Ukraine has demonstrated a truly singular level of competence and commitment in its armed resistance to Russia’s war since February 24. Much credit goes to President Zelenskyy. And much of the world — including especially the NATO partners — have been decisive and forthcoming in material support for Ukraine’s ability to continue to resist, and to successfully destroy a remarkable fraction of Russia’s military forces. Powerful economic sanctions are playing a key role as well, putting meaningful economic pressure on Russia for its continuing aggression and atrocious acts of violence in Ukraine.
It is plain that Russia’s longterm interests have already been very badly harmed by this war. There will be greater European energy independence, reducing a major source of Russian exports; there is a greatly strengthened commitment among NATO members for collective defense — as well as the possibility of Finland and Sweden’s accession to the organization; the economic relationships that have been broken with western companies will be hard or impossible to restore; and Russia has been shamed by an almost worldwide condemnation for its atrocious and aggressive war. Russia’s manufacturing sector has shown itself to be incapable of producing the high-technology components needed for its devices and weapons; and yet western sanctions are likely to make import of these components difficult for years to come. Russia is much worse off today than it was on February 23.
And yet it is difficult to see how this war will end. There is really only one satisfactory end: the withdrawal of Russian military forces from all Ukrainian territory, an end of the maritime blockade of Ukraine’s ports, and permanent ceasing of air, rocket, and artillery attacks agains targets in Ukraine. Some level of reparations for war damage to Ukraine’s cities would also be appropriate. Russia should not be rewarded in any way for its aggression; and Ukraine should not be forced to surrender territory to Russia to provide a face-saving exit for Russia’s leaders.
However, it is all but inconceivable that Vladimir Putin would ever willingly decide to simply give up the war without some kind of military gain that can be described as a victory.
The plain truth seems to be that Putin is largely immune from pressure and consequences as a result of this war. He plainly does not care about the massive casualties suffered by his own forces — “cannon fodder”. He is content to write off the losses of tanks, artillery pieces, rockets, drones, and other materiel of war as simply the cost of pursuing important “national” goals. And Russian territory and population have been largely immune from the consequences of the war. Russia is not suffering attacks against its own cities, towns, military bases, airfields, or (with a very few exceptions) fuel depots. Russia is in a position to bring the catastrophic sufferings of war to the Ukrainian people through long-range artillery, missiles, and air strikes in a way that is without any possible reply for the Ukrainian forces. So the logic of reciprocity and deterrence does not find a foothold in this conflict: Russia’s horrific actions against Kiev, Kharkiv, Mariupol, and other towns and cities have no reciprocal cost for Russia. The war does not exist for most Russian citizens, and therefore Russian citizens do not care very much about the war.
Here is the most basic point: the forces that make costly war difficult to sustain in an institutionalized democracy are entirely lacking in the contemporary Russian political and economic system. Russia is a dictatorship, and Vladimir Putin is its uncompromising dictator. (Timothy Snyder provides an accounting of the ways in which contemporary Russia is a fascist state; link.) Fundamental decisions about the war rest with Putin alone — in fact, recent reports suggest that Putin even attempts to manage mid-level tactical decisions as well. There are no effective institutional restraints on Putin’s decision-making. He appears to have secure control of the military and the security services, and there is almost no evidence of open disagreement or opposition with the military or political elites about Putin’s actions. It does not seem likely that senior generals have the power to compel Putin to change course; and the political institutions of the Russian Federation plainly leave Putin entirely unfettered. Just as Hitler terrorized and dominated the senior commanders of the Wehrmacht, so Putin seems to have complete and unilateral power over his generals.
So the kinds of processes that have led to a change of direction in decisions of war and peace in other countries — for example, President Lyndon Johnson in 1968, whose conduct of the war in Vietnam led to mass political protest and rising opposition among legislators in his own party, and who was brought down as president by these forces — those processes of public opinion and independent centers of political power do not exist in Russia. Having crushed the institutions and organizations of civil society, Putin is unhampered in his decision-making. Russian public opinion will not end the war; independent media will not end the war; independent powerful political figures will not end the war; and it is now apparent that the oligarchs will not end the war.
So it comes back to Putin: what could motivate or incentivize Putin to make the decision to end the war and withdraw? He has plainly invested his prestige, reputation, and self-image (hyper-masculine bare-chested warrior) in being successful in this war. He is determined to be perceived as a successful historical figure changing the role of his country in world affairs. He plainly refuses the humiliation that would follow from defeat. So no considerations of “costs and benefits of continuing the war” will influence him. Rather, his decisions have to do with his own interests, property, and self-image. Putin’s psychology seems to be similar to Hitler’s when it comes to making decisions about war and peace.
But is there a “Godfather” strategy available? Is there any group of powerful figures in Russia, behind the scenes, who could make an offer that Putin cannot refuse? If so, then possibly we might imagine a change of direction. Here is how it might play out in the Netflix miniseries: “We have a choice for you, Vladimir. You can step down as president and keep your wealth (in the Western idiom, perhaps you are resigning to spend more time with your family); or we will depose you, prosecute you for the many acts of corruption that you have committed, and strip you of your wealth. You may even go to prison. So here is the choice: exit now and take the golden parachute; or refuse, and lose everything.” We might call this the “Marcos” strategy.
The problem with this scenario is evident. It requires a coalition of individuals who are collectively more powerful than Putin, and who can credibly threaten to remove him. And at present, that seems all but impossible.
Another scenario is more feasible but grossly less acceptable: Russian forces manage to occupy and secure a larger portion of eastern and southern Ukraine; the Ukrainian government decides that the continuing suffering of its citizens must be brought to an end and therefore accepts a territorial settlement; and Putin announces a historic victory. Putin’s self-esteem is saved; many thousands of Russian soldiers have been killed or maimed, and many thousands of civilians and soldiers in Ukraine have been killed; vast swaths of destruction have been inflicted on Ukraine during months of atrocious fighting; and Ukraine loses part of its sovereign territory. Not a very good outcome, from any point of view except Putin’s.
Is there a third possible scenario — unambiguous military victory for Ukraine? Given the imbalance of population and national wealth between the two countries, it is hard to see how Ukraine can continue to wage a war of attrition indefinitely, to the point where Russia is forced to withdraw unilaterally. However, there is a precedent in the Soviet Union’s abrupt exit from Afghanistan. (The analogy is not entirely apt, given that the USSR was then led by Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, a figure quite unlike Vladimir Putin.) The current rate of destruction of Russian military forces is unsustainable for the Russians; so it is not entirely inconceivable that Russia would turn its positions over to friendly “militias”, declare victory, and withdraw its regular military forces.