Spencer Bokat-Lindell

How Will the Ukraine War End?

As Ukrainian forces continued to hold off Russian advances on Kyiv, President Biden traveled to Brussels on Wednesday for an emergency meeting with other NATO leaders to discuss how to respond to Russia’s assault and help the 3 million Ukrainians who have fled the country.

Almost a month in, the war is in a precarious phase. On the one hand, the Russian invasion has “essentially stalled,” in the words of US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, and has so far failed to fulfill any of President Vladimir Putin’s major objectives. But on the other, having lost more than 7,000 of his troops, according to the US government, Putin may decide to escalate his bombing campaign, which has already left parts of Ukraine in ruin and, at a conservative estimate, more than 900 civilians dead.

Where does the war go from here, and how might it end? Here are some potential paths forward.

A quick diplomatic solution
Even as Russia’s bombardment of Kyiv intensified last week, representatives of Ukraine and Russia began a fresh round of negotiations. The talks are being mediated by Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, who said the two countries were making slow but significant progress on key issues. “It’s not that easy to negotiate while the war is ongoing or to agree when civilians are dying,” he said over the weekend. “But I want to say that there is momentum.”

What would a diplomatic solution look like? As The Times’s David Leonhardt explained, both sides have conditions that are likely to remain nonnegotiable. Ukraine, for its part, would probably refuse any deal that deprives it of control over Kyiv, while Russia would probably refuse any deal that leaves the door to NATO membership open to Ukraine.

In the view of retired Adm. James G. Stavridis, a former supreme allied commander for Europe, the most probable outcome is a partition of Ukraine. “Putin would take the southeast of the country, and the ethnic Russians would gravitate there,” he told The Times. “The rest of the nation, overwhelmingly Ukrainian, would continue as a sovereign state.”

How likely is a peace deal? For the time being, Western officials say, not very. While Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has signaled an openness to relinquishing his country’s aspirations to NATO membership, Russia’s assault continues apace. The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said last week that he saw no signs that the Russian government was engaging in good-faith efforts to end the war, a day after France’s counterpart expressed similar skepticism.

But the conditions of the war are quickly changing, and some are cautiously hopeful about the potential for diplomacy. As Emma Ashford, a senior fellow with the New American Engagement Initiative at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, told my colleague Ezra Klein, Russia’s military underperformance seems to have prompted Russia to moderate its demands: Officials are now talking less about regime change and demilitarization and more about Ukrainian neutrality and potential territorial gains.

“It does seem to me that we have seen some movement from even the Russians over the last few weeks,” she said. “And I don’t think we’re quite there yet, but give it another couple of weeks, and that might be the point where we have an opening for negotiations.”

A long, grueling war
The underperformance of the Russian military campaign could push Putin toward diplomacy. But for the moment, it seems more likely to push him toward escalation: In recent days, as its military offensive has stalled, Russia has intensified its bombing of civilian areas in a bid to pressure Kyiv.

This, the Times columnist Thomas Friedman said, is Russia’s plan B: “Putin, I suspect, is thinking that if he cannot occupy and hold all of Ukraine by military means and simply impose his peace terms, the next best thing would be to drive five or 10 million Ukrainian refugees, particularly women, children and the elderly, into Poland, Hungary and Western Europe — with the purpose of creating such intense social and economic burdens that these NATO states will eventually pressure Zelensky to agree to whatever terms Putin is demanding to stop the war.”

How would Western countries respond to such an escalation? “I don’t think there’s any question that they would fund and arm an insurgency that would make the price of this for the Russians as high and as bloody as it could be,” The Times’s David Sanger said on “The Daily” last week. “But, boy, that would be really back to the old proxy wars of the Cold War.”

If Putin is faced with a Western-backed insurgency, there’s no knowing how far he might go. The Biden administration has raised the possibility that Russia may deploy chemical or biological weapons, which are banned under international law, or even — though American officials believe it unlikely — low-yield nuclear weapons, known sometimes as tactical or nonstrategic nuclear weapons, which are designed to be used on the battlefield.

