The longer the war in Ukraine lasts, the harder it gets to imagine how it might end.
For one thing, both sides appear as all-in as ever. Last week, Russia launched missiles and Iranian “kamikaze” drones at Kyiv and Lviv and other heavily populated areas, and took aim at Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. Ukrainian forces, meanwhile, continued their advances on territory that Russia had claimed as its own, in a series of “annexations” just three weeks ago. Russian President Vladimir Putin is under heavy domestic pressure to use a heavier hand in the war, and Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskyy uses his nightly addresses to the nation to make clear that his country will not rest until — at a minimum — Ukraine controls all the land it did prior to the Russian invasion.
There is no give at the moment on either side.
In the early days of the conflict, it was possible to imagine the fall of Kyiv to the Russians or a negotiated settlement that left a significant portion of Ukrainian territory in Russian hands. But Ukraine’s resistance and the international support it received exceeded most expectations, while Russia’s forces underperformed. All of which knocked those scenarios off the table.
At the same time, one scenario that seemed outlandish in late February — total Ukrainian victory and the expulsion of all Russian forces from Ukraine — is now not only seen as plausible; to many leaders in the West, it’s considered the only acceptable outcome. Sanna Marin, prime minister of soon-to-be NATO member Finland, spoke for many with her snappy response recently to a reporter’s question about finding a “way out of the conflict” for Putin:
“The way out of the conflict is for Russia to leave Ukraine,” she said. “That’s the way out of the conflict.”
Taken to its logical conclusion, this state of affairs — with the two sides dug in and NATO firmly dug in as well — seems to leave only two plausible outcomes: a coup or a nuke. Or to put it slightly less crudely, either there’s major political change in Russia, or Putin rolls the dice and escalates dramatically. The first scenario is not particularly likely, the second almost too horrifying to contemplate.
Are these really the only options left?
Calls for negotiations
Despite Ukraine’s recent battlefield gains, a growing number of international observers are calling on Ukraine to be open to making concessions to Russia and for Kyiv’s international backers to pressure it to do so. Most prominent among them has been the tech tycoon and omnipresent media figure Elon Musk.
Earlier this month, Musk tweeted a four-point peace plan, which included rerunning Russia’s sham sovereignty referendums in eastern Ukraine “under U.N. supervision” and Ukraine formally recognizing Crimea as part of Russia. The proposal was quickly panned by Ukraine supporters and by Zelenskyy himself.
Back in March, the argument for Ukraine making territorial concessions was that it would be preferable to full-scale Russian occupation. Now, the fear in some quarters is not the likelihood that Ukraine will lose but the possibility that it might win and the uncertainty about what Putin might do to prevent that from happening. As Musk put it in a follow-up tweet: “A possible, albeit unlikely, outcome from this conflict is nuclear war.”
Even Ukraine’s staunchest backers seem to share this anxiety. At a recent Democratic Party fundraising event where President Joe Biden made headlines for saying that the world currently faces the “prospect of Armageddon” due to Putin’s nuclear threats, he also said, “We are trying to figure out, what is Putin’s off-ramp? Where does he find a way out? Where does he find himself where he does not only lose face but significant power?”
Think tank leaders and policymakers in many global capitals are asking the same questions. And unfortunately, for the moment, there doesn’t appear to be a clear answer. Put differently, it’s hard to see any way out for Putin that would be remotely acceptable to Ukraine or much of the international community. Rather than taking a number of opportunities to back away from the war, the Russian leader has chosen to escalate, most recently with last week’s barrage. And so, for the foreseeable future, the war will continue to be fought by a Russian military that is incapable of winning and a Russian president who is incapable of letting them lose.
The trouble with talks
Dan Reiter, a professor of political science at Emory University and author of the book “How Wars End,” told Grid, “The sweet spot you’re trying to find is a deal that has some set of concessions that Ukraine and the west are willing to make, but it has to be big enough that it can serve as a fig leaf for Putin to withdraw from the war without getting thrown from power.”
It’s hard to remember now that there was a time when this sweet spot seemed achievable. Back on March 28, the Financial Times reported, from sources at ceasefire negotiations that were underway in Istanbul, that Russia had dropped its demand that Ukraine be “denazified” and would settle for guarantees that Kyiv abandon its quest for NATO membership and refrain from hosting foreign military bases. Under the proposed deal, the final status of the regions seized by Russia after 2014 would be punted to future discussions.
