How Does the Ukraine War End?

The West needs to prepare for a lose-lose cease-fire.

By , a tech scholar and J.D. candidate at Georgetown University Law Center, formerly a U.S. diplomat.
The mother of Ukrainian officer Ivan Skrypnyk cries over his coffin during a funeral ceremony in Lviv, Ukraine.
The mother of Ukrainian officer Ivan Skrypnyk cries over his coffin during a funeral ceremony in Lviv, Ukraine.
The mother of Ukrainian officer Ivan Skrypnyk cries over his coffin during a funeral ceremony in Lviv, Ukraine, on March 17. Alexey Furman/Getty Images

Nearly a decade after his attack on Ukraine in 2014, an emboldened and frustrated Vladimir Putin, more isolated and paranoid than ever, has once again brazenly invaded his neighbor. But unlike in 2014, Ukraine—and the world—was more prepared. The Russian president miscalculated how quickly global opinion would turn against him and how fierce Ukrainian resistance would be. He miscalculated the support of his own people, and he certainly did not imagine the decisive actions state and nonstate actors were willing to take to pull back the curtain on his lies. Governments rallied, implementing the most comprehensive, coordinated package of sanctions ever unleashed on any nation to date.

But is this enough?

Many observers have discussed the change in Putin: Some argue that he is rational, while others say he is losing his grip on reality. But people, even authoritarians, are not consistent, and both can be partially true. With this in mind, the democratic world needs to think carefully about what kind of exit Russia and Ukraine can accept—or will be forced to.

Nearly a decade after his attack on Ukraine in 2014, an emboldened and frustrated Vladimir Putin, more isolated and paranoid than ever, has once again brazenly invaded his neighbor. But unlike in 2014, Ukraine—and the world—was more prepared. The Russian president miscalculated how quickly global opinion would turn against him and how fierce Ukrainian resistance would be. He miscalculated the support of his own people, and he certainly did not imagine the decisive actions state and nonstate actors were willing to take to pull back the curtain on his lies. Governments rallied, implementing the most comprehensive, coordinated package of sanctions ever unleashed on any nation to date.

But is this enough?

Many observers have discussed the change in Putin: Some argue that he is rational, while others say he is losing his grip on reality. But people, even authoritarians, are not consistent, and both can be partially true. With this in mind, the democratic world needs to think carefully about what kind of exit Russia and Ukraine can accept—or will be forced to.

In order to save face, Putin would seek regime change and/or the demilitarization of Ukraine, with no option for Ukrainian membership in NATO or the European Union. He has articulated as much in conversations with French President Emmanuel Macron. The wars in Syria and Chechnya show that Putin will continue to escalate, making the cost of not capitulating very high for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and the people of Ukraine.

Three scenarios could unfold:


Stalemate: A lose-lose situation

A partial defeat for Putin might involve taking Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts either as Russian territories or autonomous regions as well as recognition of Crimea as part of Russia. The West would need to agree to the gradual removal of sanctions in exchange for Russia’s withdrawal of troops. Private companies might be persuaded to reengage in business with Russia. Putin would then punish dissenters in parliament, his closest circles, and take further measures to clamp down on anti-government sentiment. Media would be censored, and Russia might adopt the Chinese cyber-sovereignty model to control the flow of information inside the country. To prevent further casualties, Zelensky will agree to a cease-fire. This would leave both countries with yet another frozen conflict—perhaps somewhat hotter than the others on Russia’s borders—but Zelensky would maintain control of the government, and Ukraine would potentially enter the EU. Ukraine will need support to rebuild its infrastructure and economy, and a new purge of pro-Russian politicians, citizens, and activists would likely follow. The enormous refugee crisis will also be difficult to reverse as more than 3 million Ukrainians have fled, with millions more expected to leave in the coming weeks.

