Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began one year ago. But how might the war end? Russia seems further from victory than ever, but a Ukrainian triumph is also far from a foregone conclusion. What are the possible scenarios for an end to the conflict?
By René Pfister, Ann-Dorit Boy und Matthias Gebauer
Starting a war is simple. Ending it, though, is quite a bit more difficult. At the beginning of almost every military conflagration is the illusion that one’s opponent will be relatively easy to defeat.
When German troops headed off to the front in August 1941, they scrawled “Vacation to Paris” on their train cars. Hitler’s “blitzkrieg” ended up lasting six years.
When Russian President Vladimir Putin marched into Ukraine on February 24, 2022, he clearly believed that he would be able to conquer Kyiv within just a few days and install a puppet government. It was an illusion that vanished in the smoke from anti-tank rockets shipped to Ukraine by its Western allies. The Russian army, as quickly became clear, isn’t powerful enough to subjugate a people that is prepared to fight for its own freedom. And as the list of Ukrainian military successes has grown longer, their war aims have also shifted. No longer is survival the only goal. Now, they want to win.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 7/2023 (February 10th, 2023) of DER SPIEGEL.SPIEGEL International
War is a monster that ultimately grows over the heads of those who unleashed it. With the invasion, Putin was hoping to fulfill his dream of resurrecting the Soviet Union, but now, he finds himself not only fighting against a powerful Ukrainian army, but also for his own political survival. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, on the other hand, who campaigned in the spring of 2019 on his professed hopes of being able to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict with his neighbor, is now determined to liberate all of Ukraine, including the Crimean Peninsula – with military force if necessary.
The upshot is that Ukraine, a country for which nobody in Europe felt a particular responsibility over the past several years, has now become a key crucible of global politics. The outcome of the war will have a significant influence on future developments. “If we turn a blind eye to the war in Ukraine, it will set an example for others,” says a senior official in the U.S. State Department.
If Putin is able to swallow up Ukraine, why would he shy away from doing the same to other republics that were once part of the Soviet Union – such as Moldova or the Baltic states? In Washington, meanwhile, the war in Ukraine is seen as one element in a larger conflict. If Putin were victorious in Ukraine, might not Beijing see that as an invitation to conquer Taiwan?
Russian President Vladimir Putin together with Chinese President Xi Jinping three weeks before Putin invaded Ukraine Foto: Aleksey Druzhinin / SPUTNIK / REUTERS
One year after Putin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, the question is now the following: How can this war, the effects of which reach far beyond Russia and Ukraine, be ended? It is a war that has deep consequences for European security and for future relations between the nuclear powers of Russia, the U.S. and China. And the end isn’t yet in sight, it could still continue for quite some time, years even. Nobody knows how it might end. But what are the possible scenarios?
Scenario 1: Ukraine Wins the War
What would even count as a victory for Ukraine? Could a victory involve some losses of territory but survival as an independent country armed by the West to the point that Russia would no longer attack it?
For the Ukrainian president and the vast majority of Ukrainians, there is only one acceptable outcome to the conflict: the complete withdrawal of Russian troops from every square centimeter of Ukrainian territory. Whether or not it is realistic, the aim is clear.
Whereas President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was prepared last spring to negotiate with Putin over the Donbass and the Crimea, he now excludes the possibility of talks with the Russian leader. At the same time, 85 percent of Ukrainians reject making any territorial concessions to a regime that has committed massacres against the civilian population. “The atrocities of Bucha triggered a strongly anti-Russian sentiment in the country,” says Volodymyr Fesenko, a Kyiv-based political scientist. “These feelings play an important role when it comes to how the Ukrainians and Zelenskyy now define the concept of victory.”
Russia still occupies around one-fifth of the area of Ukraine. The more territory Ukraine can retake, the better are their chances for victory and, over the longer term, their political and economic outlook.
But can Ukraine really defeat Russia militarily?
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in London earlier this week Foto: Stefan Rousseau / AP
More than a few Western military experts are cautiously optimistic about the possibility of a Ukrainian victory, not least because Moscow has repeatedly stumbled on the battlefield. The Ukrainian military, by contrast, has managed to win back half of the territory that Russia occupied immediately following the February 24 invasion. The Ukrainian army was able to prevent Putin from taking Kyiv, retook Kherson in southern Ukraine and pushed the Russians back across the Dnieper River, which divides the country from the north to the south.
