For more information on historical perspectives read our accompanying article.
The overwhelming majority of this section is educated reasoning backed by reliable sources, logic, and expert opinions. However, this isn’t meant to be taken as absolute fact. Russia has more than proved its volatility as an actor on the world stage, so nobody really knows how this conflict will play out in the coming months.
What this section can be used for is to help you answer questions from your students to the best of your abilities. An answer with hyperlinked sources follows each question. If your students have other big questions that you’d like our support in answering, let us know and we’ll get back to you right away: firstname.lastname@example.org
Are we (Americans) going to be safe?
While Russia could provoke a fight with one of the United States’ 29 NATO allies, it wouldn’t mean a war on American soil. The most likely conflict involving the United States would entail a military deployment to NATO countries to fend off attacks and assist U.S. allies. Full-blown war is never completely out of the question, especially with Putin’s higher risk tolerance, but it seems highly unlikely.
How might Ukraine fight back?
Ukraine citizens can certainly fight, but it won’t be easy. Fresh off combat in Syria’s civil war, the Russian army is bigger, better armed, and seemingly has its eyes on Kyiv, the capital of the country. In total, the United States estimates that Russia has more than 150,000 troops on Ukraine’s borders, with tens of thousands more Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine’s total active armed forces numbers 196,600, according to an IISS Military Balance report released last week. It appears Ukraine is arming its civilian population as well, as ELINT News reports that Ukrainian officials handed out 10,000 automatic rifles to Kyiv citizens on Thursday. Late yesterday evening, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told House lawmakers that if the Russians seize control of Ukraine, the administration is considering ways to train Ukrainian forces remotely.
Fighting experience could play a significant role in the outcome of this conflict as well. Ukraine's eight-year experience fighting the aforementioned Russian-backed separatists in the east was primarily WWI-style trench warfare. On the other hand, Russian forces in Syria were able to cover large distances, cross obstacles, and synchronize ground attacks with those from the air. In a war where battle locations can constantly change, a fighting force well-versed in modern combat would appear to have the advantage.
According to Ben Barry, a senior fellow for land warfare at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, “to prevail against Russia, the Ukrainian forces are going to have to display a very high standard of tactics, be very bold and resolute, and have a campaign plan that is superior to Russia's.”
“The one advantage the Ukrainians have got is they're fighting for their own country on their soil. Secondly, it appears large numbers of civilians are volunteering to fight alongside the armed forces, and that may make any Russian attacks on urban areas more difficult.”
Why aren’t other countries sending troops to help Ukraine right now?
The short answer is not only to avoid a war with Russia, but also avoid triggering a cascading series of escalations that could very well lead to World War III. If a country in the EU decided to deploy troops to Ukraine to combat the Russian invasion, Russia would view that as a declaration of war and retaliate. At that point, Article 5 of NATO (see below) would be invoked, and 29 NATO countries (including the U.S.) would be forced to treat Russian retaliation as a personal attack. That could quickly spiral out of control and incur near countless casualties as NATO allies come to each other’s aide against a common foe. At that point, in the face of daunting odds (Russia vs. 30 NATO countries), Vladimir Putin would have two primary options. Surrender, which based on his actions over the last 48 hours seems unlikely, or escalate.
Another major contributor to the military inaction is the fact that Russia is one of the European Union’s primary trade partners. More on that below.
How might the U.S. and their allies respond?
Sanctions have been top-of-mind the past few weeks. On Thursday, President Biden announced several sanctions on Russian exports, banks, and companies.
However, he did stop short of sanctioning Putin himself and didn’t say whether Russia would be cut off from the SWIFT international banking system.
- The Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) is a secure messaging platform for more than 11,000 financial institutions in more than 200 countries.
- If removed, Russia would be unable to accept international payments for various transactions, including profits from oil and gas production. Those revenue streams account for more than 40% of the country's revenue, and would severely damage Russia’s economy in the short and long term.
- According to NBC News, “Allies on both sides of the Atlantic also dangled the idea of the SWIFT option in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and backed separatist forces in eastern Ukraine. Russia declared then that kicking it out of SWIFT would be equivalent to a declaration of war. But the allies shelved the idea.”
