3 finals for Ukraine – POLITICO
How can this nightmare end?
From the dark bomb shelters of Mariupol to the airy corridors of NATO, the issue is no less urgent or clearer than when Russian forces invaded Ukraine on February 24.
Moscow’s announcement on Tuesday that it would shift its focus from kyiv to Donbass appeared to be a sign that President Vladimir Putin was preparing to chase a more modest victory. Yet that speculation was quickly dismissed as his forces continued their bombardment around the Ukrainian capital.
While the NATO powers adamantly refuse to intervene on Ukraine’s behalf, Western officials increasingly see three broad categories as to how this conflict might end. Whatever scenario plays out – Putin’s ousting, a negotiated settlement, or an ongoing stalemate – there is no going back to the old post-war order.
“For the love of God, this man can’t stay in power.” In the ad-lib heard around the world, US President Joe Biden expressed what many Western leaders thought. They don’t understand Putin’s thinking, they’re sick of his nuclear bullshit and they don’t trust a damn word he says.
Driven by ideology, Putin “is not some kind of cost-benefit analysis thinker”, joked former US Ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul. This means there might not have been much the West could have done to dissuade Putin from choosing this fight in the first place, nor much to convince him to end it.
Instead, Washington and London dream of what a post-Putin world might look like. And they like it.
In this vision, the Ukrainian resistance (with just enough western aid to avoid escalation) keeps Putin stuck in a protracted conflict.
To stay in the game, Putin must enlist more and more soldiers. They, in turn, return home in body bags that even his propaganda machine cannot whitewash – prompting mothers to take to the streets as they did during Russia’s failed occupation of Afghanistan. Meanwhile, increasingly punitive sanctions are pushing Russia’s middle class – now accustomed to capitalist treats like Ikea and McDonalds – to radicalize and degrade against the war.
Russian elites will likely create a circular firing squad for Russia’s “disastrous progress” in its war against Ukraine, a Western official has said. “People are going to be quite defensive about their own failures and, I think, seek to point fingers at others.”
There has been “considerable evidence of unease about how the invasion has played out for Russia among the wider Russian elite,” the same official added.
Eventually, Russian generals and spymasters – many of whom are under house arrest – decide to give Putin a dose of his own poison and forcefully dispose of it. As the coup coincides with mass protests, a generation of pro-Western leaders emerges from the chaos in Moscow.
The revolutionary fervor of the Russians and the triumph of the Ukrainians gave rise to a new impetus for liberal democracy not seen since the beginning of the 1990s.
Ukraine becomes an object lesson, not only for Moscow, but also for Beijing. Chinese President Xi Jinping, perhaps more of a ‘cost-benefit analysis thinker’, looks at Russia’s humiliation in the face of a united Western front and realizes playing for Taiwan simply wouldn’t be worth it. sadness.
Reality check: The last time the Russians abruptly overthrew their leader was in 1917 – and given the complete absence of organized opposition, there’s no guarantee a successor to Putin would have a different mindset . In the meantime, it might be a mistake to think that Russia’s experience would give Beijing doubts about Taiwan, because the historian Niall Ferguson has argued. China, which has a much larger economy than Russia, can take comfort in the West’s inability to wean itself off Russian fossil fuels and NATO’s unwillingness to directly risk the security of its members to help Ukraine.
Let’s make a deal
French President Emmanuel Macron has insisted that a negotiated peace deal is still possible. The contours of a potential settlement vary widely, and there is no clarity on how many Ukrainian concessions the West – and the Ukrainian people themselves – might agree to.
Western European countries are highly motivated to return to economic normality. Amid signs that the effect of the sanctions is fading, the penalties just need to get tougher, and that’s not just hurting Russia. The rising cost of living appears to be the biggest threat to Macron’s re-election bid, for example, and in Germany Chancellor Olaf Scholz has warned that avoiding Russian oil and gas will lead to a recession.
“If we were to reach a negotiated settlement to this conflict which brought Russian forces out of Ukraine, which protected the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine in the future, which ensured the reconstruction of Ukraine, then the sanctions could be reversed,” said US Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland. told US-backed Russian-language channel Current Time TV Wednesday.
“You could see a scenario where, with steps to get Russian forces out of Ukraine, you’ve sequenced the rollback of sanctions,” she said, although “we’re very, very far from that.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has already expressed some openness to renouncing Ukraine’s NATO membership. Putin might also be able to extract some territory – for example, leaving with Crimea and Donbass without further Ukrainian challenge – in exchange for a Russian withdrawal from the rest of the country.
Politicians in Berlin and Paris feel their guts clench just thinking about this outcome, with its potential for long-term soft power victories. If Ukraine splits in two, the EU can take blatant responsibility for the reconstruction of the free side. This creates an attractive contrast of West and East German style to highlight just how bad Moscow’s lifestyle offering is. (Remember: we still want Putin out.) And having a de facto clean border between the EU and Russia on the Dnieper is also attractive – especially when the alternative would have been the borders of Poland, Slovakia , Hungary and Romania if Putin had managed to capture all of Ukraine.
Reality check: Putin has broken nearly every promise he has made in the past month, from withdrawing from Kyiv to allowing humanitarian evacuation routes from Mariupol. “My opinion is that Putin is clearly untrustworthy,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Wednesday, as he questioned whether Macron’s negotiations with the Kremlin had much value.
Even if Putin sticks to a deal, any gains made through unprovoked violence deeply undermine the rules-based national order. Eastern EU countries that have been hawkish towards Russia would see such a deal as appeasement for a tyrant who threatens their own security. Putin might see it as an invitation to try to invade a neighbor again – and this time he might be better prepared.
No end (game)
The US Department of Defense estimates the conflict could continue for a decade. Indeed, there is no indication that either side will be ready for serious peace negotiations any time soon.
Zelenskyy refuses to even approach surrender territory until the Russians return troops to pre-February 24 positions, and his other potential concession – avowed Ukrainian neutrality – requires a constitutional referendum that is virtually impossible to win. to organise. Meanwhile, Western intelligence assessments claim that Putin doesn’t even know how bad things are for him; advisers keep him in blissful ignorance. The waning effect of sanctions in Russia is hardening Moscow’s resolve, while Western leaders are increasingly reluctant to aggravate the pain of their own constituents.
The ongoing military conflict is beginning to look like Syria in Eastern Europe. NATO remains firm and united in its refusal to send troops on the ground or shoot down Russian planes from the sky. The Ukrainians, despite their passion and discipline, are too spread out defending kyiv and other key points from Russian harassment to launch a real counter-offensive.
“There will be a time when Russian forces decide they have done enough in Mariupol, and then they will turn to … move north and try to mount this larger envelopment operation” of Ukrainian forces in Donbass , a western country. the official said.
As the Russians manage to take towns, Ukrainian forces’ best hope will be to use guerrilla-like techniques to prevent a military operation from becoming a political reality. That means moving Russian resources away from hardened front lines, a “very costly change in posture”, said Jennifer Cafarella, chief of staff at the American Institute for the Study of War.
Without much hope of actually holding Ukraine, Putin opts for systematic destruction, making the cost of rebuilding the country prohibitive. Russia never wins, but Ukraine loses its people and its economy.
Reality check: NATO remains on the sidelines to avoid a third world war. But an endless war has global consequences. Ukrainian refugees streaming west will not be able to return home. And they won’t be the only newcomers: People from the Middle East, Africa and Central Asia put at risk by the collapse of the Russian economy and the halt in food exports are said to be migrating again a corner problem in Western democracies.