The consequences of such a devastating, protracted conflict are difficult to predict. If Ukraine’s government collapses, Russia may replace it with a puppet government and draw a new Iron Curtain across Europe, Barry Pavel, Peter Engelke and Jeffrey Cimmino wrote for the Atlantic Council.

Almost certainly, millions more Ukrainians would flee. While the international response to Ukrainian refugees has been extraordinarily generous in spirit so far, funding for their resettlement is gravely insufficient, and popular support for humanitarian aid is likely to flag over the long term, Erika Frydenlund and Jose J. Padilla warned.

China gets more involved
One of the largest questions looming over the war is whether Russia’s most powerful ally will come to Putin’s aid. China and Russia “share in the belief that the United States is determined to hobble the ascent of their countries,” said Amy Qin, who covers China for The Times. “And they have signaled a desire to see a world order in which Washington’s influence is far diminished.”

US officials have said that Russia appealed to China for military and economic support. Biden warned China’s leader, Xi Jinping, that granting that request would incur “consequences,” though the administration has not specified what those consequences might be.

“The administration’s dilemma is that China is the world’s second-largest economy and the origin point of countless global supply chains,” wrote Phelim Kine of Politico. “Unlike Russia, whose relative unimportance to the function of Western economies made it relatively easier to sanction, China is a dominant player in everything from electrical appliances to shipping to solar panels.”

But many doubt China will become a major party in the conflict. There are limits to how much China can help Russia economically, the Times columnist Paul Krugman explained. And by lending Russia military support, China might risk alienating other global powers with which it does business.

In part for that reason, some think China may even intervene to end Russia’s assault. “The longer the war lasts, the more it will reinvigorate the Western alliance around the idea of a values-based confrontation between East and West, bringing the United States and the European Union into even closer alignment while driving military budgets up around the globe,” wrote Wang Huiyao, the founder and president of the Center for China and Globalization, in The Times. “That is not good for China, which would prefer to maintain lucrative economic ties with the West and focus its resources on domestic development.”

For now, China is walking a middle path, at once declining calls to condemn Russia’s attack and pledging to de-escalate the conflict. Xi’s government “has struck a careful balance between its economic and geopolitical objectives, providing enough diplomatic support for Russia to maintain Moscow’s loyalty without extending the kind of aid that would cost its exporters Western customers,” Eric Levitz of New York magazine wrote. “It is hard to see why it would abandon this stance for Vladimir Putin’s sake.”

Putin takes Ukraine — and doesn’t stop
Despite Russia’s initial failures, many commentators believe it is only a matter of time before Putin unleashes the full might of his military on Ukraine’s cities and deposes its government. And what might he do then?

“The optimistic part is he dies soon after,” Masha Gessen, who covers Russia for The New Yorker, told Ezra Klein on a recent episode of his podcast. “Because if he doesn’t, it happens again and again and again,” Gessen said, adding, “Moldova, Ukraine, Georgia, the Baltics, Poland — they’re all on notice.”

An expanded assault on other former Soviet states would risk direct confrontation with NATO, either on purpose or by accident. “The more the fighting moves west, the more likely it is that an errant missile lands in NATO territory or that the Russians take down a NATO aircraft,” The Times’s Carole Landry wrote. Already, Russian missiles have landed about a dozen miles from the Poland-Ukraine border. An attack on NATO territory, Biden has said, would mark the beginning of “World War III.”

The familiarity of the formulation arguably belies the novelty and scale of the stakes: Unlike its precursor, a third world war would carry the possibility of a nuclear exchange that could kill tens of millions of civilians. Leaders on both sides have characterized the prospect as implausible, The Times’s Max Fisher wrote, but nuclear strategists and former US officials warn that the risk of an unintended, tit-for-tat nuclear altercation, while still remote, is growing.

As António Guterres, the United Nations secretary general, said this week, “The prospect of nuclear conflict, once unthinkable, is now back within the realm of possibility.”

The New York Times