Over a month into this war, many of us continue to ponder what some of the possible endgame scenarios could look like. It is hard to imagine now that Ukraine would be able to negotiate with Russia following the massacre and gross violation of human rights in Bucha, but nevertheless, a way forward to end this senseless war of aggression is needed. What seemed to everyone at the outset of the invasion, including Russia, would be a quick and inevitable Ukrainian collapse revealed instead lionhearted soldiers and partisans fighting back successfully against an ineffective and deeply overestimated invading Russian army.
Yet we know Russian President Vladimir Putin is not one to give up when there are bumps in the road. All the evidence points to a Russian army that is failing in every way, but it does not mean the Russians will relent anytime soon, as they are instead touting a shift in strategy. In terms of numbers and the slow resupply of weapons to Ukraine by NATO, Russia still maintains superiority in manpower and weapons.
The talks which took place just last week in Turkey had Russia claiming that they had planned on pulling back forces in order to show ‘good will.’ Of course, no one actually believes this assertion, instead taking it to be yet another feint, this time to allow for their military to regroup, as Russia still continues to bomb Ukrainian cities.
Further complicating the hopes for peace are reports of Russian war crimes against Ukrainian civilians now coming to light. It will be increasingly hard to come to a compromise when images of the dead bodies of civilians scattered on the streets of Bucha are still fresh in the minds of the Ukrainian public and the West (who are already taking further actions against Russia).
It will take both sides to agree to a ceasefire and a realistic plan forward. At this current moment, a near term end does not seem to be in the cards, and Russia, a country which notoriously violates ceasefires and other agreements, is not trusted to deal in good faith. But, at some point this war will have to end, and the momentum seems to be on Ukraine’s side. There are even reports of Ukrainian attack helicopters striking targets in Russia proper. War being what it is, matters could change dramatically and escalate at any time, so it is imperative for all parties involved to seek a cessation of violence before a catalyst occurs.
The unthinkable resistance
Indeed, many observers say Ukraine is winning… in that it is holding its own against a vastly larger force and galvanizing the support of much of the world, bringing to mind the ancient concept in war that it is not the number of soldiers in the fight, but the fight in the soldier.
The damage that Russian forces have caused to Ukraine’s infrastructure is nearly unfathomable. Russia has created the largest (and swiftest) refugee crisis since the Second World War, and brought serious supply chain challenges to not only the region, but also the world. There is also the concern of the war spreading outside of Ukraine’s borders, should NATO be dragged in, along with the fear of a global recession.
Despite the hardships, the brave leadership under the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has rallied the whole country against the Russians, and captured the hearts and support of the world. The idea that Ukraine could push Russia back (with arms and supplies from NATO, the US, and the West) is a real possibility now.
It has become clear that Putin’s plan was to execute a rapid blitzkrieg, to strike right at the heart of Kyiv, and to decapitate the Ukrainian leadership. In days it became apparent that this objective was not going to happen, as President Zelensky appeared online stating he was not going anywhere. He chose to stay in Kyiv and lead his people on the ground.
In what was purported by Russia to be a lightning strike aimed at regime change and “de-nazification,” wherein the locals would welcome the invaders with flower, the situation is instead becoming another Afghanistan for Russian forces (potentially worse, based on the scale and rapid losses by the Russian military in just one month). As we know all too well, Russia has spurred a unity of purpose and fierce defiance amongst nearly all Ukrainians. Unfortunately, Russia has moved to using the playbook it mastered in Syria and Chechnya, which has been to bomb and starve civilian populations into submission and to cause massive refugees outflows to neighboring countries.
According to military analysts, we may see further human rights abuses as part of a Russian strategy to destroy the will of the Ukrainian people. This tactic would perhaps force the involvement of NATO forces, which might give Putin a chance to paint the war as a campaign by the West against the Russian people, and garner more support from a population already bombarded with victimhood propaganda.
There are a range of possible outcomes this war may take. None are ideal and Russia will need to walk away with something and save face, though the economic and geopolitical damage to the country is unambiguous.
One of the possibilities is that Russia may attempt to cut Ukraine in half – as in the partition of Korea. Russia may even try a less ambitious move and annex other Russian speaking regions such as the Donbass. This solution seems like a practical outcome, and while not ideal, an opponent like Putin does not leave the negotiating table without something tangible in hand.
As this article covers “a senior British observer told the New Statesman that he thought a likely peace deal on terms acceptable to Ukraine was not achievable during the next six to eight months. There would probably be a withdrawal of the Russians to the eastern territories – maybe including a full attack on Odessa – and a “frozen conflict” or long stalemate. Western strategy then would be to hunker down and hope that Putin finds it difficult to get through the renegotiation of his mandate as president from 2024.”
Another option is that Ukraine successfully forces Russia out of the country. That means a Ukrainian “win,” as this article highlights: “the Russians have been fought to a standstill by the Ukrainian military. They are actually conducting limited counterattacks and taking territory back. The [Russian] ground attack has stalled. They still haven’t taken a major city,” he said, assessing the Russians’ current military position. He suggested that the US and NATO adopt the mindset that Ukraine can beat the Russians and support them in their fight.”
Realistically, even if Ukraine forces a draw militarily and negotiations begin in earnest, Russia will need to be given a concession, such as annexed areas of Ukraine, promises of disarmament, or a vow of neutrality and an abandonment of its pursuit of NATO membership. The demand for Ukraine to renege on its aspirations to join the EU appears to have been dropped.
The worst case scenarios (outside of complete nuclear armageddon) are those in which Russia deploys a tactical nuclear or biological/chemical weapon in order to deal a devastating blow to Ukraine and to send a message to the world of what defying its will can lead to. Experts seem to see this play as a diminishing possibility, but a possibility it remains.
The last potential outcome is that this war continues for the coming months and years, and that a full-fledged Ukrainian insurgency continues to fight the Russians with the West’s help. None of these possibilities are good, but they are still better than a Ukrainian surrender or defeat. That would only galvanize Russia’s appetite for further wars of conquest in Eastern Europe.