One week into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it’s clear that the war has not gone as quickly or as smoothly as the Kremlin had hoped. Ukraine’s military and political institutions have held up better than expected, the international backlash has been more severe than expected, and the invaders have been beset by a mix of logistical issues, poor planning and low morale. Any Russian hopes of a quick “shock and awe” campaign to overthrow and replace the Ukrainian government, avoid high casualties and present the international community with a fait accompli before it could respond have now been dashed.
Still, it’s early days, and few analysts outside Moscow seriously expected Russia would conquer the second-largest country in Europe without a fight. Russia still has capabilities — notably air power and highly deadly thermobaric weapons — that it has not yet brought fully to bear, and many of its forces still haven’t entered the fight. The next phase of the war is likely to be far bloodier as the Russian military bombs Ukraine’s urban areas, perhaps recreating grim scenes seen in Syria and Chechnya in years past. This war will get worse before it gets better.
If a quick and easy Russian victory is off the table, and an unconditional Ukrainian victory highly improbable, what are the potential endgames for the conflict? Russian President Vladimir Putin has committed far too deeply to pull back with nothing and is clearly willing to see many more people die — Russians and Ukrainians alike — before he abandons the fight.
“Is there a settlement to be had, or will the Russians only be content with creating a new political order in Ukraine? That’s the core unknown right now,” Samuel Charap, political scientist at the Rand Corporation, told Grid.
Other questions: What might a settlement look like? How long can the Ukrainian resistance hold? How much battlefield pain and internal dissent can Putin withstand? Might opposition in Russia make a difference?
How will it end? Here are five possibilities.
Full Russian victory … and Ukrainian insurgency
Despite their early setbacks, Russian forces are making slow but steady progress. A large Russian convoy is less than 20 miles from the center of Kyiv, and in the east, Russians may have taken the port city of Kherson, though this is disputed, and surrounded Kharkiv and Mariupol. U.S. officials still believe Russia has “every intention of decapitating the Ukraine government,” and when Putin said he intended to “demilitarize and denazify Ukraine,” he certainly didn’t sound ready to cut a deal with its current leaders. French President Emmanuel Macron grimly concluded after talking to Putin on Thursday that the Russian president intended to press on until he controlled the whole country.
Putin’s plan does not appear to involve a formal annexation of Ukraine — he said he does not intend to “occupy” the country, but rather to install a pliant leader who would govern under Moscow’s influence, not unlike the current state of affairs in Ukraine’s neighbor Belarus. An interesting clue to Putin’s intentions surfaced this week in an article published (and then deleted) on the website of Russian state news wire RIA Novosti. It was apparently meant to be seen after a Russian victory. “Ukraine has returned to Russia,” the article says. “This doesn’t mean that its statehood will be liquidated but it will be restructured, re-established and returned to its natural condition as part of the Russian world.”
That “restructuring” would be harsh. Clearly the Russians have their eyes on Ukraine’s top leaders, and U.S. officials believe the Russian government has a list of Ukrainian citizens to be killed or detained in this scenario.
Even in this version of events, however, armed conflict will likely continue. If Ukraine’s conventional military is defeated, tens of thousands of Ukrainians have already taken up arms, and the fight may well go underground. Outside powers, including the United States, may back the insurgency.
Any insurgency would likely prove long and bloody for both sides. While Putin constantly cites the U.S. invasion of Iraq as evidence of U.S. hypocrisy, he does not seem to understand it as a cautionary tale: Just because you can overthrow a country’s government, that doesn’t mean you will be able to govern it after the invasion is over.
A divided Ukraine
A general rule of thumb taught in military academies is that a territory’s defender has a 3:1 advantage, meaning the attacker needs three times as many forces as the defender to control the area. In urban areas, the ratio sometimes rises to 5:1. Russia has deployed some 200,000 troops for this war; Ukraine has roughly the same number. It’s hard to see how Russia can control all of Ukraine, particularly the western regions, where anti-Russian sentiment has always run particularly deep.
Retired Australian major general and defense analyst Mick Ryan noted on Twitter that Ukraine’s government will soon face a choice over whether to pull its military forces back from eastern Ukraine to save them or risk them being cut off, which would effectively cede eastern Ukraine to Russia. The latter scenario would create a new front line, perhaps along the Dnieper river, which runs through Kyiv and divides the country roughly in half. If Russia can’t take the whole country, a Solomonic solution may emerge.
In a recent Politico interview, Russia analyst and former White House adviser Fiona Hill suggested Putin’s goal might not be to rule all of Ukraine, but to “break it up, maybe annex some parts of it, maybe leave some of it as rump statelets or a larger rump Ukraine somewhere, maybe around Lviv.”
