Under what conditions is it possible to end Russia’s war against Ukraine?

3 November 2022, 05:15 PM

Russia’s escalation of the war in Ukraine may cause it to last longer, as well as intensifying the level of hostilities. At the same time, the Kremlin is now increasinglycalling for negotiations and peace. Under what conditions is it possible to end the war? First, let’s consider some possible scenarios of the end of the war that are being discussed, but that are considered unlikely.

The first such scenario is a military victory by Russia, the surrender of Ukraine. Putin failed to achieve such a result even in the first weeks of the war, when, it would seem, he had all the opportunity to achieve this. The further development of hostilities has proved that Russia is noticeably weakening and is gradually withdrawing from the occupied territories in Ukraine. In addition, Ukraine is increasingly relying on the military and economic support of its international partners – the most highly developed countries in the world. The situation is completely different for Russia, which is replenishing its arsenals only with Iranian drones. Even China refrains from directly supporting Russia. Yes, Russia has great natural and considerable human resources, and has enough money for war so far. This is enough to continue the war against Ukraine, but, as it turned out, not enough for victory. Even Russia’s use of tactical nuclear weapons won’t change the course of the war in Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s favor. If such weapons are used on the front line, Russian troops will also find themselves in the zone of damage. Given the dispersion of Ukrainian troops, the damaging effect from the use of tactical nuclear weapons will be limited, but the war itself will become merciless and move to the territory of Russia. Then the Ukrainians will have no restrictions in their means of fighting against Russia.

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The second such scenario is a peace treaty between Russia and Ukraine. In the first months of the war, this was quite a possible scenario, given the negotiations that took place in March. But at that time, Russia did not seek a mutually acceptable compromise, but the surrender of Ukraine, which was unacceptable either to the leadership of Ukraine or the vast majority of Ukrainians. Later, the revelation of Russian war crimes in Ukraine and the Russian offensive in the Donbas showed that it’s hardly possible to negotiate a full-fledged peace with Russia. After that, as well as due to the successful counter-offensives of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, the motivation for peace negotiations has sharply decreased on the Ukrainian side. And even the theoretical possibility of any peaceful compromise between Ukraine and Russia has disappeared after Russia annexed four temporarily occupied Ukrainian regions. That’s why Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy declared the impossibility of negotiations and peace with Putin’s regime. Renunciation of even part of the occupied regions is unacceptable for Ukrainians, and Russia is unlikely to agree to the return of any of the territories it currently occupies to Ukraine.

The third scenario is a direct military conflict between Russia and NATO, including the risk of a global nuclear war. According to the estimates of most experts, so far this is unlikely, but still a possibility for the further development of the current war in Ukraine.

It’s very noticeable that the United States, and even more so the European countries, don’t want a direct military confrontation with Russia due to the risk of a global nuclear war. But at the same time, the West cannot allow Russia to win the war against Ukraine since the war will inevitably come to the territory of NATO and EU countries. Dictators drunk on blood and military conquests are stopped only by military defeats. Therefore, the West will try to stop (and, if possible, defeat) Putin’s Russia on the territory of Ukraine.

Russia, in turn, considers the United States and NATO its main enemy, but not Ukraine. All of Putin’s speeches and comments are permeated with the rhetoric of war with the West. However, Russia has no chance in a conventional war against NATO. If the Russian army is not capable of defeating Ukraine alone, how would it defeat a military bloc of highly developed countries?

A nuclear conflict could lead to mutual annihilation. Therefore, Russia is currently limited to an allegedly mediated war with the West on the territory of Ukraine.

But at the same time, it’s obvious that the Kremlin has already started a hybrid war against the West – by provoking a sharp rise in energy prices and limiting gas supplies to Europe, by cyber-attack and attempts at internal political destabilization in some European countries. There have already been the first signs of sabotage attacks on infrastructure facilities in Western countries.

The Kremlin can overplay in hybrid attacks against the West, or in military attacks against Ukraine, imperceptibly crossing an unacceptable “red line.” The United States and NATO can respond both to the use of tactical nuclear weapons against Ukraine and to Russian attacks on the infrastructure facilities of Western countries. And here, a chain reaction of mutual exchange of blows can occur quite quickly. And then the only question will be whether the parties will proceed to the use of strategic nuclear weapons.

The West is clearly trying to avoid such a dangerous scenario. But what can we expect from Putin, who is relentlessly following the path of escalating the war? Is he ready to take extreme measures to stave off the threat of defeat? And will Russia carry out criminal orders capable of destroying itself, as well as most of the world? There are no unequivocal answers to these questions yet.

Therefore, today this scenario remains in the zone of uncertainty. It seems unlikely in the near term (at least up to six months) since Putin will try to achieve his goals by means of conventional war. But in the conditions of the threat of Russia’s complete military defeat, the risks of such a scenario will increase significantly.

Let’s now consider more likely scenarios for the end of the war.

