A vision of how Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine might end is emerging as dissent and sabotage grow in Russia, the human and economic tolls soar on both sides and neither country’s military appears capable of outright victory.
The way the war will end is likely to be stalemate, the same pattern of on-again, off-again low-grade fighting that has plagued Eastern Ukraine since Russian forces seized Crimea and much of the Donbas region eight years ago. An end to the war in Ukraine will not mean peace under any of the scenarios envisioned.
Whether the result of negotiated compromise or flagging enthusiasm for a war destroying both countries, the hot war will be replaced by a frozen conflict once Putin secures a corridor linking territories his forces seized in 2014.
Russian troops lately have been advancing on small but strategic areas beyond the separatist-controlled Don River basin since withdrawing from failed efforts to take Kyiv, the capital, or Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv. Downsizing and refocusing its offensive may help Russia keep the ravaged territory around Mariupol along the Sea of Azov, providing Putin with a land bridge from Donbas to Crimea and a face-saving offramp to declare victory and stand down.
Putin is under pressure from all sides to stop the war. Russian nationalists and veterans, outraged by a humiliating loss of 485 Russian soldiers and 80 armored vehicles in a pontoon bridge bombing, last week implored Putin to ratchet up the offensive for a decisive defeat of Ukraine.
Rising popular opposition to the invasion is evident. A rash of hackings of state-run media included an anti-war message flashed on state-run TV during coverage of the militaristic parade across Red Square on May 9 Victory Day. A Russian military court issued a ruling in mid-May upholding the firing of 115 National Guard troops for desertion. The Telegram social media app last week reported that military conscription offices had been torched in 11 provincial cities.
A handful of local lawmakers in Vladivostok recently demanded an end to the Ukraine “special military operation,” and a Geneva-based Russian diplomat, Boris Bondarev, wrote a scathing resignation letter to the Kremlin saying he was ashamed of his country.
While the anti-war forces remain a minority in widely propagandized Russian society, the converging pressures on Putin raise the most likely prospect for ending the war with at least a partial concession to the Kremlin autocrat. While that should be acceptable to Putin, Ukrainians will not settle for an outcome that leaves them with less territory than before Putin’s unprovoked invasion that has cost tens of thousands of lives.
Ukraine is forecast to suffer a staggering 45% drop in gross domestic product this year from disrupted industry, blockaded ports cutting off vital grain exports, artillery bombardment destroying housing, rail lines, bridges, and other crucial infrastructure. A halt to the fighting would allow return of many of the 14 million Ukrainians — nearly a third of the population — who fled their homes for safer regions of the country or refuge abroad.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has inspired his countrymen in a fierce defense of the homeland. He has rocketed to global acclaim for Ukraine’s David-versus-Goliath defiance of Putin’s violation of the post-World War II order prohibiting the use of force to change internationally recognized borders.
Zelensky and Ukraine featured prominently at last week’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where the embattled president’s impassioned address via video stirred the global leaders to ponder how to stop the worst fighting in Europe since the Nazis’ defeat in 1945.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger stirred controversy at the forum when he suggested Ukraine would need to make territorial concessions to Russia in exchange for peace.
“Negotiations need to begin in the next two months before it creates upheavals and tensions that will not be easily overcome,” the 98-year-old statesman said, suggesting the starting point for those talks should be Russia’s withdrawal from territory taken since the Feb. 24 launch of the invasion.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen pushed back on the notion of Ukraine making concessions to appease Putin’s “destructive fury.” The outcome of the war is “an issue of European security” as well as Ukraine’s, she argued, warning against appeasement of the aggressor setting a dangerous precedent for other democracies in Putin’s gunsights.
The conundrum facing Ukraine and its Western allies is whether a just settlement of the bloody conflict can be achieved without further loss of life and economic viability in Ukraine on top of the devastating tolls of death and destruction of the war’s first 100 days.
It divides into two conflicting strategies of seeking “peace” or demanding “justice,” The Economist wrote in its Sunday online newsletter.
“Those who say peace is the priority point to the growing toll inside Ukraine, and the tens of millions of distant people, the world’s poorest and hungriest, who will soon suffer,” from Russia’s blockade of grain shipments from Ukrainian ports, writes digital editor Adam Roberts.
“For the peace camp, granting Mr. Putin a reward for his invasion, such as Ukraine ceding lots of territory, is the lesser evil to endure, if the war can end sooner.”
Roberts put himself in the rival “justice” camp, arguing that Putin has put the world at risk of returning to a brutal era in which powerful countries gain by aggression against weaker neighbors.
“Reward Mr. Putin now, and the risk that other autocracies start launching similar invasions of weaker neighbors increases,” he concluded. “Better therefore to help Ukraine, a sovereign country, to push back against the bully.”
For the West to pressure Ukraine to fight and recover all of its territory bequeathed by independence in 1991 would leave a defeated and unstable Russia and a return of the “unipolar moment” that followed the Soviet Union’s collapse, leaving the United States as the sole superpower three decades ago, wrote Andrei Kortunov, a political scientist of Russia’s short-lived reform era and director of the Russian International Affairs Council think tank. He held out the prospect that “a quiet Russia would allow the West to cope more easily with China, which would be the only major obstacle to liberal hegemony and the long-awaited ‘end of history’” prematurely heralded by the triumph of democracy in Europe 30 years ago.
But as a quiet Russia is not envisioned by many in the wake of any decisive defeat of Russia, “a less-than-perfect compromise between the West and Russia might be followed by a more important, and more fundamental, compromise between the West and China. If a deal with Mr. Putin is possible, a deal with Xi Jinping would be a logical continuation.”
Putin foe and exiled former political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky takes a different view of the compromise-or-conquer debate over how to end the war. Once Russia’s wealthiest man as owner of the Yukos oil company in the first years of the 21st Century, Khodorkovsky laments what he sees as a “defeatist” attitude among Western leaders that Putin interprets as weakness.
“The current leaders of Western countries have never dealt with thugs. Their experience and education relate to interactions between statesmen,” the political rival jailed by Putin for 10 years and now living in London wrote in a commentary last month. “This is not the case with Vladimir Putin. He was raised in the KGB, an organization that relied on force and disregard for the law.”
If allowed to take Ukrainian territory with impunity, “Putin will look towards other neighbors, such as Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, who were also previously part of the Russian Empire,” Khodorkovsky warned. “You have to understand that Mr. Putin, in his head, has long been at war not with Ukraine, but with America.”
Putin allies are stirring in Moldova’s Transdniestria region, in the Balkans where nationalist Slavs are fomenting new ethnic tensions, and in Iran where hardliners are targeting U.S. bases in the Middle East, Khodorkovsky cautioned. And because Putin’s objective is confrontation with American forces, “that means a worse war, and even bigger one, is likely.”