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June 1, 2022, 6:31 a.m. EDT

3 ways Russia’s war in Ukraine could end — and even a Ukraine victory brings danger

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By Matthew Burrows and Robert A. Manning

Three months into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the prospects for a decisive Kremlin victory have evaporated. Yet even amid Russia’s battlefield failures, the heroic Ukrainian resistance and abundant Western military aid, the tide has not completely turned. 

In April,  we laid out four scenarios  for how the outcome of the war could reshape the world. At that time, it wasn’t necessarily evident that our slow-moving “frozen conflict” scenario, in which both sides struggle to make rapid or decisive advances, was the most likely to materialize. But this is where the conflict has been headed in recent weeks.

Also less evident at the time: the level of shock the war would inflict on the global economy, ushering in major food and energy crises. Depending on the duration of the conflict, these effects could prove even worse for the developing world than the 2008 financial crisis. And although the shock waves are hitting Europe harder than the United States, both are in economic trouble. (In Ukraine itself, the United Nations Development Programme  has already estimated  that the vast majority of Ukrainians will face “extreme economic vulnerability” by the end of the year if the war continues.)

This global economic downturn will likely emerge as an increasingly influential factor in U.S./NATO decision-making—potentially opening up a rift between Europe, which may seek a swifter end to the war, and the United States, which wants to see Moscow suffer a full defeat. 

So how could a frozen conflict play out globally over the next two years? Below are three variations on what this scenario might look like:

Scenario 1: Ukraine is slowly strangled

Russia consolidates its land bridge to the Kremlin-controlled Crimean Peninsula and, without securing complete control of the rest of Ukraine’s Black Sea coast, destroys or blocks the port city of Odessa—leaving the country effectively landlocked. Putin continues to bomb infrastructure elsewhere across Ukraine and annexes parts of the south and east, further destabilizing the country as a fully functioning state. He declares a “victory” while successfully suppressing dissent at home. 

 The scenario could further play out like this:

  • Putin calls for a cease-fire in early 2023 but is not ready for a peace deal; he still hopes for greater land gains in the future (perhaps connecting to Moldova) as well as concessions from NATO (such as the recognition of Crimea as Russian sovereign territory if residents agree in an internationally supervised referendum). Western sanctions against Russia remain in place, and economic conditions there worsen. But the United States and Europe also plunge into recession, which fuels growing political discontent over inflation and shortages of goods.

  • A full-scale global food crisis results in spiraling riots and unrest from Sri Lanka to Egypt (where the knock-on effects of the war  are already being felt ), while trading patterns drastically deteriorate after major exporting nations such as India, Indonesia, and Malaysia  double down on food protectionism . A slow response from the Group of Seven (G-7) nations and the International Monetary Fund exacerbates the debt crisis facing developing nations. Instability grows in Africa and Asia, while leftist politicians surge in Latin America.

  • Further into 2023, NATO allies continue to send more lethal military aid as Ukraine—which refused Putin’s proposed cease-fire—tries to retake occupied territory. The quality and quantity of this aid tempts Moscow to continue disrupting supply flows into Ukraine, increasing the risk of attacks close to (or even on) NATO territory while widening the conflict between the Alliance and Russia.

  • By late 2023, Western consensus is fraying. Concerned by economic costs, Ukrainian suffering, refugee burdens, and fears of escalation (including the risk of a nuclear attack by Russia), Germany and France lead a multinational effort to press Kyiv to exploring a peace arrangement with Moscow.

Scenario 2: Russia makes no gains

Thanks to increasingly competent Ukrainian tactics—a continuation of those displayed during Kyiv’s defense of the capital, plus a successful counteroffensive in the eastern Donbas region—Russia is pushed back to pre-Feb. 24 areas of control (retaining Crimea and the separatist-occupied parts of Donetsk and Luhansk) by early 2023. But further gains by Ukraine prove difficult because of entrenched Russian and separatist defenses. Despite Western shipments of more advanced arms, Ukrainian forces make minimal progress. 

The scenario could further play out like this:

  • Facing growing discontent at home over a collapsing economy and an exhausted military angry over repeated operational failures, Putin is under heavy pressure to strike a deal with Ukraine before his hand worsens even more. 

  • Starting in early 2023, Turkey, Qatar, and India—which since 2020 have sought to cast themselves as global peacemakers—press for a cease-fire as the global economic crisis stokes a sense of urgency. But emboldened by its success on the battlefield, Ukraine is resistant while Putin still hopes for a military comeback.

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