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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

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  • Meanwhile, some European leaders also start quietly pushing for a formal diplomatic framework: French President Emmanuel Macron teams up with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, to call for talks in Geneva among Ukraine and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (which includes Russia), plus Germany (modeled on the 2+4 talks on German reunification) to find a solution. Xi and Macron privately try to persuade Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, respectively—dangling the promise of Russian reparations as part of a settlement. Beijing does not want to appear to be undercutting Putin’s plans, but China’s sputtering economy leaves Xi little choice.

  • Emboldened by a landslide Republican victory in the November 2022 midterm elections in the United States, a growing number of GOP legislators press for ending U.S. military aid to Ukraine and refocusing Washington’s attention on Beijing as a leading security threat.

Scenario 3: Ukraine wins back nearly everything

As a result of significantly increased Western arms shipments to Ukraine, a collapse in Russian morale at both the tactical and strategic levels, and Moscow’s inability to replace military hardware at the levels needed (thanks to Western sanctions), Russia is pushed completely out of Ukraine except for Crimea, but Kyiv is gearing up to retake the peninsula (which Putin would effectively view as an invasion of Russian territory).

The scenario could further play out like this:

  • There is a growing risk of Russian nuclear retaliation to halt Western military aid, heightened by Russia’s loss of previously separatist-occupied eastern Ukraine. As Ukraine mounts a planned offensive to recover the Black Sea peninsula, Putin deploys Iskander-M (SS-26) nuclear-tipped missiles there and threatens to use them if Kyiv’s forces advance. Suddenly, World War III becomes a distinct possibility if urgent meditation efforts by France and China to avoid further escalation end in failure.

  • But by mid-2023—nearly an entire year before he’d hoped to engineer another reelection—Putin’s hold on power at home is threatened by spiraling public anger. Humiliated top military and intelligence officials force Putin to resign immediately but allow him to keep a nest egg and shield him from international prosecution for war crimes. 

  • The United States and European Union differ over the question of lifting some sanctions against Russia: Fearing the prospect of a giant North Korea next door (in the form of a deeply isolated Russia), Europe seeks a bargain by relieving sanctions on oil, gas, and other commodities under a quid-pro-quo agreement that portions of the Russian sales be sent as reparations to a Ukraine reconstruction fund led by the World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

  • Global economic growth falters, reaching a meager 1% in 2023 amid increased beggar-thy-neighbor, 1930s-style protectionism, burgeoning nationalism that erodes global institutions, and popular discontent spreading from the United States and Europe to a seething developing world.

What happens next on the battlefield will determine whether the current largely frozen conflict will eventually advantage Russia or Ukraine. Various military outcomes are still plausible. With so many variables in play, it is difficult to attach probabilities to potential scenarios. 

But in all cases, the economic damage will be profound not just for Ukraine, but also for the rest of the world. Instead of waiting for an outcome to the war, policy makers must urgently explore solutions to the global food crisis, the growing potential for debt crises in the developing world, and the threat of recession in the West. Meanwhile, the risk of Russia using nuclear weapons in the course of the conflict is not zero. Employing diplomatic means to avoid such an escalation is vital if the conflict is to remain contained and not envelop the entire world. 

Mathew Burrows is the director of foresight at the Scowcroft Strategy Initiative and the co-director of the New American Engagement Initiative within the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. He is a former senior official on the National Intelligence Council. Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow with the Scowcroft Strategy Initiative. Previously, he served as a senior strategist at the National Counterproliferation Center in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, on the National Intelligence Council, and in the State Department’s office of Policy Planning. This was first published by the Atlantic Council — “Three possible futures for a frozen conflict in Ukraine“.

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