“Wars begin when you will, but they do not end when you please,” Machiavelli observed in his book on Florence’s history.
He was referring to a war started by a Papal legate, which quickly went south when the attacker’s army of (mostly) mercenaries was bribed into standing aside. The attacker found himself in a war he thought he had begun on his own terms, but was now fighting at a disadvantage – and yet still had to fight.
This observation still holds true. Russia began a war thinking it would quickly win, only to find that carefully drafted plans are often – as another piece of wisdom states – the first casualties of war.
It is a perilous exercise to plan a large-scale war and a similarly risky one to try and predict how such transformative events conclude. Still, as we’re well into the third month of the conflict, some potential scenarios as to how the war in Ukraine could end are starting to emerge, and some are growing more likely than others.
Let’s start with the obvious: Much like the attack against Florence, Russia’s war in Ukraine is not going as planned. Russia sought a fast and decisive victory in Ukraine, expecting to be able to land a decapitating blow on the Ukrainian leadership.
This did not happen. Moscow was effectively leaping into the unknown by the time the Russian army got stuck into one of the most catastrophic traffic jams in history, on their way to Kyiv. By the time Russian troops withdrew, at the beginning of April, the initial concept of a “Russian victory”, which likely involved the creation of a new puppet regime in Kyiv, and the capture of large parts of Ukraine, was gone and so were thousands of Russian soldiers.
This is bound to have an impact on the trajectory of the war. On February 24, Russia had a force of around 190,000 soldiers, which it used to carry out an all-out offensive against almost all of Ukraine. In mid-April, by the time Russia launched a “new phase” of its war, focused on eastern and southern Ukraine, this massive Russian force was already depleted to a significant extent.
Russia quickly restructured forces withdrawn from northern Ukraine, merging units together to carry on with its “special operation”, as Moscow demands Russian citizens call it under threat of legal punishmment. The Russian military is also seeking to recruit soldiers for short-term contracts: Advertisements have popped up across the country’s subways among others, with salaries attractive enough that some may be tempted. Those contracts may be even more short-term than advertised given the level of Russian losses in Ukraine.
But this won’t stop the bleeding. Whatever this “new phase” can and has achieved by the end of next month, this will be it: Without an influx of new forces, Russia’s initial offensive momentum will be spent.
As a result, Putin will very soon be faced with a binary choice: Either he forgets about his initial view of what “victory” may be, “digging his heels” and going for an ugly and long war of attrition; or he chooses to double down on its offensive, taking more risks to salvage his war, in a move some would call throwing good money after bad.
This upcoming choice will significantly impact the various “end-game scenarios”:
Putin doubles down and “wins”
Russia faces a clear problem with a potentially risky solution. Moscow is carrying out a “special operation”, rather than a war, and this has a very concrete implication: In a war, Russia could call conscripts and reserves to mobilise its army to its fullest. In the framework of a “special operation”, it is limited to active duty and contract soldiers. Whatever additional contract soldiers, mercenaries and foreign auxiliaries it may find elsewhere are a band-aid on a deep and bleeding wound.
However on the opposite side, Ukraine is on full wartime footing, mobilising active soldiers, reserves and territorial units. Kyiv is finding no shortages of men and women willing to fight to defend the country. The Ukrainian parliament recently passed a law that would also have Territorial Defence Units, made of local defenders, being able to be deployed further away, freeing up more hardened troops needed for bigger counter-offensives.
To counter that, Putin has one obvious option: Officially declaring war. Over the past few days, the British Secretary of Defence and Ukrainian Defence Ministry both alluded to that possibility. Speculations have been high as to whether Putin could even declare war as early as today, on May 9 during “Victory Day”.
Although this does not seem to be the case, I would not fully rule out that possibility yet. Beyond the fact that this would match the actual reality of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, such a declaration would help him stop the bleeding and send additional reinforcements he could use to salvage a victory. With the full brunt of the Russian army on war footing, Moscow can theoretically scale its objectives back up, and look again beyond Eastern Ukraine.
Putin doubles down and negotiates
Beyond the military logic, upping the ante might be viewed as the only way to gain enough leverage to negotiate a “good” agreement – one that ensures Crimea, the Donbas and most of southern Ukraine remain under Russian control, and that Ukraine stays “neutral”. Announcing a full-scale mobilisation could help Moscow gain whatever leverage it feels it needs, after a botched start to the invasion.
