How Russia’s invasion of Ukraine ends
This week, Russia initiated a war of aggression against Ukraine. Russian forces have invaded across myriad areas of the country seeking to encircle Kyiv, cripple Ukrainian defenses, and topple the Volodymyr Zelensky government. Ukrainian forces have met this challenge, in several cases fighting to the last soldier. Meanwhile, the international community has condemned Russia’s invasion and imposed sanctions while seeking even more stringent means of punishment.
Through all this, there is one question on many minds: how does it end?
It is impossible to predict how any war ends, but we can examine the potential outcomes for Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Potential outcome #1: Conquest In this scenario, Russia ousts the current government and installs a military occupation government until it can establish its own civil administrators. This will mean that Ukraine becomes part of the Russian Federation.
Potential outcome #2: Regime change In a regime change scenario, Russia will oust the current government, install pro-Russian Ukrainian leadership (either by decree or under-the-gun elections), and sign a “peace agreement” with the new puppet government. This agreement will be conciliatory towards Russia and will work to ensure that Ukraine remains under the locus of control of Vladimir Putin’s regime in Moscow for years to come.
Potential outcome #3: Protracted Ukrainian resistance If Russia attempts to achieve outcomes 1 or 2, it is possible that an attempted occupation of Ukraine is met with a guerrilla-style insurgency. In this circumstance, Russia is never able to get stable footing, and the combination of blood-letting and international economic pressure leads to Russia's eventual withdrawal.
Potential outcome #4: Suing for peace This outcome would see Russia engage in negotiations with other governments within the next few weeks to conclude a cease-fire. There are reports that Zelensky requested the Israeli government to serve as a mediator (owing to its relations with both Ukraine and Russia), but Russia will likely opt for engagement with NATO powers like Germany or France (who are both part of the “Normandy Four” group along with Ukraine and Russia). In this scenario, Russia will use the threat of prolonged invasion and occupation to obtain strategic concessions that expand beyond those objectives specifically related to its military operations in Ukraine.
Recognition of the separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk [Note: Russia will try to expand those regions' borders as much as possible]
Acceptance of Russian military stationing in Donetsk and Luhansk
Guarantees that recent sanctions will be lifted
Restrictions on closest approach point of combat ships and aircraft in the Baltic and Black Sea regions
Withdrawal of military exercises further from the Russia-NATO contact line
Restrictions on the deployment of short- & intermediate-range missiles
Guarantee that Ukraine will never become a NATO member.
Some of those interests were delivered to the U.S. government in December, but Russia can and will use its manufactured war to leverage concessions.
Which of those outcomes is most likely? Conquest is a maximalist end-state that is tough for Russia because it gives no legal ambiguity to a war of aggression against Ukraine. Given the Russian push towards Kyiv, it seems that regime change is Russia's preferred outcome, but the question is how much cost Putin is willing to incur to achieve it. If Russia vies for regime change and occupation, protracted resistance is possible. Putin probably realizes that, and it is unlikely that his regime can absorb the costs of a quagmire. Naturally, there is the material cost of war. Every day brings more casualties, additional resource demands, and losses in military equipment. Outside the fighting, the international community has already begun to impose sanctions. While some countries are hesitant to go too far with them right now because of their resource dependence on Russia, the longer the war goes, the more they will be able to delink their economies and impose harsher sanctions. Domestically, there are already protests within Russia that contribute to threaten the boost in public opinion that Putin typically enjoys from aggressive action. While he has never shied away from stamping out protests, the longer the war goes on, the more fervent the dissent is likely to become. The last potential outcome, suing for peace in the near-term, follows the precedent set in Russia's 2008 war against Georgia. In the Russo-Georgian War, Presidents Dmitri Medvedev and Nicolas Sarkozy negotiated a six-point proposal for a peace settlement just twelve days after the onset of Russia’s full scale invasion. The six-point proposal served as a foundation for a cease-fire implementation agreement produced less than one month later on 9 September 2008. If Putin wants to maximize his gains while minimizing his costs, suing for peace is the likeliest outcome. Russia was basically able to come away unscathed from its 2008 aggression in Georgia, and repeating this pattern here will open a path for obtaining the broader strategic concessions he has already signaled. Unfortunately, all these potential outcomes mean bloodshed for Ukraine. To minimize that bloodshed, the international community must focus on bolstering a Ukrainian resistance force and tightening the economic vices on Russia. If the world puts in earnest effort to increase the costs of prolonged invasion, it will speed Putin towards suing for a near-term peace. When that time comes, the international community must be ready to deal with a regime that will use military coercion as a tool in its negotiation. Thus, there must be a holistic effort to end hostilities while posturing for negotiating an agreement that installs the mechanisms necessary for preserving a meaningful and durable peace.