What's going to happen in Ukraine? Total war, nothing at all or somewhere in between?

Yes, Russia could invade Ukraine, as Biden keeps saying. But other outcomes are more likely — and far preferable

Published February 18, 2022 5:30AM (EST)

Armored personnel carrier (APC) of the 92nd separate mechanized brigade of Ukrainian Armed Forces move to park in their base near Klugino-Bashkirivka village, in the Kharkiv region on January 31, 2022. - The tanks have to restore their combat capability after completing a combat mission in war-torn eastern Ukraine. (SERGEY BOBOK/AFP via Getty Images)
Armored personnel carrier (APC) of the 92nd separate mechanized brigade of Ukrainian Armed Forces move to park in their base near Klugino-Bashkirivka village, in the Kharkiv region on January 31, 2022. - The tanks have to restore their combat capability after completing a combat mission in war-torn eastern Ukraine. (SERGEY BOBOK/AFP via Getty Images)

Every day brings new noise and fury in the crisis over Ukraine, mostly from Washington. But what is really likely to happen?

There are three possible scenarios:

The first is that Russia will suddenly launch an unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

The second is that the Ukrainian government in Kyiv will launch an escalation of its civil war against the self-declared People's Republics of Donetsk (DPR) and Luhansk (LPR), provoking various possible reactions from other countries.

The third is that neither of these things will happen, and the crisis will pass without a major escalation of the war in the short term.

RELATED: U.S.-Russia confrontation over Ukraine threatens to become all-out war — but why?

So who will do what, and how will other countries respond in each case?

Unprovoked Russian invasion

This seems to be the least likely outcome.

An actual Russian invasion would unleash unpredictable and cascading consequences that could escalate quickly, leading to mass civilian casualties, a new refugee crisis in Europe, war between Russia and NATO — or even nuclear war.  

If Russia wanted to annex the DPR and LPR, it could have done so amid the crisis that followed the U.S.-backed coup in Ukraine in 2014. Russia already faced a furious Western response over its annexation of Crimea, so the international cost of annexing the DPR and LPR, which were also asking to rejoin Russia, would have been less then than it would be now. 

Russia instead adopted a carefully calculated position in which it gave the two breakaway republics only covert military and political support. If Russia were really ready to risk so much more now than in 2014, that would be a dreadful reflection of just how far U.S.-Russian relations have sunk.

If Russia does launch an unprovoked invasion of Ukraine or annex the DPR and LPR, President Biden has already said that the U.S. and NATO would not directly fight a war with Russia over Ukraine, although that promise could be severely tested by the hawks in Congress and a media hellbent on stirring up anti-Russia hysteria.

RELATED: Yes, Putin's a tyrant — that doesn't mean his Ukraine demands are unreasonable

However, the U.S. and its allies would definitely impose heavy new sanctions on Russia, cementing the Cold War economic and political division of the world between the U.S. and its allies on one hand, and Russia, China and their allies on the other. Biden would achieve the full-blown Cold War that successive U.S. administrations have been cooking up for a decade, and which seems to be the unstated purpose of this manufactured crisis.

In terms of Europe, the U.S. geopolitical goal is clearly to engineer a complete breakdown in relations between Russia and the EU, to bind Europe to the United States. Forcing Germany to cancel its $11 billion Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline from Russia would certainly make Germany more energy-dependent on the U.S. and its allies. The overall result would be exactly as Lord Ismay, NATO's first secretary-general, described when he said that the purpose of the alliance was to keep "the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down." 

Brexit detached the U.K. from the EU and cemented its "special relationship" and military alliance with the United States. In the current crisis, this joined-at-the-hip alliance is reprising the unified role it played to diplomatically engineer and wage wars on Iraq in 1991 and 2003. 

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Today, China and the EU (led by France and Germany) are the two leading trade partners of most countries in the world, a position formerly occupied by the United States. If the U.S. strategy in this crisis succeeds, it will erect a new Iron Curtain between Russia and the rest of Europe to inextricably tie the EU to the United States and prevent it from becoming a truly independent pole in a new multipolar world. If Biden pulls this off, he will have reduced America's celebrated "victory" in the Cold War to simply dismantling the Iron Curtain and then rebuilding it 30 years later and a few hundred miles to the east.

But Biden may be trying to close the barn door after the horse has bolted. The EU is already an independent economic power. It is politically diverse and sometimes divided, but its political divisions seem manageable when compared with the political chaos, corruption and endemic poverty of the United States. Most Europeans think their political systems are healthier and more democratic than America's, and they seem to be correct. 

Like China, the EU and its members are proving to be more reliable partners for international trade and peaceful development than the self-absorbed, capricious and militaristic U.S., where positive steps by one administration are regularly undone by the next, and whose military aid and arms sales destabilize countries (as in Africa right now), and strengthen dictatorships and extreme right-wing governments around the world.

But an unprovoked Russian invasion of Ukraine would almost certainly fulfill Biden's goal of isolating Russia from Europe, at least in the short term. If Russia is ready to pay that price, it will be because it now sees the renewed Cold War division of Europe by the U.S. and NATO as unavoidable and irrevocable, and has concluded that it must consolidate and strengthen its defenses. That would also imply that Russia has China's full support for doing so, heralding a darker and more dangerous future for the whole world. 

Ukrainian escalation of civil war   

The second scenario, an escalation of the civil war by Ukrainian forces, seems more likely. 

Whether this would be a full-scale invasion of the Donbas or something less, its main purpose, from the U.S. point of view, would be to provoke Russia into intervening more directly in Ukraine, to fulfill Biden's prediction of a Russian invasion and unleash the maximum-pressure sanctions he has threatened. 

