- James Randall
- BBC foreign affairs correspondent
22 minutes ago
Wars have their ups and downs, and Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was no exception.
Early in the war, fears that Ukraine would be quickly conquered have been replaced by Russian shrinking and Ukrainian resistance. Now, the Russian offensive is more concentrated in eastern Ukraine.
100 days later, where will this war go?
Here are five possibilities – these possibilities are not mutually exclusive, and all are within reasonable estimates.
1: War of Attrition
The war could go on for months—if not years—as Russian and Ukrainian forces are draining each other.
Both sides have their own advantages and disadvantages, and the pros and cons of the situation also change back and forth. Neither side is willing to give up. Russian President Vladimir Putin believes he can benefit by showing strategic patience, betting that Western countries will suffer from “Ukrainian fatigue” and pay more attention to their own domestic economic crisis and the Chinese threat.
However, Western countries have shown their determination to continue supplying weapons to Ukraine. Semi-permanent fronts have been established. The war may gradually become a frozen conflict, a “forever war”.
“In the short term, there is little prospect of a landslide operational or strategic victory for either side,” said Mick Ryan, a retired Australian general and military scholar. “Neither side of the war has demonstrated the ability to deliver a strategically decisive strike.”
2: Putin announces ceasefire
What if President Putin surprises the world with a unilateral ceasefire? He can pocket the occupied territories and declare “victory”.
He can claim that the “military operation” has been completed. Donbas separatists backed by Russia are protected; a land corridor to Crimea has been established. He could then stand on the moral high ground and pressure Ukraine to stop the fighting.
“If Russia wants to take advantage of European pressure on Ukraine to capitulate and give up territory in exchange for nominal peace, it can always do so,” said Keir Giles, a Russia expert at Chatham House. Use this trick.”
Already in Paris, Berlin and Rome, there is no need to prolong the war, it’s time to end the global economic pain, and let’s work together for a ceasefire.
That would, however, be opposed by the US, the UK and most of Eastern Europe, whose policymakers believe that the Russian invasion must fail for the sake of Ukraine and the international order.
So a unilateral Russian ceasefire may change the narrative, but not end the fighting.
3: Deadlock on the battlefield
What if Ukraine and Russia both think they cannot achieve more militarily and negotiate a political settlement?
Their army was exhausted, short of men and arms. The price of blood and wealth is no longer a reason to fight further. Russian military and economic losses are unsustainable. The Ukrainian people are tired of war and are unwilling to risk more lives for a victory that will never be achieved.
What if the leadership in Kyiv – no longer trusting the continued support of the West – decides now is the time to negotiate? U.S. President Joe Biden has publicly acknowledged that the U.S. goal is to put Ukraine “in the strongest position at the negotiating table.”
But there may not be a deadlock on the battlefield for many months, and any political solution will be difficult, especially due to Ukraine’s lack of trust in Russia. The peace deal may not last, and more fighting may follow.
4: “Victory” for Ukraine
Can Ukraine – overcome all odds – achieve something close to victory? Can Ukraine force Russian troops back to their pre-invasion positions?
“Ukraine will definitely win this war,” the country’s President Volodymyr Zelensky told Dutch television this week.
What if Russia fails to capture the entire Donbass and suffers more losses? Western sanctions hit Russia’s war machine. Ukraine is fighting back with its new long-range rocket launchers, taking back territories that have stretched Russian supply lines. Ukraine transformed its army from defensive to offensive.
This situation is reasonable enough to make policymakers worry about the consequences. So if Putin faces defeat, he might escalate, possibly using chemical or nuclear weapons?
The historian Niall Ferguson told a recent seminar at King’s College London, “It seems to me that Putin is unlikely to accept conventional military defeat when he has a nuclear option.”
5: Russia’s “victory”
So what is Russia’s possible “victory”?
Western officials have stressed that Russia, despite its early setbacks, plans to seize the capital Kyiv and conquer much of Ukraine. Those larger targets still exist, one official said.
Russia could use its gains in the Donbass to free up power elsewhere, possibly even targeting Kyiv again. The sheer number of people in Russia alone is overwhelming. Ukrainian forces will continue to suffer.
Zelensky has admitted that as many as 100 Ukrainian soldiers are killed and another 500 wounded every day.
The Ukrainian people may be divided, with some wanting to keep fighting and others wanting to make peace. Some Western countries may get tired of supporting Ukraine. But equally, other countries may want to escalate support for Ukraine if they think Russia is winning.
A Western diplomat told me privately that Western countries should test a nuclear weapon in the Pacific as a warning to Russia.
The future direction of the war is uncertain.