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As Vladimir Putin draws on lessons from Chechnya and his obsession with World War II, there are now five likely ways the brutality in Ukraine might end. By Mark Edele.

How the war in Ukraine will end

President Vladimir Putin in a designer coat at the Luzhniki Stadium rally this month.
President Vladimir Putin in a designer coat at the Luzhniki Stadium rally this month.
Credit: Sergei Guneyev / AFP

The Russian war on Ukraine was conceived as a quick campaign. The mighty Russian army would march in, inducing shock and awe. The “fascist” Ukrainian government would fall apart. Ukraine’s army would either lay down its weapons or flee. The “liberated” Slavic brothers would gratefully accept a collaborationist government. And the democratic world, as usual, would wring its hands, ponder disinformation about who was the aggressor, maybe slap the invader on the wrist, imposing some inconsequential sanctions, and continue as if nothing had happened, merrily buying Russian oil and gas. What could possibly go wrong?

As it turned out: everything. Vladimir Putin’s army performed poorly. It got stuck in traffic jams, mud and incompetence. It was harassed by surprisingly well-organised and supremely motivated Ukrainian forces. Comedian turned president Volodymyr Zelensky transformed into an impressive wartime leader. And the democratic world reacted with untypical unity, imposing sanctions with the potential to cripple Putin’s war effort and undo nearly three decades of economic development after the disaster of the Soviet breakdown in 1991.

How could Putin get this war so wrong? In dictatorial regimes, intelligence gathering is frequently corrupted by what one historian has called “working towards the leader”. Everybody tries to tell the great man what they think he wants to hear. What Putin wanted to hear was what he already knew: that the Ukrainian government was useless, that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union were spineless. Europe was dependent on Russian oil and gas and unwilling to suffer even minor unpleasantries. The Ukrainians would welcome Russian troops with bread, salt and flowers.

Putin was also misled about the readiness of his army. Fuelled by petrodollars, his generals had bought a lot of new and shiny toys. In technologies such as hypersonic missiles, Russia is leading the world. Its military manpower reserves were also impressive and second only to the United States. This fearsome fighting force would surely make short work of Ukraine’s defenders?

But size alone is not sufficient to fight a modern war. The men in charge of the military – as with everybody else in Putin’s kleptocratic class – were too busy stealing what they could from the Russian people. Living the good life, they had not had the time or discipline to train their soldiers or make sure they maintained equipment. Beneath the beautiful mirage reported to Putin lay a decrepit reality of neglect, incompetence and graft.

The soldiers sent to Ukraine were often unaware that they would be starting a war. Even after conscripts were pulled out, many of Putin’s “professionals” were in fact contract soldiers who had signed up briefly to make a quick rouble. Few were hardened warriors for whom war was a career – those were fighting in Syria. These young men were confronted with well-equipped, intelligently led and tenacious Ukrainians. Even the civilian defence units knew exactly why they were standing their ground: they fought to defend home, hearth and those they loved; they fought to defend their country and their struggling democracy.

Soon, senior Russian commanders had to go to the front line to try to motivate their troops and sort out the mess Putin’s strategic misjudgements had caused. As a result, by the start of the war’s fourth week, five generals were reportedly dead. By comparison, the US Armed Forces have lost only two since 9/11: one during the September 2011 attack on the Pentagon, and one assassinated in Afghanistan in 2014.

Increasingly frustrated, the Russian invaders escalated their war of aggression into a campaign of terror against civilians. Putin’s army moved to siege warfare and the systematic bombing of civilian targets. What the Russian army is practising now in Ukraine is a barbaric and criminal form of warfare, learnt during the Second Chechen War at the start of Putin’s presidency and perfected more recently in Syria. Mariupol has joined the annals of urban military horror, alongside Aleppo, Grozny and Sarajevo.

Putin grew up in Leningrad, site of the horrendous near-900-day siege by the Germans in World War II. His father had fought defending that city. His brother had died as a result of the deliberate starvation of civilians. He is obsessed by the history of World War II, but all his reading about this horrible past has not aided his compassion. Rather, the historical memory he’s weaving into his present actions serves perversely to project criminality onto his victims: to Putin, it is the Ukrainians in the bomb shelters who are the fascists.

Putin’s brutality is driven by the realisation that he is running out of time. The democratic world – in Putin’s view decadent, flaccid, unmanly, undermined by queers, feminists and democratic squabbles – turned the screws of economic warfare remarkably quickly. Russia lost access to its foreign currency reserves, imports stopped and foreign companies left. By the start of the third week of the war, with the rouble tanking, all kinds of items became scarce or unavailable: dental equipment and supplies, computers and mobile phones, plastic for banking cards, paper for book publishing, even prosthetic devices. By the fourth week, stores were emptying of staples such as sugar and buckwheat. The population was stocking up for a long conflict.

The sanctions have had a direct impact on military matters. Russia’s weapons industry depends on parts and raw materials from abroad, including aluminium ore from Australia. Despite all the parallels Putin likes to draw with World War II, his Russia is nothing like Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. The latter was a relatively self-sufficient warfare state, which had spent a good decade preparing for a major conflagration. Putin’s Russia, by contrast, is embedded into a complex world economy. In an age of “just-in-time” delivery, supply chains deteriorated quickly. By the third week of the war, the world’s second-largest weapons exporter began begging Beijing for the delivery of armaments.

