How the Russia-Ukraine war could end – four scenarios examined

·8 min read
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin - MANDEL NGAN,MIKHAIL METZEL/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin - MANDEL NGAN,MIKHAIL METZEL/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images

A year ago, I sketched out four scenarios detailing how Putin’s war against Ukraine might end. Unsurprisingly, none of them has materialised in pure form but one thing is clear now: Ukraine has not collapsed.

A full Russian victory – the total seizure of Ukrainian territory and regime change in Kyiv – is now almost certainly out of reach. Since early November 2022, Russia has lost half of the territories it had initially seized due to successful Ukrainian counter offensives. The invasion has also further consolidated Ukrainian national identity.

There are at least three reasons for this outcome: Ukrainian battlefield performance, Russian operational-tactical mistakes and extensive financial and military support from the West.

The last of these has been decisive. Over time, Western deliveries of weapon systems to Ukraine have continuously increased in both quantity and quality. The West is now fully committed to Ukraine’s future. In June last year, the EU granted Ukraine candidate status. Even plans for post-war reconstruction and long-term financial support are under way.

But here is where the good news ends. The war’s death toll has already reached staggering numbers. Casualties are in the tens of thousands and continue to rise. Millions of Ukrainians have become refugees. Numerous war crimes have been committed. Russia is now targeting critical civilian infrastructure, itself a war crime.

So while total victory for Russia is unlikely, the precise outcome of the conflict is still highly contingent. A year on, I think these four scenarios may help to clarify the scope for political action in the crucial weeks and months ahead.

In the first year of the war, the Russian armed forces have been unable to reach the political goals initially set by President Putin. Nevertheless, both regime change in Ukraine, which comes under the propaganda slogan of “denazification,” and “demilitarization” still seem to be the maximalist objectives of Russia’s war effort.

At a minimum, as Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov puts it, Moscow wants Kyiv to accept “today’s realities” – that is, the annexation of four Ukrainian oblasts, which Russia does not fully control at the moment.

Ukraine will never accept such an outcome, if it can prevent it by military means. After the successful military campaign in Kherson in November, which forced a Russian retreat from the right bank of the Dnipro river, the most intensive fighting has again shifted to the Donbass.

For almost four months now, the frontline has changed only minimally, however. Despite this stalemate, both parties still seem to believe that they can win the war decisively and reach most of their strategic goals.

Ukraine hopes for continuous Western military support that will eventually enable it to gain the upper hand and compel Moscow to admit defeat. Russia believes it can endure longer and bets on Western war fatigue.

It has started to mobilise and to shift its industry to military production. President Putin seems determined to continue the war despite increasing financial pressure and mounting sanctions. To him a successful outcome has become politically existential, or so it seems. If true, the fighting will continue until the costs become eventually unbearable for either party, which will take years.

Ending the bloodshed is possible, if both parties agree to a ceasefire that would effectively freeze the political and territorial status quo. On the face of it, such an outcome would appear welcome since it would reduce the overall burden on civilians in Ukraine.

However, ceasefires are hardly ever the result of accordant adjustments. Instead, they represent hard-won diplomatic victories that reflect the military situation on the ground and often give the advantage to one of the parties. This is why they are so difficult to negotiate.

The key question, then, is how exactly a tolerable outcome will look if, by design, it falls short of the current goals of both parties.

Within Ukraine, accepting the loss of any sovereign territory would threaten the political future of the government and put people still living in these territories at risk. By annexing four Ukrainian oblasts, President Putin has effectively cut off his political options to withdraw from them without a fight. The West will not recognise a shift of borders either, even though it may acknowledge it as a provisory reality to be reversed over time.

To be sure, a ceasefire would not solve the underlying strategic causes of the conflict. President Putin is poised to view any Ukrainian state allied with the West as a threat to his rule and beliefs about national identity. At the same time, most Western sanctions have already reached the point of no return.

An end to the war will thus not result in a positive peace. Similar to the Minsk agreements, a negotiated ceasefire can help to reduce human suffering but the overall conflict between the parties would continue in other areas.

Another outcome is possible but highly uncertain. Successful Russian counter offensives in the Donbass and the continuing destruction of critical infrastructure across the country could enable Moscow to consolidate its territorial gains, at least with regard to the four annexed Ukrainian oblasts.

A stabilizing frontline would leave Kyiv with little option but to either seek a ceasefire agreement on Russian terms or to wait it out with the hope of later changing the situation on the battlefield. Whether such a scenario becomes reality depends on many factors, above all the level and timing of Western military support.

As the stocks of old Soviet era equipment have been emptying out, both the United States and European states have proceeded to deliver modern Western weapon systems. It has turned out, however, that many of them are not available in sufficiently large numbers or first need to undergo serious repairs, which takes time. Western capacities of ammunition production are not yet up to speed either.

By contrast, Russia is still profiting from its large stocks of Soviet produced equipment. Industrial production is slowly but steadily refocusing on military needs. Official defense spending in 2022 has increased by one third compared to 2021 budget expectations. It will remain on this level in the coming years.

Despite adding to societal tensions, another round of mobilization is also likely. Obviously, Russian resources are not infinite, but the right timing combined with improving operational execution would make it possible to gain decisive advantages over the course of 2023.

Back in spring 2022, President Zelensky publicly stated that expelling Russia from all Ukrainian territory would be impossible without causing World War Three. Instead, he suggested a return to the pre-February 24 line.

During negotiations in Istanbul in late March, the Ukrainian side, among others, proposed to abstain from joining any military coalition (i.e. NATO) and to resolve the issues related to Crimea through negotiations over a period of fifteen years.

But after the scale of the war crimes committed in Bucha and Irpin became apparent these views changed. In September 2022, Zelensky formally excluded the possibility of direct negotiations with President Putin. He now aims at regaining full territorial control over Ukraine's  1991 borders (including Crimea), the payment of reparations and the prosecution of war crimes.

At least publicly, Western politicians have subscribed to these goals as they have vowed to support the defense of Ukraine “for as long as it takes”.

Yet pushing out Russia from all of Ukraine would require the total collapse of President Putin’s military. Some Western officials, like the Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chief of Staff, General Mark Milley, believe this outcome to be highly unlikely. It would be imaginable only under circumstances close to total regime change in Moscow. So far, there is no indication of any major cracks in the Kremlin’s power base.

A full Ukrainian victory then seems to be a distant possibility. Any path towards this scenario would arguably necessitate fighter jets and long-range missiles that would allow Ukraine to carry out deep strikes into Russian territory proper. Were the West to deliver such weapons, the threat of nuclear escalation would loom large. Russian red lines on nuclear use may be malleable, but essentially no one knows how President Putin and his closest advisors would react.

The war in Ukraine will define European security for the foreseeable future. It has already triggered profound changes. Finland and Sweden will eventually join NATO, while the United States has considerably increased its military footprint on the continent. EU members have reversed their energy policy and substantially cut their imports of Russian fossil fuels. Normal travel and societal exchange with Russia have come to a halt.

Most of these changes will remain in place for a long time. A new iron curtain has come down. This is hardly a cause for celebration. The West will not abandon Ukraine. It will make sure that the Ukrainian people are able to determine their own future. But it also needs to avoid any potential spillovers that would turn the war into a catastrophic NATO-Russia conflict. What is required is prudent and far-sighted statecraft.

  • Dr. Alexander Graef is a Senior Researcher at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg (IFSH) and a member of the Younger Generation Leaders Network on Euro-Atlantic Security (YGLN)

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