Ukraine’s armed forces have liberated so many square miles in this week’s offensive that it is hard to keep up. But the potential outcomes of the war remain where they were.
These are: Russian withdrawal, Russian victory, Ukrainian victory – and partition of parts of the country’s east and south from the rest of the country. The first is almost impossible to imagine without a coup that removes Vladimir Putin.
Russian victory – that’s to say, the conquest of the whole of Ukraine or, if not the whole of the country, then at least most of it, including Kyiv – looks beyond the present capacity of Russia’s army.
It might just be that if Putin can hold on to most of his gains until the spring, and that if America and Europe’s resolve crumbles over a blackout-ridden winter, and if Putin’s influx of 130,000 troops next year proves effective, that a Russian victory of the kind I describe is possible.
Ukrainian victory – in other words, the explusion of the Russian occupiers from the whole country, or at least most of it – looks a bit more likely, though far from probable.
But were the spectacular progress of its armed forces in the north-east of the country around Kharhiv to be followed by steady progress in the south, around Kherson, a complete collapse of Russian morale can’t be ruled out. Putin can’t hide his recent reversals. He has sacked yet another general. Russian pro-war bloggers are in revolt. A push for talks may be taking place.
Partition is a more conventional bet. Putin has nothing in principle against it: how can he, when he doesn’t recognise his neighbours’ borders?
If you want evidence on paper, read his essay “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”, with its twisted history, paranoia, Christianity as ethnic signifier, and obsession with nazis (with whom the Soviet Union, which Putin once served, made a pact).
And if you want evidence from practice, mull his recent recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk, parts of Ukraine invaded by Russia in 2014.
It’s likely that Putin’s original war aim was to partition Ukraine, as above – seizing Kyiv, murdering Volodymyr Zelenskyy, breaking the morale of the country, and leaving a rump state in its west. We have become so used to the inviolability of borders in Europe as to find this way of thinking hard to grasp.
However, it didn’t happen, so Putin could now aim for what from his point of view would be an inferior form of partition. At most, Crimea, Donetsk, Luhansk, and the strip of Ukraine running south-west from the last two above the Sea of Azov to Kherson.
Or at least, just those first three. But this would be meagre return for his “special operation” to wipe out Ukraine’s “nazis and drug addicts”, at least in the eyes of Russia’s elites. Perhaps Putin could then sit it out, like Saddam Hussein after Gulf War One. Maybe a coup would remove him. We have no way of knowing.
Calculating the effect of Putin simply declaring victory is scarcely easer. For declaring partition would not be the same as achieving it.
There is a partition of exhaustion, reached when combatants are too weary to fight on. The Thirty Years’ War has a claim to be the most vivid example in European history. But the Ukraine war has not been raging for 30 years, and there is no evidence that the Ukrainains would accept a partition of declaration, especially one made by Putin.
And if it is hard to work out what one man – Putin – would settle for, it is even harder to work out what an emerging democracy – Ukraine – would do.
In such circumstances, the West might collectively seek to force Ukrainians to accept the loss of part of their country, and enough could be willing to do so for a ceasefire to hold. But both developments might not happen, and no-one knows so better than Putin himself.
All in all, none of the options look cheery for him. At the one end of the scale, there is accepting defeat and declaring victory. At the other, a throw of the dice – the use of tactical nuclear weapons.
But with their escalation “ladders” and “vortexes”, the use of these would fit more persuasively into a scenario in which Putin was more desperate. Even the use of one against a military target without much radioactive fallout, and without civilian casualties, could trigger a diminution of what international support remains for him, including in China.
Somewhere in between is mobilisation. But that would entail a loss of face, since Putin is unwilling to concede that his “special operation” has actually been a declaration of war, and might pose a military backlash that he couldn’t control.
What about ratcheting up economic pressure? Peter Franklin doubts that Putin has much screw left to turn (though the effect of what he has already done could be ruinous). And sanctions work two ways, as Russia is finding out. Three conclusions loom through the mist of this dangerous moment.
First, the West should neither seek to fight to the last Ukrainian, nor try to lose to Ukraine through diplomacy what Putin has seized from it by force.
Ukrainians themselves must decide their future – though that will be easier said than done, with the country reeling from conflict, the victim of death, mutilation and atrocity. Then, second, the war has reminded us of an inconvenient truth: the power of ideology.
The Pope has claimed that the war was “perhaps somehow provoked”, and that he himself was warned by “a wise man who speaks little” that NATO should not be “barking at the gates of Russia”.
Even if you find this view plausible, it cannot explain what followed – namely, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine with what turned out to be inadequate numbers and an inadequate plan. Both were so because he thought neither was needed. It was integral to his ethnocentric worldview that Ukrainians would actually welcome invasion because they are really Russian, don’t you know.
Putin’s warped belief that feeling Ukrainian is kind of false consciousness, and the revanchist vision from which it springs, can’t be explained or excused away. As before in Europe’s recent history, it turns out that ideology has consequences.
My third point runs a bit contrary to my second. You don’t have to agree with the Pope to conclude that NATO and the EU handled Ukraine irresolutely pre-war – constantly hinting that they would take the country into their sphere but never actually doing so.
In one sense, the consequences have worked well for Britain, at least so far. I believe that public opinion would not have been willing, had Ukraine been a member of NATO in February, to honour Article 5 commitments to it – in short, to go to war.
As over Iraq, Labour would have been torn in half. And this time round, Nigel Farage, or someone like him, would have emerged from the right to argue that Kyiv isn’t worth “the bones of a single British grendadier”.
But instead of internal disunity and heightened nuclear speculation, we have a consensus for supporting, arming and supplying Ukraine. All the same, we are all where we are more by luck than judgement.
Perhaps a fifth option for Russia and Ukraine is the most likely of all: continuing conflict into the foreseeable future. When a settlement comes, China is set to be lined up behind the former and America behind the latter. Eastern Europe and the world will need them to work together, in some institutional form, to firm up disarmament, detente and diplomacy.