How will the war in Ukraine end?
This is precisely the question that no one can ask these days anymore. The assumption of our leaders seems to be that if we keep up the pressure on Vladimir Putin in Ukraine, he will give up and go home; their threats to use tactical nukes on the battlefield are nothing more than a show of power. He’ll then retreat on the home front, solidify his power, and continue throwing his potential enemies out of the third-floor windows.
Maybe this really is the best-case scenario. Because if President Joe Biden gets his wish – if Putin is indeed ousted from power in Russia – what would follow could easily be even worse than Putin: The Russian public continues to strongly support aggressive foreign action to expand the “empire” ; apart from the military, there are no well-organized or powerful groups in Russia, and Putin has an inner circle of possible successors who are, at the very least, more anti-Western than he is.
If none of these successors take the lead, the possibility of an internal war similar to Syria is also not entirely out of the realm of possibility – and that, in a country armed with a massive and aging nuclear arsenal.
Then there is the other possibility: that Putin is serious and that if he sees his mission in Ukraine failing, he actually uses nuclear weapons. Most observers thought Putin was blathering about his threats to invade Ukraine in the first place; underestimating Putin’s aggressive radicalism now may be foolish.
And there are no real plans to deal with Putin unleashing a nuclear bomb: while former CIA Director David Petraeus suggested the United States would respond “ leading a NATO, a collective effort, that would eliminate all Russian conventional forces that we can see and identify on the battlefield in Ukraine and also in Crimea and on all ships in the Black Sea”, this could also lead Putin to escalate further, perhaps even trying to directly threaten a civilian center on NATO territory with nuclear weapons.
In November 1939, the Soviet Union invaded Finland, trying to install a puppet communist government; the West united in opposition to the Soviet intervention, sending arms to the Finns, who courageously opposed Stalin’s forces. The USSR lost at least 126.000 soldiers over the course of the three-and-a-half month war, but responded in the end with a massive infusion. of troops and a heavy offensive that made the Finns retreat.
Faced with the prospect of open war with the Western powers, Stalin signed the Moscow Peace Treaty in March 1940, with the Finns ceding 9% of their territory to Stalin.
Was the mutual withdrawal the best solution? Should the West have pushed Stalin to the limit in Finland? Perhaps. But the West was facing Stalin and Hitler simultaneously.
Today, the threat is not a second front from a powerful enemy, but the direct threat of nuclear weapons. Henry Kissinger has been publicly criticized for suggesting that the way out of this conflict will be territorial concessions from Ukraine to Russia – a repeat of the Moscow Peace Treaty.
But he may be right, especially if the West does not willing to bear the full economic and military cost of a major war with Russia – as historian Niall Ferguson writes: “Until now, the West has given Zelensky and his brave people enough military and economic support to avoid losing. we’re giving them enough to win – and the window to win isn’t infinite.” In the end, it may be that the least bad case scenario is simply avoiding the worst case scenario.