The two armies now find themselves locked in a static battle across the entire front, one that is reminiscent of World War I. Most of the more than 2,000 Ukrainian villages and cities that are still under Moscow’s control will likely be far more difficult to liberate than those that have thus far been reconquered. Putin’s troops have been digging in for several months, the Kremlin has ratcheted up its war-time economy and Putin mobilized more than 300,000 soldiers last fall, of which only half have actually been sent into battle thus far.
“The Russian proposition is, to me, straightforward,” says American military expert Michael Kofman. It hinges on grinding down the strong Ukrainian military with wave upon wave of Russian fighters even if they are poorly trained and equipped. For Ukraine to withstand the Russian onslaught, Kyiv badly needs more weapons and munitions. The Ukrainian general staff said in December that they needed 300 tanks in order to launch a counteroffensive. But they won’t be arriving any time soon. The German military, the Bundeswehr, is intending to ship 14 Leopard 2 battle tanks and 40 Marder infantry fighting vehicles to Ukraine by the end of March – and the necessary training of Ukrainian soldiers is currently underway near Münster in the German state of Lower Saxony.
But the delivery of older Leopard tank models from Germany will take significantly longer. The German government only authorized their export earlier this week, and because they are from the Cold War era and must first be refurbished, the initial deliveries of 20 Leopard 1 tanks will likely only be possible late this year. The 31 Abrams battle tanks promised by the U.S., meanwhile, are only likely to arrive at the end of 2023 at the earliest – while the bulk of the Leopard 1 tanks from Germany will follow next year.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz Foto: Eric Tschaen / REA / laif
Given that timeline, the question becomes: Do Ukraine’s supporters really want Kyiv to win? U.S. President Joe Biden has consistently taken a two-pronged approach: Generosity combined with circumspection. He approved the delivery of war materiel worth $30 billion, but he has only gradually ratcheted up the weaponry being sent to Ukraine. Anti-tank missiles were followed by howitzers, which were followed by rocket launchers and now battle tanks. Biden has, for the time being, ruled out the sending of warplanes.
“We are trying to meet the (Ukrainian) needs on the battlefield,” says the U.S. State Department official. But Washington, the official continues, is not at war with Russia. The Biden administration is seeking to help Ukraine without escalating the conflict with the Kremlin. It is essentially the same strategy being pursued by Germany and France, both of which have shown even more hesitancy than the Americans and have supplied far less weaponry.
The perceived foot-dragging by some members of the Western coalition has triggered frustration in Central European countries like Poland, the Czech Republic and the Baltic countries as well as in Ukraine. Increasingly, that same frustration has been building among Biden’s supporters in Washington. Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, suggested in a late January piece for Foreign Affairs that NATO use the first anniversary of the Russian invasion for a “Big Bang” and announce an extensive package of support, including long-range missiles, armed drones, tanks and warplanes. He also argued that all members of the Russian state apparatus be added to the sanctions list. If we continue with piecemeal military and economic support for Ukraine, we will ensure that the war never ends, McFaul argued. Ben Hodges, the former commanding general of the U.S. forces in Europe, recently made similar comments. In a piece for the Economist, he presented a plan for how Ukraine could reconquer Crimea.
In conclusion, there is a possibility that Ukraine can win this war militarily. But it is a goal that the U.S. and many of Kyiv’s Western European supporters have not made their own. And if Ukraine is to emerge victorious, it will need far more support.
Scenario 2: Russia Wins the War
Nobody knows exactly how Vladimir Putin might define victory in Ukraine. He has never officially stated that his aim is to conquer the entire country including the capital, even if his troops sought to take Kyiv in the early days of the war. Russia’s initial justification for its invasion was that of protecting the population in the Donbass from Ukrainian “neo-Nazis.” Putin has also repeatedly called into question Ukraine’s existence as an independent country. It seems that his war aims are less that of taking over certain regions of the country than of exerting complete political control over all of Ukraine and turning it into a satellite state similar to Belarus.
A victory for Putin in Ukraine would always be a fragile one. Even if Kyiv were to officially submit to a forced peace, partisans and saboteurs would certainly make life difficult for the Russian occupiers. It is hard to imagine a majority of Ukrainians transforming into willing subjects of Vladimir Putin.
The Russian autocrat, though, could also present smaller successes as a victory. If he and his troops were able to regain complete control over the four regions of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia and obtain some form of international recognition, it could be enough for him to save face domestically. But even that would be extremely difficult.