Those talks ended abruptly after the revelations of atrocities committed against Ukrainian civilians in Bucha and other towns. Since then, Russia and Ukraine have held constructive talks on resuming grain shipments through the Black Sea, on the dangerous situation at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant and on various prisoner exchanges — all important matters, to be sure — but none on ending the war itself. And in the meantime, the diplomatic starting points for both sides have only grown further apart. Russia is no longer just pushing for the autonomy of Donetsk and Luhansk, the two regions it has partially controlled since 2014; last month’s annexations were a declaration that those two regions and two new ones, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson, were now part of Russia. Putin has said since that he is open to negotiations but that the status of the four regions “will not be discussed. The decision has been made, and Russia will not betray it.”
If that’s true, it’s not clear what there is to negotiate about.
For his part, after the annexation, Zelenskyy abandoned his previous position that Ukraine would settle for security guarantees short of full NATO membership and applied for fast-track accession to the alliance. As for a temporary ceasefire, Ukrainians now argue this would simply give the Russians time to regroup and prepare for another invasion, as happened after the first incursion into eastern Ukraine in 2014.
Zelenskyy has said that there’s not much point in arguing with “unreasonable people.” In a recent interview with the German broadcaster ZDF, he argued that “these are terrorists who don’t entirely know what they want. Because every day their position changes depending on their emotions.”
It’s also not clear now whether Zelenskyy would have a political mandate to negotiate even he wanted to. A Gallup Poll released this week found that 70 percent of Ukrainians favor continuing to fight until victory is achieved and that more than 90 percent define “victory” as “when all territory lost between 2014 and now is regained, including Crimea.” As Ukrainian MP Oleksii Movchan told Grid in June, the Russians “have killed too many people. They have destroyed too many cities. They have raped too many women. If the war stops now and the world tries to accommodate Putin, then international law will have no meaning.”
What will NATO do?
Of course, given that the resistance depends on international money and weapons, the decision about whether to bend at all to Moscow may not ultimately be Ukraine’s to make. NATO and the U.S. could theoretically apply pressure on Zelenskyy to make concessions.
But for now, even the NATO leaders who’ve continued to communicate with Putin and argued for leaving open diplomatic options — France’s Emmanuel Macron and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to name two — say the starting point for talks is that Russia must abandon its annexed territories. In this view, what’s at stake is not just Ukraine, but the very principle that international borders should not be changed by force.
“From the Western perspective, having Russia gain territory from a war of aggression in Europe, carried out under the shadow of nuclear threats, is not terribly conducive to the future of European security,” Olga Oliker, Crisis Group’s program director for Europe and Central Asia, told Grid.
Coup or a nuke
If there’s no way out via the negotiating table, that brings us back to those two often-discussed scenarios: a coup in the Kremlin or Russian use of a nuclear weapon.
While there has reportedly been more dissent than normal within Putin’s inner circle in recent weeks, and the president’s removal is not out of the question, it’s the sort of deus ex machina scenario Ukraine and its allies shouldn’t be counting on.
Even if Putin were removed from power, it’s not clear that his replacement would be more accommodating. The boldest critics of the war within Russia’s power structure are not liberal dissenters but figures like Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov and Wagner Group boss Yevgeny Prigozhin, who think the problem is that Putin’s “special military operation” hasn’t been waged harshly enough.
As for nuclear weapons, their use in this war remains a disturbingly plausible scenario, and the Russian government’s threats should not be taken lightly. But it’s worth noting that those threats have generally been made not against Ukraine itself but against Western countries in an effort to deter them from direct intervention in the war. It’s fairly apparent that Putin wants no part of a direct military conflict with NATO, which would become far more likely in the event of a nuclear strike. For all the destructiveness of Russia’s recent assaults on Ukraine, Russia has avoided targeting the supply lines bringing Western weapons into the country — a retaliatory response far short of the nuclear option. As reckless as he may be, Putin still appears to have lines he won’t cross.
