Democracy Ukraine

The Russian war on Ukraine and its impact on global democracy work – Five scenarios

This note addresses European and global top-level implications of different scenarios for human rights and democracy support. The war against Ukraine is an attack of an authoritarian regime against an open, democratising country. Other authoritarian regimes, China in particular, support the war.

Looking at immediate top-level impact, the unmasking (if unmasking was needed) of Putin as an aggressive warmonger has weakened the extreme right and, in some countries, the extreme left. They closely associated with Putin and are now viewed as having appeased or supported a violent and dangerous dictator. 

In electoral terms, this makes it more likely that Macron will win the French elections and it makes it more difficult for Victor Orbán's Fidesz to win the Hungarian elections. The effect on the US mid-term elections in November cannot be determined yet. 

Scenario 1: Ukraine loses the war and is controlled by Russia – East-West cold war starts

Kyiv falls and the resistance slowly abates. Ukraine loses the war and a de facto occupation starts. De jure, it is dressed up as a defence agreement between a Ukrainian puppet regime and Russia, a well-known formula by now. A confederation of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine may emerge. A cold war between US/NATO/EU and Russia ensues. The Ukrainian elite is exiled, deported or killed. This would include Ukrainian colleagues that democracy organisations have worked with if they have not fled. Ukraine becomes the new Berlin, the major point of risk, possibly Belarus as well. A variation of this scenario is a division of Ukraine (with many potential sub-scenarios of territorial divisions). At this point, nobody can know. Putin's announcements were aimed at all of Ukraine. 

Likelihood: Low to medium.

Implications for democracy and human rights: Hard dictatorship would rule in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. Russia would harden its grip on its neighbours (if not intervening militarily or annexing parts) in Transnistria, Georgia, and Central Asia. There would be a major risk of the EU becoming far more security-focused and transactional in all its relations (e.g., "if you support us against Russia, we don't ask many questions about democracy/rule of law"). Two examples from different fields: First, calls emerged for the EU to drop the pressure against Poland on the rule of law issue because it is now a frontline state, allowing for the consolidation of authoritarian rule. Second, abrupt measures of digital governance were put in place by the EU, namely banning RT on the basis of the sanction regime rather than media regulation. This approach would spread into all policymaking and weaken rule-based democratic politics and policies. 

The securitization/militarization of our politics would endanger many human rights and democratic achievements we took for granted. These negative implications would need to be minimised through proactive and coordinated public advocacy in the short term, before bad practices and a new mental framework set in.

Scenario 2: Drawn-out war

The conflict draws out with a massive loss of life and material destruction. Putin has already stopped wooing the Ukrainian population after his plan A of a lightning invasion failed. His armies are becoming as brutal as they were in Chechnya and Syria. The use of tactical nuclear weapons against big cities to force an end to the war should not be ruled out (Putin will say: "That's how the US ended the war in Japan."). With sanctions continuing and the costs of war increasing for Russia, this situation is not likely to be sustainable for many years. There can be variations of this scenario in terms of territorial divisions (one of the sides consolidates control over some areas while fighting continues in other parts). An insurgency scenario is also possible, where Russia has nominal control over the country (an appointed puppet government, mayors, etc.), but fighting continues in many places. In a further variation, it is plausible that this becomes a Russian/Belarussian war against Ukraine (in tacit terms, it already is). 

Likelihood: Medium. Ukrainians will have a lot more material support than many other successful insurgencies have had. Ukrainian morale and motivation are very high. 

Implications for democracy and human rights in Europe and beyond: Similar to implications under scenario 1 but the securitization of the EU would be even more marked and its relationship to other countries dominated by how they relate to Russia and the war on Ukraine.

Scenario 3: Negotiations end the conflict

Putin or other elite figures (see scenario 4) agree to serious negotiations with Ukraine due to internal pressures or failures of the war effort. Such negotiations would be extraordinarily complex from all perspectives: 

  • Military: Both sides would constantly assess the other sides' strength and walk out if they perceive a significant advantage. Even in a ceasefire, this will play a role (who is regrouping faster?). Ukraine would have a justified fear that ceasefire lines freeze into new territorial divisions.
  • Status: Ukraine would have neutral or non-aligned status. But what security guarantees would be acceptable for Ukraine after previous guarantees proved worthless? 
  • Territory: What about Donbas, Crimea?
  • Psychology: Ukrainians would be extremely embittered. The Russian side would be eager to project some face-saving "win".
  • Economy: Questions of reconstruction would be on the table. 

