The study of how Russia’s war on Ukraine will end has been a niche subject, possibly due to the inherent difficulty of prediction, the surprise that greeted the full-scale invasion, and the Ukrainians’ success at stopping and rolling it back. However, understanding how the war will end is essential for all involved parties, including Western governments.
For instance, their approach to supplying arms to Ukraine is dependent on their evolving understanding of the end-game. Additionally, many countries are visibly reluctant to antagonize the Russian president, as they think he will be around for a while and are considering the potential long-term implications of their actions. Overall, the war on Ukraine and the way it will end has significant implications for Russia, Ukraine, and the entire planet.
At the 2022 Daniliw Seminar on Contemporary Ukraine, Samuel Charap and Timothy J. Colton outlined a study of scenarios for the war’s end, titled “The Russia-Ukraine War: Thinking About Outcomes.” Charap and Colton’s analysis presents four ideal types based on their reading of the relevant academic literature: total victory, negotiated settlement, protracted conflict, and truce. As any analysis must, they hold constant several issues, particularly the oft-repeated Russian threat of nuclear/WMD escalation and the possibility of regime change in Russia. They argue that, as of Fall 2022, a protracted conflict seemed the most likely outcome: a conflict lasting in the vicinity of ten years, likely at low intensity.
But political brittleness in Russia – witness the chaos surrounding the recent “partial mobilization” and mounting criticism within Russia of the war’s conduct – and the Russian government’s escalatory calculus are crucial factors in any evaluation of the end-game. In particular, the Russian government’s fear of rousing its population and its difficulties in managing its narrative suggest that the Kremlin would be politically unable to sustain a protracted conflict. So, how does it make sense to “hold constant” such key variables? The difficulty of predicting anything about them, the challenge to our imagination thrown up by this whole catastrophe, cannot be an answer.
So, let me try something else based on a small number of real-world propositions stemming from what we know of the war so far. I should note that I, too, am holding some things constant – just not the same things as Charap and Colton do: in short, based on trajectories from the war’s first ten months, I expect that (a) Ukraine’s will to fight, resist and win will at least remain strong and perhaps grow along with battlefield wins and accumulating Russian outrages; and (b) at least for the next two years, Western support of Ukraine will remain at least as strong as it is, and could very well grow. The first three propositions below are the most general; the following ones elaborate on the main points. I am only outlining the propositions and their implications here; I will go into more detail in a forthcoming blog post.
- (1) The current revanchist, imperialist Russian regime, with or without Vladimir Putin, cannot afford not to win.
- (2) But the first ten months of the war have demonstrated that Russia is unable to win.
- (3) The growing realization among Russians that they cannot win the “special military operation” and their government’s inflexibility will put them on a collision course.
- (4) Russia has shown over the past year that it does not have a fighting force that can be effective at the scale of this war. It is not about to become more effective.
- (5) The theoretically powerful Russian Air Force and Navy cannot do more on the battlefield than they have been doing for eight months.
- (6) The Russian Air Force and Navy can inflict considerable damage at long range, functioning as missile and drone platforms, to Ukraine’s cities and infrastructure and kill relatively large numbers of civilians.
- (7) De-escalation to a low-intensity stalemate would seem to be the Russian regime’s last recourse short of nuclear war.
So, what likely outcomes do these propositions lead to?
- Escalation will continue to happen unless regime change in Moscow comes first;
- Suppose escalation eventually takes the form of detonating one or more nuclear device. That would be unlikely to have a decisive battlefield impact, especially if the Ukrainians continue to fight in decentralized, highly mobile small units – the Ukrainian way of war.
- This means that we can already anticipate a Russian tactical battlefield nuclear strike to be a failure.
- That prospect means, in turn, that the scarier scenario is not of the smallest possible tactical weapon being deployed on the battlefield but of a city-killing weapon that would truly terrify not only Ukrainians but, indeed, the whole planet. A mid-range scenario might see the detonation of low-yield “tactical” weapons over central Kyiv or another major city in western Ukraine.
- A nuclear strike (of any size) would finish isolating the Russian government on the world stage.
- A nuclear strike would then also amount to an admission of weakness and desperation by a government that has run out of options. One way or another, such a government has no future.