How the war in Ukraine might end

By | September 30, 2022

Keith Gessen writes:

When we first spoke, in early September, [Hein] Goemans [a leading theorist on war termination] predicted a protracted conflict. None of the three main variables of war-termination theory—information, credible commitment, and domestic politics—had been resolved. Both sides still believed that they could win, and their distrust for each other was deepening by the day. As for domestic politics, Putin was exactly the sort of leader that Goemans had warned about. Despite his significant repressive apparatus, he did not have total control of the country. He kept calling the war a “special military operation” and delaying a mass mobilization, so as not to have to face domestic unrest. If he started losing, Goemans predicted, he would simply escalate.

And then, in the weeks after Goemans and I first spoke, events accelerated rapidly. Ukraine launched a remarkably successful counter-offensive, retaking large swaths of territory in the Kharkiv region and threatening to retake the occupied city of Kherson. Putin, as predicted, struck back, declaring a “partial mobilization” of troops and staging hasty “referendums” on joining the Russian Federation in the occupied territories. The partial mobilization was carried out in a chaotic fashion, and, as at the beginning of the war, caused tens of thousands of people to flee Russia. There were sporadic protests across the nation, and these threatened to grow in size. Meanwhile, Ukrainian forces continued to advance in the east of their country.

In a terrifying blog post, Goemans’s former student Branislav Slantchev laid out a few potential scenarios. He believes that the Russian front in the Donbas is still in danger of imminent collapse. If this were to happen, Putin would need to escalate even further. This could take the form of more attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure, but, if the goal is to stop Ukrainian advances, a likelier option would be a small tactical nuclear strike. Slantchev suggests that it would be under one kiloton—that is, about fifteen times smaller than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. It would nonetheless be devastating, and would almost certainly lead to an intense reaction from the West. Slantchev does not think that NATO would respond with nuclear strikes of its own, but it could, for example, destroy the Russian Black Sea Fleet. This could lead to yet another round of escalation. In such a situation, the West may be tempted, finally, to retreat. Slantchev urged them not to. “This is it now,” he wrote. “This is for all the marbles.”

“Branislav is very worried,” Goemans told me, “and he is not a scaredy-cat.” Goemans was also worried, though his hypothetical time line was more extended. He believes that the new Russian reinforcements, however ill-trained and ill-equipped, and the onset of an early winter will pause the Ukrainian campaign and save the Russians, for the moment. “People think it’s going to be over quickly, but, unfortunately, war doesn’t work like that,” he said. But he also believes that Ukraine will resume its offensive in the spring, at which point the same dynamic and the same dangers will be back in play. “For a war to end,” Goemans said, “the minimum demands of at least one of the sides must change.” This is the first rule of war termination. And we have not yet reached a point where war aims have changed enough for a peace deal to be possible. [Continue reading…]

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