Opinion

A war without an off-ramp — or an end-game

What if Russia's invasion of Ukraine doesn't end in compromise or catastrophe? What if it just doesn't end?

There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen. — Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

The past week, since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, has certainly felt like one of the weeks Lenin was talking about. The assumptions of the pre-invasion world are being upended daily — if not hourly.

Russia drew global opposition and isolated itself to an extraordinary degree, reflected in the lopsided vote of condemnation at the United Nations General Assembly. It has triggered unprecedented economic sanctions that even historically neutral countries like Switzerland have joined and which extend to Russia's own central bank's reserves. Germany has announced a historic rearmament, and Finland is preparing to potentially join NATO.

For good reason, therefore, observers are starting to wonder and worry about what shoe will drop next. Indeed, things could get a great deal worse, and quickly.

Russia's invasion has not been the cake-walk Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to have assumed it would be. Ukrainian resistance has been fierce, and Russia's conscript troops have shown little enthusiasm for fighting. But Russia has a great many military resources it has not yet brought to bear — likely because its political objective was a quiescent Ukraine, not a wrecked one. In response to battlefield setbacks, will Russia massively escalate to leveling Ukrainian cities from the air as it did to Grozny in the Second Chechen War, with hundreds of thousands or even millions of civilian casualties?

If so, will NATO continue to stick to its current strategy of economic and diplomatic pressure, or will its strong rhetorical commitment to the Ukrainian cause inevitably lead it to war with Russia? Even without intent to escalate, miscalculation might be enough to trigger the worst in the absence of the Cold War's old safeguards and channels of communication between the superpowers.

Alternatively, Putin's regime might prove startlingly brittle in the face of serious military and financial setbacks. Particularly if the Russian army loses confidence in his leadership, Putin could be deposed in a palace coup. If the Russian economy goes into a tailspin, that could spark widespread popular uprisings, with wildly unpredictable consequences. The specter of nuclear exchange haunts such scenarios as well, since a collapsing Russian regime could decide to go out with a bang rather than replicate the whimper with which the Soviet Union ultimately expired.

Cognizant of the dangers of both possibilities, many are already talking about the importance of off-ramps — ways Russia could climb down from its current commitments while saving face. As my colleague, Damon Linker, has noted, Western policy to date has been impressively well-coordinated but also largely reactive. Talking Russia down from the precipice will require something different: the willingness and creativity to compromise to avert catastrophe, however unpleasant the compromise might be.

That stark choice between catastrophe or compromise may be a false one, however. The past week has felt like it contained decades of change — but that pace may not be sustained. The most underrated possibility going forward may be a tense and bloody new normal for which we are laying the groundwork right now.

While Russia might escalate dramatically to win the war, Putin could instead take an entirely different approach for sensible political and military reasons. Russia is already reportedly laying siege to Kyiv and Kharkiv, Ukraine's two most populous cities. It has also been more successful at advancing in the south of Ukraine, near the Crimean Peninsula, than it has been in the north. Only modest gains from here would enable Russia to achieve its most immediate aims of incapacitating the Ukrainian government and connecting Crimea with the Donbas region via a land bridge. What if Russia, instead of escalating to subdue the entire country, set out to achieve those aims and dug in to secure them?

It's hard to imagine Ukraine considering a cease-fire under such circumstances, nor would Russia adhere to one if Ukraine could rearm with Western help under its terms. But there's a difference between trying to pacify a country of over 40 million people and fighting on terrain you have chosen. A war like that could conceivably go on for quite a long time — indeed, British and American officials are already imagining a war that lasts over a decade.

What about the brutal financial sanctions that have already caused the Russian ruble to collapse, sent its interest rates spiraling upward, and caused a run on Sperbank and the closure of its European arm? Russia is certainly suffering economically — but it is not actually cut off from the entire world. It can continue to sell oil and gas on the world market. More important, both China and India are outside the sanctions regime and are too large to be plausible targets for secondary sanctions should the U.S. and European Union try to tighten the vise that way. Both countries notably abstained from the U.N. General Assembly's recent vote condemning the invasion. Given the profit opportunities for the Asian economic giants, it's not hard to imagine new economic partnerships being forged that keep Russia afloat for an extended period.

As for Putin's longevity, consider that any successor would inherit his current dilemma. The invasion of Ukraine lacked Russian popular support — but a humiliating exit would also be unpopular and devastating to both Russian power and military morale. Awareness of those facts should dampen any prospective coup-plotters' enthusiasm for taking the reins themselves.

No one can know what will come next in a highly fluid and volatile situation. But it's worth considering the possibility that what has happened so far is less like the start of World War I or World War II and more like a cross between the beginning of the Cold War and its end. As at the start of the Cold War, the West has been galvanized into unity, and prospective battle lines are being drawn. As at its end, a European country — then Yugoslavia, now Ukraine — is being torn apart by a revanchist dictator. West and East may be dividing again into hostile camps, but with no buffer between them, only a suppurating wound.

That's a future without an off-ramp, but also without an end-game. If that future transpires, then the financial, military, and political decisions we are making now — in an atmosphere of crisis, aimed at pressuring Russia to withdraw from Ukraine — will instead become the foundations of the new world aborning.

What does that world look like? We ought to be asking ourselves that more than we are, because we might be living in it for many years to come.

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