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Trapped in Ukraine with No Victory: Putin Opened Pandora’s Box

So there are six ways Russia might turn the war around. All are unlikely, and three rely on foreign behavior – over which Putin has little control – dramatically changing.

Russian MLRS firing. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
Russian MLRS firing. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

In part one of this essay, I suggested that Russia has six possible pathways to victory in its war on Ukraine.

All, however, are unlikely. First, it might use nuclear coercion to scare NATO or Ukraine into a deal. But this is highly risky and has not worked to date.

Second, Russian President Vladimir Putin could start relieving his officers until he finds capable ones, as US President Abraham Lincoln famously did during the American Civil War. But officers’ political loyalty is more important to Putin than their competence, given Putin’s corrupt, gangsterish regime. So he has not done this.

But there are four other possibilities (please read part one here):

Scenario 3: Indefinite Mobilization

Operationally, it would probably be best if Putin selected more capable officers, but in lieu of that, his current strategy seems to be attrition: out-mobilizing Ukraine. This is another argument of pro-Russian apologists. Russia is big; it can fight on and on, mobilizing more and more people until Ukraine tires. This is more viable than scenarios 1 and 2, but it has obvious limits:

Is it worth militarizing and burning out the Russian economy to win one peripheral war of limited value? Russia aspires to be a great power and compete with China and the West. Fighting a quagmire war of choice indefinitely will reduce it to a middle power and a Chinese lackey

Will Russian civil society accept total mobilization for a war of choice of minor national importance? ‘Forever wars’ routinely faced broad public antipathy. Putin can repress that, but is it worth running the risk of widespread alienation, possibly revolt, just for slices of eastern Ukraine? Putin’s reliance on mercenaries, foreigners, and prisoners suggest he knows the Russian middle class will not tolerate a long war at their expense.

– Will full mobilization work if the West continues to help Ukraine? Probably not. The West’s combined GDP vastly outweighs Russia’s. It cannot keep up, and that will get worse as sanctions continue.

– Will full mobilization overcome Ukraine’s deep nationalist commitment to keep fighting? Possibly, but it would probably take a long time. We know from anti-colonial wars that nationalist, mobilized populations fighting for their independence will tolerate horrendous casualties in very unbalanced conflicts but still not give up – Vietnam (against the French and the Americans), Algeria (against the French), Afghanistan (against the Soviets and the Americans), the American Revolution (somewhat, against the British). This willingness to carry high costs characterizes Ukraine’s behavior so far too. Russia can pound Ukraine for years and keep throwing men into the meat-grinder, but there is little evidence to date that that will work. Bakhmut, where Russia tried this approach, was a pyrrhic Russian victory.

Scenario 4: Trump will Cut Off Ukraine

This is probably the most likely way Russia could win. Former US President Donald Trump pretty clearly wants a Russian victory, and Russia will likely intervene in the 2024 election to help Trump win. But US public support for helping Ukraine is still high. Congress is supportive too. Trump would have to overcome that, and he is notoriously lazy.

More importantly, Trump probably will not win re-election. He has never won the popular vote. His coalition is aging and shrinking. He lost to current-President Joe Biden in 2020, and they are both running in 2024 as basically the same people they were in 2020. So there is little reason to think the outcome will differ. Even most Republicans know this, which is why they are so anxious to find someone other than Trump to run. It is also likely that some European states would continue to support Ukraine anyway. Nor does it seem likely that Ukraine would give up, although a Trumpian withdrawal of aid would obviously make the war harder for it.

Scenario 5: Europe will Tire and Dump Ukraine

This is possible, but we have heard this talk before – remember the cold winter would have wimpy Germans begging for peace and cheap Russian gas? – and it went nowhere. By this winter, the Russian gas weapon will be much weaker. Europe will have had time to prepare.

Western opinion, especially at the elite level, continues to hold up. If anything, it is tilting further against Russia. Finland joined NATO recently, and Sweden will likely too. Even Ukrainian NATO membership is now being seriously discussed, something everyone thought was hugely risky just a year ago. Even Henry Kissinger now supports Ukrainian NATO membership after insisting last year that Ukraine should lose for the good of European stability.

Scenario 6: China Will Do…Something

This is just wish-casting from desperate Russian media hawks. China will not save Russia. It will not disrupt its vastly more important economic relationships with the West for a middle power in economic decline who cannot win a war. The conflict is happily turning Russia into a Chinese dependency, and China is buying its fossil fuels on the cheap. It is not even clear what China could do militarily to help the Russians break the stalemate.

None of This will Work; Russia’s Stuck

So there are six ways Russia might turn the war around. All are unlikely, and three rely on foreign behavior – over which Putin has little control – dramatically changing.

My own sense is that Ukraine will win the war in time by simply outlasting the Russians. That is, this war is more like an insurgency. The insurgent wins by not losing, by waiting for the aggressor to tire. At some point, the exhausted, frustrated aggressor finds it cheaper to just throw in the towel and go home. This is how the Vietnamese beat the US in the 1970s, and how the Afghan mujahidin beat the Red Army in the 1980s.

The current Ukrainian offensive may not succeed dramatically – the critics may be right – but that misses the point. Ukraine is committed; it will fight on and on. Crucially, Russia needs to do more than just hang on against Ukraine. It needs to win, decisively, to force Ukraine to bargain, to end this thing and stop the bleeding. Ukraine, by contrast, just needs to endure, which it has shown it can and will.

Operationally, this probably means Russia needs a major battlefield victory, annihilating massed Ukrainian forces and taking more territory – at least east of the Dnipro River, and, ideally, Kyiv at last. Without that, the war becomes a quagmire where a determined, if ostensibly weaker, force bleeds a larger one, until it is just not worth the cost anymore.

The resolution will be akin to the Soviet-Afghan War: Indeterminate fighting over a long period of time; no obvious turning point; a tenacious foe who just will not quit; growing dissension at home, both in the public and in the security services; worsening diplomatic isolation; worsening economic drain; growing exhaustion; withdrawal.

You can read part two here

Dr. Robert E. Kelly ( is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan and a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor. 

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Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly; website) is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University. Dr. Kelly is now a 1945 Contributing Editor as well.