Skip to content
Commentary | 19 January 2023

Network reflections: What to watch in 2023

Network Reflections Russia Russia-West Relations Ukraine Euro-Atlantic Security ELN
Three members of the ELN’s Network discuss how the Russia-West-Ukraine challenge might develop in 2023 and what other issues we should all be alert to this year.

“It is difficult to predict a clear victory for either Russia or Ukraine in 2023. It seems likely both sides will eventually redefine what victory means, but not in the next 12 months.”

Jane Kinninmont
ELN Policy and Impact Director

It is difficult to predict a clear victory for either Russia or Ukraine in 2023. A Ukrainian victory seems to me to be somewhat less unlikely than a Russian one: Ukraine is fighting on its own territory, for a unifying cause, and enjoys very strong international support. However, it is hard to see Ukraine winning in the terms that its leadership has now set out, i.e. full liberation of all occupied territories, including Crimea, where in practice, NATO countries might start to balk at giving their full support.

Meanwhile, Russia has boxed itself into a corner by declaring swathes of Ukrainian land to be Russian, without having even de facto control over all of that territory, let alone de jure control. Given the strength of Ukrainian resistance, and the determination of Ukraine’s backers not to let Russia win, it’s hard to see how Russia could achieve the maximalist victory it seeks unless it can redefine victory.

If fighting continues and reaches some sort of hurting stalemate, it seems likely both sides will eventually redefine what victory means, but not in the space of the next 12 months.

Russia has already tried in 2022 to redefine its war as part of a civilisational struggle against “the collective West”. To some extent, this is marketing. The failure to achieve military victory is easier to excuse if your enemy is inflated. And there’s a large international market for resisting a hegemon. But there is also a risk that this civilisational battle becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Much depends on the relations between Western countries and China: the more Western countries focus on a struggle against twin autocrats, the harder it will be either to isolate Russia or to have a peaceful world.

“Shifts in global relationships will be key to watch. The region between Russia and China, as well as the Gulf and India, are taking on new importance.”

Roxane Farmanfarmaian
ELN Senior Associate Fellow

The Russia-West-Ukraine challenge can be seen in a larger context of global rebalancing, drawing to an end, as one member of ELN described it, the practices of Ostpolitik and ushering in a new era of strategic power relations. I agree with Jane that a draw, based on redefinitions of Russian and Ukrainian ideas of victory, is the most likely outcome of the war. But shifts in global relationships will be key to watch in 2023. The region between Russia and China, as well as the Gulf and India, are taking on new importance as they recalibrate alliances, infrastructures of economic exchange, and regional security strategies. These transitions will have long-term implications for the ordering of the world and the norms by which it functions.

The provision of drones by Iran to Russia, and the likelihood that missiles will be added to the arsenal of military sales in 2023, exemplifies the multi-faceted nature of the shifts emerging as a result of the war. Military capacity (e.g., Iran as a developing economy producing arms for the first time for a European power), energy competition, and alternatives to dollarisation in regard to sanctions all are taking on different valences.

The challenges for Europe and the US, which have strengthened their alliances within and across NATO, have been made more complex outside of the alliance due to the choices being made by a growing number of revisionist states. New muscularity triggered by the war has animated increasingly disorderly and risky power relations. The parameters of multipolarity will emerge more clearly in 2023 as a result.

“2023 will play out as a Rubik’s cube of events: each time one side is aligned, be it the west, China, or the BRICS, the others will fall out of alignment.”

Ilana Bet-El
ELN Senior Associate Fellow

As Jane notes, winning is not a realistic concept for either side in Ukraine, especially in the terms each has laid out. That said, Ukraine is clearly winning as a nation coming together — ghastly though it is, the war provides a narrative and myths that have consolidated a nation — and in its strategic aim of becoming embedded in the west, which it sees as the stronger and more stable community in the world. It is paying a massive price, but it has the upper hand in those respects, whilst conversely, Russia is currently losing in both. The Russian leadership insists it is a “special operation”, but the population seems to understand it is a war — evidenced by the millions of people fleeing the country, either because they disagree with the war and the leadership, or because they fear conscription. Equally, the war has not brought about the collapse of the “collective west”, as Putin puts it. On the contrary, at least with regard to the war, it has strengthened it.

The battlefield may yield other results, but military activity will not really change these outcomes. The Ukrainian nation is now clearly formed as a western facing entity, and Russia has lost its raison d’être as a strong, coherent nation in opposition to the west. The latter is a significant element with regard to global rebalancing. While, as Roxanne notes, the war has initiated a process by which Iran is providing Russia with drones and armaments — that are very effective — the overall reality for Russia is much worse. Russian military failures and, even more so, the shortcomings of its armaments have significantly reduced its global standing, notably in the non-western world. From India to China, and various states in between, those who have bought Russian equipment are seeking to replace or at least upgrade kit that was touted as world-beating but badly failed in the battlefield.

These negative realities, as well as the sanctions-induced cheap fuel that Russia is now desperate to sell, have strongly undermined its position and thus also enhanced the position of its non-western competitors, notably China. Although increasingly consumed by its own economic problems, China is content to see a supplicant Russia irritating the west whilst keeping itself far from actively supporting it. India, meanwhile, is consolidating its own strengths as a major Asian power seeking global influence, and the Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, are key to maintaining energy flowing at a good price in the world.

Against this background, 2023 will play out as a Rubik’s cube of events: each time one side is aligned, be it the west, China, the BRICS etc, the others will fall out of alignment — for ultimately, the strongest forces, be they economic, political, social, cultural, religious, and others, are still, as in 2022, pushing against global coherence.

The opinions articulated above represent the views of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or all of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security policy challenges of our time.