I generally try to stay away from political analysis – largely because I don’t have the time to do it properly. But I wanted to write this one, even if only to clarify my own thoughts. The ‘trigger’ for the post was reading that Russia is, according to the UK MOD, gearing up for a long-term war. It is clear that Western capitals are too. Both Russia and Ukraine continue to fight because they still believe that they can obtain their goals by fighting. Both sides are, it seems, waiting for the other side to collapse. The idea of this post is to sketch out the various scenarios under which this ends, given that the sides coming together voluntarily in a spirit of compromise seems no longer (tragically) a realistic possibility.
The main scenarios from Ukraine’s side appear to be these:
Battlefield success by Ukraine forces Russia to negotiate
This appears to be the main idea in Western European capitals. The idea is that backed by Western arms Ukraine will put Crimea under pressure and this will force Russia to negotiate an end on terms which are acceptable to Ukraine and which allow the West to claim some sort of victory. I think this idea is fundamentally mistaken. I just don’t think Russia is going to negotiate. I think this idea shows that they have no understanding at all of the Russian position. These are existential issues for Russia. (If Russia was, as portrayed in the Western propaganda, just engaged in a casual land grab then yes, they probably would settle for less; but they aren’t. The error seems to be that in Western capitals they have swallowed their own propaganda and are basing policy off it!). Worse, from the Western/Ukrainian point of view – if Crimea is indeed put under threat there is an effect that this will galvanise the Russian population. Virtually all Russians see Crimea as part of Russia. If Crimea is under threat then it will become much easier for the Russian government to mobilise the population.
I think this strategy is totally flawed.
Battlefield success by Ukraine causes a collapse in the “Putin regime”
This appears to be the strategy of the Ukrainian top military command and the Baltic states. The idea seems to be that the “regime” in Russia will collapse and Russia will then be pre-occupied with an internal power struggle and will no longer be able to continue the war. Pretty much as what happened in 1917 when the Bolsheviks sued for peace with Germany and gave up a large amount of territory (including the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia) in order to focus on consolidating power at home. It looks like they are hoping for a repeat of this.
I feel my lack of in-depth research knowledge, but my impression is that this is really unlikely. Firstly; I don’t see any realistic possibility of a revolution in Russia. Opposition to the war is limited to, I would guess, to less than 15% of the population. Due to censorship and other laws there is no possibility to hold public rallies and agitate e.g. on social media, to develop an anti-war movement. Secondly; the same factors apply as above; were Crimea to be put under threat, this would have a galvanising affect on the Russian population and it would be much easier for the government to put the country on a total war-footing. At this point we can note that Russia has three times the population of Ukraine. They also have an intact military-industrial base. Just as in WW2 this base is likely to remain totally out of range of Ukrainian attacks. While Ukraine bleeds Russia can slowly build up its military material. Thirdly; I just don’t see any kind of public mood for a revolution. That isn’t to say that there are not some sectors of the population who would be ready to accept a compromise to end the war; but I don’t see any figure or movement that this group could rally around to put pressure on the government. Putin remains quite popular.
I don’t see any signs of a revolution in Russia and an overthrow of the “regime”. I may be wrong of course, but this does look to me like dreaming.
Russia will give up due to economic fatigue
This appears, perhaps, to be the strategy of the State Department. The idea is that a combination of sanctions and the need for Russia to spend increasing amounts of its state budget on arms will lead to such a significant deterioration in social conditions that the Kremlin is force to capitulate.