Under this scenario, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s government might retreat to Lviv in the west, with eastern Ukraine essentially becoming a super-sized version of the current breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk — the part of the country that was home to the simmering, eight-year conflict that led ultimately to war. Eastern Ukraine would be de facto independent but reliant on Moscow and unrecognized by most of the world.
The Dnieper River could become the Berlin Wall of a new cold war.
Russian and Ukrainian delegations held ceasefire talks on Monday and Wednesday. For now, it’s clear there is little common ground to be found, though the two sides have agreed to set up humanitarian corridors to evacuate civilians. Right now, neither side is losing badly enough to make major compromises. Ukraine is demanding an immediate withdrawal of Russian troops. Russia’s goals are more vague.
A negotiated end to the fighting depends on finding an off-ramp for Putin, something he can sell semi-plausibly as a victory to the Russian public. That sell may get harder with each passing day, as Russian casualties mount. Putin is likely to demand, as he did before the war, that Russia receive written guarantees that Ukraine won’t join NATO or host Western troops. (Zelenskiy’s recent statements suggest there may be some wiggle room on formal NATO membership, but he — understandably at this point — wants clear security guarantees from NATO members). The Russian government may also demand recognition of Russian sovereignty over Crimea or an expansion of the territory held by the breakaway regions in the east. (Right now, the “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk control only parts of the provinces, while claiming all of their territory.)
For the moment, these are all nonstarters for the Ukrainian government, particularly as its military forces remain in the fight. That could change as the siege of major cities continues and the death toll climbs. One mildly hopeful sign: Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov suggested on Tuesday that the Kremlin considers Zelenskiy the legitimate president of Ukraine. This indicates slightly more willingness to negotiate than his boss’s talk about the “band of junkies and neo-Nazis” supposedly running Ukraine.
Unpopular wars contributed significantly to the downfall of the Romanov dynasty in Tsarist Russia and then the Communists in the Soviet era. If Putin won’t end the war, could the war end Putin?
While it’s nothing compared with what Ukraine is enduring, the war is having a significant impact on Russia. The economy is cratering under new sanctions, Western companies including giants like Apple and Boeing are pulling out, and the state has ramped up censorship and repression to almost unprecedented levels. The number of Russian troop deaths in the first week, roughly 2,000 according to U.S. and European estimates, is already close to the number of troops the U.S. lost in 20 years of fighting in Afghanistan. All indications are that the war caught many Russians, including high-ranking officials, by surprise and that the wholesale bombing of a country with such close cultural and historical ties will be a tough sell.
Despite the bravery shown by Russian anti-war protesters in recent days, it’s unlikely public pressure alone would force Putin from power. The government has neutered civil society and the independent media. Russia’s most important opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, is in jail.
More likely is that someone in proximity to Putin takes matters into his own hands. As the Russian American tech executive and political analyst Dmitri Alperovitch put it on Twitter, “For the first time in 22 years, I am actually starting to believe that Putin’s hold on power may be on shaky ground. … There is now a small but non-zero chance of a palace coup.”
Removing Putin is a long shot, and it wouldn’t necessarily improve overall relations between Russia and the West: Putin has stocked his inner circle with fellow veterans of the security services, and there aren’t many closet liberals among them. But there is a difference between a hard-line, anti-Western approach and Putin’s no-holds-barred willingness to invade a sovereign state. A new leader could end the war and blame it on Putin’s covid-isolation-related misjudgments.
Western governments are facing a delicate and potentially dangerous balance: the desire to help Ukraine, and the fear of sparking a “world war” with a superpower — a superpower led by an unpredictable leader who has already made threats involving nuclear weapons. President Joe Biden and his NATO allies have repeatedly ruled out sending troops to Ukraine, including in Biden’s State of the Union address. Western officials have similarly rejected Ukrainian demands to impose a no-fly zone over the country, citing concerns that enforcing this measure would require shooting down Russian planes. And after a confusing couple of days of discussions, the European Union shelved a plan to provide Ukraine with fighter jets.
All these debates have ended with the same conclusion: Russian and NATO forces must not meet.
“There’s the inadvertent escalation pathways — an errant cruise missile, [Russia] accidentally hitting a Turkish naval vessel in the Black Sea,” said Charap. “Then there’s the tit-for-tat stuff: supply lines over land being hit or Russian direct retaliation for the sanctions.”
Former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev tweeted ominously this week: “Don’t forget that in human history, economic wars quite often turned into real ones.” As scenes of carnage multiply in Ukraine, political pressure to provide more aid will rise. According to the Washington Post, U.S. and European officials are worried about where Putin is getting his information and how he might “interpret comments in the Western media about the European Union sending fighter jets to Ukraine or enforcing a no-fly zone over Ukraine.” There’s no indication Putin wants a war with NATO but every reason to be concerned about one breaking out due to miscalculation or misread intentions.
When that scenario is raised, the experts and prognosticators go silent. What might follow is truly impossible to predict.