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Conflict Expansion

This report discusses potential pathways of conflict expansion, encompassing the Ukrainian neighbourhood, Europe and the rest of the world. This report will be updated and edited regularly.

Ukraine and its Neighbourhood

There are several ways in which direct neighbours of Ukraine could be involved in the war. The most obvious is the extension of the conflict into the region of Moldova and Bessarabia (Ukraine). In the part of Moldova east of the Dnjestr occupied by Russia, a relatively small contingent of Russian troops is stationed. It is expected that it might try to assist Russian landing troops in the Odessa region. Russia would try to create a land connection to Transnistria. But it is also possible that Russia would try to extert military influence over the western half of Moldova, or at least parts in the south settled by Gagauz, a pro-Russian Orthodox Christian Turkish minority. Romania, as the natural protector of Moldova, could react by sending "volunteers" or regular forces into Moldova, possibly even trying to help Moldova regain control over Transnistria while their Russian protector forces are distracted.

The coastal region of Ukraine south of Moldova is historically called "Bessarabia", with several minorities living in the region. It is separated from Ukraine by the Dnjestr delta. As long as the roads to it are open, Ukrainian refugees might try to reach it, to continue to Romania. This makes it also not improbable that Romanian troops would try to enter the region to safeguard it. US forces have been stationed in Romania, therefore any attack on Romania itself would be a NATO alliance issue.

The Western Ukrainian regions bordering on Poland, Slovakia and Hungary are seen as less threatened by Russia. Lviv might serve as a temporary capital in case Kiyv falls or is surrounded. But these regions are critical for arms shipments to Ukraine which will reach an even higher level in case of an invasion. Therefore, attacks on roads and military infrastructure are to be expected, endangering also refugees trying to leave Ukraine. This makes it very difficult for Poland, Slovakia and Hungary not to send assisting troops if the Ukrainian army starts to break up. Hungary is a high risk factor as there is a sizable Hungarian minority in Ukraine, very concentrated near the border. The country might be tempted to "protect" those in agreement with Russia, thereby threatening to split NATO. Poland and Slovakia do not have this issue, but might expect attacks on arms depots on their territory. All these situations may lead to the involvement of NATO.

Finally, Turkey might become involved, both as Guardian of the Dardanelles and as a provider of advanced arms to Ukraine. With a high proportion of the Russian Navy in the Black Sea, the temptation is quite high to ignore the treaties covering shipping through the Dardanelles and block all Russian shipping, civil and military. This will surely lead to a "Cuba Crisis" situation, but one NATO is expected to win, as any attack on Turkey would be repelled. Turkey itself might become more active in Syria, with Russian forces there depleted and possibly cut off from supplies.

Baltic States and the Baltic Sea

It is not very probable that Russia will attack the Baltic states during an active Ukraine war. Such a question might come up only if both Ukraine and the West fail during the conflict. But the rail link to Kaliningrad through Lithuania will surely be cut early in the conflict, which will create a certain tension. Also, massive electronic attacks are expected for distraction purposes. Further stationing of NATO troops in the Baltic states can also be expected.

Finland and Sweden are both currently thinking about NATO membership. An Ukraine war would massively accelerate this discussion. It is possible that Russia, being under blockade anyway, would decide to stop this process by symbolic acts of occupation, e.g. occupying islands in the Alands archipel, Gotska Sanddön (a small Swedish island north of Gotland) or even Gotland itself. In such a situation, usually no NATO membership would be possible as this would directly lead to a NATO alliance conflict with Russia. But in the current situation, a conditioned NATO membership might be a possibility, "ignoring" the occupation.

Finally, the whole Baltic could be blocked by closing Öresund and the Great Belt to Russian shipping. That situation would be similar to the closing of the Dardanelles, creating a potentially critical "Cuba Crisis" situation.