This strategy seems to be more credible than the first two. The combined GDP of the NATO countries plus Japan is far larger than that of Russia. NATO countries can individually continue to contribute to arms costing them no more than a line in the state budget individually whereas Russia has to spend 30% (the current reported figure) of its budget. One wonders how long 30% is sustainable. I don’t have time to do a comprehensive report on the affect of sanctions but we can note that a) Russia is receiving much less income from oil and gas sales than before the war, b) trade with the EU has fallen massively.  c) the sanctions on investment and technology transfers will mean that Russia faces increasing problems extracting oil from harder to reach locations such as swamps and the Arctic leading to higher production costs and thus less budget revenue,  d) the rouble continues to fall and this is leading to import inflation. Over time it looks like the Russian state budget will come under increasing pressure. The population will, increasingly, feel the affects of the war in their quality of life. This could lead to dissatisfaction and pressure to settle for a compromise. Possibly some in the State Department are thinking that this will be a repeat of what caused the USSR to fall; public desire for freedom of expression and more consumer goods created demands which could not be met within the existing system, causing it to collapse.
However; there are a number of factors which mitigate against this affect. We have already mentioned that if Crimea comes under threat this will have a galvanizing effect on the the population. Not only will they be more likely to rally around their government and accept mobilisation but they will also be more ready to accept deprivations. Nor does the analogy with the collapse of the USSR completely work. The leaders of the USSR had promised the population that socialism would deliver a better standard of life than capitalism. After 7 decades of the experiment this lie could not really be maintained any more. In the present case there is no need to lie; the Kremlin can simply explain to people that sacrifices are necessary to support the war effort to defend the country. This is a much easier case to sell because there is, especially if Crimea or even the Russian homeland comes under threat, a real and visible threat. As far as sanctions goes, Putin has been very consistent; they will not change government policy one iota. In this he is backed up by a large segment of the population; Russians are extremely resilient. When this started in February 2022 and strong sanctions were imposed several Russians I spoke to simply said “if we have to live off our vegetable gardens, that’s fine”. Others pointed out to me that while Russian industrial machinery is not up to Western standards, it still works and is reliable. Russians can endure deprivations if they think there is a reason to do so. The other point about sanctions is that, over time, systems of evasion only grow. After the sanctions imposed on Russia in 2014 there was an immediate hit on the GDP growth  (though many analysts seem to think that the collapse in the oil price was more responsible for this than sanctions) but one year later growth returned. In the present case there is massive sanctions evasion through countries such as Kazakhstan. China of course is not participating in sanctions. My sense, from having read around this topic, is that Putin’s idea that a pivot to the East will substitute for trade with the EU is overly optimistic. Russia needs Europe. But, sanctions will not “finish them off” and Russia can go into a survival mode in which it can continue to grow albeit at a slower rate than it would have done otherwise; it will now be tagging along behind China rather than the EU.
Overall; the strategy of wearing down Russia by economic pressure seems more credible to me than the strategies of hoping for a collapse in the regime or Russia responding to losing territory by being ready to negotiate, but I doubt even this will achieve the decisive effect needed for success.
A change of governments in Western capitals and/or public pressure leads to a reduction in Western aid forcing Ukraine to settle on Russian terms
There are solid grounds for this strategy. It is clear that Ukraine is totally dependent on the West and if the flow of economic and military aid dries up Ukraine will not be able to sustain the war. Trump could conceivably win the US Presidency and he has certainly indicated he will look to end the war. Overall, public support for continuing to send billions to Ukraine is falling both in the US and Europe. Just today the US Congress has accepted a temporary budget which does not include the next tranche of aid to Ukraine demanded by the Presidency. In Europe results just in from the elections in Slovakia suggest that a government may be formed which wants to stop sending aid to Ukraine. That would make two EU member countries who are on the side of stopping the endless flow of arms and economic aid and in favour of seeking a negotiated settlement. The Kremlin may well be assuming that these trajectories will continue to grow, both in the US and EU. If Western support dries up Ukraine will not be able to sustain the war. In these circumstances they may well not “surrender”; they may well continue a partisan war against Russian forces, but the possibility of retaking territory currently controlled by Russia will no longer exist and they will probably lose the entirety of Zaporizhzhia and Kherson provinces as well. This would, in one sense, be a victory for Russia, though they would still face very significant problems; a partisan war, the enormous task of rebuilding the “captured” provinces and continuing Western sanctions.
