How can this nightmare end?
From the darkened bomb shelters of Mariupol to the airy corridors of NATO, the question is no less urgent, and no more clear, than when Russian forces trundled into Ukraine on February 24.
Moscow’s announcement on Tuesday that it would shift its focus away from Kyiv to Donbas seemed like a sign that President Vladimir Putin was preparing to pursue a more modest victory. Yet that speculation was quickly discarded as his forces continued their bombardment around the Ukrainian capital.
With NATO powers adamant in their refusal to step in on Ukraine’s behalf, Western officials increasingly see three broad categories for how this conflict could end. No matter which scenario plays out — Putin’s ouster, a negotiated settlement or an ongoing stalemate — there’s no going back to the old post-war order.
“For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.” In the ad-lib heard round the world, U.S. President Joe Biden uttered what many Western leaders have been thinking. They don’t understand Putin’s thinking, they’re tired of his nuclear saber-rattling, and they don’t trust a damn word he says.
Motivated by ideology, Putin “is not some cost-benefit analysis kind of thinker,” quipped ex-U.S. Aambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul. That means there may not have been much the West could have done to deter Putin from picking this fight in the first place, nor much to convince him to end it.
So instead, Washington and London are dreaming about what a post-Putin world could look like. And they like it.
In this vision, Ukrainian resistance (with just enough Western help to avoid escalation) keeps Putin stuck in a protracted conflict.
To stay in the game, Putin has to conscript more and more soldiers. They in turn come home in body bags that even his propaganda machine can’t whitewash — prompting mothers to take to the streets as they did during Russia’s failed occupation of Afghanistan. Meanwhile, increasingly punishing sanctions prompt the Russian middle class — now accustomed to capitalist treats like Ikea and McDonalds — to radicalize and sour on the war.
Russian elites will likely create a circular firing squad for Russia’s “disastrous progress” in its war with Ukraine, one Western official said. “People are going to be being quite defensive about their own failures and, I think, looking to point the finger at others.”
There has been “considerable evidence of unease about the way in which the invasion has panned out for Russia amongst the Russian elite broadly defined,” added the same official.
Eventually, Russia’s generals and spymasters — many of whom are under house arrest — decide to give Putin a dose of his own poison and get rid of him by force. As the coup coincides with mass protests, a pro-Western generation of leaders emerges from the chaos in Moscow.
Russians’ revolutionary fervor and Ukrainians’ triumph brings about a new zest for liberal democracy not seen since the early 1990s.
Ukraine becomes an object lesson, not just for Moscow, but also for Beijing. Chinese President Xi Jinping, who may be more of a “cost-benefit analysis kind of thinker” looks at Russia’s humiliation in the face of a united Western front and realizes making a play for Taiwan just wouldn’t be worth it.
Reality check: The last time Russians abruptly overthrew their leader was in 1917 — and given the complete absence of organized opposition, there’s zero guarantee that a Putin successor would have a different mindset. Meanwhile, it could be a mistake to think Russia’s experience would give Beijing any second thoughts about Taiwan, as the historian Niall Ferguson argued. China, which has a much bigger economy than Russia’s, may take comfort in the West’s inability to wean itself off Russian fossil fuels and NATO’s refusal to directly risk its members’ own security to help Ukraine.
Let’s make a deal
French President Emmanuel Macron has been adamant that a negotiated peace deal is still possible. The contours of a potential settlement vary considerably, and there’s no clarity on how many Ukrainian concessions the West — and the Ukrainian people themselves — could accept.
Western European countries are highly motivated to get back to economic normalcy. Amid signs that the effect of the sanctions is waning, the punishments would only have to get tougher, and that doesn’t just hurt Russia. Rising costs of living look set to be the biggest threat to Macron’s reelection bid, for example, and in Germany, Chancellor Olaf Scholz warned that eschewing Russian oil and gas would cause a recession.
“Were we to have a negotiated settlement to this conflict that got Russian forces out of Ukraine, that protected Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity going forward, that ensured the rebuilding of Ukraine, then sanctions could be rolled back,” U.S. Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland told the U.S.-backed, Russian-language channel Current Time TV on Wednesday.
“You could see a scenario where, with steps to get Russian forces out of Ukraine, you sequenced the rolling back of sanctions,” she said, though “we are a long, long way from there.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has already expressed some openness to forswearing NATO membership for Ukraine. Putin might also be able to extract some territory — say, walking away with Crimea and Donbas without further Ukrainian contestation — in exchange for a Russian withdrawal from the rest of the country.
Pols in Berlin and Paris feel their guts unclenching just thinking about this outcome, with its potential for soft-power victories over the long term. If Ukraine splits in two, the EU can take showy responsibility for reconstructing the free side. That creates an appealing West-East Germany-style contrast to make the point about how bad Moscow’s lifestyle offer is. (Remember: We still want Putin out.) And having a clean de facto EU-Russia frontier at the Dnieper River is also appealing — especially when the alternative would have been the borders of Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania if Putin had managed to capture all of Ukraine.
Reality check: Putin has broken almost every promise he’s made over the past month, whether it’s withdrawing from Kyiv or allowing humanitarian escape routes from Mariupol. “My own view is Putin is plainly not to be trusted,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Wednesday, as he questioned whether Macron’s negotiations with the Kremlin had much value.
Even if Putin does stick to a deal, any gains achieved through unprovoked violence deeply undermine the rules-based national order. The Eastern EU countries that have been hawkish on Russia would see such a deal as appeasement for a bully that threatens their own security. Putin might see it as an invitation to try again to invade a neighbor — and this time he could be better prepared.
The U.S. Defense Department estimates the conflict could continue for a decade. Indeed, there’s no sign that either party will be ready for serious peace negotiations any time soon.
Zelenskyy is refusing to even broach surrendering territory until Russians move troops back to pre-February 24 positions, and his other potential concession — avowed Ukrainian neutrality — requires a constitutional referendum that’s all but impossible to organize. Meanwhile, Western intelligence assessments argue that Putin doesn’t even know how bad things are going for him; advisers are keeping him in blissful ignorance. The waning effect of sanctions in Russia hardens Moscow’s resolve, while Western leaders show increasing reluctance to ratchet up the pain on their own voters.
The ongoing military conflict starts to look like a Syria in Eastern Europe. NATO stands firm and united in its refusal to put troops on the ground or shoot Russian planes out of the sky. The Ukrainians, despite their passion and discipline, are spread too thin defending Kyiv and other key spots from Russian harassment to launch a real counter-offensive.
“There’ll be a moment in time when Russian forces will decide they’ve done enough in Mariupol and then they will look towards … moving to the north and trying to mount this broader envelopment operation” of Ukrainian forces in the Donbas, a Western official said.
As Russians manage to take towns, Ukrainian forces’ best hope will be using guerilla-style techniques to prevent a military operation from becoming a political reality. That means pulling Russian resources away from hardened front lines, a “very costly change of posture,” said Jennifer Cafarella, chief of staff at the U.S.-based Institute for the Study of War.
Without much hope of actually holding Ukraine, Putin opts for systematic destruction, making the cost of rebuilding the country prohibitively expensive. Russia never actually wins, but Ukraine loses its population and its economy.
Reality check: NATO is staying out in order to avoid a Third World War. But a drawn-out war has global consequences. Ukrainian refugees flooding into the West won’t be able to go home. And they won’t be the only new arrivals: People from the Middle East, Africa and Central Asia imperiled by the crashing Russian economy and halted food exports would renew migration as a wedge issue in Western democracies.