In the opening days of Iraq War 2.0, a wiser not yet-General David Petraeus famously asked “Tell me how this ends.” Petraeus understood how wars end is more important than why they started. So how does the current war in Ukraine end?
Petraeus, for his part, said with a straight face “everyone in the entire country [Ukraine] hates them and most of the adults are willing to take action against them, whether it’s to take up weapons or to be human shields.” While accurately describing the roots of his own failure in Iraq, Petraeus misses the point. America’s goal was to create a neocon version of democracy in the Middle East. Putin seeks something much simpler: a classic buffer territory between him and NATO. He does not care about hearts and minds. He only has to break things.
Propaganda riven with sympathy for the plucky defenders has dominated the early days of the Ukraine war. This purposefully created a false sense Russian setbacks and a misunderstanding of Russian strategy. The Russians are executing a standard mechanized warfare maneuver in line with their goals, attacking south from Belarus to link up with forces attacking northward from Crimea. When they link up south of Kiev, Ukraine will be split into two. Kiev may be bypassed, or it may be destroyed, but that is secondary to the larger strategic maneuver. Another Russian thrust from east to west seeks to cut the nation into quarters so Ukrainian forces cannot reinforce one another.
Forget all the silliness about the Russians running out of gas; their supply lines are short (many Russian forces are within 70 miles of their own border), protected, and over decent roads. This is what is happening on the ground and Ukrainian forces are in no position to do anything but delay it. Watching war through a smartphone from a peaceful country may help you believe the Russian assault is going poorly but that is at odds with the facts. So here’s how this all ends.
The Best Case for Everyone is the Russians, perhaps under the guise of some humanitarian gesture, withdraw to the Russian-speaking areas of Ukraine and some strategic points, things like bridges and airports. Ukraine is essentially divided into two semi-states, the western half nominally under Ukrainian control and the eastern half a Russian zone with a new Iron Curtain in place.
Putin settles back into his easy chair. His brush back pitch to the West dealt out a serious spanking, he holds some new territory as a prize, he can announce victory at home, and his now-blooded troops are better positioned if he needs to ever push west again. NATO meanwhile can also claim some measure of victory, validating all the propaganda about the valiant Ukrainian people. The status quo of Europe resets and oil and gas keep flowing westward.
Putin made this strategy clear in his asks for a cease fire, that Ukraine accept demilitarization, declare itself neutral, and drop its bid to join NATO. He does not really want the cities, and he does not want to occupy a hostile population. That is why he agreed to safe corridors westward for refugees and why he has held back sustained shelling and rocketing of Kiev, for now. Depopulation aids Putin in neutering eastern Ukraine, and avoids later ethnic conflict between Ukrainian nationalists and the local Russian population.
The Next Best Case is NATO makes a secret agreement to keep Ukraine out of the alliance in return for Putin withdrawing in whole or in part (see above.) This is very tricky diplomacy, as it cannot appear NATO appeased Putin and it cannot seem in the eyes of the world that Putin “lost.” The Russians would be very tempted to leak the secret agreement to show they had achieved their goal, and the resulting denials from NATO would seem shallow. This scenario is also unlikely, as it requires Russia to trade land for a promise from the West. Putin knows nothing short of a NATO strike can dislodge him from eastern Ukraine and thus has no incentive to leave.
A Very Bad Case would be a decision by Putin to occupy or destroy Ukraine, install a puppet government, and roll his army right to the Polish border as if it was 1975 all over again. Putin certainly is holding this out as a threat if Zelensky ignores western pleas to cut a deal. Russian troops are positioning to assault the cities. Ask people of Aleppo and Grozny if they think Putin would turn them loose.
The idea may prove tempting to Putin. He can claim full victory, be done forever with the Ukrainian problem, leave NATO looking emasculated, strike fear into the other former satellites, and leave Joe Biden out of a job in his self-proclaimed role as leader of the free world. Biden has overplayed his hand, not recognizing there is almost nothing he can do to affect the situation on the ground. Sanctions did not stop Putin from invading (Georgia, Crimea, Ukraine…) and sanctions are unlikely to cause Putin to retreat. Russia is now the world’s most sanctioned country, besting even North Korea and Iran.
While Biden talks tough, the US oil self-ban affects only about one percent of Russian energy exports. Britain said it would only begin a multi-year phase out of Russian oil by the end of the year. The EU will not sanction Russian energy at all. The famed alliance is split. The US may make up the oil shortage by buying Venezuelan, Iranian, and Saudi oil. Remember when those were all their own foreign policy crises?
But the biggest problem for Biden is history (and voters) remembering him as the president who watched the Iron Curtain rebuilt. Unlike Obama’s cool reaction to Putin invading Crimea in 2014, Biden has vowed to “save” Ukraine as if he was fighting Corn Pop again.
By claiming in his State of the Union address Putin had “shaken the very foundations of the free world,” Biden created the impression he is going to put a stop to something of that scale. Such predictions carry an incredible political risk, especially for a commander in chief who also promised a weary America it is not going to war. As NBC’s Chuck Todd put it “I fear this is going to feel like a speech that didn’t age well.” Following the sad, embarrassing finale in Afghanistan, any ending in Ukraine that looks like a Putin win pretty much ends the effective portion of the Biden presidency.
That leaves only to consider The Horrible Case, where someone in NATO tries for a no-fly, or sets up a refugee protected zone, as was done in the former Yugoslavia. Zelensky knows partisans with rifles are only going to get him so far. He needs direct Western military intervention to survive. And a non-partisan 74 percent of Americans say NATO should impose a no-fly zone in Ukraine.
Consider the tinder in place, in addition to any simple false flag attacks Zelensky engineers out of desperation. CIA and US special forces are likely on the ground already in Ukraine, parsing intel and advising. US spy planes and drones are overhead. Imagine an incident where an American is taken prisoner by the Russians. Or maybe a border incident, real or imagined, with Poland to force NATO into the fight? Or a UN demand for some peacekeeping force stop Putin’s war crimes. Maybe a “one time surgical strike” for humanitarian reasons on a Russian column threatening another hospital?
Not on a menu is another Afghanistan-like (US or Soviet version) insurgency. What Putin is doing is an old school war to grab territory, not changing allegiances among the Taliban. This time his supply routes are short, his troops fighting the modern battle they trained for, albeit outside Kiev and not in the Fulda Gap. Unlike Afghanistan, Ukraine has cities dependent on modern infrastructure, and cities are easily encircled, starved out, or just leveled.
Equally not going to happen is some sort of regime change inside Russia. Putin has been in charge for 22 years and controls the media, the military, and the intelligence services. Those were the people who brought Putin to power in Russia’s last coup. There is no means to the end the West wishes for, and no clear evidence the people of Russia want such as outcome in the first place. After all, a million pink hats in Washington accomplished… very little. A few protests scattered across the vastness of Russia are exaggerated for a Western audience. And what could make life more interesting than one of the world’s largest stockpile of nuclear weapons having no one firmly in charge?
Anything can happen, but Putin “losing” in Ukraine seems among the most unlikely of scenarios.
Peter Van Buren is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the 99 Percent.