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Opinion: Peace, partition or stalemate: three ways this unravelling war will end

20 March 2022

The Russians’ gamble on a quick win did not pay off, but Ukraine still cannot drive them out. So what happens next? Asks Professor Mark Galeotti (UCL School of Slavonic & East European Studies).

Professor Mark Galeotti

Almost a month after Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine, it is clear just how badly the war has gone for him. Although there have been advances to the south, east and north of the country, only one big city, Kherson, has fallen, with Mariupol on the Azov sea coast still resisting after 24 days of siege. Kyiv looks increasingly unassailable, and even where there have been Russian advances, they really just control ribbons of land along main roads, with Ukrainian forces often able to operate behind their notional front lines.

How we got here:

It was always going to be a difficult war. Moscow chose to set aside its usual approach — a methodical, co-ordinated advance following a massive preliminary bombardment intended to shatter the enemy’s forces at the start — in favour of small, rapid strikes into the major cities. It gambled that it could quickly decapitate the Ukrainian government and the whole state apparatus would fall apart. It lost. This was Putin’s decision, driven by his inability to believe that Ukraine is a real country, or that Ukrainians could believe in it. It may well prove to have been decisive.

The Ukrainians are fighting with skill and determination. Supplies of western weapons, especially British NLAW and US Javelin anti-tank missiles, certainly help, but the tactics and the spirit are all Ukrainian. Whereas the Russians continue to demonstrate a Soviet-style inability to react to the unexpected, the defenders have been retraining to be much more adaptable, granting greater initiative to the commanders in the field. They have operated in small units, striking at the enemy’s weak spots and dispersing before the powerful but lumbering Russian forces can properly respond.

Geography and climate have been their friends. Low clouds have reduced Russia’s airpower advantage, and so many of the invading armoured vehicles have become bogged down in deep mud that the Russians have largely been forced to stick to vulnerable roads.

The Ukrainians have also taken the initiative, targeting Russia’s overextended supply lines: even the most competent soldiers can do little without food, fuel and ammunition. Many are unwilling to fight people they do not consider their enemy, mistrustful of their commanders.

No wonder, then, that Moscow now seems more willing to talk peace, although in the short term, Russia’s efforts to strengthen its bargaining position have meant an upsurge in fighting. The bombing of a theatre used as a shelter in Mariupol and missile attacks on previously untouched Lviv in the west are, as much as anything else, attempts to bring pressure to bear on the Ukrainians in the negotiations.

While the war has gone badly for Putin it is also clear that Kyiv cannot drive out the Russians. So what happens next?

Outcome A: Peace, of sorts

The ideal outcome would, of course, be a negotiated settlement. A likely deal would see Ukraine end its aspirations of joining Nato and accept the seizure of Crimea and the Donbas “people’s republics” by the Kremlin in exchange for a withdrawal of Russian troops and western security guarantees. In effect, Moscow would finally have to accept that most of Ukraine was no longer part of its sphere of influence.

While this would be a defeat, it is one the Russian leader can spin. It has to be: if pushed into a corner in which he feels his only choices are total capitulation or escalation Putin would probably feel compelled to escalate. Under this agreement, though, he could claim he had “demilitarised” Ukraine — expect lengthy tallies of bases bombed and vehicles destroyed — and won guarantees that will save the Russian speakers of eastern Ukraine from the mythical “genocide” he claimed they faced. Internationally, Putin’s failure would be evident, but with the Kremlin propaganda machine in overdrive, a public unenthusiastic about all-out war would presumably be willing to swallow this line.

Although Ukraine is still notionally committed to the return of Crimea and the Donbas and would need to ratify a change to the constitution to remove the commitment to Nato membership, it looks as if a desire to end the war and President Volodymyr Zelensky’s vastly increased personal authority would suffice to see this passed. His approval ratings have surged from 31 per cent in December to more than 90 per cent.

The West would need to play a central role in the process. First of all, Ukraine would expect the European Union at least to accept it as a candidate for membership. More to the point, the security guarantees that would be the alternative to Nato membership would need to be serious, substantive and credible.

