External Impacts and the Extremism Question in the War in Ukraine: Considerations for Practitioners.

AuthorRassler, Don

It is hard to look at the ongoing war in Ukraine and not be focused on the here and now, as even though the conflict has evolved considerably since it began in February, the Ukrainian people are still locked in a bloody fight to protect their nation, lives, territory, and desired way of life.

The war in Ukraine though, like all wars, has been--and will continue to be--shaped by multiple parts: the history that preceded the war, including Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea and the long-simmering conflict in eastern Ukraine; the lead-up to and dynamics of the current war; and what the war and its aftermath will look like in the future.

At this time, the future trajectory of the conflict is unclear. But after more than 100 days of conflict, it certainly appears that the war has staying power, as both Russia and Ukraine have both demonstrated that they are not ready, despite suffering large losses, to end the war anytime soon. There are also other complicating factors, such as the interests and actions of external actors, that are likely to prolong and further complicate the war--to include how it will evolve and end.

This article examines the war through the lens of three key impact areas that are relevant to the counterterrorism community. It first examines the potential impact of the war on inter-state competition. It then examines the war's impact on the organizational trajectories of key networks and organizations taking part in the conflict, especially those with extremist ties, before similarly assessing the impact on individuals. In each of these three impact areas, attention is placed on highlighting key questions, concerns, points of complexity, and debate. It concludes with a short discussion about data, and two foundational data resources that would make sense for the counterterrorism community to develop or invest in.

Impact on Inter-State Competitive Dynamics, and Potential Spillover Effects

At this point in the war, it is hard to predict how the war will end and what that ending will look like. Will, and the battle of wills between contestants, plays an important role in war--and in shaping a war's outcome. After more than 100 days, one of the key lessons that has emerged from the conflict is that Russian planners strategically underestimated the capabilities of the Ukrainian armed forces and the grit, will, and resolve of the Ukrainian people. Instead of dividing the Ukrainian people, Russia's invasion has brought the Ukrainian people closer together. The determination of the Ukrainian military has been critical to the successes that it has had on the battlefield, and looking forward, it appears the Ukrainian armed forces' will to fight has strong staying power and will endure.

But wars are costly. The Ukrainian government and armed forces have benefited from billions of dollars in support, equipment, and materiel--including tactical armed drones, such as the Turkish Bayraktar TB2; portable anti-armor and anti-aircraft weapons; artillery; helicopters; and radar systems--from the United States and other NATO partners. (1) The military equipment, systems, and support that Ukraine has received has had an immediate and important impact on the war, (2) as it has meaningfully shaped tactical battlefield outcomes and arguably the direction of the conflict itself.

The West's provision of military hardware has been bolstered by NATO alliance unity, a strong diplomatic front, and complementary steps and actions, such as economic sanctions, that Western governments have taken to punish Russia and to pressure, dissuade, or deter the Kremlin from continuing its actions in Ukraine or from engaging in similar activity elsewhere.

Wars evolve, however, and both parties--Ukraine and Russia--have already suffered and lost much. As the war grinds on in the months and potentially years ahead, both nations are incentivized to identify ways to shift the trajectory and balance of power of the war so they can strengthen their respective positions and accomplish their goals (or whatever components of those goals they can).

For the Russian government, one key target will be to try to continue to attrit Ukrainian manpower--to lessen Ukrainian capabilities and diminish the resolve and will of the Ukrainian people. This is because mass matters, (a) and the Russian government knows that it has more manpower and more resources to wear down the capabilities of the Ukrainian armed forces over time. Given Russia's embarrassing losses in Ukraine and the critical role Western military support has played in the conflict (and the open nature of that support), it seems likely that the Russian government--motivated by pride, redemption, or the vision it has for its own future--will also aim to complicate or erode Western will and make Western government support for the war and the Ukrainian government more costly.

