“Mr. Krieger, how will this end?”
Both Russia and Ukraine are locked in a long, grinding war neither side can win.
We are now 6 weeks into Putin’s war in Ukraine. My students ask me each day,”Mr. Krieger how will this end?” As a textbook author, I am used to giving my students definitive answers such as “the North will use its superior manpower and industrial resources to overwhelm the South.”
Past events always seem to have easily predictable outcomes that can be packaged into chapters and tested on exams. But the true shape of the Ukrainian conflict is still unknown. As a result, I am forced to humbly answer my student’s question by saying, “Neither I nor anyone else knows how the war in Ukraine will end.”
We can say that Putin’s original plan to quickly seize Kyiv and then replace Zelensky with a Russian puppet has failed. As the war now shifts to battles in eastern Ukraine, we can identify three possible scenarios: a protracted stalemate, a negotiated settlement, or a coup that will remove Putin from power.
A Protracted Stalemate
In this scenario, both Russia and Ukraine are locked in a long, grinding war neither side can win. Grimly determined to save his political life, Putin refuses to end the war. At the same time, resolute Ukrainian forces remain grimly determined to save their country. The result is a protracted stalemate.
A protracted war will cause tragic death and destruction. It will also run the risk of a dangerous escalation. Faced with mounting battlefield losses and a crippled economy, Putin may turn to chemical or even tactical nuclear weapons. This would then place tremendous pressure on the United States and NATO to intervene and raise the risk of a direct conflict between Russia and the West.
A Negotiated Settlement
All wars inevitably end with a negotiated settlement. The peace process between Russia and Ukraine would have to begin with a cease-fire. Ukraine has already indicated it would refrain from joining NATO and become a neutral state much like Austria. But these minimal agreements would still leave several difficult questions. For example, will Ukraine concede the loss of Crimea and portions of the Donbas? Who will pay for the reconstruction of Ukraine and the resettlement of its displaced citizens? And when will the United States and NATO revoke the economic sanctions now crippling the Russian economy? Answering these questions will inevitably force Putin and the Zelensky government to make very hard decisions.
A Coup to Remove Putin from Power
Vladimir Putin has never faced a serious challenge to his power. Could his catastrophic miscalculations in Ukraine prompt forces within Russia to oust him from office?
A popular uprising against Putin seems very unlikely. Most Russians still have minimal access to outside information about the war. Putin’s propaganda machine continues to churn out story after story blaming Ukrainian Nazis and American imperialists for the war. In addition, the threat of severe punishments is stifling public demonstrations. Although his approval may be brittle, opinion polls report that over 80 percent of Russians approve of Putin and the war in Ukraine.
Any effort to remove Putin from power will require either the active or passive support from the military, FSB, and the National Guard. At the moment, all three of these agencies remain loyal to Putin. Although loyalties can shift, any attempted coup will face formidable obstacles and significant perils.
“Big doors can swing on small hinges”
Wars are inherently unpredictable. Admiral James Stavridis, the former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO forces in Europe, recently reminded viewers of “Morning Joe” that, “Big doors can swing on small hinges.” In short, expect the unexpected.
The brief but truthful answer to the question, “Mr. Krieger, how will this end?” is that I don’t know.
FOR FURTHER DISCUSSION AND WRITING
- List an advantage and disadvantage of each scenario discussed in this Commentary.
- Which scenario do you think is the most likely to occur?
- “Big doors can swing on small hinges” – Identify a possible “small hinge” and explain how it could significantly affect the war in Ukraine.
FOR FURTHER INFORMATION
Today’s Commentary drew upon information and insights from the following articles: “Biden’s Ugly Options in Ukraine,” by Walter Russel Mead; “Is a coup against Putin possible?” by Amy Knight; and “Do not expect the war in Ukraine to end quickly,” by Gideon Rachman.
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