While Western leaders have been warning of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russian, DPR and LPR officials have been warning for months that Ukrainian government forces were escalating the civil war and have 150,000 troops and new weapons poised to attack the DPR and LPR. 

In that scenario, the massive U.S. and Western arms shipments arriving in Ukraine on the pretext of deterring a Russian invasion would in fact be intended for use in an already planned Ukrainian government offensive.

On one hand, if Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his government are planning an offensive in the east, why are they so publicly playing down fears of a Russian invasion? Surely they would be joining the chorus from Washington, London and Brussels, setting the stage to point the finger at Russia as soon as they launch their own escalation. 

RELATED: U.S. hypocrisy on Ukraine paralyzes media, Congress — and even progressive Democrats

And why are the Russians not more vocal in alerting the world to the danger of escalation by Ukrainian government forces surrounding the DPR and LPR? Surely the Russians have extensive intelligence sources inside Ukraine and would know if Ukraine were indeed planning a new offensive. But the Russians seem much more concerned by the breakdown in U.S.-Russian relations than with what the Ukrainian military may be up to.

On the other hand, the U.S., U.K. and NATO propaganda strategy has been organized in plain sight, with a new "intelligence" revelation or high-level pronouncement for every day of the month. So what might they have up their sleeves? Are they really confident that they can wrong-foot the Russians and leave them carrying the can for a deception operation that could rival the Tonkin Gulf incident or the WMD lies about Iraq?

The plan could be very simple. Ukrainian government forces attack. Russia comes to the defense of the DPR and LPR. Biden and Prime Minister Boris Johnson scream "Invasion" and "We told you so!" French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz mutely echo "Invasion" and say, "We stand together." The U.S. and its allies impose "maximum pressure" sanctions on Russia, and NATO's plans for a new Iron Curtain across Europe are a fait accompli.

An added wrinkle could be the kind of "false flag" narrative that U.S. and U.K. officials have hinted at several times. A Ukrainian government attack on the DPR or LPR could be passed off in the West as a "false flag" provocation by Russia, to muddy the distinction between a Ukrainian government escalation of the civil war and a "Russian invasion."    

It's unclear whether such plans would work, or whether they would simply divide NATO and Europe, with different countries taking different positions. Tragically, the answer might depend more on how craftily the trap was sprung than on the rights or wrongs of the conflict.  

But the critical question will be whether EU nations are ready to sacrifice their own independence and economic prosperity, which depend partly on natural gas supplies from Russia, for the uncertain benefits and debilitating costs of continued subservience to the U.S. empire. Europe would face a stark choice between a full return to its Cold War role on the front line of a possible nuclear war and the peaceful, cooperative future the EU has gradually but steadily built since 1990. 

Many Europeans are disillusioned with the neoliberal economic and political order that the EU has embraced, but it was subservience to the U.S. that led them down that garden path in the first place. Solidifying and deepening that subservience now would consolidate the plutocracy and extreme inequality of U.S.-led neoliberalism, not lead to a way out of it.    

Biden may get away with blaming the Russians for everything when he's kowtowing to war hawks and preening for the cameras in Washington. But European governments have their own intelligence agencies and military advisers, who are not all under the thumb of the CIA and NATO. The German and French intelligence agencies have often warned their bosses not to follow the U.S. pied piper, notably in the case of the Iraq war in 2003. We must hope they have not all lost their objectivity, analytical skills or loyalty to their own countries since then.

If this backfires on Biden, and Europe ultimately rejects his call to arms against Russia, this could be the moment when Europe steps up to take its place as an independent power in the emerging multipolar world. 

Nothing happens

This would be the best outcome of all: an anticlimax to celebrate.

At some point, absent an invasion by Russia or an escalation by Ukraine, Biden would sooner or later have to stop crying wolf every day.  

All sides could climb back down from their military build-ups, panicked rhetoric and threatened sanctions. 

The Minsk Protocol could be revived, revised and reinvigorated to provide a satisfactory degree of autonomy to the people of the DPR and LPR within Ukraine, or facilitate a peaceful separation. 

RELATED: Hey, America: There's already a diplomatic solution in Ukraine — the 2015 Minsk Protocol

The U.S., Russia and China could begin more serious diplomacy to reduce the threat of nuclear war and resolve their many differences, so that the world can move forward toward peace and prosperity instead of backward toward Cold War and nuclear brinkmanship.


However it ends, this crisis should be a wake-up call for Americans of all classes and political persuasions to re-evaluate our country's position in the world. We have squandered trillions of dollars and millions of other people's lives with our militarism and imperialism. The U.S. military budget keeps rising with no end in sight — and now the conflict with Russia has become another justification for prioritizing weapons spending over the needs of our people.

Our corrupt leaders have tried but failed to strangle the emerging multipolar world at its birth through militarism and coercion. As we can see after 20 years of war in Afghanistan, we cannot fight and bomb our way to peace or stability, and coercive economic sanctions can be almost as brutal and destructive. We must also re-evaluate the role of NATO and wind down this military alliance that has become such an aggressive and destructive force in the world. 

Instead, we must start thinking about how a post-imperial America can play a cooperative and constructive role in this new multipolar world, working with all our neighbors to solve the serious problems facing humanity in the 21st century.

By Medea Benjamin

Medea Benjamin is co-founder of CODEPINK for Peace and author of several books, including "Inside Iran: The Real History and Politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran." She and Nicolas J.S. Davies are the authors of "War in Ukraine: Making Sense of a Senseless Conflict."

MORE FROM Medea Benjamin

By Nicolas J.S. Davies

Nicolas J.S. Davies is an independent journalist, a researcher for CODEPINK and the author of "Blood on Our Hands: The American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq."

MORE FROM Nicolas J.S. Davies

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Commentary Foreign Policy Joe Biden Russia Ukraine Vladimir Putin War