Thinking About the Unthinkable in Ukraine
What Happens If Putin Goes Nuclear?
All wars end, and their closing moments are often vivid and memorable. Take, for instance, Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Union General Ulysses S. Grant in April 1865, which brought an end to the U.S. Civil War. Or the armistice that terminated World War I, signed by Germany and the Allies in a train car near Paris in November 1918. Or the end of the Cold War, symbolized by the toppling of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and, later, the lowering of the Soviet flag from the Kremlin on Christmas Day of 1991. These scenes loom large in the cultural imagination as decisive moments that provided the sense of a definitive ending.
But the spectacle around a war’s end can be misleading. The Confederate surrender at Appomattox Court House did not settle political or cultural tensions between the North and South, nor did it resolve the related racial prejudices and political differences, which lingered long after slavery had been abolished. The interwar period of the 1920s and 1930s in Europe was suffused with anxieties and tensions that culminated in another great war. The conclusion of World War II marked the dawn of the Cold War. And, despite the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Cold War may not have ended—it may still be ongoing, as the historian Stephen Kotkin recently argued in these pages.
In the Russian war in Ukraine, there may not be a discrete moment marking the war’s end—at least, not for some time. After eight weeks of war—far longer, seemingly, than either side anticipated—it is a real possibility that neither country will achieve what it wishes to achieve. Ukraine may not be able to expel Russian forces fully from the territory they have taken since Moscow launched its invasion in February. Russia is likely unable to achieve its main political objective: control over Ukraine. Instead of reaching a definite resolution, the war may well usher in a new era of conflict characterized by a cycle of Russian wars in Ukraine. If the war does not end any time soon, the crucial question is: Whose side is time on?
Time could be on Russia’s side. A protracted war, lasting from months to years, might be an acceptable and perhaps even favorable outcome for Moscow. It would certainly be a terrible outcome for Ukraine, which would be devastated as a country, and for the West, which would face years of instability in Europe and the constant threat of a spillover. A long-term war would also be felt globally, likely causing waves of famines and economic uncertainty. A forever war in Ukraine also runs the risk of eroding support for Kyiv in Western societies, which are not well positioned to endure grinding military conflicts, even ones occurring elsewhere. Postmodern, commercially oriented Western societies accustomed to the amenities of a globalized peacetime world could lose interest in the war—unlike Russia’s population, which Russian President Vladimir Putin’s propaganda machine has agitated and mobilized into a wartime society.
Although the United States and its allies are justified in hoping for and working toward a rapid Ukrainian victory, Western policymakers must also ready themselves for an extended war. The policy tools at their disposal—such as military aid and sanctions—will not change relative to the war’s duration. Maximum military support for Ukraine is essential regardless of the war’s trajectory. Sanctions targeting Russia, particularly aimed at the energy sector, would ideally lead to changes in the Russian calculus over time, and are well suited to engineering the long-term decline of the Russian war machine.
The key challenge resides not so much in the nature of support for Ukraine. It resides in the nature of support for the war within the countries that are backing Ukraine. In an age of social media and of image-driven emotionality, public opinion can be fickle. For Ukraine to succeed, global public opinion will have to hold strong on its behalf. This will depend, more than anything, on adept and patient political leadership.
Putin has many reasons not to end the war that he has started. He is nowhere near meeting his key objectives. So far, his armies have not performed well enough for Russia to force Ukraine’s capitulation, and Russia is very far from toppling the Ukrainian government. His failures have been humiliatingly public. Having abruptly retreated from the regions around Kyiv, the Russian military must watch as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky hosts foreign visitors in the capital city and as embassies reopen. The sinking of the Russian warship Moskva, likely by Ukrainian missiles, is another highly visible example of Russia’s military embarrassments at the hands of Ukrainian forces. Putin has already paid a steep price for his invasion. From his perspective, any future peace agreement that doesn’t win major concessions from Ukraine would be out of proportion with the loss of life, loss of materiel, and international isolation Russia has experienced. Having mobilized Russians for war—evoking symbolic conflicts such as the Soviet Union’s Great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany in the process—Putin may not settle for an inglorious peace.
