How will Russia’s war in Ukraine end?

From peace agreement to two states and the long war, there are various ways the conflict could pan out

People rally in Los Angeles in support of Ukraine and calling for Russia’s invasion of its neighbour to end. Reuters
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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has clearly failed to be the swift conquest envisaged by President Vladimir Putin.

His troops, more than 7,000 of whom have died, remain mired in battles almost a month into the conflict. With more than 20,000 soldiers wounded and hundreds of vehicles destroyed, Mr Putin’s grand plans have stalled.

There may now be an effort to withdraw in a way that minimises the humiliation of Russia’s leader. He could also gamble on a renewed push for a swift conquest, or settle into a long war of bombardment and siege.

Peace deal

Negotiations are continuing. The most optimistic scenario could culminate in a deal in which Ukraine agrees to repeal its constitutional commitment to joining Nato.

It would also accept that territory annexed in 2014 – the separatist areas Crimea and Donbas – would be attached to Russia. In exchange, Moscow would withdraw all its troops to pre-invasion positions and end the fighting. Despite calls for compensation for the huge damage Russia has caused, it would fall on Ukraine’s friends and allies to pay the reconstruction bill, estimated at $500 billion.

Though this would be a clear defeat for all of Mr Putin’s war aims, he would still be able to contrive it as a victory by denying Ukraine’s Nato application and the formal acceptance of seized territories. He would also seek the lifting of some sanctions so this too could be conjured as a triumph.

It is possible that Ukraine would still be able to apply to join the EU but it would want copper-bottomed guarantees from allies for its future security if it rejects the Nato route.

Ukraine divided

Despite suffering setbacks and substantial losses in the past month, Russia is now fighting the war with a slow but methodical approach of heavy bombardment and steady advance.

It could soon take the key port of Mariupol, establishing a contiguous land bridge from Russia to the Crimea – one of Mr Putin’s core war aims.

Moscow could also break through from the east, taking Kharkiv and pushing out from Donbas, forcing Ukrainian forces to beyond the River Dnieper that runs from north to south.

With the capital Kyiv looking increasingly resilient and difficult to take, and his troops exhausted, Mr Putin might choose to end the war there. Essentially, there would be an east and west Ukraine, perhaps similar to Korea’s division after the armistice reached in 1953.

But a western-backed insurgency would be launched with equipment far more sophisticated than that used by the Taliban to defeat US-backed forces in Afghanistan.

Russia could retaliate by attacking military supply convoys and stepping up its campaign of cyber warfare. But that could bring escalation, with heavy counter-cyber strikes by America and Britain that have to date not be used.

Long war

Progress by Russia’s military has been slow, ponderous and inept. But Moscow’s commanders have learnt some tough lessons and will now methodically apply pressure on Ukraine’s military.

It will use massed artillery and its air force to pummel Ukraine’s strongholds into submission before moving ground troops in. It could be very much a repeat of the grim, bitter fighting that levelled Grozny in Chechnya.

Ukraine probably lacks the personnel and equipment to launch major counter-attacks, making it near impossible to force Russia out.

Both sides could slug it out over the summer months, always with the potential that the war might escalate sharply with the use of chemical weapons or the unlikely, but possible, nuclear strike.

Sanctions will begin to have significant effects on the Russian economy, potentially turning popular opinion against Mr Putin and resulting in his downfall. But that could well be wishful thinking and the war might simply grind on and on, with the West gradually losing interest while Russia holds its gains.

Updated: March 21, 2022, 8:31 AM