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Don’t expect the war in Ukraine to end quickly

“Tell me how does this end?” is one of those things people say in movies — and sometimes in real life, too. It is the crucial question about the war in Ukraine – but one that is sometimes obscured by the sheer drama and horror of everyday events.

Just before the outbreak of war, most military experts expected a quick Russian military victory. That turned out to be wrong – and there will be more surprises. Therefore, all predictions must be made with humility.

However, there are three Ukraine scenarios that currently appear most likely. The first – which is both the most tragic and the most probable – is that this war will last for many months. The second possibility – maybe 30 percent – is that there is a peace settlement. The third scenario – maybe 10 percent – is that there is some kind of political upheaval in Russia that involves the ousting of President Vladimir Putin and a new approach to Ukraine.

The long, grueling war scenario assumes that neither Russia nor Ukraine are now in position to achieve total victory and neither are ready to concede defeat. Putin is fighting to save his political life and Ukrainians are fighting to save their country.

After nearly a month of conflict, Russia has failed to take control of one of Ukraine’s largest cities and has suffered heavy casualties in men and equipment. The Russians may be on the verge of capturing the strategic port of Mariupol – but only by destroying it in the process.

The increasing brutality of Russian tactics, shown to the full in Mariupol, is a signpost for the future. The more desperate they get, the more vicious the Russians become. There are ominous indications that the Kremlin is considering using it chemical weapons already used in Syria.

But Kyiv has about six times the population of Mariupol. Surrounding the Ukrainian capital, bombarding it until it submits, and then successfully seizing control of it is beyond the capabilities of the Russian military. Even the capture of Odessa, which would allow Russia to effectively control Ukraine’s coast, could take months and involve the destruction of the port city that serves as the headquarters of Ukraine’s naval forces.

A prolonged war would not only cause horrific casualties, but would steadily increase the risk of escalation. Pressure on Western leaders to intervene would increase as atrocities worsen. US and European governments are likely to continue to resist this pressure. But increased military aid to Ukraine could blur the line between intervention and non-intervention – increasing the risk of a direct clash between Russia and the West.

The appalling losses suffered by both sides, now and in the future, should increase the prospects for a negotiated peace. The Russians and Ukrainians have spoken to each other almost since the beginning of the conflict. Ukrainians seem to have accepted that they will not join NATO and will instead be a neutral state. That was one of Russia’s key demands and could allow Putin to claim some sort of victory.

There are other major problems that remain unresolved. The status of Russian-occupied Crimea, as well as Donetsk and Luhansk, which Russia now recognizes as independent states, is not agreed. A peace settlement may need to involve some kind of creative compromise that accepts the current status quo without setting it in stone.

Even if these issues were agreed, other very difficult issues would remain. Ukraine now wants, understandably, some sort of international security guarantee.

But if that looked like NATO membership under any other name, it might not be accepted by Russia, or even by the NATO governments themselves. Russia could demand the lifting of Western sanctions as a condition for withdrawing its troops. But the US and EU will be reluctant to end Russia’s pariah status as long as Putin remains in power.

The current assumption in Washington is that the Russians are unlikely to be negotiating in good faith. Even the announcement of a ceasefire is likely to be viewed with skepticism – as Russia may only use it as an opportunity to regroup militarily.

But if Putin is indeed still committed to war, he could make another catastrophic mistake. The pressure on the Russian economy and military will continue to increase in the coming months. Some military analysts believe the army may soon run out of ammunition and troops. There is a shortage in the shops and prices are rising.

Despite the danger to the demonstrators, public dissent continues to be shown in Russia. Putin himself took the issue angrily denunciations of traitors and fifth columnists. Some high-ranking figures within the intelligence community have allegedly been placed under house arrest.

On the other hand, turning all this confusion and panic into an effective coup against Putin is a very difficult task. The Russian leader is very careful about his safety – so cautious that he seems reluctant to let even close aides near him.

Dissenting voices were purged from the Kremlin long ago. There will be dissension and despair throughout the Russian system – but coordinating this into an effective plot to remove Putin may not be possible.

So those are the three options: a prolonged war; a peace settlement; or a coup in Russia. Expect the first, work for the second, and hope for the third.

gideon.rachman@ft.com

https://www.ft.com/content/63fc662c-098d-4263-b69b-34d55c9f5e0a Don’t expect the war in Ukraine to end quickly

Adam Bradshaw

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