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The small and vocal group of nationalist warmongers has been massively strengthened in the last 12 months by the war in Ukraine. These ultra-nationalist circles would hardly be satisfied with a mini-victory, and they present the greatest domestic danger to Putin.
And the president doesn’t have too many options left for transforming the war into a personal success. The West may be concerned about the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons, but actually doing so would place Putin at the mercy of numerous virtually incalculable risks – and it wouldn’t necessarily help him on the battlefield either. Ukrainian troops are far too widely deployed for a single detonation to decisively weaken them. The use of a tactical nuclear weapon could trigger a nuclear escalation – or it could result in panic in the West and increase pressure on Western leaders to cease arms shipments.
If deliveries of artillery munitions and anti-tank missiles were to cease as a consequence of evaporating support for Ukraine in the West, it would only be a matter of weeks until Kyiv fell or Zelenskyy would be forced to make far-reaching concessions. For now, though, there are no indications that Biden or Ukraine’s other supporters are beginning to back away.
But Putin can play for time. The Russian leader is betting on the West running out of steam, says William Wechsler, who was a top official in the Pentagon under Barack Obama and now works for the Atlantic Council, a think tank in Washington, D.C. Putin, he says, has the advantage that he can extend the war and wear down his adversaries. “That is a very Russian way of war,” Wechsler says. “That’s how they beat Napoleon, that’s how they beat Hitler, by outlasting their opponents.”
Putin’s military may not be particularly motivated, but he rules over a population of 143 million people, including 25 million men of military age. Ukraine’s population, by contrast, is just short of 40 million. According to a survey conducted by the independent polling agency Levada Center in Moscow, almost three-quarters of Russians support the “special operation” in Ukraine, as Putin insists it be called. Almost all serious opposition politicians are either dead, in exile or, as is the case with Alexei Navalny, locked away in a penal colony.
In the West, meanwhile, public opinion is far from steadfast. Whereas a clear majority of Germans supported weapons deliveries to Ukraine earlier in the war, only just over half are now in favor of sending tanks.
Bulgarian intellectual Ivan Krastev has said that many wars are not decided on the battlefield or at the negotiating table, but in the voting booth – when a new leader is elected in a key country who has no interest in continuing the war. In theory, such a thing could happen in Russia, even if elections there are neither free nor fair and are hardly the most obvious path to a regime change in the country. Far more likely is that a leadership change in the West could have a significant influence on the war – first and foremost in the U.S., where presidential elections will be held in 2024. If Biden were to lose to a nationalist Republican like Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis, American policy on Ukraine would change dramatically. And Europe, which is still militarily dependent on Washington, would almost certainly lack the strength and the willpower to continue supporting Kyiv on its own.
Polish President Andrzej Duda and U.S. President Joe Biden in Warsaw in March 2022. Foto: Kacper Pempel / REUTERS
In the U.S., the Ukraine issue is already being pulled into the approaching campaign. Tucker Carlson, one of the most influential right-wing TV personalities in the U.S., has been consistently using his show on Fox News to aggressively go after Biden and those Republicans who are in favor of weapons deliveries to Ukraine. One doesn’t need too much fantasy to imagine Donald Trump frothing at the mouth in the late stages of the campaign as he blasts aid to Ukraine as a waste of U.S. taxpayer dollars. “Through weakness and incompetence, Joe Biden has brought us to the brink of World War III,” Trump said a few days ago. It is crazy, he continued, to now send battle tanks into the warzone. Trump’s affinity for Putin, it should be mentioned, has always been greater than his fondness for America’s NATO allies in Europe.
Scenario 3: A Bloody Stalemate (with or without negotiations)
But what will happen if, as currently seems likely, neither side emerges victorious anytime soon?
There is one scenario for Europe and Ukraine that would likely be almost as distasteful as a Russian victory: a partially frozen conflict, a deep wound in Europe’s side with new skirmishes daily. It is a plight that Ukraine has known since 2014 in the Donbas, but it would be far larger in this instance.
“The Russians still think they can control of all of Ukraine. And the Ukrainians are not willing to give up territory that the Russians have taken since the beginning of the war on February 24, 2022,” says Russia expert Angela Stent. “In that sense, we are further away from a peace agreement than ever before.” That, in turn, has led many in the West to demand that Ukraine, especially, must be forced into a diplomatic solution. According to one survey, around half of Germans believe that the government in Berlin should be doing more to find a diplomatic solution to the conflict, though it isn’t entirely clear what that might actually mean.
