How the War in Ukraine Ends

by Benjamin Studebaker

Russia has moved ahead with annexing the occupied oblasts of Ukraine. This is a point of no return for the Putin regime. It is hard for the regime to maintain its legitimacy when it is trying and failing to invade a foreign country. The regime looks weak and incompetent, and with no real possibility of replacing the leadership through an election, there is no easy to way to restore confidence on short notice. But as difficult as that situation is, it is much harder for the regime to maintain its legitimacy when it is trying and failing to defend the territory the regime acknowledges as part of Russia. A Russian president who cannot successfully invade Ukraine is weak. A Russian president who cannot defend Russia is pathetic. The decision to annex the oblasts therefore sends a clear message–the Putin regime will defend the territory it now holds, or it will die trying.

In doing this, the regime is attempting to force Ukraine and its allies into a binary choice:

  1. Negotiate a peace in which Russia’s annexations are recognized, allowing the Putin regime to frame these territorial acquisitions as a kind of victory.
  2. Push for the annihilation of the Putin regime, with all the risks that entails.

Ukraine says, unambiguously, that it will not negotiate. It has, no doubt, been encouraged to take that position by its allies. A few months ago, Ukraine seriously considered a peace deal, before it was urged by the British Prime Minister to fight on. With the continued backing of its allies, Ukraine now believes it can regain its lost territories–including, potentially, even Crimea.

This suggests that the United States now believes it can destroy the Putin regime outright. If the regime falls, it can fall in several different ways:

  1. A coup in favor of a pro-American regime.
  2. A coup in favor of a new anti-American regime.
  3. A civil war, with some possibility of the US and China waging a proxy war with different parts of the Russian military. This outcome is especially dangerous, as Russia’s nuclear weapons could get loose and fall into the hands of rogue actors.

Of course, the Putin regime will try to avoid all of these outcomes. It threatens to resort to nuclear use to defend its annexations. There are several ways Russia could, in theory, use nuclear weapons:

  1. Russia could use nuclear weapons to attempt to shift the tactical situation in its favor, to make a breakthrough or prevent a breakthrough by Ukraine.
  2. Russia could use nuclear weapons to demoralize Ukraine, by attacking major population centers in Ukraine.
  3. Russia could use nuclear weapons against Ukraine’s European allies.
  4. Russia could use nuclear weapons directly against the United States.

Options #3 and #4 are highly unlikely, because they straightforwardly trigger a full scale world war, one Russia knows it cannot win. Option #2 would likely have similar effects at this stage. Russia might, however, think that it can get away with Option #1, especially in a dire situation in which nuclear use seems to be the only way to plausibly prevent the kind of military disaster that would lead to the fall of the regime. This is the option Russian officials have discussed explicitly.

Retired American General David Petraeus has suggested that the US would respond to Option #1 by destroying Russia’s conventional military forces outright. If Russian generals and intelligence officials believe the United States will in fact respond in this way, they may be unwilling to carry out the order to deploy nuclear weapons. By carrying out that order, they would be putting themselves at great personal risk. Of course, if they refuse to carry out the order, the Putin regime would regard that as treason. If Russian officials are unwilling to launch nuclear weapons and do not want to be executed for treason, they would have to stage a coup. It is therefore possible that by trying to save the situation with nuclear weapons, the Putin regime could bring its legitimacy crisis to a head.

It is also possible that Russian officials may not be able or willing to stage a coup. They might think the United States is bluffing, or they might be more afraid of the Putin regime than they are afraid of the US military. If that’s the case, they might remain loyal, and we might see limited nuclear use. But even if there is limited nuclear use, that is unlikely to straightforwardly flip the war in Russia’s favor. Battlefield nuclear weapons have never been used, and they may not ultimately make the kind of tactical difference Russia would hope for. If the United States does commit to destroying Russia’s conventional forces in response, nuclear use could very well accelerate Russia’s defeat.

If nuclear weapons are used and they don’t help the regime turn the war around, the regime would be under even more pressure to escalate further or succumb to a coup. It is more likely that Russian officials will refuse to fire nuclear weapons in these further cases, as these uses of nuclear weapons would be more severe and more likely to draw a catastrophic American response.

Because nuclear use is both unlikely to turn the war around and very likely to bring the legitimacy crisis to a head, the Putin regime will likely exhaust all other means of escalating the conflict before resorting to nuclear use. This has already begun, with the mobilization of reservists. But these measures seem unlikely to work.

Putin picked the most favorable available moment to invade Ukraine–in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, when inflation in the US and Europe was already high and the cost of an energy crisis was especially steep. But the Russian military has proven it isn’t up to the task, even under these circumstances. At a remarkably low cost, the US and its allies have been able to turn Ukraine into a fortress very rapidly. The EU faces an expensive winter, and the Biden administration may take a thumping in the midterms next month, but the Putin regime is now in an existential situation.

The United States is betting that it can successfully replace the Putin regime at minimal cost to itself. It accepts the possibility of nuclear use by Russia in Ukraine. If the Putin regime collapses, the United States is confident it can avert a civil war in which Russian nuclear weapons get loose and fall into the wrong hands. We do not have access to American intelligence. For all we know, the Americans may be right. If they are wrong, the cost will be very high.

Even if the Americans are right, there are some countries in other parts of the world–like Pakistan–that will struggle to pay very high energy prices. Some of these governments may not survive the energy crisis, especially in cases where high energy prices coincide with natural disasters, like the recent flooding in Pakistan. Pakistan has nuclear weapons, and if there is a civil war or state collapse in Pakistan, they could get loose. If the United States is to pull off regime change in Russia, it will have to keep a watchful eye on countries like Pakistan, too. These countries may need a lot of American aid to survive over the next couple years.

The fact that the United States believes it can manage all this–and that there does seem to be a real possibility that it might in fact manage it–illustrates that the American state is in a much stronger position in 2022 than many people realized as recently as two years ago. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many observers speculated about American decline and praised the Chinese response. But today, the Chinese economy is in a precarious position, and the United States appears to be on the verge of destroying the Putin regime. Can it stick the landing?

I’d rather not find out. I’d rather do a peace deal in which Russia keeps the annexed territory but at a high price–the rest of Ukraine should be immediately admitted to NATO, with a path to EU membership. The Biden administration is risking a civil war in Russia, it’s risking state collapse in Pakistan, and it’s risking nuclear use by Russia against Ukraine. These risks are too big for me. A peace deal might allow for substantial economic development in Western Ukraine. It would eliminate the possibility of nuclear use. It would protect against the possibility of civil conflict in Russia. But neither side seems especially serious about peace right now. In recent weeks, it’s become fashionable to make fun of people who propose peace plans, as if the idea that peace is possible or desirable is in itself naïve.

But you know what’s really naïve? Blind confidence in the ability of the Biden administration to pull this off. There are many people for whom any criticism of Joe Biden’s policies gives aid and comfort to Donald Trump. For these people, it is suspicious to subject anything the administration does to any level of scrutiny. All the people who question the Ukraine policy are said to be Trumpists, or Putinists, or what have you. But if you are an ordinary person living in Ukraine or Russia, it really matters that this conflict ends quickly, without civil war, state collapse, or nuclear use. These people matter, but they are being treated as pawns in American discussions where the worst possible outcome is assumed to be a Republican victory in the 2024 presidential election.

If there’s a bloodless coup in Russia, and both Ukraine and Russia achieve a standard of living as high as Poland, and angels come, and feed us crepes, and sing to us while we sleep, all the better. But it is not at all obvious that it will play out this way. Biden’s endgame in Ukraine should be discussed and scrutinized.