Three Scenarios on Ending the War in Ukraine

From a New York Times column by Ross Douthat headlined “Looking for an Endgame in Ukraine”:

Let’s start with a very cold-sounding observation. The first week of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has been the best week for American grand strategy in a very long time.

Before the invasion, the United States faced the following set of challenges: First, we had in Ukraine a tacit client state but not a formal ally, to which we had committed just enough support to make it a tempting target for Russian aggression but not enough — for sound strategic reasons — to actually protect it. Then we had a set of formal allies, our friends in Western and Central Europe, that were economically dependent on Russian resources and less-than-eager to shoulder new military burdens. And we faced a near-superpower rival, China, whose growing Pacific ambitions require American resources and attention, both of which were tied up by our inability to hand off our responsibilities in Europe.

Now everything has changed. Instead of just continuing to prod at Western weak points, Putin has committed himself fully and earned not a victorious coup de main that let him immediately menace Vilnius or Warsaw but the possibility of a long war of attrition if he sticks to his ambitions. At the same time, Europe isn’t just leading the economic and financial response; it’s promising the crucial steps that a succession of American presidents have sought — starting with German rearmament, the keystone of any effort to rebalance our own resources to Asia. And while China no doubt sees advantage in all the turmoil, the staggering start to Putin’s war and the unified and unexpectedly punitive Western response have to slightly dampen its own Taiwanese ambitions.

Unfortunately all these gains in realpolitik terms have come at an immense and increasing price: the suffering and brutalization of Ukrainians (and unwilling Russian conscripts), the economic suffering of ordinary Russians and the small but clearly increased risk of a more existential kind of conflict — the return of the nuclear shadow that lifted with the Cold War’s end.

So our week of grand-strategy achievements won’t mean anything if the instability unleashed in Ukraine can’t somehow be contained. And while that containment isn’t really in American hands, it would still help if our leaders had some sense of what kind of endgame we are looking for — a place where our support for the Ukrainians, our sense of our own interests and the realities of Russian power might converge.

Here are three scenarios to consider, while we wait for this week’s analysis to be overtaken by events.

This endgame, popular among Twitter wish-casters, is highly unlikely but likelier than anyone would have imagined before the invasion. Putin may be an autocrat in foreign policy, but he depends on an oligarchy at home and relies on some degree of popular support, and there’s a lot of evidence that this invasion was much more his own idée fixe than anything with consensus backing. The Russian elite can weather economic turmoil better than ordinary Russians, but there’s no reason to think that they’re going to enjoy being the leaders of a pariah state. So a future where military failure, popular unrest and elite maneuverings leads to Putin’s removal and a peace deal with a chastened Russian government can’t be definitely ruled out — and in its ideal form it should be earnestly desired.

But in reality, for now, American policymakers should put it out of their minds, because it’s still an extremely low-probability scenario and one that absolutely cannot be the focus of U.S. policy — since an unsuccessful coup with even a trace of an American fingerprint would compound every existential danger that we face, raising the odds of wider ground war and nuclear war alike. And that’s without even getting into the dire scenarios that might flow from a coup that half-succeeds, removing Putin but plunging Russia into political chaos. (If anyone suggests sending some talented revolutionaries on a sealed train to St. Petersburg, let’s hope Joe Biden passes.)

The harsh reality is that despite their own blunders and heroic Ukrainian opposition, the Russians are winning the actual war at the moment, still taking territory and still pushing forward. At the same time, the idea that they’re going to simply pacify an entire country roused to self-defense with this army, this scale of military force, seems even more unlikely than it did before the war began. So a world of guerrilla warfare backed by the West and run by a Ukrainian government-in-exile looms in a future where Russia wins the war outright.

For American interests in the short run, that’s a situation with a lot of advantages. It keeps Moscow tied down in its own near-abroad, it keeps Europe focused on the necessity of rearmament and energy independence, and it undermines Putin’s rule slowly without the risk of a coup.

Unfortunately it also leaves most of Ukraine under Russia’s boot and keeps people fighting and dying for years if not decades. And then, too, if we end up sustaining the financial and cultural isolation we’re imposing on Russia right now, we’ll basically guarantee that the current Russia-China alignment becomes a true axis, even a Eurasian financial and economic system unto itself, with Russia as the weaker client but with Chinese power benefiting immensely.

As a balance of what’s plausible, pragmatic and humanitarian, this is the preferable endgame. The question, though, is whether there are terms the warring parties might currently accept, or whether Russia having battlefield superiority and Ukraine feeling that it has the full backing of the West will inspire a mutual maximalism that makes it hard to move from cease-fire to stability.

Consider the following hypothetical: Over the next week, Russia fails to take Kyiv but does succeed in taking Mariupol in Ukraine’s southeast, establishing control of a land bridge between Russian-controlled Crimea and the secessionist pseudo-republics in the Donbas region. At that point there is a real cease-fire and peace negotiations begin.

But who actually has the upper hand? Putin offers to trade the territory he’s taken for some of his war aims — recognition of Russian rule over Crimea, neutral status for Ukraine, a repudiation of NATO membership. The Ukrainians and their outraged Western supporters offer to end the war on Russia’s economy in exchange for an unconditional Russian retreat and dismiss the idea of rewarding a criminal invasion in any way.

Between those incommensurate views of the situation, is there a deal to be made? Or is the likely result only stalemate, a new frozen conflict, Russia isolated and wounded and dangerous, and preparations for the next war in both Moscow and Kyiv? And out of the varying options, which is the best outcome for the United States — the one that banks our strategic gains at the lowest cost in human lives and long-term dangers?

So far the Biden administration has met the test of this war’s outbreak quite impressively, both in rallying support for Ukraine and in letting events unfold to our benefit organically without taking outsize risks. But those benefits are provisional, contingent on how the war ends and what kind of peace follows — and those tests are yet to come.

Ross Douthat has been an Opinion columnist for The Times since 2009. He is the author of several books, most recently, “The Deep Places: A Memoir of Illness and Discovery.”

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