I’ll start with an ambiguous and, in fact, a dead-end scenario – the freezing of the war (partial or full): the emergence of the balance of the military potentials of the opposing sides in the course of hostilities, the stabilization of the front line and the transition of hostilities to the positional phase for a quite long period (about a year, and perhaps longer). Hostilities in this case may last indefinitely in the form of periodic or episodic shelling and local clashes along the front line. If such a situation drags on, negotiations on a mutual ceasefire and even reaching an agreement are not excluded.

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Indirect signs can lead to a disappointing conclusion that the scenario of “freezing the war” is acceptable for Putin, but on the condition that he retains control over the annexed regions, and this is secured by some interstate agreement. However, this is unacceptable for Ukraine. Therefore, the maximum that is possible within this scenario is a technical and procedural ceasefire agreement (at the level of the military leadership of the opposing sides).

In many respects, this situation will resemble what happened during the war in the Donbas from spring 2015 to February 2022. The consequences can be the same. This scenario doesn’t foresee full-fledged peace, rather it will be an uncertain and unstable break before a new war. At the same time, as the experience of the war in the Donbas has shown, the ceasefire agreement can be periodically violated.

This scenario will be possible under the following conditions: Russia is relatively adaptable to sanctions pressure and a protracted war, but has no opportunity to defeat Ukraine; The West continues to provide Ukraine with moderate (but already smaller in terms of volume) military and technical and economic assistance, minimally required to deter Russian aggression, but insufficient for offensive actions and the liberation of the occupied territories; international partners can push Ukraine’s leadership to agree to a ceasefire.

The implementation of such a scenario will cause criticism both within Ukraine and within Russia, which will also cause its instability.

Such a scenario seems unlikely in the near future (up to a year). But if the war drags on for a long period (even more than a year), its probability may increase.

The most optimistic scenario for Ukraine is the complete liberation of all occupied territories. It will be possible with a combination of the following factors: qualitative strengthening of the military potential of the Armed Forces of Ukraine with the help of our international partners, which will create a significant advantage over the Russian army and allow the Armed Forces of Ukraine to conduct active and successful offensive actions; a sharp increase in crisis tendencies in the Russian economy and politics, the emergence of an acute internal political crisis in Russia as a result of heavy military defeats in Ukraine. It is the acute internal Russian crisis that can create a favorable window of opportunity for the complete liberation of all occupied territories by Ukraine.

In this case, the end of the war will take place either with the Ukrainian Armed Forces’ reaching the Ukrainian-Russian border of 1991 and the corresponding cessation of active hostilities, or with the signing (by representatives of the Armed Forces) of an agreement on the cessation of hostilities along the Ukrainian-Russian border of 1991.

A moderately optimistic scenario is the gradual (stage-by-stage) liberation of most of the occupied territories (the occupied territories of Kherson and Zaporizhzhya oblasts; a part, and under favorable conditions, all of the occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts), with the exception of the Crimea and, possibly, part of the Donbas. Very tentatively, this is a return to the borders as of Feb. 24, 2022, although there may be actual deviations from this line in one or another direction in the Donbas.

This scenario is possible under the following conditions: successful step-by-step offensive actions of the Armed Forces of Ukraine; stable military and technical and economic support of Ukraine from its international partners; the military, political and economic weakening of Russia, but without the emergence of a systemic internal crisis; the high risk of Russia using nuclear weapons in the event of an attempt to liberate Donetsk, Luhansk and, especially, Crimea, which may prompt Ukraine’s international partners to actively negotiate with Russia and Ukraine on a ceasefire on the conditional line “as of Feb. 24, 2022,” or the actual front line at that time.

Another argument for a temporary ceasefire could be the large number of casualties on the Ukrainian side during the attempted offensive operation to liberate the Crimea (perhaps also the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk).

In this case, hostilities may end with a technical ceasefire agreement. Outwardly, it will resemble the “war freeze” scenario, but with one significant difference. The liberation of most of the occupied territories will be considered in Ukraine as a relative victory, although there will be criticism that the Crimea (or the entire Donbas) was not liberated. In turn, Russia will consider it as a painful defeat, an “indecent peace,” which may become a trigger for an internal political crisis.

In addition, Russia will face a flow of refugees, as well as angry and disillusioned combatants, which will only increase internal social and political tension in Russia. If the internal situation in Russia develops in this way, it will divert attention from Ukraine on the part of the Russian authorities and political groups competing in Russia. If this crisis escalates, a window of opportunity may open to liberate all occupied territories.

Thus, the outcome of the war will be determined by the following factors: the effectiveness of the hostilities of each of the opposing sides, the level (sufficiency) of support for Ukraine by its international partners, as well as the development of the internal political situation in Russia. Not only the end of the war will depend on the combination of these three factors, but also the conditions of future peace, even without its contractual formalization.

The text is published with the author’s permission

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