Conventional wisdom has it that the Russo-Ukrainian War will devolve into a stalemate in the east and south, but conventional wisdom has proven wrong in so many cases that we should not be surprised if the unexpected happens again. Although it is considered unlikely, American planners should consider what might happen if the Russian army or significant parts of it collapse, and soldiers begin streaming toward the Russian border. On the surface, this might appear to be a great thing for Ukraine and the West, but it might be disastrous depending on how the Ukrainian government and its military handle such a situation.
The sudden and catastrophic collapse of armies that were initially thought to be formidable has happened twice in the last century. It is interesting to note that, in both cases, the beneficiary of that collapse was not prepared for what happened and did not handle the situation well. The French collapse in 1940 at the hands of the German Wehrmacht surprised the Germans as much as the rest of the world. It happened so precipitously that Hitler and his General Staff suspected a trap, and stopped the advance of the Blitzkrieg short of the French coast, allowing the British evacuation of Dunkirk. Many historians believe that the war on the Western Front would have ended had the British army been trapped and destroyed, allowing World War II in that part of the world to become a Russo-German regional conflict. The actual result was eventually disastrous for Germany.
More recently, the combined Arab armies that threatened Israel in 1967 appeared to be an overwhelming threat to the existence of the Jewish state. In the ensuing rout, the Israelis exceeded their own modest hopes of mere survival. As the Egyptian army collapsed, Israeli forces overran all of the Sinai Peninsula to the Suez Canal and occupied the Gaza Strip. The unexpected entry of Jordan and the subsequent crushing of Arab armies on the eastern front garnered Israel the West Bank and the Golan Heights. Although these victories gave Israel an effective security buffer, it was not prepared to govern the teaming Arab populations of the West Bank and Gaza; that problem has been the root of much of the trouble in the Middle East to this day.
Both situations are eerily similar to that of the Ukrainian conflict today. The pre-war French army was considered the best equipped in the world. The combined armies of the Arabs far outnumbered the Israelis and were supplied with the best equipment that the former Soviet Union could provide while the Israelis made do with the Western surplus. However, the French and Arab forces were rotten to the core. Their troops were ill-prepared for the kind of war they would fight, and their leadership ranged from poor to abysmal while they faced highly motivated and well-led opponents. The only difference is that both the Germans and Israelis struck first and gained immediate air superiority while the Russians initiated the present conflict albeit without gaining control of the air.
Signs of a possible Russian collapse should be disturbing to Moscow. Troops abandon their armored vehicles at the first hint of Iranian drones or Javelin missiles. In some cases, soldiers are sabotaging their own vehicles to avoid going into danger areas. Unlike World War II, there is no NKVD political police waiting behind the lines to shoot or hang stragglers and deserters. Intercepted cell traffic reveals low morale and a distrust of leadership. Many of the documented war crimes indicate a lack of discipline rather than official Russian guidance. In addition, draft-age young men are fleeing Russia in droves in an attempt to avoid conscription. This situation will be exacerbated as Western weapons continue to pour in and the Russian firepower advantage decreases.
There are three potential scenarios for a possible Russian collapse, and two of them are bad from an American point of view. The best scenario is one where Russian forces retreat into the motherland and the Ukrainian government declares victory while warning Moscow to stay away.
The second scenario is more dangerous. It would involve a Russian collapse on one or more fronts but not all. In this case, the Ukrainian government might make a conscious decision to occupy Russian territory as a bargaining chip to trade for occupied Ukrainian land. The danger here is that Putin might use the situation as ammunition for his argument that Ukraine truly is an existential threat to Mother Russia, giving him an excuse to call up reserves and potentially use nuclear weapons. In addition, having Ukrainian troops on Russian soil would detract from its victim status among Western nations and the American public.
A third and more problematic case would be one where Ukrainian forces pursue their opponents into Russia without the permission of the government in Kyiv. This would signal a breakdown of civilian control of its military, rendering Ukrainian democracy suspect; it would entail all the dangers implicit in the second case and could potentially make Ukraine responsible for any reprisals that occur on Russian soil. Some of the forces involved might include the pop-up militias which were welcomed by Kyiv during the crisis but which may become hard to control. Ukraine’s possession of the moral high ground would be severely damaged, and the conflict might spin hopelessly out of control.
As improbable as these situations appear now, much stranger things have happened in war. The U.S. government would be well advised to have diplomatic and military responses for such eventualities. Whatever happens, we will be involved whether we like it or not.
Gary Anderson was the Director of Marine Corps Wargaming and served as a Special Advisor to the Deputy Secretary of Defense.