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The Best Outcome for Ukraine in This Conflict

The Best Outcome for Ukraine in This Conflict

Friday, 27 May, 2022 - 04:30

Three months after Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine, the war is entering a new phase. This change requires all involved — the Kremlin as well as Kyiv and its supporters in the West — to rethink scenarios, goals and strategies.

For the aggressor, it appears, all possible outcomes are shades of terrible — a sign of just how colossally Moscow miscalculated. For the defenders, most scenarios are also dire. But one offers a glimmer of hope.

Phase 1 of the war, starting on Feb. 24, might be called Shock Without Awe. Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his army to invade, bomb and destroy Ukraine from all sides, and to kill his counterpart in Kyiv, Volodymyr Zelenskiy. By shocking Ukrainians, Putin was expecting to awe them into submission.

Instead, they became a nation of heroes, from Zelenskiy (“I need ammunition, not a ride”) to all the men, women and children who sacrificed and stood together against the Russian onslaught. The symbol of the country’s will to resist became Azovstal, a steel plant in the now-destroyed city of Mariupol that the Ukrainians, for a time, defended against all odds.

This month, that phase ended. Understanding that this war will be neither quick nor easy, Putin commanded his forces to concentrate on taking “only” Ukraine’s east and south. In Mariupol, the last remaining Ukrainians evacuated Azovstal. Russia is massing its firepower for a new and more focused assault. Ukraine, receiving guns and ammo from the West, is preparing to fight back.

Phase 2 therefore looks likely to be less kinetic and more grinding — less like a Blitzkrieg and more like a war of attrition evoking the trenches of World War I. My guess is that each side will gain, lose and retake territory in an interminable clash of wills that only makes the rubble bounce.

What, then, could Phase 3 eventually look like, and ultimately the war’s end? A decisive military outcome seems unlikely — and possibly even undesirable.

If the Russians “won” — that is, if they routed the Ukrainian army — they would dismember or eliminate Ukraine as a country and subjugate much of its population. But the Russians won’t succeed in that way, because Ukraine is getting more and better weapons by the day and will hold out.

If the Ukrainians “won,” they would drive the Russians back at least beyond the frontlines as they stood on Feb. 23. But that would amount to a catastrophic failure that Putin couldn’t hide from his population. He would fear for his political and physical survival, which he would redefine as an existential threat to the Russian state. This is the scenario in which he might “escalate to de-escalate” by launching tactical nuclear strikes until Ukraine surrenders.

This would be the worst of all outcomes, possibly even drawing in the West. But I don’t think it’ll come to that, because the Ukrainians probably can’t expel the Russian forces anyway. For that, Russia can still mobilize too much conventional military might.

In a likelier scenario, therefore, the war drags on and increasingly looks like a stalemate. This, too, would be disastrous, for both sides.

Large parts of Ukraine would be destroyed, while other regions couldn’t start rebuilding. The millions of Ukrainian refugees — mostly women and children — couldn’t return, and would settle into new lives in western Europe and elsewhere. Eventually, fathers and husbands at home would seek to join them. Ukraine, even with billions in Western aid, would be permanently stunted.

Russia, meanwhile, would indefinitely remain the international pariah it now is. The rest of Europe will gradually wean itself from its fossil fuels, turning off the Kremlin’s money tap. Components and technologies won’t enter Russia, while talented people will keep leaving it. The country will become an impoverished and totalitarian dystopia.

Sooner or later, therefore, sheer exhaustion will prod both sides to negotiate. As ever, each will try to show up at the talks holding as much territory as possible, which will make the lead-up even more barbarous and bloody. But then there’ll be give and take.

Whatever Kyiv says now, it can’t expect to get back Crimea, Luhansk or Donetsk. Putin annexed the former and recognized the latter two as “People’s Republics,” with the obvious aim of gobbling them. He couldn’t give them up and still claim victory at home. But Kyiv should insist on keeping its coastline on the Black Sea, lest Ukraine become landlocked and indefensible in the long run.

Wherever the final line of confrontation runs, the real question is what the ceasefire, truce or armistice will look like. One possibility is a Korean model. As on that peninsula since 1953, there would be no peace treaty, just mutual despair yielding a cessation of fighting along some sort of demilitarized zone.

But such an outcome would be much less promising for Ukraine than it proved for South Korea. Both are permanently threatened by totalitarian neighbors with nukes. But South Korea, unlike Ukraine, had the explicit protection of the US, and gradually became the glittering economic and cultural power it is under that American aegis. Ukraine will just as explicitly lack NATO protection, because the West wants to avoid a Third World War.

Another scenario is the Finnish model. In the Winter War of 1939-40, Finland fought a Soviet invasion to a standstill and kept its independence in return for ceding some territory to the USSR. But this success came at the cost of compromising its sovereignty: It became a neutral buffer state that coordinated its foreign policy with Moscow — a quasi-independence pejoratively called “Finlandization.”

Finland eventually became the success story it is today. It has a strong national identity, loves freedom and is prepared to fight for it. After the Cold War, it entered the European Union. This year, at last, it will almost certainly join NATO. In the long run, the Finnish model is, therefore, more promising for Ukraine than the Korean or any other.

And yet, Ukrainians, like the Finns during the Cold War, would probably have to wait decades for their bliss. That’s not an easy proposition for Zelenskiy or anybody else to sell to a traumatized population yearning for justice.

The devastating reality of Putin’s war is that, for the foreseeable future, it can lead only to outcomes that are messy and tragic. Little or nothing will be resolved. Success, such as it is, will be merely the avoidance of even worse catastrophes.


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