- Some commentators have speculated that cutting Russia from SWIFT could very easily result in Russia and China creating their own payment system, which the U.S. and its allies very much want to avoid.
While the U.S. and NATO allies won’t send troops directly to Ukraine unless provoked (see more on that below), it doesn’t mean they won’t fight back with more than just sanctions.
Yesterday, the NATO Secretary-General said, "What we have made clear is that we have already increased, and we are increasing the presence of NATO troops in the eastern part of the alliance on NATO territory." He confirmed that no NATO troops would be sent into Ukraine itself. As of Thursday, 14,000 American troops have been ordered to Europe since the Ukraine crisis began, bringing the total number of American troops in Europe to nearly 100,000. (See more on NATO below)
Thursday morning, CNBC reported that President Biden was presented with the option to carry out cyberattacks in Russia. The White House has since disputed this report.
Late Thursday evening, U.S. lawmakers began discussing a “porcupine strategy,” where the end goal is to make an invasion by Russia as painful as possible. That could mean providing weapons and equipment (if they can be navigated through a Russian-controlled airspace), training Ukrainian troops remotely, and providing targeting intelligence.
House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith thinks the likelihood of passing a bill "in a rapid enough fashion to repel the invasion are remote." However, he did add that, "it's quite possible that what we're looking at here is a more long-term insurgency," and "we need to be prepared to support the Ukrainian people in that effort."
How will this affect energy markets in the U.S. and beyond?
Unfortunately, gas prices will probably rise due to energy supply disruptions through Europe. Let’s explore why.
As Russia decided to deploy forces to two separatist regions in Ukraine earlier this week, crude oil prices rose to their highest levels since 2014. On Tuesday, the German government announced it would halt the certification of the 750-mile Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which would transport natural gas from Russia to the European Union. It was a somewhat surprising move from a German government that historically has been lenient towards an expanding Russia: Nord Stream 2 could deliver more than 50% of Germany’s annual gas consumption and be worth $15 billion to the Russian corporation that controls it. In all, Russia supplies 40% of Europe’s natural gas imports and 26% of its oil.
That probably won’t be the last of the sanctions, either from the United States or its European allies. On Tuesday, Biden said, "Defending freedom will have costs for us as well, here at home. We need to be honest about that." According to Energy analyst Dan Dicker, those costs could be very real. “At $100 a barrel, the price of gas at a US gas station would average $5 a gallon. He added that an extended conflict could see prices go as high as $150 a barrel. If that happens, Dicker warned, Americans could be shelling out up to $7 a gallon at the gas station.”
It remains to be seen how much further the United States and its allies go after the Russian energy sector, but it’s unlikely that any further movement will go unnoticed by Americans. ClearView Energy Partners cautioned that Russia's "connectedness to global markets" and its oligarchs' ownership in energy companies will probably make economic repercussions hard to avoid completely.
According to Rapidan Energy Group president Robert McNally, “The only real option that the Biden administration has to increase oil supply [and therefore decrease oil prices] in the near term is signing an Iran deal and then convincing Saudi Arabia to produce more.”
Read more about other economic repercussions in this Axios article.
Will Russia attack other countries?
Given what we’ve seen over the last 24 hours, it seems clear that Russia has an appetite for war. In all likelihood, Vladimir Putin is attempting to restore the Soviet Union to its former glory. In his Thursday afternoon speech, President Biden seemed to think the same thing, saying “[Putin] has much larger ambitions than Ukraine. He wants to, in fact, re-establish the former Soviet Union. That's what this is about.” (See the introductory section for more information)
Much of what stands in his way is NATO.
What is NATO? The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is an alliance of 30 countries from Europe to North America. Founded in 1949, it aims to guarantee the freedom and security of its members through political and military cooperation. In the current situation, the most important component of NATO is Article Five, which states, “Collective defense means that an attack against one Ally is considered an attack against all Allies.”
Why is this important? In his speech on Thursday afternoon, President Biden said, “the US will defend every inch of NATO territory with the full power of the United States (Article 5).” He also reinforced that thousands of troops were being deployed to bolster NATO countries in Eastern Europe like Poland, Estonia, and the Baltics.
