How will the Russia-Ukraine war end?

How will the Russia-Ukraine war end? By Christopher Chivvis.

Wars sometimes start easily, but it is a tenet of strategy that they are always unpredictable and extremely hard to end.

Putin’s war of choice in Ukraine is already escalating faster than most experts would have imagined just a week ago. He has now encircled major Ukrainian cities with his army and threatens to flatten them with thermobaric weapons, cluster munitions, and guided missiles. This will terrorize the civilian population and could demoralize the budding Ukrainian resistance.

[Putin] could escalate the conflict to another region, such as the Balkans, where long-standing conflicts fester and Russia has an extensive network of intelligence and security services. He may turn the lights off in a major U.S. city with a cyber attack. Most frighteningly, he has raised the alert level of Russian nuclear forces and may be considering introducing martial law.

Meanwhile, NATO, the G7, and a host of other countries have turned the dial of economic punishment up to unprecedented levels. … A growing number of voices in Washington are clamoring for a more aggressive approach from the United States and NATO …

Scores of war games conducted for the U.S. and allied governments and my own experience as the U.S. national intelligence officer for Europe suggest that if we boil it down, there are really only two paths toward ending the war:

  • continued escalation, potentially across the nuclear threshold;
  • a bitter peace imposed on a defeated Ukraine that will be extremely hard for the United States and many European allies to swallow. …

Putin deliberately frames his operation in Ukraine in the same way that the United States has framed its own regime-change operations in Kosovo, Iraq, and Libya, charging that Ukraine has committed human rights violations and is a terrorist state. For good measure, Putin throws in the ludicrous assertion that Ukraine is fascist. These are transparent fig leaves for what is nothing more than a war of brute imperialism.

Judging from how things stand now, Putin, having invested so much in this war already, seems unlikely to settle for anything less than the complete subjugation of the Ukrainian government. If the current uneven pace of Russian military progress doesn’t accomplish the job, the most likely strategy for doing this is to make an example of a city like Kharkiv, leveling it as if it were Grozny or Aleppo, both cities that Russia has brutally destroyed in the recent past, and then threatening to burn Kyiv to the ground. … Ultimately, he needs at least to force the ouster of President Volodymyr Zelensky and his government.

In this case, Russia will install a puppet government in Kyiv, which will sign terms of surrender highly favorable to Russia. The terms will almost certainly include a pledge of Ukrainian neutrality, and might go further by committing Ukraine formally to Russia’s sphere of influence with a membership in Russia’s Collective Security Treaty Organization or its Eurasian Economic Union.

At this juncture, the United States and its allies would face an extraordinarily difficult policy choice. Disgust with Putin’s war has greatly increased the chances that Washington and some of its allies would seek to fight on, for instance by supporting a Ukrainian insurgency. This would roughly mirror the strategy that the United States used to assist French resistance against Nazi Germany in World War II. …

Putin would probably use a nuclear weapon if he concludes that his regime is threatened. It is hard to know exactly what turn of events would scare him enough to cross the nuclear threshold. Certainly a large NATO army entering Russian territory would be enough. But what if events in Ukraine loosened his grip on power at home? Indeed, achieving regime change in Russia indirectly by making Putin lose in Ukraine seems to be the logic behind some of those who are pushing for escalation today.

Negotiations will get serious when neither side feels it has more to gain by fighting. Not there yet.