This is how the war may end up having a more complicated and longer strategic tail, as if the Russian government decides to impose new or additional costs on Western governments it could lead to impacts and direct or asymmetric activity that extend beyond the borders of Ukraine. (3) For example, Russia could provide more military support, including weapons like the anti-aircraft or anti-armor weapons that the West has provided to Ukraine, to regimes less friendly to Western interests or to armed proxies that could target Western governments and/or their interests. The threat of future costs should not deter the West, but policymakers in Western capitals should anticipate that the support they are providing to Ukraine may come with, or lead to, added costs inflicted by Russia and/or its agents at some point in the not-so-distant future.

The war has already impacted alliance dynamics, and it is likely that it will impact and shape them even further. On the Western side, Russia's invasion of Ukraine has helped to bolster NATO alliance solidarity, (b) led to a huge "revolutionary" strategic pivot in German defense policy and posture, (4) and pushed Finland and Sweden to apply for NATO membership. For Russia and its strategic partnership with China, the war has proved to be more complicated, as it "has highlighted both the resilience of the Sino-Russian partnership and its limitations." (5) And as the war progresses, it is believed "that the balance of power within the bilateral relationship will tilt radically towards Beijing." (6) This, as noted by Bobo Lo, is because "Moscow's escalating confrontation with the West means that Russia is now more reliant on China, geopolitically and economically, than at any time in the two countries' history." (7)

Given the strategic role that the Russian government, its armed forces, and elements like the Wagner Group have played in Syria, (8) a key ally of Iran, there have been concerns that Russia may lean on Iran to provide more support to the war in Ukraine. Numerous commentators have pointed out how the war in Ukraine has put the Iranian government in a difficult position. (9) For Iran, the war comes at a bad time, as it has occurred against the backdrop of negotiations to restore the Iranian nuclear deal, (10) a reduction in political support for Hezbollah in Lebanon, (11) and ongoing influence obstacles in Iraq, (12) among other challenges. And domestically, "Russia's war in Ukraine is a political flashpoint... [as] among ordinary Iranians, there is a great deal of sympathy for Ukraine." (13) These dynamics have boxed-in how Iran can respond: It needs to provide some support for the war, which it has, but due to its interests and internal pressures, it also can only publicly support the war or get involved so much. But that does not mean there is not space for Iran to do more, as if the Iranian government wanted to support the war in meaningful ways it could do so covertly, or through proxies. And as the conflict evolves, it will be important for Western governments to remain on the look-out for any masked signs, or tells, of potential Iranian support for the conflict.

When viewed at a broader level, the war in Ukraine and its demands has already led to Russian resourcing and manpower changes elsewhere, changes that could impact the Russian government's ability to influence and compete in other areas over time. (c) For example, it has been widely reported that "the invasion of Ukraine is straining Moscow's foreign deployments" (14) and that some Wagner Group personnel have been shifted from Libya, the Central African Republic, and Syria to help bolster Russian activity in Ukraine. (15) These Wagner redeployments may end up being temporary, but if the conflict persists, the war in Ukraine may end up constraining Moscow's ability to compete further afield, which could create opportunities for Western governments and their local partners. It could also, as Christopher Faulkner argues in this issue, make the presence of remaining Wagner personnel deployed in countries around the globe even more vital to the Kremlin. (16)

The war also raises other concerns and questions that are relevant to terrorism. For example, will the war and its brutal nature motivate individuals or groups involved in it to conduct terror attacks in Russia, areas of Ukraine, or Crimea, or against NATO or Western government targets? (17) While the conflict in Ukraine is unique, Russia's experience in Chechnya--and the terrorism spillover effects from that conflict, such as the Beslan school siege (18) and the Moscow theater hostage incident (19)--demonstrates how the longer-term aftereffects of the war could in part manifest as terrorism.

There is also the issue of what happens to all the weapons that have been flowing into Ukraine--"a longtime hub of arms trafficking," and where and with whom some of those weapons might end up. (20) The case of Libya is a cautionary tale in this regard, as the "transfer of weapons from Libya"--which was awash with weapons as a result of its 2011 civil war--was found to...

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