While the Russian leader might wish to restore Russia and the Soviet Union to their former glory, NATO’s existence is firmly at odds with that goal. In essence, Vladimir Putin would be declaring war on the United States and the other 29 NATO allies if they attacked former Soviet Union countries like Poland, the Czech Republic, and the Baltic States.
While he’s certainly displayed a brash sense of judgment, picking a fight with the United States and NATO seems like a poor idea, even for Vladimir Putin.
What are the most likely outcomes in Ukraine?
For months leading up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, President Putin demanded that Ukraine be denied access to NATO, claiming its inclusion would pose a significant threat to Russian security. Now, it’s becoming clearer that Putin might’ve simply decided that Russia must control Ukraine before it became protected by the NATO alliance.
On Thursday, a U.S. senior defense official told reports that the Pentagon believes that Russia’s invasion is designed to “decapitate” the Ukrainian government and install new leadership. In doing so, Vladimir Putin would essentially control Ukraine via a ‘puppet government’ that answers to his beck and call.
Not only is Russia’s military much more powerful and better equipped than the Ukrainian’s, but the Ukrainian relatively flat countryside itself can’t support a prolonged rebel insurgency than, say, Afghanistan or Iraq. Those regions contained harsh landscape, allowing rebels to hide, engage in guerilla warfare, and ultimately prolong a conflict even when significantly outnumbered and outgunned.
Here’s what could happen if Russia is victorious. First, Russian intelligence will hunt down members of the Ukrainian government who are unlikely to switch sides. Then, Putin will install a new ruler to run the country, most likely an oligarch or someone intensely loyal to him. Finally, that new ruler will recognize Crimea as a Russian territory and abandon all pursuit of Ukraine joining NATO.
Another possibility is that Ukrainians, who are fighting for their lives and land, simply do not break under a Russian invasion. Even if the capital Kyiv is seized and puppet government is installed, the Russians would most likely be fighting a dedicated insurgency for quite some time, especially if that insurgency has the support of U.S. and NATO allies.
Again, both of the above situations are hypothetical, and rely on countless factors. Even though this Russian Blitzkrieg is intense, this war is still in the very early stages.
What are the most possible outcomes for the rest of the world?
It’s impossible to know exactly how this will play out on the world stage; there are simply too many variables. However, with high inflation and strained supply chains, there will certainly be some impact. Here’s what that could look like…
- Economic distancing. The United States and its allies will do everything in their power to distance themselves from Russia, despite their current interdependence on energy, trade, and finance. However, in the grand scheme of things, Russia’s influence on the global economy is generally limited to oil and gas, which is a good thing. What’s not so good for the U.S. and its allies: Russia and China could begin working closer together as the West does so. Late Thursday evening, China lifted all wheat-import restrictions on Russia, potentially signaling a willingness to throw Russia’s economy a lifeline as it weathers economic sanctions from the West.
- Refugee crisis. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Ukrainians will likely flee violence to other NATO countries Ukraine shares a land border with like Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and Romania.
- Finland, Sweden, and NATO. Finish Prime Minister Sanna Marin said that while "Finland is not currently facing an immediate military threat, but it is also now clear that the debate on NATO membership in Finland will change.” The country has been debating whether to apply for NATO membership for months. Unsurprisingly, Russia has staunchly opposed this idea. Sweden, another European country that’s not in NATO, doesn’t have any plans to apply to the Treaty. According to the Swedish Prime Minister, “Sweden has been alliance-free for an extremely long time. It has served Sweden’s interests well.”
- An emboldened China. Mere hours after Russia launched their invasion of Ukraine, Taiwan’s defense ministry reported that nine Chinese aircraft had entered its air identification zone. This display comes less than a day after a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said, "Taiwan is not Ukraine. Taiwan has always been an inalienable part of China. This is an indisputable legal and historical fact.” If the Chinese government watches a successful Russian invasion of Ukraine, it could push them over the edge to retake what they feel is rightfully theirs.
Click here to view our comprehensive slides on the history, response, and potential outcomes of the Ukraine conflict.