Worldwide Unconventional Attacks

The Russian navy has the abilities to attack worldwide communication networks by cutting submarine optical links. We expect that the recent loss of one undersea cable connecting Svalbard to Norway was a test run for such an attack. It is not clear if or when such attacks would be seen as a NATO case. For electronic attacks, the procedure is relatively clear, with counterattacks in similar manner being expected. But how to react on such an attack remains difficult.

Similarly, the Russian disinformation network and sleeper agents might start a wave of political attacks. Here, the Canadian and other "Trucker Covid Caravans" can be seen as an example. Western states must stop disinformation networks very early in the conflict, blocking Telegram and cutting out disinformation in many other "social" networks. Russian propaganda media must be cut even at cost of current levels of "press freedom". Examples for this are obvious channels like RT but also less obvious ones like Zerohedge.

Explosion of Unrelated Conflicts

There are a number of simmering conflicts which might use the "shadow" of an European war to explode. Examples for this are the China-Taiwan conflict, the nuclearisation of Iran, the Azerbaijan - Armenia conflict and various other smaller conflicts. We do not expect the China-Taiwan conflict to explode as there are currently no signs of China preparing an invasion. But it can be expected that China will watch any Black Sea coastal landing operation closely. If the Ukraine war continues for a number of years, it is well possible that China will use Russian support to "solve" its Taiwan issue, as a price for supporting Russia economically. It would be no surprise if the Putin-Xi meeting during the Winter Olympics was set up to discuss such issues.

Azerbaijan might try to gain full control of Nagorno Karabakh, squeezing the remaining Russian protection forces out. The country could expect Turkish support for such a maneuver, and probably not much Russian backlash at a later point. It is also possible that Azerbeijan would try to create a deal with Armenia for a real land link (not only a railway connection) to their exclave Nakhchivan which borders on Turkey.

Iran is another issue in this context. Their focus will probably be on finally acquiring nuclear weapons, having learned from Ukraine that it is not a good idea for a midsize power surrounded by rivals to have no nuclear weapons available. This might trigger a massive strike by Israel and possibly other states, eg Saudi Arabia, triggering an oil crisis on an unprecedented scale since Russian oil will also not be available any more.

JCOT, 2022.02.13

Update 2022.06.03

A number of developments have taken place roughly as predicted by the report above;

  • Lithuania has declared a limited "blockade" of Kaliningrad in regards to those goods covered by EU sanctions (eg coal and technology).
  • Finland and Sweden are now officially in the process of joining NATO, with Turkey having withdrawn their veto. Security guarantees by UK and US, plus some maritime presence, have made sure no Baltic islands were put under Russian occupation (if they ever thought of this).
  • Additional NATO troops have been deployed to the Baltic region and will be even more strengthened, it was decided on the NATO summit in Spain. The US will open a headquarter in Poland and also deploy troops to Romania.
  • Turkey has blocked the Dardanelles for military shipping, matching the treaty to the letter.
  • While Turkey has not yet expanded its occupation zone in Syria, it is announcing it will do soon.

On the other hand, both the "Unconventional Attacks" and "Unrelated Conflicts" have not been happening in larger numbers. In Moldova, the situation has been quiet, mostly. Maia Sandu, the Moldavian PM, has visited Ukraine, maybe with an inofficial agenda regarding any developing Transnistria situation.

Update 2022.09.14

With the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict, another one from the "Unrelated Conflicts" list has exploded. Several hundred soldiers already have died during fighting over the last two days, actually not in Nagorno Karabakh directly, but on the official frontier between the two countries, with some areas already occupied by Azerbeijan. It is probable that the Azeri army will try to create a land link to Nakhchivan. The Russian / CSTO reaction until now was muted. We assume the reason why Azerbaijan is not attacking in Nagorno Karabakh is that the country does not see any necessity to waste ressources on a situation which they assume to be resolved without much effort in the near future.

The Iran situation is also developing as predicted - there have been reports Iran very soon has enough material for 3 nuclear bombs. The time scale to assemble them is about 6 months. To be able to do a test, it is necessary to credibly own more than one bomb, of course. That means the window for Israel and the US to prevent a nuclearized Iran closes some time this winter.