This may also explain why Russia decided to stir things up in nearby Moldova, raising the spectre of a possible intervention that would seem disastrous to any rational observer, given that success has already eluded Russia in Ukraine so far. The constant and implicit threat of “nuclear war” also serves as a way to improve Russia’s bargaining power. In this scenario, Putin makes it sound like he is willing to go “all in”, only to force Kyiv and its allies to settle. By any standard, this was what some analysts and governments thought Putin was doing before he actually invaded on February 24 – thus proving them wrong.
Putin doubles down and loses (potentially) big
There is a reason why Putin didn’t go for a full-scale war, beyond the fact that he clearly misjudged how much of a resistance his invasion of Ukraine would face. Going for a full-scale mobilisation exponentially raises his own domestic exposure.
There is no climbing down from grandiose objectives if Putin picks a full-scale war, particularly as it becomes an even costlier one. Limiting the operation to the Donbas after declaring a full-scale mobilisation will seem like too small of a “success” particularly if the cost attached to it is measured in tens of thousands of dead Russian soldiers.
To make matters worse, the chances that a full mobilisation would turn the tide of the war aren’t actually that high. First, full-scale mobilisation doesn’t happen overnight: It may take weeks, if not months for Russia to ramp up mobilisation to full wartime footing. Second, Russian reserves and conscripts aren’t exactly prepared for what’s waiting for them in Ukraine. It’s hard to see how they would suddenly succeed where more hardened units have failed.
The risks, on the other hand, cannot be underestimated. If Putin fails, someone will eventually have to take the blame. It is always hard to predict potential power changes in authoritarian states, but past precedents suggest this is how it starts: As failure sets in, those close to Putin may expect that there will be a price to pay for themselves. Putin’s entourage may decide to pre-emptively remove the “dear leader”, particularly if they think some of them may soon end up “committing suicide” or falling from buildings. This would be a surprise twist ending to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but not an unthinkable one at a later stage during the war.
Russia digs its heels turning the war into a “frozen” conflict
There is a more “prudent” course of action for Putin, one that I think is more likely than “doubling down” given the risks involved. To be sure, caution hasn’t exactly been the defining concept behind the Russian war in Ukraine, yet the initial failure may have led to some amount of rethinking on the Russian side.
Instead of escalating its ground war, Russia could try to simply “lock in” the territory it already secured, and “dig its heels”. Ukraine is fighting on its own territory, which militarily is an advantage. But this also means that its economy is taking far more damage than that of Russia, despite heavy sanctions targeting Moscow. The World Bank recently predicted that the Ukrainian economy would shrink by 45%. By contrast, the highest estimate suggests the Russian economy will contract by 15%.
This would not be the first time Russia applies such a strategy of “attrition” and turns active conflict into a frozen one for lack of a better solution. In Syria, Russia used a cycle of offensives, followed by ceasefires to slowly divide and break the opposition. The Ukraine conflict itself was largely viewed as a slow or “frozen” one before the invasion this year.
A frozen conflict has one key advantage for Russia: It may well help it demobilise the West. As the fighting becomes more sporadic, media attention may shift away to other crises, as it did with Syria and with Ukraine after 2014. In many cases this lack of focus has been key in enabling Russian expansionism, and Moscow could easily think that the same could happen with Ukraine – though I would argue that this time may well be different as Western leaders finally became aware of the monster sleeping under their beds.
In modern warfare, victory is an elusive concept, something Moscow is finding out in Ukraine. But when defending against an invasion, the notion of “winning” is relatively straightforward: The expulsion of the invader is the ultimate goal. The costs may be very high, and in many ways this would be a pyrrhic victory given the scope of the damage to the country, and the war crimes committed by the invading force. But contrary to a Russian victory, which appears remote unless Putin is ready to go “all-in”, the concept of a Ukrainian victory isn’t.
A Ukrainian victory would likely come from the attrition suffered by Russian forces, either due to exhausting offensives, or the need to maintain control over increasingly rebellious areas. Ukrainian forces have been quite effective at hitting Russia with limited but painful counter-offensives, taking advantage of a Russian penchant for large-scale offensives and reliance on poorly defended supply lines.
Short of going for a full-scale mobilisation, Russia will be stuck with a degrading force that it can’t replenish fast enough to advance. It is also unlikely that, after suffering years of “frozen conflict” since 2014, Kyiv will be willing to go down that road again, particularly if Russia maintains control over critical parts of its territory, and continues to effectively impose a naval blockade.
The fog of war is still thick, but I would argue that this is the only realistic and positive “end-game” for the West. Giving Putin an “exit ramp” out of the conflict will only work once Russia’s defeat in Ukraine is clear, and not a second before.
Michael Horowitz is a geopolitical analyst and head of Le Beck’s Intelligence Branch.