On the other side, Ukraine and its allies have repeatedly crossed Putin’s self-declared “red lines” without triggering “Armageddon.” After the four regions were annexed, there were fears that Russia would consider any attack against those areas an attack on the Russian homeland, and therefore a justification for a massive — perhaps even a nuclear — response. Putin added to these concerns by vowing to defend the new territories with “all the means at our disposal.” But in the three weeks since the annexation, Ukraine has continued to fight and take territory in those regions, and the response — while fierce — has been limited to missile and drone strikes on various Ukrainian cities.
Meanwhile, Russian officials have vowed that an attack on Crimea would unleash “judgment day.” Maybe. And maybe not. To date, Ukrainian strikes on Crimean bases and the symbolically important bridge connecting the peninsula to Russia have been met with only a conventional — albeit deadly — Russian response.
So how does this end?
What we might call the “fear of a Ukrainian victory” is premised on the notion that Putin considers this conflict existential, for himself if not for Russia, and that he would risk everything to prevent a defeat. As one analyst put it, “The two planks of U.S. policy in Ukraine — ensuring a Russian defeat and minimizing the prospects of a direct confrontation with Moscow — are increasingly incompatible.”
Losing a war and losing territory are never good for leaders, be they dictators or democrats. But they’re not necessarily fatal. Saddam Hussein invaded and annexed Kuwait, lost it and remained in power for another 12 years. For a more recent example, Putin could look to his ally Nikol Pashinyan, prime minister of Armenia, who is still in office despite losing a humiliating territorial war in 2020.
It may well be that Putin would have a greater chance of political survival were he to concede now rather than continuing to fight. The problem is that he doesn’t seem to see it that way. In a recent Twitter thread, former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, a staunch advocate of pushing for total Ukrainian victory, questioned the premise that Putin will “never back down,” noting that he had scaled back his initial goals during the invasion of Georgia in 2008 and the initial invasion of Ukraine in 2014. But in those cases, Putin had at least accomplished some goal, something he could sell as a victory. Again, he might have been able to make such a case a few months ago. Now, it’s not clear what that claim of “victory” could possibly be.
Turning points to come
For the time being, the most likely scenario is neither a nuke nor a coup, but simply more war.
A few potential turning points are looming on the horizon, however, and any of these could make calls for negotiations grow louder.
One will come if Russian forces are pushed back toward the areas they controlled before Feb. 24. In March, this would have been viewed as an incredible victory for Ukraine. Now, the Ukrainians have larger ambitions, but their foreign supporters may start to run out of patience with the costs and risks of the war once the pre-2022 status quo is restored. That’s even more likely when it comes to Crimea, which has been de facto part of Russia since 2014. The Kremlin’s seizure of Crimea may have been utterly illegitimate from a legal standpoint, but the willingness of the Europeans and the U.S. to prolong the war if it comes to a fight for Crimea is not clear.
As a political matter, while support for a Ukrainian victory is still impressively robust and widespread in the West, that could change as well. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has suggested that his party will no longer write a “blank check” to Ukraine if it takes control of Congress in next month’s midterm elections. Europe is in for a cold and expensive winter and already facing strikes and demonstrations over the rising cost of living — which has been a direct consequence of the war.
On the Russian side, the impact of sanctions and export controls will continue to accumulate. For now, it is mainly the hawks who are openly criticizing the war, but “technocrat” politicians including Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin have also been trying to distance themselves from Putin’s unpopular mass mobilization.
And while there are no signs of direct Ukraine-Russia ceasefire talks any time soon, there are still a number of intermediaries who are talking to both sides. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres and Turkey’s Erdogan helped facilitate the grain deal. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman and Russian tycoon Roman Abramovich played a role in negotiating a recent prisoner swap. United Arab Emirates Leader Mohammed Bin Zayed, a close U.S. ally, was recently in Moscow for talks with Putin. With the possible exception of Guterres, this seems an unlikely group of Nobel Peace Prize laureates, but the point is that there are potential intermediaries out there — if avenues for negotiation appear.
And they may. “Decision-making has to be based on the facts we have on the ground, not on virtual political reality,” Liana Fix, fellow for Europe at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Grid. “It just requires a lot of patience, because down the road other scenarios may open up that we’re not thinking of now. It’s a matter of walking through the fog in a cautious, step-by-step approach, without sacrificing our principles.”
It’s also worth remembering that while Feb. 24 may feel like a lifetime ago, only eight months have passed — a relatively short amount of time for a major land war between two well-supplied military powers. Right now, there’s no telling how long we may be walking through the fog.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.