With daily events keeping us both absorbed and distraught, it remains difficult to look beyond the horizon and imagine how the war in Ukraine might end. In the days following Russia’s invasion, it was impossible to know. But after one month, there is more clarity. There is also a pressing need to think ahead.
The scenario of a clear Russian victory, followed by a humiliating treaty of surrender, seems unlikely. But much depends on the definition of victory. In my recent writings on Vladimir Putin and Russia, I have stressed that we need to disabuse ourselves of the notion that the Russian president is averse to chaos and instability. The Kremlin might well regard a messy, inconclusive outcome as something to celebrate. The Syrian war remains unresolved: Bashar al-Assad has no control over important parts of the country, and Russia has told him that this is how things will be for the foreseeable future. The lack of an ending may make Assad even more subservient to Moscow.
Ukraine is a different case, because the imposition of sanctions on Russia demands a solution. Left in place, they could slowly asphyxiate the Russian economy, and perhaps even the Russian state. Would Russia be as happy now as during the Syrian war to let the conflict linger while its ability to function steadily declines?
Yet when we try to envisage a peace agreement, no plausible scenario emerges.
Russia has called for regime change and demilitarisation in Ukraine. These are the sort of outcomes that could follow on from a decisive Russian military victory. Without such a victory, the Kremlin might revert to more modest goals – but even in this case Ukraine is fully aware of the danger. Could its president, Volodymyr Zelensky, accept a permanent Russian presence in Donbas? Not explicitly, and certainly not in the form of a codified peace deal. He has spoken about a negotiated settlement on the status of Donetsk and Luhansk, but that is an old concession that goes back to the origins of the current crisis in 2014.
I doubt he will be in a position to formally recognise the annexation of Crimea, arguably the least painful of all the proposals. Ukraine, after all, has shown it can survive and resist a Russian invasion. I am convinced that a majority of the Ukrainian public would regard a dishonourable peace deal as not only ignominious but, ultimately, suicidal: Russia would attack again in the future, in circumstances of its own choosing. The condition of Chechnya offers a valuable lesson, with the withdrawal of Russian troops in 1996 quickly leading to the Second Chechen War, which aimed to destroy any aspiration to independence that the North Caucasus republic had. There would be a second Ukraine war as soon as Russia felt ready to return. In the meantime, the unity around Zelensky would be replaced by acrimony, recrimination and, possibly, a political crisis.
Ukraine would accept a ceasefire if it meant a return to the status quo ante, with Russia withdrawing to the positions it held before 24 February. But in this case, the outcome would be unacceptable to Putin. What would he have to show for his deadly gamble, which has already cost Russia so dearly in both lives and capital? In a stunning exchange on Russian state television, the Israeli commentator Yaakov Kedmi recently argued that whatever treaty Russia signs with the current Ukrainian government will mean the complete defeat of Russia. If Russia is not capable of defeating Zelensky, it is finished as a state, he shouted. Left unsaid: Putin, certainly, would be finished.
The most likely scenario is a stalemate where both sides accept the facts on the ground, more or less as they exist today. Zelensky has called for replenishments for his army. He must receive them. Russia will shift towards a more defensive posture, abandoning its dreams of a swift conquest of the Mariinsky Palace in Kyiv. On 25 March, Colonel General Sergei Rudskoy, head of main operations in the General Staff of the Russian armed forces, seemed to announce a change of strategy along these lines, publicly disclaiming any interest in storming the main Ukrainian cities. Is the Kremlin trying to prepare Russian public opinion for failure? The stalemate in Ukraine would come to resemble the stalemate in the Donbas, only on a much larger scale.
Whether a new frozen conflict could be stable is unknown. As opposed to 2014, it would have to involve large movements of people. No Ukrainian can live in territories under Russian control. Putin might count on these movements as the trigger for political instability in Kyiv. And there are other difficulties. The presence of Russian troops so close to the Ukrainian capital is not sustainable. Will they withdraw? On 29 March, Russia began to remove some forces from around Kyiv, most likely in order to leave them less exposed. Would the repetition of the Mariupol tragedy in other Ukrainian cities make a frozen conflict more or less likely? The continued success of the Ukrainian army might damage the confidence of the Russian forces to challenge the state of affairs, while Ukraine would feel obliged to prevent a new wave of civilian deaths.
In such a scenario, only the continuation and gradual tightening of Western sanctions could offer a way forward. The endgame would have to come from the gradual destruction of the Russian economy over a period of two or three years. That alone could offer some hope that a diminished Russia would be forced to withdraw or, alternatively, that Ukraine would be in a better position to win the war in the future.
The tragic truth is that the indefinite continuation of the war seems a lot easier to imagine than anything resembling an ending.