If the Ukrainians are to defend themselves, they will need a great deal more specialist military aid, notably an integrated air defence system. More broadly, they will expect considerable assistance in rebuilding their country. They are likely to get it: the future of Ukraine as a stable and democratic nation will depend on a new Marshall Plan of sorts. For the West such support is cheaper and safer than a sustained conflict with Russia.

Russia will need guarantees that at least some of the West’s economic sanctions will be lifted. In the words of one think tanker close to the Russian foreign ministry: “If the Kremlin is expected to end the ‘special military operation’ on vague promises that they will be reconsidered, it will keep fighting.”

Such moves would be partial and staged. There is no question of returning to the status quo before the war. While Putin is in the Kremlin it is hard to imagine any full reconciliation. Instead, there would be a schedule whereby some sanctions would be lifted as Russia withdrew, after a certain period to ensure that Moscow genuinely did move its forces away from the Ukrainian border. Other sanctions would remain, especially those targeting the Russian military machine.

Outcome B: Two Ukraines

The peace talks may get nowhere, though. Even if the Russians are able to regain the initiative, the absolute most they are likely to achieve now is the conquest of the eastern half of Ukraine. The country could in practice be divided along the Dnieper river, with a rump Ukraine to the west and a Russian-occupied east. If by this stage both sides are too exhausted to launch serious attacks, the war would be put on hold and a new de facto border would form. But there is no doubt that a partisan movement in the east would continue to wage its own guerrilla campaign against the Russians.

This raises thorny challenges for the West, given that we are near enough committed to supporting the partisans. Putin is unlikely to take this lying down, something emphasised by last week’s warning by Sergei Ryabkov, the Russian deputy foreign minister, that arms convoys would be considered military targets.

That will mean continued air or missile attacks against routes and depots in western Ukraine, but also an escalation of covert efforts to disrupt this campaign within Nato countries.

Unable or unwilling to challenge Nato directly, especially with its forces mauled and mired in Ukraine, the Kremlin would unleash cyberattacks, disinformation campaigns and subversion attempts, to “punish” the West for its “interference”.

The West needs to be preparing for this now. There is limited scope for squeezing any more value out of sanctions. Instead, there may be a case for retaliation that harms his warfighting machine and not the Russian public. Proportionate cyberattacks could include crashing the Kremlin’s communications system.

Outcome C: The long war

Of course, it is possible that neither of these scenarios develops. The war could roll on as now for weeks or months. Kyiv is part-encircled but still standing. Mariupol will fall but most other major cities hold, in part because Russia is unable to sustain the current operational tempo. However, Ukrainian forces are unable to make any sustained counterattack.

There are lulls, even temporary ceasefires, then new offensives. The front lines move back and forth daily, but do not lead anywhere. Both sides will be running low on men and materiel, but will find what they need to fight on.

This has the chance of getting even uglier. As sanctions grind away at the economy and Putin’s popularity at home, he may well feel the temptation to do something dramatic and dangerous, such as chemical weapons or ethnic cleansing.

At the same time, the West will also be feeling the costs of sanctions and the inevitable political tensions. Some will join the call for concessions in the name of peace, others for more aggressive action, even regime change. As a hawkish US government source put it to me, “the real problem is Putin, and everything that doesn’t address getting rid of that problem is just a waste of time”.

A battle of wills

Ukraine’s will to resist has surprised many in the West and certainly the autocrat in the Kremlin. The question is more about Ukraine’s capacity to continue fighting in the longer term.

The West’s capacity to support Ukraine financially and militarily is far greater, but the real test will be whether it is able to maintain its will in the longer term and bring pressure to bear on Russia. Putin often relies on the West having a short attention span, waiting for it to be distracted by the next crisis.

Russia, though, faces a serious test of both capacity and will. Putin’s security chiefs are increasingly looking to divert the blame on to each other, while the soft public support for the war — based on the propaganda image of a limited conflict to defeat the “Nazis” — will soon be tested.

Even an autocrat cocooned in a bubble of deference and deception ultimately has to come face to face with reality. The question is when.

This article first appeared in the Sunday Times on 20th March 2022.