NATO would still be off the table, as the two separatist regions would force NATO nations to embroil themselves in an unending cycle of military contributions to Ukraine if it joined. Russia would retreat, be completely isolated from the international order, and potentially face war crimes charges against military personnel and politicians. Some sort of road map for normalization of relations would be articulated, but it’s not clear on what terms. Sanction removals would be contingent on assurances from Putin to respect Ukrainian sovereignty.


Checkmate: Putin achieves his objectives

In a scenario where Russia defeats Ukraine and installs an oppressive puppet regime, Russian forces would brutally quash Ukrainian troops and civilians, not unlike Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev did in Hungary in 1956. For its actions, Russia would continue to be isolated and would reconstruct an iron curtain around Ukraine and Belarus. Ukrainians would likely never truly capitulate to a Russian-installed leader, producing a long-term and brutal insurgency.

Looking at the U.N. General Assembly resolution condemning Russia’s invasion, the abstainers are noteworthy—nearly mirroring the Shanghai Cooperation Organization membership. These countries, seeing Putin’s success, will surely be emboldened and become Russia’s allies in a new multipolar order. With Putin still in charge, Russian and Chinese plans for the decoupling of certain economic dependencies from the West will continue. Indeed, U.S. export controls on crucial technology such as semiconductors to Russia are reminiscent of those levied against China, and alternative supply chains and self-sufficiency will once again become a priority for Russia.

Russia and China’s project to replace the U.S. monetary hegemony will also be accelerated. Back in 2015, when China launched the Cross-Border Interbank Payments Systems, it was partly in response to Western sanctions on Russia for its invasion of Crimea. Back then, China and Russia agreed to do a currency swap in renminbi to alleviate some of the sting, which was recently renewed. Certainly, regimes that are concerned that they may one day find themselves at the receiving end of a similar package of economic sanctions will be incentivized to move away from the dollar. Finally, we cannot forget that Russia is still a major supplier of oil and gas to Europe. In this scenario, energy concerns would perhaps force division in Europe and erode European interest in trying Russia for war crimes.


Forced-mate: Revolution in Russia

Regime change in Russia would occur as a result of a domestic coup or popular revolt as the Russian people and political elite feel the squeeze from sanctions. This would cause a crisis of succession. If done by popular revolt, Alexey Navalny, a darling of populist Russians, is still in prison and could be eliminated before he has a chance to lead. For the liberals, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, living in exile in London, could seek a return but might arrive to an unpopular reception. Theoretically, according to the constitution, Mikhail Mishustin as prime minister should step in as acting president, and elections would be held three months later, but this sort of smooth transition is highly unlikely.

The most likely successor would come from Putin’s inner circle—but only after a bloody contest for power. Oligarchs would enter the fray, as would strong regional leaders. Civil society and technocrats could perhaps align for the rosiest of outcomes, but such groups do not have a united vision for Russia. The last time Russia went through a revolution, it was homegrown and not externally catalyzed. In the events leading up to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev attempted to shore up support in his inner circle before it turned against him in a largely botched coup. That coup, however, paved the way for Boris Yeltsin, a populist figure outside of Gorbachev’s inner circle, to come to power.

Russians, while perhaps increasingly souring on Putin, will resent the destruction of their economy and, having spent the last two decades rebuilding a sense of identity and national pride, will likely turn to fierce populism and nationalism to rebuild. My own research of Russian immigration politics shows that Russian populist and nationalist sentiment is growing. The Russian middle class, disillusioned with the promises of Western capitalism, believe that their economic problems stem from immigrants taking their jobs and minority groups with outsized power. In recent years, the greatest threat to Putin’s regime has come from domestic populist and nationalist opposition. Putin has had to strike a very careful balance, often promoting a nationalist identity that is not just Slavic but part of a Russian world that includes non-Slavic Russians. In recent years, Putin has used nationalist rhetoric to focus the animus of Russians hurting from Western sanctions toward Western leadership, especially the United States. Whatever Russia looks like after Putin, it may not be the Russia Western democracies want.

