Here are 6 ways Russia’s war in Ukraine could end
- As Russia’s war in Ukraine rages on, there seems to be no clear end in sight.
- A military expert said Putin was “in too deep” and unlikely to withdraw without clear achievements.
- These are six ways the conflict might unfold and what victory might look like for both sides.
With Russia’s war in Ukraine in its eighth month, there is still no clear end to the slaughter in sight. Tens of thousands of soldiers are dead or maimed, entire cities have been reduced to rubble, there have been allegations of torture and atrocities by Russian occupiers, and millions have become refugees.
While Russia has occupied large swaths of territory in the country’s south and east, Ukraine has put up a stronger-than-expected fight, often humiliating Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invading forces, who on paper should overwhelm Ukraine in days.
In addition to repelling a total Russian conquest, the Ukrainian defenders have recaptured parts of the country by launching well-organized, bold counter-offensives in the east and south.
However, despite defeats on the battlefield, Russia still has destructive military capabilities to call upon. In recent weeks, it has launched a missile and drone attack on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure.
While Europe’s biggest war since 1945 seems to have entered a period of attrition, there are several ways the conflict could unfold.
If the fighting reaches a stalemate, there could be a negotiated, temporary ceasefire between Russia and Ukraine, according to Seth Jones, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS, International Security Program).
“That probably wouldn’t be an end though, that would be the state of active warfare waning, at least temporarily, and it’s approaching a frozen conflict that may heat up or cool down depending on factors,” he said.
Jones pointed to the two Chechen wars that took place in the 1990s. Russia negotiated a truce in 1994 that ended the first war, but three years later resumed another war and stepped up its attack.
In this scenario, Russia may hope that the US and other Western countries will lose interest in the conflict and in supporting Ukraine.
“That would ultimately tip the balance of power in Russia’s favor and allow it to retake territory in the way it ideally wanted in February,” Jones said.
A peace agreement
It is possible that the war will end in a peace deal, although agreement is difficult due to the different goals of Russia and Ukraine and what both consider their rightful territory.
“I think Vladimir Putin is in too deep at the moment. It has now used far too much political and military capital to extricate itself from the war with no clear gains,” Jones said.
Jones said that while it’s not clear what Putin would accept as a “success,” he could be content with Russia taking over parts of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhia and Kherson Oblasts, which he could then define as his intended targets.
The more complicated question is what Ukraine would be willing to give up in a peace deal. Jones said it would be almost “politically suicidal” for a leader in Kyiv to give away Ukrainian territory.
When it began its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s aim was to completely take over the country.
Jones said it’s important to note that Ukraine has already won a significant victory by preventing Russia from achieving that goal.
“Up until February 2022 at least, the Russians were arguably the third most powerful military army in the world behind the US and the Chinese. So they have already prevented a Russian blitzkrieg operation to take the capital, overthrow the government and so on integrate it into Russia or set up a puppet government,” he said.
It is now unlikely that Russia will be able to completely reverse the war and achieve its original goals, but it could accept a “victory” in the form of a peace deal that will see it occupy more territory than it did before the invasion began.
Russian retreat, Ukrainian victory
As long as Putin is at the head of the country, it is very unlikely that Russian forces will withdraw completely, Jones said.
“Bad things happen in Russia to rulers who lose wars,” Mark Cancian, a retired US Navy colonel and senior adviser to the CSIS, previously told Insider.
But while Russia’s strongman faces discontent at home due to rising war casualties, partial mobilization of reservists and a sanctions-damaged economy, he doesn’t seem to be showing any signs of retreating.
Although he may be more likely than ever to be ousted in a coup, experts have previously said that the Russian leader has made his regime “coup-proof” through a culture of distrust among Russian intelligence agencies.
However, a total withdrawal by Russia could be possible if Putin is overthrown or dies. Rumors have also long circulated about his alleged health problems, although US intelligence and military experts warn there is no credible evidence that he is ill.
Ukrainians believe that an outright victory is possible. Svitlana Morenets, a Ukrainian journalist who works for UK news magazine The Spectator, spoke at a debate on Friday entitled “Is it time to make peace in Ukraine?”.
The plan is not a years-long struggle, but Russia’s military defeat, she said. She highlighted Putin’s recent descent down the “grain corridor” as an example of Russia’s growing weakness.
Not all wars end with a clear victory for one side. Another possibility is that fighting continues without a truce or agreement, which Jones says could go on for years.
It could include special forces fighting back and forth on contact lines, guerrilla actions from Ukraine in Russian-controlled areas, and long-range bombardments of Ukrainian territory from Russia or Belarus.
In its current phase, the conflict seems to have turned into a war of attrition. Instead of gaining more territory, Russia’s goals in the current phase of the war appear to be to weaken Ukraine’s resources, economy and army.
It is unclear which side could hold out longer, although Russia has suffered significant losses in soldiers and weapons.
According to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, newly appointed Russian General Sergey Surovikin plans to establish a solid line of defense in the occupied territories and effectively freeze the war over the winter.
Russia will not currently attempt to launch a new large-scale offensive on Ukrainian territory and will take the time to rebuild its combat capabilities, the think tank said.
nuclear war and/or NATO intervention
Putin has repeatedly made nuclear threats since the invasion of Ukraine began, claiming in September it was “not a bluff.”
Western countries and experts are divided on how seriously to take the threats.
Jones said there are great risks in using nuclear weapons, especially if Putin detonates them in areas he claims are Russian. Due to the proximity, there would also be a risk of nuclear fallout on Russian territory.
If Russian forces face a wholesale military defeat, Putin could use a nuclear weapon on the battlefield, but Jones said the risks of using nuclear weapons would likely outweigh any benefits.
“There are a lot of risks involved in imposing this nuclear taboo, politically and diplomatically. What would that mean for Vladimir Putin’s regime? he said.
It is unclear whether NATO would interfere in this scenario, Jones said. A senior official has previously said that a Russian nuclear strike could trigger a “physical response” from NATO itself.
However, Jones said that NATO’s declaration of war on Russia could trigger a major war that could draw in other countries like China, an outcome the organization is likely to want to avoid.
To avoid this scenario, NATO would likely first resort to increased sanctions and armed support to Ukraine.