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How will the Ukraine war end?

The Week UK logo The Week UK 6/28/2022 The Week Staff
Workers clear the rubble of the Amstor mall in Kremenchuk, the day after it was hit by a Russian missile strike Genya Savilob/AFP via Getty Images © Genya Savilob/AFP via Getty Images Workers clear the rubble of the Amstor mall in Kremenchuk, the day after it was hit by a Russian missile strike Genya Savilob/AFP via Getty Images

Russian forces are inching closer to capturing the Donbas region – now Moscow’s primary objective

World leaders have denounced a Russian missile strike on a busy shopping centre in the Ukrainian city of Kremenchuk as a “war crime”.

The search for survivors is continuing after the attack in central Ukraine, far from the front line of the war. At least 18 people have been killed, according to local emergency services, and at least 59 injured, but President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that more than 1,000 people were in the building at the time. 

“The Ukrainian defence ministry said the strike was deliberately timed to coincide with the mall’s busiest hours and cause the maximum number of victims,” reported The Guardian.

The attack happened as G7 leaders met in Bavaria for this year’s summit. In a joint statement, they condemned the “abominable attack” and said that attacks aimed at civilians were a “war crime”.

“We stand united with Ukraine in mourning the innocent victims of this brutal attack. Indiscriminate attacks on innocent civilians constitute a war crime. Russian President Putin and those responsible will be held to account.”

The attack is likely to have put further pressure on the West to support Ukraine in its battle against Russia, and G7 leaders pledged yesterday to “continue to provide financial, humanitarian as well as military support for Ukraine, for as long as it takes”.

The lead-up to conflict

Putin has long made clear his belief that Ukraine is an illegitimate state, claiming in an essay published last year that Russians and Ukrainians, along with Belarusians, are one people, belonging to what was historically known as the “All-Russian Nation”.

In the essay, titled On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians, Putin explicitly laid out his argument that Ukraine has no right to call itself an independent nation. “The formation of an ethnically pure Ukrainian state, aggressive towards Russia”, Putin argued, is equivalent to the use of weapons of mass destruction against Russians.

It was based on this logic that Putin justified the 2014 annexation of Crimea, as well as the long-running conflict between Kremlin-backed proxies in the Donbas region. That conflict, fought on Ukrainian soil, claimed 14,000 lives between 2014 and 2022. 

In a speech delivered days before he gave the order for a full invasion, Putin was internationally condemned for attacking the notion of Ukrainian statehood in an “angry” and “dismissive” speech delivered from the Kremlin.

Putin outlined a “version of Ukraine’s history” in which the territory now controlled by Kyiv “was always part of Russia”, said Associated Press editor-at-large John Daniszewski. Instead, he argued that the land that now comprises Ukraine was stolen from mainland Russia by the Bolsheviks following the formation of the Soviet Union.

But “while that serves his purpose, it is also a fiction” that denies Ukraine’s “own 1,000-year history”, Daniszewski said. World leaders dismissed Putin’s history lesson, but it nonetheless laid the “groundwork for war”, he added.

How the war started

On 21 February, Putin signed a decree recognising the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republics, the two self-proclaimed states controlled by pro-Russian separatist forces in Donbas. No other country recognises their independence.

He then deployed Russian troops to the area, arguing that they were “peacekeepers” seeking to avoid a “genocide” of Russians living in the region. 

Ukraine has since “taken Russia to the International Court of Justice for having launched an invasion on the pretext of false claims of genocide perpetrated against the country’s Russian speakers”, The Guardian reported.

What followed was an assault on three fronts, with Russian troops flooding over into Ukrainian territory from annexed Crimea, the separatist-controlled regions in the east and Belarus, which shares a border to the north of Ukraine.

Putin justified this attack by arguing that Nato expansion to the east threatened Russian national security, even though Ukraine is not a Nato member and was not likely to join the alliance in the near future. He also claimed to be “demilitarising” and “denazifying” the country, which is led by a democratically elected Jewish president. 

He had intended the invasion to be swift, with troops quickly storming into the capital Kyiv and deposing President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government. But his troops were met with stiff resistance from Ukraine’s armed forces, laying the groundwork for the ongoing fighting in several major cities. 

How will the war end? 

Putin’s invasion has not gone to plan, with reports emerging of low morale among soldiers and shortages of basic supplies such as food and fuel. Russian forces failed to take the capital city of Kyiv but continue to bombard key locations.

Here are four possible outcomes of the conflict:

1. Victory for Ukraine

The least likely result, predicted the Atlantic Council in March, is a “miracle on the Dnipro” in which “Ukraine’s military and civilian resistance overcome the odds and grind Moscow’s advance to a halt”.