The war, the quickly escalating repression and the unfolding economic crisis have triggered an exodus from Russia. About 200,000 people, including many of the most educated, have left since the start of the war. Despite this brain drain, enough critical voices remained that a crackdown was deemed necessary. Political scientists had for a decade squabbled over how to describe the Russian political system: was it “fascist” or just “dictatorial”, a “guided democracy” or a “hybrid regime”, “competitive authoritarianism” or, my favourite, an “anocracy”? Now analyst after analyst is comparing it not to China but to North Korea.

Fearsome-looking police in riot gear beat and arrest anti-war protesters. They stop young people on the street to flip through their mobile phones. They crack down on known opposition figures. Russia is cut off from Facebook and Twitter. The last independent news outlets went off the air, and spreading “disinformation” about the “special military operation” became a crime threatened with up to 15 years in prison. Russia had not been so unfree since the early 1980s, under the pre-Gorbachev Soviet regime.

But Russia is not simply returning to its Soviet roots. Putin’s wartime state mixes old and new patterns. The rally in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium at the start of the war’s fourth week was right out of Donald Trump’s playbook. Just like the fascists in the 1920s and 1930s, today’s ultra-nationalist strongmen learn from each other. Putin has an edge over his US admirer, however: he filled out the rally with state employees and university students, a time-tested Soviet tradition. A hater of European decadence and defender of all Russians, Putin also wore an Italian designer coat worth $US14,000, more than twice the average Russian’s annual income.

The silencing of critical voices, the threat of imprisonment or police violence and the relentless saturation of the airwaves with propaganda had the desired effect: by the second week of the war, the majority of Russians surveyed in opinion polls supported the “special military operation”. Some were too afraid to say otherwise, others retreated to the well-worn position of “my country, right or wrong”. But many clearly started to believe the official line: that Russia was in fact under attack and its glorious army was liberating Ukraine from fascism. When young Russians called from exile or Ukrainians phoned family members in Russia, some of them were confronted, to their shock, with vicious Putinistas who wanted nothing more to do with them.

As the Russian joke has it, we’re now in the fifth week of the successful campaign to conquer Ukraine in four days. Casualties on both sides are estimated to be in the thousands. Kyiv still has not fallen and nor have most other cities. The front lines have stabilised and Russia has shifted to air and artillery assaults on both military and civilian targets. Now what? Most scenarios are grim.

One option is escalation. Given Putin’s penchant for risk-taking and his increasingly apocalyptic mindset, the Russian dictator might be tempted to try a nuclear strike to see if the threat of total annihilation would break the will of NATO and the EU, whom he sees as the real enemies hiding behind Ukraine. He threatened as much at the start of his war, when he announced that “anyone who would consider interfering from the outside” would “face consequences greater than any you have faced in history”.

This was not the first time Putin contemplated a nuclear holocaust. In a 2018 interview he proclaimed, “If someone decides to annihilate Russia, we have the legal right to respond. Yes, it will be a catastrophe for humanity and for the world. But I’m a citizen of Russia and its head of state. Why do we need a world without Russia in it?” More recently, he has described the sanctions regime as “akin to a declaration of war” against his country.

Most analysts view this nightmare scenario as unlikely. However, nobody thought in 2014 that Russia would annex Crimea; few international relations scholars and political scientists thought at the start of this year that Putin would invade the Ukrainian heartland, trying to take over the entire country in one daring swoop. We should not succumb to what psychologists call “projection bias” – the propensity to think that others would behave just like ourselves.

A more likely development is a continuation of what has already started: Russia will destroy as much of Ukraine’s military and civilian infrastructure as possible, broaden attacks on civilians to increase the costs of this war for the government of Ukraine, and threaten nuclear war against anybody who wants to intervene. This brutality is designed to push Zelensky to the limit of what he thinks his people can endure. It seems unlikely that the Ukrainian president will crack, however, and the criminality of this course of action only galvanises the population of Ukraine and its supporters. Hence, this strategy will only delay the inevitable. Given the sanctions regime, it will be months at best before Russia will no longer be able to resupply its troops.

Assuming Putin understands this state of affairs – and that is fairly optimistic, given his evident isolation and self-delusion – he has a few options other than persistence and escalation.

One would see him annex the Donbas in the east, declare victory and pull out of the rest of Ukraine after maximum despoiling of its cities. On the downside, this scenario is unlikely to result in lifted sanctions, and hence would lock Russia into a spiral of economic decline despite the “victorious” war.

The best-case scenario is a negotiated ceasefire and troop withdrawal with subsequent peace negotiations. There are some encouraging signs that armed neutrality on the model of Sweden or Austria – not NATO members but part of the EU – might now be acceptable to both sides. This would be a major backdown for Putin, who went into this war with the goals of demilitarisation and regime change. That Russian officials are even talking to their Ukrainian counterparts now is a result of the pressure Putin’s state is under, both on the battlefield and in the economic sphere.

But the extent of his government’s control of the media at home means he could possibly sell this retreat as a victory. The sticking point might well become the status of Crimea and the breakaway republics in Ukraine’s east. Neither side seems to be willing to compromise here. Hence negotiations will likely continue for a while as war rumbles in the background.

In the least likely scenario Putin’s long-suffering underlings would stage a coup against him, declare him mentally unstable, lock him away in a psychiatric ward or even kill him. They could also send him to a dacha, a holiday house away from Moscow, where he could, like Nikita Khrushchev, tend to his garden and write his memoirs. They could then say the whole thing was a terrible mistake, perpetuated by one single man, and try to repair whatever is left of Russia’s international reputation.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 26, 2022 as "How the war in Ukraine will end".

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Mark Edele is Hansen professor in history and deputy dean in the faculty of arts at the University of Melbourne.

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