How likely is this outcome? The International Relations scholar John Mearsheimer has stated his view that even a Trump Presidency would not, in fact, see US aid curtailed. The State Department would continue to call the shots and Trump would fall into line. EU governments are quite committed to this project and are only partially responsive to public mood. (Recall, for example, that the UK government participated in the attack on Iraq in 2003 despite massive public opposition). NATO capitals have invested very heavily in this project; it would be difficult to explain how they had spent hundreds of billions of public money and then had to walk away with nothing. On the other hand; they managed to do exactly this in Afghanistan and (partly due to the total compliance of the media) were able to do so with virtually no public disquiet. But, against that, Afghanistan was a small far-away country. The Western political-media machine has whipped up the population against the Russian “threat” so successfully that it might be harder now to just walk away from it.  In effect this would mean admitting that they had exaggerated the threat from Russia. It is then a real possibility that the US at least could reduce funding, but the picture is complex. Ukraine is trying to mitigate against this risk by developing a domestic arms industry (to replace the one destroyed by Russia) with the help of Western investors. The idea is to privatise arms production. I would assume that the idea would be that they will export the arms and thus be able to subsidise their own consumption. This seems like a clever model, though it is dependent on very reliable air-defences. (A clever variation might be to base production facilities in Poland but use Ukrainian labour and management). I don’t have any figures but I would guess it will be a tall order to generate the kinds of volume currently supplied by the West.
Overall; this strategy is credible. There is a real risk that Western capitals will have to curtail their support causing Ukraine to retreat to a partisan model of war. (My guess is that this is what the State Department was originally planning for). But – if we trust Mearsheimer, and he has been right on so many points so far, US support will continue even if Trump (or another non-interventionist Republican) wins the US Presidency in 2024. EU countries can continue to send aid even if Hungary and Slovakia combine to stymy EU central decision-making and centralised funding. I don’t feel I can predict what will happen here. It is at least not an unrealistic hope on the part of Russia.
Ukraine will suffer fatigue
It is being largely suppressed in the Western media but it is clear that Ukraine is already having significant problems with recruitment. The population is three times smaller than that of Russia. (Less if we note that part of the country is already occupied by Russia). It is not just a question of Western arms. You need people to fire them. (A horrible thought since it means we are talking about people as expendable resources). Quite simply Ukraine is haemorrhaging lives and at some point this reaches a dead end. Apparently, polls indicate that support is high in Ukraine (the part not currently under Russian occupation and Crimea) for continuing the war, though I am not sure how reliable these are. People in the centre and west of Ukraine can continue to live somewhat normal lives, but if Russia takes more ground they will feel the war coming closer.
I am not very informed about Ukrainian politics. But I can see that, as a result of the polarisation of society, pluralist voices are probably now very thin on the ground in Kiev. I don’t know if there is any political movement (whether from a political party or as a result perhaps of a grouping of oligarchs) which could come to the front in Kiev and argue for taking a loss in the East and in terms of NATO membership in favour of building up what they have left (i.e. accept the compromise available in March 2022).
I think that these factors, manpower problems and war weariness, could play a role but I don’t have enough information to see how this could unfold politically. Still; these are real factors and, from Russia’s point of view, not dreams.
Overall, it looks to me that in as much as this is a game of each side holding out and waiting for the other to collapse, then Russia, on the balance of probability, is more likely to prevail. But it is also possible that both sides can continue to sustain the current rate of attrition for some time to come; a very sad thought.
And, of course, as long as this goes on there remains the real possibility of a wider direct confrontation between NATO and Russia developing.
- https://icds.ee/en/how-have-sanctions-affected-the-russian-oil-sector/ – this appears to be a Western think-tank backed by the Estonian government, so handle with care; but the general idea is confirmed by multiple sources
- As an anecdotal report. At the time of the annexation of Crimea I followed the Independent comments section. About 50% of the comments were in favour of Russia. Currently, about 90% of the comments on Ukraine in the Independent are against Russia and, the tone has changed too – they are not just against Russia but virulently so. At least in the UK the anti-Russia propaganda has been very successful.