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The unpalatable truth in Ukraine

At one point in the novel “Sign of the Four,” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s inimitable detective Sherlock Holmes explains and demonstrates to Dr. Watson his method of observation and deduction. Confronted with an apparently inexplicable circumstance, Dr. Watson is utterly perplexed. He simply cannot understand how the event in question came to pass, given the facts as he understands them and the laws of nature. Slightly irritated at his plodding companion’s bafflement, Holmes once again shares with him the methodological key to solving all such mysteries: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

And the truth is, once we have eliminated all the impossible scenarios, the least improbable outcome of the war in Ukraine is a Russian victory.

Note that I did not say such an outcome would be desirable. Russia’s inevitable victory is anything but. Nor did I say it would be total. The outcome of this war is going to fall far short of the Kremlin’s initial hopes and expectations. Nor, finally, did I say it would be without significant cost. Any conceivable Russian victory now will entail such a loss of blood and treasure that it will have to be judged Pyrrhic at best.

But it will be a victory nonetheless — and we in the West had better come to grips with that hard truth.

Let’s begin by eliminating the impossible.

The first unrealistic endgame is the reduction of Ukraine to a vassal state of the Russian empire. This would entail the kind of operation initially envisioned by the Kremlin: a quick decapitating military strike, the installation of a pro-Moscow regime in Kyiv and either the formal incorporation of Ukraine into the Russian Federation or its informal incorporation into a Russian sphere of influence (like Belarus).

While perhaps the initial objective of Russia’s “special military operation,” this outcome is now obviously an impossibility. Russia did not have the ability to impose this vision in February, and it is decidedly less able to impose it 100 days later. Indeed, even the Russians themselves have conceded as much. Their rhetoric and military operations suggest that even they believe such an outcome to be beyond the realm of the possible.

The second impossible scenario is the total defeat of the Russian military and the restoration of Ukraine to its pre-2014 borders. In this scenario, the Ukrainian military, having blunted the initial Russian offensive, launches a successful counter-offensive that ultimately drives the Russians not only out of the territories they captured in 2022 but out of the Donbas and Crimea as well. The resulting political dispensation would be an independent Ukraine restored to its internationally recognized borders and free to join NATO and/or associate with the European Union (EU) as it saw fit. 

While advocated by many within and beyond Ukraine, this outcome is simply impossible. Whatever the shortcomings displayed by Russian forces in the opening phase of the war – when they were first stopped at the gates of Kyiv and then driven from the north of the country altogether – recent battlefield developments suggest that they have found their footing and are not going to be pushed out of the territories taken in 2014.

Indeed, there is no reason to believe that they will even be displaced from much of the territory they have seized along the coast of the Sea of Azov. While there will doubtless be shifts on the battlefield as a result of offensives here and counter-offensives there, the correlation of forces simply do not augur a total victory for Ukraine. So, despite the willful delusions of some and the idealistic hopes others, this outcome is simply impossible.

The third and final impossible scenario is a limited Ukrainian victory that would reverse all or most of the Russian gains since Feb. 24, 2022. In this scenario, while the Donbas and Crimea remain in Russian hands, all the territory captured by Russia since its recent re-invasion would be liberated by Ukrainian forces and restored to Ukrainian control.

While once viewed as a realistic outcome, by now it should be obvious that this is impossible. Just as Ukraine lacks the ability to liberate all its pre-2014 territory, it also lacks the ability to liberate the recently conquered territory in the Donbas or along the Azov coast. Unlike in the north of Ukraine, these territories are central to Russian interests in Ukraine and, as such, Russia simply will not withdraw from them as it withdrew from Kyiv earlier in the war. Nor will Ukrainian forces – themselves, it should be noted, suffering terrible attrition all along the battle front and growing weaker with each passing day – be strong enough to compel them to do so. No, like the previous two scenarios, this one is simply an impossibility.

And that leaves only one other conceivable outcome: a fragmented and partly dismembered Ukraine, neither fully part of the West nor entirely within the Russian sphere of influence. A Ukraine fragmented in that the whole of the Donbas and perhaps other territories will be left beyond Kyiv’s control; partly dismembered in that Crimea will remain part of Russia (at least in Russian eyes); and not fully part of the West in that it will not be free to join NATO or even to have a meaningful partnership with the EU. Simply put, this outcome is not only not impossible, it’s not even improbable.

And when this final scenario comes to pass, who will have won the war in Ukraine?

Well, it won’t be Ukraine. While such an outcome will satisfy the basic existential goals of Kyiv, it will be a far cry from the more maximalist ambitions expressed both before and after Feb. 24. No, when this scenario inevitably comes to pass, it will clearly be a defeat for Kyiv.

Similarly, such an outcome will not satisfy the maximalist ambitions of those in Moscow who thought that their initial thunder run would resolve the Ukraine issue once and for all. But it will satisfy the Kremlin’s most basic and fundamental geopolitical desideratum: a neutralized Ukraine beyond both the geopolitical ambit of NATO and the geoeconomic orbit of the EU. It will also “restore” Crimea to its rightful place in Russia. And finally, it will demonstrate that interfering in Russia’s natural sphere of influence is unwise. In these ways, when the impossible has been eliminated, the resulting outcome will clearly be a victory for Moscow.

All of which suggests that, at the end of the day, it might be necessary to tweak Holmes’s aphorism just a bit. At least when it comes to thinking about the possible outcomes of the war in Ukraine, perhaps it ought to read something more like: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable unpalatable, must be the truth.”

Andrew Latham is a professor of international relations at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minn., and a non-resident fellow at Defense Priorities in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter @aalatham.

Tags Russia Russia-Ukraine war Russian invasion Ukraine Ukraine-Russia border Vladimir Putin

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