How does the Russo-Ukrainian War end?
Sometimes you change the subject, and sometimes the subject changes you
At first, no one could imagine that the Russo-Ukrainian war could begin. And yet it began. And now, no one can imagine how it will end. And yet end it will.
War is ultimately about politics. That Ukraine is winning on the battlefield matters because Ukraine is exerting pressure on Russian politics. Tyrants such as Putin exert a certain fascination, because they give the impression that they can do what they like. This is not true, of course; and their regimes are deceptively brittle. The war ends when Ukrainian military victories alter Russian political realities, a process which I believe has begun.
The Ukrainians, let's face it, have turned out to be stunningly good warriors. They have carried out a series of defensive and now offensive operations that one would like to call "textbook," but the truth is that those textbooks have not yet been written; and when they are written, the Ukrainian campaign will provide the examples. The have done so with admirable calm and sang-froid, even as their enemy perpetrates horrible crimes and openly campaigns for their destruction as a nation.
Right now, though, we have a certain difficulty seeing how Ukraine gets to victory, even as the Ukrainians advance. This is because many of our imaginations are trapped by a single and rather unlikely variant of how the war ends: with a nuclear detonation. I think we are drawn to this scenario, in part, because we seem to lack other variants, and it feels like an ending.
Using the mushroom cloud for narrative closure, though, generates anxiety and hinders clear thinking. Focusing on that scenario rather than on the more probable ones prevents us from seeing what is actually happening, and from preparing for the more likely possible futures. Indeed, we should never lose sight of how much a Ukrainian victory will improve the world we live in.
But how do we get there? The war could end in a number of ways. Here I would like to suggest just one plausible scenario that could emerge in the next few weeks and months. Of course there are others. It is important, though, to start directing our thoughts towards some of the more probable variants. The scenario that I will propose here is that a Russian conventional defeat in Ukraine is merging imperceptibly into a Russian power struggle, which in turn will require a Russian withdrawal from Ukraine. This is, historically speaking, a very familiar chain of events.
Before I lay this out, we will first have to clear away the nuclear static. Speaking of nuclear war in a broad, general way, we imagine that the Russo-Ukrainian War is all about us. We feel like the victims. We talk about our fears and anxieties. We write click-bait headlines about the end of the world. But this war is almost certainly not going to end with an exchange of nuclear weapons. States with nuclear weapons have been fighting and losing wars since 1945, without using them. Nuclear powers lose humiliating wars in places like Vietnam and Afghanistan and do not use nuclear weapons.
To be sure, there is a certain temptation to concede mentally to nuclear blackmail. Once the subject of nuclear war is raised, it seems overwhelmingly important, and we become depressed and obsessed. That is just where Putin is trying to lead us with his vague allusions to nuclear weapons. Once we take his cue, we imagine threats that Russia is not actually making. We start talking about a Ukrainian surrender, just to relieve the psychological pressure we feel.
This, though, is doing Putin's work for him, bailing him out of a disaster of his own creation. He is losing the conventional war that he started. His hope is that references to nuclear weapons will deter the democracies from delivering weapons to Ukraine, and buy him enough time to get Russian reserves to the battlefield to slow the Ukrainian offensive. He's probably wrong that this would work; but the rhetorical escalation is one of the few plays that he has left.
As I'll explain in a moment, giving in to nuclear blackmail won't end the conventional war in Ukraine. It would, however, make future nuclear war much more likely. Making concessions to a nuclear blackmailer teachers him that this sort of threat will get him what he wants, which guarantees further crisis scenarios down the line. It teaches other dictators, future potential blackmailers, that all they need is a nuclear weapon and some bluster to get what they want, which means more nuclear confrontations. It tends to convince everyone that the only way to defend themselves is to build nuclear weapons, which means global nuclear proliferation.
Insofar as there is some kind of nuclear threat, it is directed not against us, but against the Ukrainians. They have been resisting nuclear blackmail for seven months; and if they can do it, surely we can too. When prominent Russian political figures such as Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov talk about nuclear use, they mean in Ukraine. But this is also not how the war is going to end. Kadyrov also claims that he is sending his teenage sons to fight in Ukraine. So that they can be irradiated by Russian nuclear weapons?
Russia claims to be mobilizing hundreds of thousands of new troops. This is not going at all well, but even so: would Putin really take the political risk of a large-scale mobilization, send the Russian boys to Ukraine, and then detonate nuclear weapons nearby? Morale is a serious problem already. It appears that more than half a million Russian men have fled the country rather than be sent to Ukraine. It would not help the situation if Russians thought that they were being mobilized to a zone where nuclear weapons would be detonated. They will get no appropriate protective gear. Many mobilized soldiers lack the appropriate gear for a conventional war.
Russia has just declared that parts of eastern and southern Ukraine are Russia. This is of course ridiculous. But would Moscow really use nuclear weapons on lands that it claims are Russian, killing or irradiating the people it claims are Russian citizens, civilians and soldiers alike? It's not impossible. But it's very unlikely.