Although the war has been a strategic mistake for Russia, Putin would probably damage himself politically by admitting to his blunder. Prior to his invasion of Ukraine, Russia still had a relationship with Europe and the United States, as well as a functioning economy. Ukraine was a formally nonaligned state with many internal divisions and vulnerabilities. There were no imminent plans to expand NATO in any direction. Mere weeks later, the war in Ukraine has destroyed Russia’s relationship with Europe and the United States. It will devastate the Russian economy over time, while pushing Ukraine further West. Finland and Sweden will probably join NATO this summer. Fighting a war to prevent alleged encirclement, Russia has instead solidified NATO and strengthened transatlantic ties. That will make it harder—not easier—for Putin to cut his losses in Ukraine.
If the war does not end any time soon, the crucial question is: Whose side is time on?
Putin may resort to a war of attrition, which holds several advantages for him. If he is to be defeated, he can defer defeat with a long war, and perhaps even hand the doomed conflict off to a successor. A long war also plays to some of Russia’s innate strengths. It would allow Russia the time to conscript and train hundreds of thousands of new soldiers, which could shift the outcome. Should the war last for years, the Russian military could rebuild its depleted forces, especially if Russia’s state budget remains stable—that is, if energy payments from Europe and elsewhere continue. Nor does Russia necessarily need battlefield wins to exert pressure on Kyiv, particularly if the war is drawn out. The World Bank has assessed Ukraine’s GDP losses in 2022 at 45 percent. Ukraine’s economic ruin is one of the war’s important, if less visible, outcomes.
A war of attrition might help Putin exert pressure on the transatlantic alliance, especially if support for Ukraine starts to wane in the West. Putin sees Western democracies as unstable and inefficient, and may be betting on political transitions in Europe or the United States as the strain of the war grows over time. If Donald Trump is reelected in the 2024 U.S. presidential election, he might try again to strike a deal with Russia, likely at the expense of NATO. A victory for Marine Le Pen in the second round of the French presidential elections on April 24 would likewise open doors for Putin. He is a dictator. Convinced that their hold on power is eternal, dictators can often afford to play the long game. Or at least they think they can.
Ukraine also has many reasons not to end the war through a premature cease-fire on Russian terms. Its military has performed superbly. Faced with an unprovoked attack by one of the world’s major military powers, Ukrainian forces repulsed Russia in the north and the northeast of the country. Russia lost the battle for Kyiv, and it has been unable to push beyond the southern city of Mykolaiv toward Odessa. Ukraine has shown that tenacity and morale, augmented by drones and modern antitank weapons, can fortify a military’s defensive capacities. Russia stands a decent chance of losing this war; Ukraine therefore stands a decent chance of settling the war on better terms than the unacceptably large concessions that Moscow currently wants from Kyiv.
It would be difficult for the government in Kyiv not to strive for better terms through further battlefield advances and a repulsion of Russia’s offensive in eastern Ukraine. Russia’s brutal prosecution of the war has complicated negotiations on a potential future cease-fire. Russia has targeted civilians and civilian infrastructure across Ukraine. It has committed war crimes and atrocities, including widespread sexual violence and the deportation of Ukrainian citizens to Russia. This has been a war on the people of Ukraine. One has to assume that any territory that Russia keeps will be subject to a vicious occupation. The Ukrainian government cannot accept such atrocities against its own population within its territory. A premature cease-fire on Russian terms would see Ukraine hand over some of the territory Russia has taken since the invasion began on February 24. It would involve Russia seizing a larger section of the Donbas than the chunk Russia cordoned off in 2014, and would possibly also include the cities of Kharkiv and Mariupol. Russia would also seek greater concessions on Ukraine’s military status. Zelensky has already agreed to not joining NATO. But disarming and demilitarizing the Ukrainian forces would constrain Ukrainian sovereignty both in the abstract and on the ground. Having pocketed these concessions, Russia could later restart the war against a “demilitarized” Ukrainian army to finish what it started.
Dictators can often afford to play the long game. Or at least they think they can.
Any concessions made by Kyiv would also have to be endorsed by the Ukrainian population. Ukraine is paying in blood for this terrible war. A deal with the devil may be perceived as worse than no deal at all. Zelensky has been successful in unifying the Ukrainian people and rallying support for Ukraine internationally—Ukrainian flags are now ubiquitous outside of Ukraine. The government and the population have drawn closer together, and the country is more cohesive than it was before the war. If there is anyone who can convince Ukrainians of a negotiated settlement, it is the charismatic and popular Zelensky. But he will need to present a deal with terms that are acceptable to the general public. Those conditions—allowing Ukraine to safeguard as much of its sovereignty, integrity, and security as it can—likely depend on further Ukrainian battlefield advances. The costs of a quick end to this war might well be much higher for Ukraine than for Russia. For Russia, ending the war on Ukraine’s terms risks damaging a dictator’s pride. For Ukraine, rushing to accept Russian terms endangers the well-being of its citizens and its existence as an independent state.