Should this happen, it may quickly become “obvious to the Kremlin that Russia will pay an exorbitant price for its adventurism”, meaning Putin could withdraw his troops and Ukraine “remain a sovereign democracy”.

2. Partial victory for Russia

Alternatively, it is possible that the conflict will descend into a “quagmire”, the think tank said.

After months of fighting, Russia may well “topple Ukraine’s government and install a puppet regime”. But if neither “Ukraine’s armed forces nor its population are ready to surrender”, the battle could evolve into “a broad-based, well-armed, and well-coordinated insurgency against the invaders” that could then drag on for years or even decades.

Alternatively, Russia could attempt to offer a ceasefire if it manages to seize the industrial heartlands of Donbas, which became its objective after failing to take Kyiv in the opening days of the war.

Russia is making “creeping progress” in the Donbas, helped by the retreat of Ukrainian forces from the city of Severodonetsk, the largest city the Ukrainian forces still held in the Luhansk region of the Donbas. And with “more reserve forces on their way and a willingness to pound cities into submission” analysts believe Moscow will eventually capture the Donbas, said The Times

It would mean Putin has achieved at least his “minimum objective”, explained the paper, and he could then be tempted to offer Ukraine a ceasefire which could “divide Nato at a time when unity between allies is needed more than ever”.

“The Ukrainians would not accept it but he would offer it because he would split the western alliance apart,” said Professor Michael Clarke, a former director of the Royal United Services Institute think tank.

The UK will also not support any agreement or ceasefire with the Russians over fears it could give Putin “time to replenish his battered forces before he sent troops back again to try and take more Ukrainian territory”. 

At a G7 bilateral meeting between France and the UK, President Emmanuel Macron and Boris Johnson agreed that “outright defeat of Russia remained the best outcome” of the war in Ukraine, reported The Times

3. Division

The third possible outcome, according to the Atlantic Council, is “a new Iron Curtain”. This would be created if Ukraine “eventually collapses under the weight of the Russian invasion”, creating a divide “running along the borders of the Baltic states in the north through those of Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania in the south”.

In this scenario, “the new schism through the heart of Europe brings with it a familiar list of dangers and uncertainties”. The most pressing is that a Russian-held Ukraine will border a host of Nato member states, “raising the prospects of direct conflict”.

CNN reported this week that White House officials have begun to doubt Ukraine will ever be able to take back all the land it has lost to Russia as the conflict enters its fifth month.

The news site reported that advisers to US President Joe Biden have begun “debating internally how and whether” Zelenskyy “should shift his definition of a Ukrainian ‘victory’” and if he should begin “adjusting for the possibility that his country has shrunk irreversibly”.

However, US officials reportedly “emphasised” to CNN that “this more pessimistic assessment does not mean the US plans to pressure Ukraine into making any formal territorial concessions to Russia in order to end the war”. 

And some parts of the Biden administration remain optimistic that Ukraine can continue to “defy expectations”. National security adviser Jake Sullivan is said to have “remained highly engaged with his Ukrainian counterparts and spent hours on the phone last week discussing Ukrainian efforts to recapture territory” with Ukrainian and American defence staff.

4. Escalation

That is the final potential outcome: an extension of the conflict into a war between Nato and Russia. This is described by the Atlantic Council as “the most dangerous scenario for the future of Europe and the global order”.

Western leaders have confirmed that they will not put boots on the ground in Ukraine or impose a Nato-enforced no-fly zone due to fears of direct engagement with Russia that could trigger a global conflict

But should Nato “decide to escalate its involvement in Ukraine”, the think tank warned, “Russia would be forced to decide whether to back down or directly engage alliance military forces”.

UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has warned that if Russia is not stopped in Ukraine, “we are going to see others under threat – the Baltics, Poland, Moldova, and it could end up in a conflict with Nato”.

This would mean a conflict between atomic powers. And “it goes without saying”, said The Telegraph, “that any actual use of nuclear weapons would be disastrous beyond description”. 

General Sir Patrick Sanders, the new head of the British Army, told troops of all ranks today that they must be prepared to “fight and win” to prevent the spread of war in Europe.

In an address to the Royal United Services Institute London, he said that his singular focus is “mobilising the army to help prevent [the spread of] war in Europe by being ready to fight and win alongside our Nato allies and partners”.

“This is our 1937 moment,” said the Army chief, referring to the crucial period leading up to the Second World War.

“We are not at war but must act rapidly so that we aren’t drawn into one through a failure to contain territorial expansion… I will do everything in my power to ensure that the British Army plays its part in averting war.”

The remarks are the “starkest yet” on the war in Ukraine by a serving military chief, said The Times, “and are likely to raise alarm in Whitehall”.

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