Likelihood: Low, but some indications suggest it may become medium (the humiliating and absurd "denazification" demand is already being dropped in some of Russia's positioning). Currently, the Kremlin appears to still be making a play for some form of military win. 

Implications for democracy and human rights in Europe and beyond: The implications would be similar to scenarios 1 and 2, as Russia would still need to be contained, and Ukraine would likely remain a conflicted country between Russia and the West. However, they would be less severe, especially if the experience is perceived as a loss and dents Russia's appetite for military brinkmanship. Russia's prestige and ability to project power globally would suffer to the benefit of democracy and human rights.

Scenario 4: Regime implosion or elite overthrow of Putin

The Russian regime implodes, either from street pressure, elite defections or both. Russians are discovering that their leader entered into a massive gamble with their lives and future — a sentiment that galvanizes a public. But large parts of the Russian public live under heavy propaganda and are quite immune to real news (if they get them at all). Moreover, the regime has hardened from authoritarian to more overt dictatorship within weeks. Rule of thumb: The more urban, middle-class and younger, the more likely people are anti-regime. Many try to leave the country.  

Likelihood:  Low, but slightly higher for an elite overthrow of Putin. Putin's environment may realise that he is putting all their lives and lifestyles at risk and that they can only move back to some normalcy without him. Elite defection is more likely to transform into scenario 3 (negotiations) rather than implosion (face-saving retreat, basic regime features remain intact).

Implications for democracy and human rights in Europe and beyond: A full implosion could become a boon for democracy worldwide with a leading authoritarian regime in collapse. Given that China is unlikely to change, this would not be a new 1989, but it could become a decisive moment to turn the tide on growing autocratization worldwide. If this happens, the moment should be seized immediately and effectively across the globe. The momentum may be an opportunity for peacemaking in countries like Libya or Syria.

Scenario 5: War between NATO and Russia

A conflagration between Russia and NATO countries escalates. There are many paths towards escalation: Western support to the Ukrainian army has grey zones (between mere delivery of material and more proactive support), an incident (engagement of warplanes), a move by Erdoğan (the most volatile actor in the NATO alliance), or an escalation through a Russian attack to close the Suwalki-gap. 

Russia should be expected to avoid this scenario as its war in Ukraine is already difficult. But this could become part of a "Hail Mary" approach if the Ukrainian conflict appears to become untenable: escalating against NATO, hoping that the alliance will back down in the face of the nuclear threat. Putin would have transformed the war into a showdown with NATO, which would fit an important part of global opinion better than the assault of Ukraine. He could hope to open a path to an overall political settlement for Eastern Europe based on the (infamous) spheres of influence.

Likelihood: Low. 

Implications for democracy and human rights: A NATO-Russia war, even if limited, would be a disaster for the democracy agenda, as all policy would be geared towards winning a war (not even mentioning the nuclear risks). Likewise, a major settlement in spheres of influence would be hugely problematic. Large parts of the world would be lost for democracy (including Central Asia, Caucasus, Moldova), especially if China joined that notion as well (as it already does to a degree).


Firm predictions of what will happen are not credible with so many moving parts. We can only think in scenarios and regularly reassess their respective probabilities. The mentioned scenarios can transform or merge. For example, a protracted war can lead to mutual exhaustion and real negotiations. We consider these scenarios to be the principal "corridors of possibility".  

In the global arena, China is the most important swing player. The Chinese government has become more supportive of Russia in the last few days. China will not want Russia to lose completely, but it also does not want its global stature to decline by association with a disaster. Its reputation in Europe has already suffered heavy damage. 

In the current situation, all parties must address humanitarian needs. Beyond that, many players choose to wait and see, hoping that the fog will lift, and think mid-term since the short-term is so unclear. That would be a big mistake in strategic thinking. Now that all pieces are moving, major changes are taking place. It will not be easy to undo them later on. The world is transforming in front of our eyes, and we should not only be watching passively. 

In the field of democracy support, the biggest risk is the wholesale securitization/militarization of foreign policy and internal governance. 

But the current situation also presents an opportunity: the problem with dictatorship/authoritarian rule has become blatantly obvious. The Russian assault on Ukraine is a massive security threat to humanity, well beyond Ukraine. Many people will suffer from the impacts of this war – food shortages are expected in many countries that rely on Russian and Ukrainian grain imports. Now is the time to convince the democracy sceptics around the world that it is a better and safer form of government for all of us.