And even if it happened, it wouldn't end the war, or at least not with a Russian victory. I have been reasoning thus far without even mentioning deterrence: the anticipation that use of a nuclear weapon would trigger powerful responses from other countries. The Americans have been given months to think about this, and I would imagine that their response to nuclear use by Russia has been calculated to be disabling for the Russian armed forces and humiliating for Putin personally. Another more indirect form of deterrence is the sure knowledge that the use of a nuclear weapon would lose Putin and Russia support around the world.
I also wonder whether Russia would take the risk of bringing nuclear weapons into or even near Ukraine, given Ukraine’s accurate long-range artillery, Russia's leaky logistics, and the ability of the Ukrainians to get hold of weapons systems the Russians have brought into their country. It is hard to overstate the difficulty the Russians have in to keeping hold of their own stuff. Sure, the Russians might use a missile instead; but some of their missiles fall to earth and more are shot down. Russian planes tend to crash and to get shot down, to the point that Russian sorties are rare -- and attract negative attention.
Assuming that Russia did want to detonate a small nuclear weapon in Ukraine and succeeded in doing so, despite all of this, this would make no decisive military difference. There are no big clusters of Ukrainian soldiers or equipment to hit, since Ukraine fights in a very decentralized way. If there were a detonation, Ukrainians would keep fighting. They have been saying so for months, and there is no reason to doubt them.
There is also the problem of motive. Putin wants us to sympathize with his situation, which is of course a highly suspect move in itself. But is what he says even credible? We say that "Putin is backed to the wall. What will he do?" That is how we get ourselves talking about nuclear weapons: Putin gets us into what we are to supposed to believe is his own psychological space. But this is all just feeling. It is not really a motive.
If sheer emotion resulting from defeat was going to motivate nuclear use, it would already have happened, and it hasn't. Little can be more humiliating than the Russian defeat at Kyiv, a month into the war. The collapse in Kharkiv region last month was also a shock. As I write, the Ukrainians are making significant gains in regions that Putin just claimed would be Russia forever in a giant televised ceremony; the official Russian response has been to say that their borders are not defined. The Russian reaction to superior force has been to retreat.
So let us take a harder look at Putin's position. The Russian armed forces are not "backed against a wall" in Ukraine: they are safe if they retreat back to Russia. The "wall" metaphor is also not really helpful in seeing where Putin stands. It is more like the furniture has been moved around him, and he will have to get his bearings again.
What he has done in Ukraine has changed his position in Moscow, and for the worse. It does not follow from that, though, they he "must" win the war in Ukraine, whatever that means ("can" comes logically before "must"). Holding on to power in Moscow is what matters, and that does not necessarily mean exposing himself to further risk in Ukraine. Once (and if) Putin understands that the war is lost, he will adjust his thinking about his position at home.
Through the summer, that position was simpler. Until very recently, probably until he made the speech announcing mobilization in September, he could simply have declared victory on mass media, and most Russians would have been content. Now, however, he has brought his senseless war to the point where even the Russian information space is beginning to crack. Russians are anxious about the war now, thanks to mobilization (as opinion polls show). And now their television propagandists are admitting that Russian troops are retreating. So unlike the first half-year of the war, Putin cannot just claim that all is well and be done with it. He has to do something else.
The earth has moved under Putin's feet. His political career has been based on using controlled media to transform foreign policy into soothing spectacle. In other words: regime survival has depended upon two premises: what happens on television is more important than what happens in reality; and what happens abroad is more important than what happens at home. It seems to me that these premises no longer hold. With mobilization, the distinction between at home and abroad has been broken; with lost battles, the distinction between television and reality has been weakened. Reality is starting to matter more than television, and Russia will start to matter more than Ukraine.
There is a cleft both in elite and public opinion in Russia, and it is now becoming visible on television. Some people think that the war is a holy cause and can be won if heads roll, leadership behaves honorably, and more men and materiel are sent to the front. Among them are the military bloggers who are actually at the front, and whose voices are becoming more mainstream. This is a trap for Putin, since he is already sending everything that he can. Those voices make him look weak. Other people think that the war was a mistake. These voices will make him look foolish. This is just the most basic of a number of contradictory positions that Putin now faces, from an exposed and weakened position.
If a war abroad is weakening your position, and if that war cannot be won, it is best to end it today rather than tomorrow. I would suspect that Putin does not yet see this. He has, however, come far enough to understood that he must act in the real world, though thus far his choices have not been good ones.
Mobilization was the worst of both worlds: big enough to alienate the population, too small and above all too late to make a difference before winter. It was probably the result of a compromise, which shows us that Putin is not ruling alone. Putin is trying to command the troops in Ukraine. His failures open him up to criticism (indirect, so far). But Putin seems to be stuck: just ending the war now, without the the subject changing, would strengthen some of his critics. But now that mobilization has already been tried, he has few means of applying greater force. So how does the subject change?
It is changing on its own. Putin is now trapped by an event that was supposed to be televisual and about a faraway place, but which has taken on an immediate political form inside Russia. Two prominent Russian political figures, Ramzan Kadyrov and Yevgeny Prigozhin, have criticized the Russian high command quite brutally. Given that everyone knows that Putin is doing the actual commanding, this has to be divisive. The Kremlin responded to Kadyrov directly, and army propaganda has been showing a criticized commander with his troops in the field.
