What are the possible outcomes of the Ukraine war?
Russian Withdrawal: Russia could decide to cut its losses and abandon the fight in Ukraine. It is unlikely that the current Russian leadership will do so, but there is no guarantee that Vladimir Putin will remain Russia’s leader.
If there is an internal upheaval in the Kremlin, then a new leader, even if a hardliner, could decide to pull out, blame the debacle on Putin, and, as they say, rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic.
Go All Out: A second, dreadful possibility is that the Russians, who anyway think they are at war with NATO, could take more extreme action along a possible front that stretches from the Baltic to the Black Sea.
Right now it would seem that Russia is in no condition to prosecute a wider war, but Russia could gamble that by raising the stakes it could push Europe to split from the United States and promote a bigger political deal that might or might not cover Ukraine.
For example, Russia could get a guarantee from the Europeans of no NATO in Ukraine. Any of the European powers could also give such a guarantee unilaterally, but so far because of US pressure won’t for now. But that could change.
Continue the War: Russia can decide to tough it out and keep up the pressure on Ukraine, accepting heavy casualties and equipment losses as part of the bargain. The downside of this approach is that Russia will end up far weaker in the end, and the prize, if one wants to call it that, is hardly worth the expenditure.
Moreover, the ability of Russia to mobilize support internally given their heavy losses could backfire on Russia’s leaders and chase them from power. All kinds of accusations are possible, ranging from military incompetence, failed equipment to corruption and bad, reckless decision-making.
Negotiate a Deal: Ukraine is depending on massive NATO (and US) support so they can win their war, so President Volodymyr Zelensky is in no mood to negotiate with the Russians. In particular, Zelensky does not want to surrender any territory.
But Zelensky does not seem to have adequate forces to roll the Russians back, except in a few places, and not decisively. Even without a deal, it appears Russia will secure a territorial corridor linking Donbas to Crimea, and Russia may be able to shut down Ukrainian access to its major ports around Odesa.
Therefore the problem for Ukraine becomes economic and industrial; without a deal, Ukraine’s economy will be in shambles and recovery will take a long time and require significant funds that would have to come from Europe and the United States. No one knows how heavy Ukrainian losses are or whether the approximately 3 million Ukrainians who have fled will return. The humanitarian issue will not be easily solved.
But can Zelensky cut a deal that the Russians would accept that would end the war? One recalls that the context of both Minsk I and Minsk II was designed to stop fighting and reach a political solution. The most important provision of the Minsk agreement (signed by Ukraine, Russia the so-called Luhansk and Donetsk republics and overseen by the OSCE) was to grant a form of autonomy to the breakaway republics.
As rendered in the Minsk agreements, autonomy would not mean being separated from Ukraine. Minsk provides that the autonomous areas would be under Ukrainian law and that the Ukrainian (Rada) would pass special legislation establishing the autonomous areas.
But is the Minsk agreement still viable? Since Russia officially recognized the two Republics just before the invasion, it is hard to say. But over the last seven or eight years it was Ukraine, not Russia, that refused to negotiate under the Minsk provisions.
Still, while the Ukrainians have continued to hold out, the real reason a negotiated agreement has been so elusive is because the United States has not supported it and has encouraged Ukrainian resistance.
Autonomy can be defined in many different ways. There are many countries with autonomous areas, some recognized and others not, with a variety of definitions of how autonomy operates. Zelensky could have an opportunity to get a good deal from the Russians if the US backed a diplomatic solution.
Ideologically, the Russians have tried to explain the Ukraine war as a fight against Nazis and terrorists. But the reality is that the war is, at its heart, territorial – there are no Nazis as such.
On the whole Russian behavior, particularly against civilians and infrastructure targets, has been brutal and, to a degree, dysfunctional as it has not worked to convince Ukraine to stop fighting. There isn’t any doubt there have been war crimes, as commonly understood.
The US’ goal is not just to help Ukraine defend itself. It is clearly stated by none other than US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. He says, “We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.”
That would mean in practical terms almost the complete destruction of Russia’s expeditionary military capability, if Austin can make good on his aim. Austin’s statement is also the clearest in its objective of putting the US at war with Russia.
In between the US, Ukraine and Russia there is Europe. There is a lot at stake, including the dangerous potential of the expansion of the war outside of Ukraine.
As things now stand, the possibility of a negotiated solution seems distant unless there is a big change on the ground in Ukraine, or in Russia. We will have to wait and see if anyone blinks and if so who first.
Follow Stephen Bryen on Twitter at @stephenbryen