The end of the Korean War is seen by many as a model for a frozen conflict. In 1953, the armistice agreement created a 4-kilometer-wide demilitarized zone between the north and the south of the country, across which thousands of soldiers continue to face each other today. Lying between them are around a million landmines.
There are some in the U.S. administration who would like to see just such a solution for Ukraine – an outcome that would, they argue, involve “turning Ukraine into a porcupine.” The concept calls for Ukraine’s defenses to be upgraded to the point that Russia would no longer even dream of calling the country’s national borders into question – borders which will have been drawn as the negotiating table or which run along a cease-fire line.
For the time being, the political line adhered to by politicians in both Berlin and Washington continues to be that it is completely up to Ukraine to decide when the time for diplomacy has come. “We have to put the Ukrainians in the best possible position at the negotiating table,” says the senior State Department official. But a halfway serious offer from Putin would almost certainly unleash a debate in many countries that currently support Kyiv. “The challenge yet to come is: What happens if, at a later point, the Russian leadership chooses to offer some kind of cease-fire?” asks military expert Kofman. “That is when we will find out who is who.”
Putin could, for example, put forth a plan aimed at international recognition for the “people’s republics” of Luhansk and Donetsk, and which delays any decision on the status of Crimea. There is nothing currently indicating that Kyiv would show interest in such an offer. But what if the war is still raging in fall 2024? And if the fate of a second Biden term in the White House hinges on his ability to obtain a cease-fire?
After all, one element of the logic of war is that the price of peace continues to go up the longer the conflict continues.
If a cease-fire agreement is reached, the result would likely be far from stable. And Ukraine would certainly demand far-reaching security guarantees from the West for any territory it might renounce. And even that would be difficult for Zelenskyy to sell as a victory. Under such a scenario, it would be virtually impossible for Ukraine to be accepted into NATO or the European Union.
The Minsk agreements of 2015 – mediated by the West – proved unable to calm the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, with the deal never being fully accepted. And nobody in Ukraine is interested in another Minsk agreement, says Ukrainian political scientist Fesenko, as it carries the risk of a never-ending war. Yet exactly that scenario could be the most attractive from Putin’s perspective.
The Question Remains: How Should the West Approach Putin?
A negotiated solution would be fragile at best. And it also wouldn’t address the core issue: Once the war is over, how should an aggressive Russia and its leader Vladimir Putin be dealt with?
Though erstwhile imperial powers in Europe like France and Britain seem to have come to terms with the loss of their former influence, imperial reflexes in many parts of Russian society appear to be alive and well, and not just because of Putin.
As such, Europe has to get used to the idea of having a hostile power on its eastern flank for the extended future. In Putin’s narrative, Russia is fighting a courageous defensive battle against Western imperialism. During the celebrations to mark the 80th anniversary of the siege of Stalingrad last week, the Russian president held forth on the “Nazi ideology” in modern guise that is threatening his country. As is so often the case, the climax of his speech was a barely disguised threat to deploy nuclear weapons.
In many ways, Putin is less predictable than the Soviet leaders who ruled the USSR in the second half of the 20th century. Men like Leonid Brezhnev waged proxy wars in Asia and Africa and armed the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons. But in Europe, the Soviet Union was a status-quo power. Putin’s Russia, by contrast, is interested in redrawing the borders of the old continent.
Putin is 70 years old. Rumors have repeatedly made the rounds that he is suffering from cancer. But would Putinism disappear if the Russian leader were suddenly absent from the stage? Russian political scientist Ekaterina Schulmann, who works as a fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, believes that even without Putin, “there would quite probably be an autocratic, resource-based government in Russia”, since this was a likely outcome of a weak disinstutitionalised democracy of the 90s’. The war against Ukraine, however, may be Putin’s private obsession and only tolerated by the Russian elite out of opportunism. While the Ukrainian craze will probably end with the current generation of Security council elders, according to Schulmann, kleptocracy and personalisation of power may be harder to get rid of.
A quote from the Russian political scientist Ekterina Schulmann was unfortunately shortened and thus misunderstood. We have supplemented the text passage accordingly.
Categories: Europe, Europe and Australia, European Union, Russia, Ukraine
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