What next now after President Vladimir Putin ignored months of intensifying warnings by President Joe Biden and other western leaders and has invaded Ukraine?
Now, as the Kremlin reaches into Ukraine, Putin’s policy seems likely to come with significant costs, chiefly for Ukraine itself.
“He’s setting up a rationale to take more territory by force, in my view,” Biden said Tuesday of Putin. “This is the beginning of a Russian invasion of Ukraine.”
While predicting the impacts of conflict is notoriously difficult, here are some probable consequences – for U.S. and European security, for global energy flows, for a potential wave of Ukrainian refugees and in terms of sanctions expected to target Putin and his inner circle that could turn Russia into a pariah state in the eyes of the West.
Ukrainians inside and outside the military have told USA TODAY in recent weeks that Putin won’t take their country without a fight, even if it means prolonged street-to-street battles and a bloody insurgency supported by ordinary citizens.
But they’ve sworn off direct fighting in Ukraine.
Much now depends on the scale and scope of Russia’s invasion, which is still being assessed.
In the days ahead of Moscow’s assault, U.S. officials estimated the invasion could cause major loss of life, serious injury and capture, with Ukraine potentially suffering between 5,000 and 25,000 troop casualties, while Russia’s better trained and better-equipped military could see between 3,000 and 10,000 casualties.
Civilian casualties could range from 25,000 to 50,000.
“Doomsday scenarios often speculate that Russia will try to occupy the country, topple the capital and kill tens of thousands of civilians. I do not believe that these scenarios accord with Putin’s track record,” said Max Abrahms, a specialist in international security studies at Northeastern University, in Boston.
“Putin is not a strategic dunce or a martyr,” Abrahms told USA TODAY. “Even when he authorized Russian military intervention in Syria’s civil war in 2015 (credited with turning the tide in President Bashar al-Assad’s favour), he did so in a way that would not lead to a quagmire.”
Concerns that Russia’s invasion will prompt a refugee crisis across Europe have had world leaders worried for months.
British, Ukrainian and U.S. officials have all warned of a potential “humanitarian disaster” as between three and five million Ukrainians may seek to flee their homes, with many likely to try to escape via neighbouring Poland.
According to figures from Ukraine’s interior ministry, approximately 1.5 million Ukrainians are already internally displaced after fleeing the eight-year-old Russia-backed conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas region and following Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
“It is frightening to imagine what scale the refugee crisis could reach in the event of escalating hostilities in Ukraine,” said Agnès Callamard, human rights group Amnesty International’s secretary-general. “It will be a continent-wide humanitarian disaster with millions of refugees seeking protection in neighbouring European countries.”
A refugee crisis in Europe beginning in 2015 triggered by Syria’s civil war roiled the continent for years as European capitals either struggled to offer protection and security to those who needed it, were accused of letting too many asylum seekers in or evaded public calls to do more for refugees fleeing war zones across the Middle East.
The crisis is widely blamed by political scientists for being one of the catalysts that led to a rise in right-wing, anti-immigration political populism, which saw the United Kingdom vote to leave the European Union in 2016, the same year President Donald Trump was elected.
Washington and its allies have repeatedly publicly committed to an “ironclad commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” though this commitment does not extend to fighting side-by-side with Ukrainians, only equipping and training its military and imposing financial and economic sanctions on Moscow.
Still, Russia’s incursion could make other NATO countries in Europe nervous, especially the former Soviet Baltic states that joined the military alliance in the last two decades, as Russia potentially looks to consolidate its military and cultural sphere of influence around its borders, said Andris Banka, a Latvian-born professor of international politics at the University of Greifswald in Germany.
“The Baltics (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) are stuck in unfavourable geography as they are almost completely cut off from their NATO peers and share considerable borders with what they perceive to be a threatening revanchist power,” Banka said of Russia.
The invasion could also lead to an increase in defence spending by the U.S. and NATO, effectively bolstering an alliance whose eastward expansion has long troubled Putin. The Pentagon has already announced it put 8,500 forces on “heightened alert” in the event they are needed as part of a 40,000-strong NATO Response Force and Biden has sent 3,000 soldiers to Poland to reinforce NATO’s eastern flank.
“A Russian invasion of Ukraine will come as a shock to leaders in the West who believed the post-Cold War European security architecture was a permanent state of affairs,” said Daniel DePetris, a fellow at Defense Priorities, a think tank in Washington dedicated to introducing more military restraint in U.S. foreign policy.
“Unfortunately, Russia never bought into this order and indeed felt excluded from it,” he said. “NATO itself will survive and indeed has taken appropriate defensive measures over the last few months to strengthen deterrence.”
Abrahms, the Northeastern University security expert, said Russia’s invasion of Ukraine “has given the NATO alliance its clearest raison d’etre since the Cold War.”
Russia is one of the world’s largest suppliers of energy, and it could seek to withhold supplies to Europe while attacking Ukraine or in retaliation for sanctions.
The Biden administration has said it has been working with its European partners and the region’s energy suppliers to come up with contingency plans for alternative energy supplies. A number of countries including South Korea and Japan have signalled they may be willing to help.
The U.S. does import Russian oil and gas but has large strategic reserves. But higher global energy prices could impact gas prices at the pump. Cristian-Dan Tataru, an expert on Russia at the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank, wrote in a recent research paper that in addition to energy supplies, the conflict could result in a potentially worrying food crisis for places such as Lebanon and Libya, which get half of their wheat imports from Ukraine.
Western powers have threatened “unprecedented” sanctions on Moscow.
Biden on Tuesday said the “first tranche” of sanctions would cut off Russia from western financial institutions and beginning on Wednesday the U.S. would impose sanctions against individual Russian “elites” and their family members.
The U.S. president said the sanctions are designed to “cut off” Russia from international loans and other forms of financial assistance they rely on. Penalties also target Russian “elites” and their family members who profit from its military adventurism.
This is not unprecedented. Scores of Putin’s former and current political associates have been sanctioned by Washington and its allies. Heads of state such as Syria’s Assad and Zimbabwe’s late leader Robert Mugabe have also seen their riches, foreign assets and ability to travel sanctioned.
However, sanctions extending to Putin himself would be a first, though their effectiveness would be unclear. Independent reporting in Russia has appeared to establish that Putin is one of Russia’s wealthiest individuals, but no one knows where he keeps his money.
Putin’s official annual salary is about $150,000, a relatively modest sum for a man routinely seen wearing $60,000 watches. Various watchdogs, investigation groups and anti-corruption campaigners have estimated his actual personal wealth to be somewhere between $70 billion and $200 billion.
“The Kremlin is well-positioned to survive (any targeted sanctions). Russia’s foreign currency reserves and history of fiscal discipline, combined with continued high prices for the commodities Russia exports, will likely be sufficient to cushion the blow,” said Sam Greene, director of the Russia Institute at King’s College London.
“If sanctions are more of the kind we’ve seen imposed on Iran or North Korea, that would be a very different story,” he said. “The U.S. and Europe have been careful since 2014 to impose sanctions on people and companies close to the Kremlin, but to minimize the direct impact on ordinary Russians and on the Russian economy as a whole.”