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If Russia invades Ukraine, what happens next?

Many Ukrainians wouldn’t favor a pro-Russian leader — but would the U.S. support an anti-Russian insurgency?

A service member of the Ukrainian armed forces walks along combat positions near the line of separation from Russian-backed rebels near Horlivka in the Donetsk region, Ukraine, on Jan. 20. (Anna Kudriavtseva/Reuters)
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In the event of a Russian incursion into Ukraine, what happens next? One report suggests the Biden administration would consider making Ukraine ungovernable by supporting and supplying arms to local resistance groups. Rather than using NATO forces to deter a Russian attack or openly allying with the Ukrainian government, the United States might support an indigenous resistance if Russia invades Ukraine.

If the Biden administration did that, it would appear to be setting the stage for a repeat of U.S. support for another insurgency — one that led to the denouement of the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Both Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Chair of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark A. Milley have warned their Russian counterparts that any incursion would be followed by an insurgency. But it’s a policy with significant cost, and a move likely to leave a shattered country in its wake.

Russia’s strategy involves indirect rule

My research on indirect rule suggests Russia is unlikely to formally incorporate Ukraine (or any other former satellite) into some new version of the Soviet empire. Although the port and naval facilities in the Crimea might have been worth seizing, the rest of the Ukraine is more symbolic than essential to Russia’s security and economy.

Why would Putin invade Ukraine?

Rather than risk international opprobrium for terminating the sovereignty of a recognized member of the international community, Moscow is more likely to try to subvert the current government of President Volodymyr Zelensky and rule indirectly through a pro-Russian Ukrainian proxy, much as happened under another Ukrainian leader, Viktor Yanukovych. To the extent that Russian President Vladimir Putin seeks to block NATO’s expansion further to the east, this approach ensures pro-Russian leaders in the target countries would rebuff any Western invitations.

Russia’s strategy is a classic one of building spheres of influence through indirect rule. Though his motives are intentionally obscured, Putin is most likely seeking client regimes dependent on Russia — and willing to follow the Kremlin’s lead on foreign policy.

Great powers most often exert influence by tipping the political scales within a target country toward factions sympathetic to their own policy preferences. Once in power, the winning faction then enacts policies to benefit both itself and the great power behind its political victory.

Not all cases of indirect rule rely on direct military intervention. Russia’s intervention in Belarus in 2020 in support of Alexander Lukashenko and recent expedition in Kazakhstan in support of Kassym-Jomart Tokayev are extreme examples of indirect rule. Once Russia has secured a client in power who cannot survive on his own, compliance on foreign policy issues is likely to follow.

If these clients face domestic unrest, the great power will intervene to ensure their continued rule. A week ago in Kazakhstan, a brief intervention signaled Putin’s support for Tokayev — and helped quell widespread protests. Knowing that his regime survived only with Russia’s aid, Tokayev is now indebted to Moscow. Russia has employed this strategy elsewhere, including support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria and Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela.

Here’s what we know about Russia’s military buildup near Ukraine.

The U.S. has few options in Ukraine

If Russia plans to invade Ukraine to install a friendly government, then the United States is in a difficult position. Increased Western sanctions appear unlikely to dissuade Moscow. Banning Russia from the international financial network may hurt the Russian economy, but the anticipated pain has already been baked into Putin’s political calculus.

With direct military action against any Russian incursion in Ukraine apparently off the table, the Biden administration appears to have conceded that it won’t defend the territory. In building up its own military forces, Russia is demonstrating greater resolve.

Alternatively, my research suggests the United States might continue to support its own client regime in Ukraine against one backed by Russia. But a “bidding war” — with the United States supporting Zelensky while Russia supports a contender — would become costly, with both superpowers spending huge amounts of money and effort to offset one another with little effect on the relative strength of the two contestants. Here, too, Russia now appears to have greater resolve and is likely to outbid the United States.

Would the U.S. help make Ukraine “ungovernable?”

Recent reports suggest the Biden administration may be discussing another strategy: making Ukraine or any other potential pro-Russian client difficult for Moscow to control. If the United States supports domestic resistance in Ukraine, Moscow might eventually decide that maintaining a friendly government in Ukraine is not worth the cost in blood and treasure.

A pro-Russian leader would be unpopular to many Ukrainians, particularly in the western regions of the country. The loss of their democracy, political freedoms and economic ties to the West would likely leave large portions of the population alienated and aggrieved — and perhaps more inclined to support an insurgency against a proxy government.

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Providing military and other aid to pro-Western groups within Ukraine would involve relatively low costs — and, some Biden officials might argue, ensure that no pro-Russian leader can consolidate authority. This would shift U.S. policy from supporting a government in Ukraine or elsewhere to simply backing whatever groups or rebels seem likely to make life miserable for a Russia-backed ruler.

In this scenario, U.S. aid to insurgents would probably raise the costs to Russia of supporting its proxy. Moscow might then need to support the leader militarily, by supplying arms and potentially “volunteer” troops — as well as subsidize the economy, most likely with cheap natural gas already shipped through the country. The U.S. hope in this scenario would be to weaken any regime and raise the costs to Moscow sufficiently that it abandons its proxy and goes home, much as happened in the Soviet Union’s failed attempt in Afghanistan or in Washington’s “endless wars.”

The downside of this strategy, of course, is its very prospects for success. Following former secretary of state Colin Powell’s “Pottery Barn” rule, the United States might find itself cleaning up the pieces of a broken Ukraine — much along the lines of what happened in Afghanistan and Iraq. That would leave Washington, if it’s unwilling to take on another near-impossible task, little choice but to live with a new pro-Russian Ukraine.

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David A. Lake is Gerri-Ann and Gary E. Jacobs Professor of Social Sciences and Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University of California, San Diego. He is completing a book on U.S. indirect rule.