By what I take to be no coincidence, both Kadyrov and Prigozhin control something like a private armed force. Kadyrov, the de facto dictator of Russia's Chechnya region, has his own militia. It was deployed to Ukraine, where it seemed to specialize in terrorizing civilians and instagramming itself. After pushing for mobilization in Russia last month, Kadyrov then announced that no one from Chechnya would be mobilized. One might conclude that he is saving his men for something else.
Prigozhin is the leader of the murky mercenary entity Wagner, and has been making himself more visible in that capacity. (He is also responsible for the Internet Research Agency, which was one of the actors in the hybrid war against Ukraine in 2014 and the cyberwars against Britain and the United States in 2016.) Wagner has been involved in a number of attempts at regime change, including blood purges of the Russian puppet governments in Luhansk and Donetsk regions, and the attempts to assassinate Volodymyr Zelens'kyi at the beginning of the war. These were at Putin's orders, no doubt. But it is an unnerving skill set.
Right now Wagner is leading the daily Russian attempts at offensives in the Bakhmut area of Donetsk region, which are not actually going anywhere. Wagner does not seem to be very active where the Ukrainians are advancing, which is rather more important. Yesterday Gulagu.net reported that a Wagner fighter shot a Russian army officer, which would seem to indicate that all is not well on that part of the front. Is it a stretch to suppose that Prigozhin is sparing whatever valuable men and material he has left? He has been openly recruiting Russian prisoners to fight for Wagner in Ukraine; I would venture the supposition that he is sending them to die and keeping back the men and equipment who might have a future in some other endeavor.
Prigozhin and Kadyrov are calling for is an intensification of the war, and mocking the Russian high command in the most aggressive possible tone, but meanwhile they seem to be protecting their own men. That too seems like a trap. By criticizing the way the war is fought, they weaken Putin's informational control; by forcing him to take responsibility even as they will not do so, they expose his position further. They are telling him to win a war that they do not, themselves, seem to be trying to win.
In the overall logic that I am describing, rivals would seek to conserve whatever fighting forces they have, either to protect their own personal interests during an unpredictable time, or to make a play for Moscow. If this is indeed the present situation, it will soon seem foolish for everyone involved to have armed forces located in distant Ukraine, or, for that matter, to get them killed there day after day. Then comes a tipping point. Once some people realize that other people are holding back their men, it will seem senseless to expend (or alienate) one's own.
At a certain moment, this logic applies to the Russian army itself. As Lawrence Freedman has pointed out, if the army wants to have a role in Russian politics or prestige in Russian society, its commanders have an incentive to pull back while they still have units to command. And if Putin himself wants to remain in power, neither a discredited nor a demoralized army is in his interest.
Mobilization itself starts to look like a spear pointed the wrong way: is there a point in sending thousands of unprepared and underequipped men into what they increasingly know is doom? Putin's presupposition, of course, is that mobilized soldiers will either die or win; but if they flee instead, they become a dangerous group, perhaps ready for another leader.
And so we can see a plausible scenario for how this war ends. War is a form of politics, and the Russian regime is altered by defeat. As Ukraine continues to win battles, one reversal is accompanied by another: the televisual yields to the real, and the Ukrainian campaign yields to a struggle for power in Russia. In such a struggle, it makes no sense to have armed allies far away in Ukraine who might be more usefully deployed in Russia: not necessarily in an armed conflict, although this cannot be ruled out entirely, but to deter others and protect oneself. For all of the actors concerned, it might be bad to lose in Ukraine, but it is worse to lose in Russia.
The logic of the situation favors he who realizes this most quickly, and is able to control and redeploy. Once the cascade begins, it quickly makes no sense for anyone to have any Russian forces in Ukraine at all. Again, from this it does not necessarily follow that there will be armed clashes in Russia: it is just that, as the instability created by the war in Ukraine comes home, Russian leaders who wish to gain from that instability, or protect themselves from it, will want their power centers close to Moscow. And this, of course, would be a very good thing, for Ukraine and for the world.
If this is what is coming, Putin will need no excuse to pull out from Ukraine, since he will be doing so for his own political survival. For all of his personal attachment to his odd ideas about Ukraine, I take it that he is more attached to power. If the scenario I describe here unfolds, we don't have to worry about the kinds of things we tend to worry about, like how Putin is feeling about the war, and whether Russians will be upset about losing. During an internal struggle for power in Russia, Putin and other Russians will have other things on their minds, and the war will give way to those more pressing concerns. Sometimes you change the subject, and sometimes the subject changes you.
Of course, all of this remains very hard to predict, especially at any level of detail. Other outcomes are entirely possible. But the line of development I discuss here is not only far better, but also far more likely, than the doomsday scenarios we fear. It is thus worth considering, and worth preparing for.
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Thank you for the sober and elegant analysis.
This is a convincing analysis of the war situation. I haven't heard anyone else describe it in this way, and it sounds plausible. Russia is an enigma wrapped in a mystery, but you've unwrapped some of that. Also, made me feel a lot more reason for optimism. These are scary times, so it is valuable to receive such a cool-headed analysis. Thank you.