What’s the Exit Path in Ukraine? Five Scenarios

OF ALL THE HUGE STORIES THIS YEAR — the Fed botching inflation, Donald Trump’s steep descent, a looming recession — none have had the ferocity and impact of the Ukraine War. It hangs over everything and may rage on for months to come.

THE RUSSIAN INVASION ten months ago led to an astonishing Russian embarrassment, as young men fled Moscow and St Petersburg, as Russian troops suffered losses well in excess of 100,000 casualties. The bottom line has been clear — Russian troops are unwilling to die for Vladimir Putin, but Ukrainian troops are willing to die for their country.

WE SAID IN LATE FEBRUARY that there was no way Russia could win this war, by any conventional definition of the word “win.” We still feel that way, but what’s the exit strategy? We offer the five following scenarios:

1. Putin doubles down. Harassed by Russian hawks, Putin may intensify missile attacks on Ukraine’s infrastructure while threatening the use of weapons of mass destruction — nuclear, biological, chemical, etc. He may step up threats, but use of those weapons would unite the world — including China and India — against him. And there’s no certainty his generals would obey orders to use these weapons. A more likely Putin “double down” would bring his ally Belarus into the war.

2. Putin departs: Considering the enormous casualties inflicted on the top military brass — especially generals — there’s little wonder why Putin reportedly is paranoid about his personal safety. And there’s the issue of his health, the topic of growing speculation. If Putin left, of course, his replacement might not be any more palatable.

3. Ukraine drives to the east and south and effectively wins the war. Thanks to billions of dollars worth of Western weapons, and Kyiv’s fierce fighting force, Ukraine has re-captured hundreds of kilometers in the East. The conventional wisdom is that the war will stall during this winter but that isn’t necessarily true; the Ukrainian army could target western Russia with missile attacks.

4. The West loses its resolve. The brave Ukrainian people are prepared for a cold, dark winter, but what about the public in Western Europe and the U.S.? NATO has been remarkably unified but that will not last indefinitely. More aid is coming from Washington but the spigots may tighten by summer.

5. A truce by spring and the beginnings of negotiations. Analysts feel this
will become more likely as both countries are bled dry and agree to talk with an intermediary such as Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey (who has his own political problems). While Eastern Ukraine, in ruins, could be negotiated back to Kyiv, the biggest obstacle to a peace treaty would be the tremendously emotional issue of Crimea, which both countries consider non-negotiable.

BOTTOM LINE: An end of this horrible war does not appear to be imminent; even if Putin and Zelensky agree to talk, negotiations could drag on for months. And as long as the war persists, the inflationary pressure on natural gas, grains and metals will also persist, along with fears of a deepening Western European recession.

WE REITERATE: Russia cannot win this war; its troops are demoralized and its economy is in shambles. The Ukrainians will survive the winter — and by spring it will become clear that Putin has met his match.

Related: Ten Reasons for Optimism

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