turmoil and national disintegration.
In a self-help international system, especially in the thermonuclear age, no country will willingly risk nuclear war for the sake of appealing moral excuses. To any experienced politician, this might just be self-evident common sense.
Other European countries, though not the instigators of this conflict, will have to pay for the military conflict as well.
First, countries adjacent to Ukraine need to host and resettle large numbers of Ukrainian refugees. According to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, as of mid-March the outflow of refugees from Ukraine had exceeded 3 million people.
Second, in addition to bearing the burden of rising oil, gas and food prices caused by the conflict, European countries’ economic ties with Russia and Ukraine’s are being destroyed by the conflict. In the case of European-Russian economic cooperation, for example, the EU is the largest foreign investor in Russia, with European direct investment exceeding $311 billion in 2019 and Europe-Russia trade exceeding $174.3 billion in 2020. Amid waves of sanctions, these economic ties are destined to be ruined.
Finally, the conflict has not only paralyzed the Europe-Russia security dialogue mechanism developed after the Cold War but has also further highlighted the strategic dependence of European countries on Russia for oil and gas resources. According to analyses in the Financial Times and other reports, 40 percent of Europe’s needed natural gas and 25 percent of its needed crude oil are currently met by Russia. Even a significant amount of uranium fuel — including more than 20 percent of the natural and enriched uranium Europe needs to operate nuclear power plants — currently comes from Russia.
Therefore, for European countries, isolating and sanctioning Russia may not bring more security and stability.
Some may argue that the United States could be the biggest winner of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. In the short term, the war will not only facilitate the return of the U.S. dollar and boost U.S. economic growth but will also serve as a pretext for the continued existence of NATO, which has been plagued by internal crises and rising disunity in recent years.
For U.S. President Joe Biden and the Democratic Party, the Russia-Ukraine conflict has reversed the diplomatic decline triggered by the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and undoubtedly helps to add points to their midterm election prospects. But in the long run, the negative impact of the Russia-Ukraine conflict on the United States should not be underestimated. It will accelerate the disintegration of U.S. global hegemony.
First, the U.S. verbal support of Ukraine, a democratic ally, in recent years and its refusal to provide direct military support are in stark contrast. The U.S. has not shown the kind of strategic will it did during the Cuban missile crisis in the 1960s, which will inevitably make more allies doubt the protection offered by the U.S. “nuclear umbrella.”
Second, sanctions against Russia are a double-edged sword. Although the U.S. economic sanctions are the most severe in history, they may not be successful in the case of a country like Russia. They will make it difficult for the U.S. to impose sanctions in the future. As we all know, Russia has been prepared to deal with sanctions before military action and has accumulated a wealth of experience with the West’s economic sanctions in recent years. Add to that the fact that the international community is not unanimous, so the sanctions may not achieve their desired effect. For the United States and its allies, sanctions against Russia may make a political statement, but they will likely come at the cost of future international credibility.
Finally, the current U.S. policy in dealing with the Russia-Ukraine conflict is a bit like drinking poison to quench one’s thirst. The current U.S. sanctions have already appeared to expand and become extreme, the resulting chilling will encourage more countries, including U.S. allies, to voluntarily reduce their dependence on the U.S. in the future to stop their economies from being completely kidnapped.
In addition, the U.S. acquiescence to Japan’s and Germany’s to reinforcement of their own military capabilities will not only accelerate their long-term disunity with the U.S. but will also further degrade the international system championed by the U.S. after World War II.
As hyped by some Western media, China is an informed beneficiary of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. This view is, at minimum, a misinterpretation of basic facts, if not a distortion and smear with ulterior motives.
First of all, it is difficult to imagine an outside force that could really influence major military decisions by a country as large as Russia. Likewise, it is unlikely that Russia would share such confidential information about its military operations with other countries. Although China and Russia have established a comprehensive strategic partnership in recent years, Sino-Russian strategic cooperation since the Cold War has never targeted any third party, much less Ukraine, which is also an important partner of China.
Second, China has suffered huge economic losses as a result of this conflict. Aside from the immediate impact of rising oil and food prices, China's direct investment and economic and trade interests in Ukraine and Russia have taken a heavy hit. In 2019 China’s investment stock, respectively in Ukraine and Russia, was $150 million and $110.79 billion. China's merchandise trade with Ukraine and Russia in 2021 was $19.3 billion and $146.9 billion, respectively. Imports of iron ore, grain and oil from the two countries, and stable cooperation on oil and gas resources, are critical to China’s economic development; however, the conflict has rendered a significant amount of investment and cooperation uncertain.
Finally, a large-scale military conflict undermines the external strategic environment on which China’s economic development has depended in recent years. China’s opposition to war and sanctions has been consistent and clear from the 2003 Iraq war to the post-2011 Western interventions in Syria and Libya and the sanctions against Iran and other countries. The Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence have been the cornerstone of Chinese diplomacy. More important, any large-scale armed conflict undermines the external environment on which China’s economic growth has depended in recent years and damages its overseas interests, which have been rapidly growing.
In short, there are no winners in this conflict.