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Whether, when and how the war in Ukraine will end

Ukrainian State Emergency Service firefighters work to extinguish a fire at the building which was destroyed by a Russian attack in Kryvyi Rih, Ukraine, Friday, Dec. 16, 2022. Russian forces launched at least 60 missiles across Ukraine on Friday, officials said, reporting explosions in at least four cities, including Kyiv. At least two people were killed by a strike on a residential building in central Ukraine, where a hunt was on for survivors. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

Whether, when and how the war in Ukraine will end are crucial and unanswerable questions. For some, the war is going well for Ukraine. Russian forces have been severely mauled. Regrouping and responding to battlefield setbacks may exceed Moscow’s capacity. Ultimately, if this continues, Russia will have to negotiate or compromise to end the war.

But others, including Ukraine’s senior military leadership, take a more cautionary view. Some in the Pentagon who do not wish attribution characterize the war as “Big Russia versus Little Russia,” meaning that Ukraine is unlikely to prevail over a larger and more powerful Russia if the fighting continues for the long term. Who proves correct is only a guess as of now.  

A starting point is to assess the strategies of the key participants and then analyze the possible outcomes to determine what might be done to expedite ending the war on favorable terms for Ukraine.

The U.S. strategy, accepted de facto by NATO and the European Union, is to supply Ukraine with military and non-military aid sufficient for defense and survival but not necessarily enough to drive Russia from all or much of the territories it controls in Crimea and Donbas or to provoke an escalation by Moscow. While the possible transfer of a Patriot missile battery to Ukraine is a strong political signal, the tactical impact may be minimal. And if the Biden administration has an exit strategy, it is keeping it close hold.

Ukraine and its president, Volodymyr Zelensky, seem to have been given the authority to dictate terms for ending the war. But at some stage the U.S. will act in its own interests, possibly as the Trump administration did in negotiating withdrawal from Afghanistan with the Taliban and not the Afghan government. And while the U.S. and NATO are in firm agreement in supporting Ukraine, will that cohesion persist if the war continues indefinitely?

Russia’s strategy is for the long haul and “to win,” meaning persevere by not losing. Russian President Vladimir Putin expects longterm success to come from a combination of the brutal bombing campaign to destroy Ukraine’s power, water and food infrastructure to force capitulation or surrender; a harsh winter that will reinforce these effects in Ukraine and further disrupt NATO solidarity; and a new general who seems more competent than his predecessors (that was not a high bar) to revise and revitalize Russian strategy and design a new offensive. And Putin seems willing to persist.

Ukraine’s strategy is to reclaim virtually all territory occupied by Russia and is prepared to pay seemingly any price to achieve that aim. However, as winter sets in and the costs of nearly a year of war grow heavier, it is unclear how long this bravado can last if conditions deteriorate and both military and civilian supplies are exhausted. And if Russian General Sergey Surovikin proves competent, can Moscow turn the tide on the battlefield or at least force a deadlock?

Thus, from this analysis, four outcomes seem plausible. The first is that Ukraine will prevail in forcing or compelling Russia to accept its terms for ending the war. The second is that Russia will prevail and Ukraine will negotiate. The third is deadlock and either a frozen conflict similar to Korea or ongoing military operations that cannot break the stalemate.

Finally, deadlock could force negotiations or a ceasefire as neither side can win or achieve its aims because the costs of continuing the war are too great to sustain by the combatants and the U.S. and NATO. Objectively, the last two outcomes are the more likely. If that is correct, is there any way of expediting some form of settlement?

For the allies, two courses of action are needed now. The first is to accelerate sending more precision strike and air defense weapons to Ukraine, raising the costs to Russia and countering a possible Russian offensive. The second is to guarantee long-term support in the form of a Taiwan Relations Act-like arrangement so that Ukraine can defend itself for the future and some sort of Marshall Plan-type reconstruction.

While war crimes and Russian reparations should be covered, pragmatically, both could be deal-breakers in ending the war. That said, events over the next three to four months could be decisive in answering whether, when and how this war will end provided the allies accept these two recommendations. If not, prepare for a long war.

Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at the Atlantic Council and the prime author of “shock and awe.” His latest  book is “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large.” Follow him on Twitter @harlankullman.

Tags NATO Russia Russia-Ukraine war Taiwan Relations Act Ukraine Ukraine invasion

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