A long-term war nonetheless poses political challenges for Ukraine. If the war drags on for years, Ukraine will have to keep its political system intact and its democracy alive. The next presidential elections in Ukraine are scheduled for spring of 2024—exactly when the next Russian presidential elections will be held. But Russia’s election will be fake, and Ukraine’s will be real. As the political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville warned, “No protracted war can fail to endanger the freedom of a democratic country.” Ukraine will have to prove him wrong.
A drawn-out war in Ukraine would have profound consequences for the European continent. Europe would not be whole, free, and at peace. It would contain within itself a war zone charged with the threat of escalation. Russia’s armies are not in any condition to advance into Poland or the Baltic republics, but a jagged line of danger will run north to south, much less stable than the Iron Curtain of the Cold War era, demanding novel methods of defense by NATO. The exodus of Ukrainian refugees will continue, and with time migrants may decide to settle in Europe permanently.
A long-term war in Ukraine would also have consequences on a global scale. Were it to become entrenched, it would certainly exacerbate global hunger, given that Ukraine and Russia are major producers of foodstuffs such as wheat. Global hunger is a lever of global instability. In Africa and the Middle East, populations seemingly distant from Ukraine might find themselves in political crises generated by the knock-on effects of the war in Ukraine. This ugly reality will interrupt dreams of an elegant exit from the COVID-19 pandemic. Discrepancies in the international response to the conflict have already begun to emerge. Many countries see a double standard in the West’s enthusiastic reception of Ukrainian refugees and in the punishment of Russia for a war of choice when, as some observers have alleged, the United States has fought several such wars in recent years. Only 37 countries have levied sanctions on Russia, while 141 countries have condemned the invasion at the United Nations, a discrepancy that shows that not all members of the international community see eye to eye on the war in Ukraine.
Ukraine is paying in blood for this terrible war.
As the war drags on and the record of Russian brutality grows, sanctions will pile up and prices for commodities such as oil will continue to rise. The economic effects will be felt across Europe and be paid primarily by Europeans. Support for Ukraine may therefore wear thin the longer the war continues. Voices demanding that Ukraine should accept a cease-fire at any cost could become louder. Other conflicts, such as the war in Syria that has long faded from view, demonstrate that a never-ending war can become a nuisance to comfortable and distracted societies, receiving little more than neglect over time. Western politicians should take on this challenge proactively and explain why support for Ukraine is not just altruistic but actually fundamental to European security and to the future of free societies. This campaign in support of Ukraine will not be cost-free. But if Putin wins in Ukraine, he will be emboldened to expand the perimeter of Russian aggression.
Ukraine’s end goal is unambiguous. It is the preservation of Ukrainian independence and sovereignty. This is what the country deserves—and what Europe needs for its own security. Should Ukraine prevail, its sovereignty would set a crucial precedent for the advance of a stable, liberal international order. In no way should the United States and Europe push Kyiv toward a negotiated settlement. Nor should they block a settlement if Zelensky can find one acceptable to him and the Ukrainian population. But this may arise only after years of fighting. In the interim, U.S. and European leaders must explain to their publics what is at stake—for Ukrainians and for the world—in this war.
Most important, they need to articulate the value of a Ukrainian victory. The first eight weeks of war have occasionally brought to mind the motifs and stereotypes of a Hollywood movie. There is the villain—Putin—distant and pathologically alone at his long Kremlin table. There is a valiant hero—Zelensky—braving death to save his nation. There is the remarkable plot twist of Russian military incompetence and Ukrainian battlefield success. These moral and narrative arcs might suggest that there will be a happy ending—and perhaps there will be. If so, it will not come soon. Alert to the short attention spans of their constituents, political leaders in the countries supporting Ukraine should model their messages less on Hollywood screenplays, which traffic in instant gratification, and more on the wartime speeches of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, which counseled perseverance and never promised a quick victory. Kyiv will experience many setbacks in a war that will have far-reaching strategic, political, and humanitarian consequences. The United States and its allies must prepare to back Ukraine for the long haul.
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