How Will Russia's War on Ukraine End?
Peace is tragically elusive
As Russia continues to wage war on Ukraine, surrounding cities and murdering civilians, a dark question looms—how does this all end?
The most encouraging element of this disastrous invasion is the unwillingness of Ukraine to be subjugated. Vladimir Putin believed he could march his armies in swiftly, overwhelm the population, and install a puppet government. Ukrainians will not allow themselves to be ruled in such a way. Russian military disorganization and ineptitude has dragged the war on, but so has Ukrainian resistance. Volodymyr Zelenskyy has not surrendered. In waging war, Putin has found himself isolated from much of the world, his nation rapidly transformed into a pariah state. The Western sanctions leveled upon Russia have been crippling. Together, the public and private sectors of the West are punishing Russia for Putin’s mania. In a rational world, Putin would look upon what he has wrought and give in.
Instead, he presses on. Russian troops are nearing Kyiv and encircling other cities. The worst refugee crisis in Europe since World War II is underway, with the civilians who remain begging for electricity and running water. In a conventional sense, there is no victory possible for either side—Ukraine has been devastated already and Russia has little power to effectively dominate the young nation.
Zelenskyy believes there is a path to victory for Ukraine if only NATO begins shooting down Russian planes and engaging the superpower in a Third World War. This is a reckless request that could lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands or millions of people. Putin’s threat of nuclear war, on one hand, could be idle—bluster from a weakened strongman. Yet the escalation of war between the West and Russia raises the possibility of mass casualties because such conflict is so difficult to unwind once it’s been initiated. World Wars don’t get walked back. Nuclear weapons can be deployed accidentally or in the heat of battle, a general on one side convinced that a “tactical” strike can quickly bring an end to such a conflict. World War must be averted and it still can be as long as the West continues to show restraint.
The mainstream liberal belief is that economic sanctions have been so severe that Putin must eventually relent. Or, perhaps, regime-change will come, with the nation’s educated classes and wealthy elite deciding a madman like Putin isn’t worth deferring to any longer. Foreign policy mandarins in America long for a coup or hope to foment one. Lindsey Graham figures someone can just assassinate Putin. Anything now is possible, they say. There may be a world where the plummeting value of the ruble and the withdrawal of major American corporations will convince Putin to slink away from war and leave the Ukrainians at peace.
But will the sanctions actually work? Will cutting Putin off from the Western world bring about a swifter end to the war? One unsettling reality of the conflict is that Putin’s Russia, in its isolation and relative weakness, could be more of a rogue entity than the Soviet Union, which held together a true empire. The Western withdrawal could easily drive Russia closer to China, a naturally ally in its disdain for democracy. Sanctions, generally, have a mixed record when it comes to delivering upon desired policy goals. The West imagines the Russian people and those in the upper echelons of government will look upon the exits of Visa, Mastercard, and McDonald’s and decide they must overthrow their leader. To head this off, Putin could decide soon the invasion just isn’t worth the trouble and hunt for a way to save face as his troops pull back. This is plausible enough.
So, too, is a further surge in Russian nationalism, a menacing turn inward, and a rallying to Putin’s cause. As they suffer, Russians could come to see the West as their tormentor, the civilization seeking to annihilate them. All of this fits neatly into Putin’s darkening weltanschauung. Xi is savvier than Putin in that he understands there is little upside, at this point, to initiating a military conquest of his own. Taiwan will be spared for a little while longer. In the meantime, he will be happy to draw Russia further into China’s fold, accelerating an illiberal union.
A Russian retreat from Ukraine is the only way to guarantee peace and save lives. It does not seem likely the Ukrainian military can outright defeat Russia and NATO has made it clear no troops are forthcoming for the enormous land war Zelenskyy craves. An accord between the nations may have to be struck, one that satisfies Russia enough to end the invasion while guaranteeing, in the long-term, Ukraine’s safety. This is not so simple. For starters, the West must bow to the reality that Ukraine will never join NATO. Like Finland, Ukraine can operate as a neutral nation next to Russia. Ukraine cannot recover Crimea either, just as Serbia can’t claw back Kosovo. Some kind of recognition of Russia’s dominion there will need to occur, as distasteful as this will be to the West. The same might have to happen for the Donbas separatist republics. In turn, Zelenskyy should be permitted to remain in power and Putin should understand another round of sanctions will be implemented if he attempts to invade again. Ukraine, of course, cannot dissolve its armed forces.
Critics will say this is a capitulation to Russian imperialism. Why should Putin get anything out of such aggression? If foreign policy were a court of law, the critics would have a point. Americans who study their own history know it is anything but; superpowers meddle in their own spheres and peace follows a logic of realpolitik, not morality. The much greater goal, still quite elusive, should be to somehow integrate Russia into the West, encouraging the growth of democracy there. This is a dream for a post-Putin world. In all the current anti-Russian fervor, it should be remembered that we would all be better off with more cooperation, not less.