The West needs to start making choices now that look at the possibilities to come.

Partial defeat is the most likely outcome of this war, reducing Ukrainian casualties while throwing lifelines to ordinary Russian citizens. Achieving this will take multipronged diplomatic efforts. Europeans need to agree to welcome Ukraine into the EU, offer Putin a removal of sanctions in exchange for de-escalation of violence, and negotiate a treaty that provides Russia with some assurances that its economic and security interests will be met. Key individuals should be tried for war crimes in absentia, and NATO should revise its mandate to commit military intervention, perhaps short of declaration of war, as a deterrent for EU members. This could involve immediate enforcement of escalating sanctions on financial transactions and a certain number of boots on the ground in the model of peacekeeping troops.

If a puppet regime is installed in Ukraine, then the West must identify lasting consequences for the Russian regime, including sustaining sanctions targeted at key military leaders and the energy sector. Ukrainians will continue to fight, and such insurgent groups will seek support from NATO and European countries. In response to such calls for assistance, a reprisal of brutal repression would likely occur. Against this backdrop, NATO leaders need to articulate for whom and how they will fight. For example, if Russia, in an attempt to quash a resistance movement, inadvertently attacks a NATO member, would this trigger a military action?

If Putin, having succeeded in Ukraine, somehow stabilizes the Russian economy and then decides to try his luck in other non-NATO countries, such as Moldova or Georgia—again—how will Europe respond? Will there be no consequences to Putin’s actions? Perhaps it’s time to revisit the articles of the North Atlantic Treaty and create a halfway military intervention effort—something in between Article 5 and nothing—such as an observational or peacekeeping force deployed to countries bordering NATO members. We need to make NATO more agile so that it can respond to new types of war.

If it is regime change that leaders are hoping for, then they must be prepared to deal with the incredible chaos that will surely follow. Upheaval in the world’s 11th-largest economy and a future Russian leader who could well be more nationalist and populist than ever before would be difficult to integrate into the existing international order. As Russian elite, civil society, and regional factions fight for the throne, lines of communication with China and other regional leaders will be critical to contain violence, curb cybercriminals, and diffuse any possibility of nuclear disaster. To deal with a decimated economy, sanctions could be removed to provide humanitarian assistance to ordinary Russians. If you believe the rosiest of outcomes is possible, that Russia could somehow become a democracy similar to those in the West, then support for civil society might be helpful, but it’s more likely that Russians will favor a nationalist, authoritarian strongman to restabilize the country. Nations would need to establish relations with this new leader, and in the meantime, U.N. mechanisms and security alliances should reform to make clear which actions trigger particular united military and economic responses to acts of unprovoked, unilateral aggression.

Back in 2014, I arrived at the U.S. Mission to NATO disillusioned, recognizing that Western nations would not militarily intervene to protect Ukraine’s democracy. Ukraine was not and is still not a NATO member and would therefore not invoke military action. As Putin’s military was engaging in hybrid warfare, Western nations were making speeches and sending aid, but most were not willing to do more. In the end, as now, it was Ukraine that demonstrated the greatest commitment of the Western world to the values of democracy and freedom. Today, Ukrainians, and the world’s unified response, are giving me hope. But we need to have clear ends in mind if we want to build a stronger world to follow.

Correction, March 17, 2022: A previous version of this article misidentified the Soviet leader who crushed the 1956 Hungarian uprising. It has been corrected.

Esther Tetruashvily is a tech scholar and J.D. candidate at Georgetown University Law Center. She is also a Fritz family fellow with the Georgetown Institute for Technology, Law, and Policy, studying cybersecurity and global digital governance. Previously, she served as a U.S. diplomat in embassies in Central Asia and China, was selected as a Forbes 30 Under 30 in law and policy in 2019, and was a Thomas Pickering foreign affairs fellow and Paul and Daisy Soros fellow in 2012.

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