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Tell Me How It Ends: Analogies and Scenarios for the Ukraine war

ARTICLES - 2 March 2022

War never goes according to plan. Wars triggered by isolated dictators who no longer listen to the outside worlds do so even less. Given these truisms, how will Ukraine end? Are there historical analogies that could be useful in understanding and forecasting its outcome? 
 
Putin has justified his war with obscure and indirect references to past Western interventions. The mention of an ongoing "genocide" (sic) in the Donbas is reminiscent of NATO justification in 1999 for imposing a peace plan on Serbia, an operation which ended with the independence of Kosovo. Then there were curious echoes of the US debate from twenty years ago, when Washington was getting ready to invade Iraq: the need to remove a regime associated with "Nazism" (sic), as well as the (imagined) threat of a Ukrainian nuclear weapons program. 
 
The Russian debate - and part of the Western one - also suggested the possibility of a new "Cuban missile crisis". This was, at least at the onset of the war, equally absurd. There are no Western missiles in Ukraine (as well as no plan or no reason to install them). The only NATO missiles in the neighborhood are the anti missile interceptors deployed in Poland and Romania, which are not configured to stop a Russian strike. 
 
The Cold War does, however, offer a couple of more relevant analogies. One is the Berlin crisis of 1961. As was the case six decades ago, it seems that a Russian mistakenly believed that a weak US president would be paralyzed in the face of a major strategic move by Moscow. Other, perhaps more appropriate references, include the Warsaw Pact (in fact Soviet) interventions in Hungary (1956), Czechoslovakia (1968) and Afghanistan (1979). These were aimed at avoiding the loss of a friendly regime. The so-called "counter-terrorism operation" conducted in Kazakhstan by the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), while of a smaller scale, also falls into this category. Ukraine, from Putin’s point of view, was increasingly attracted by Europe and the West and thus in danger of leaving what Russia considers its "sphere of influence" for good. 
 
So what will happen now? Can history give us illustrative examples of the endgame? Let us review the possible scenarios. 
 
At one extreme, there could be an annexation of Ukraine, not unlike Iraq did with Kuwait in 1990. This could happen only after a long and horribly destructive war which would lead Ukrainians to plead for peace at any cost. Considering how events have unfolded in the last week, this has almost no chance of happening. 
 
Second, there could be a division of Ukraine, à la Germany or Korea in 1945, or, more appropriately, the situation stemming from the 1686 "Perpetual Peace" Moscow Treaty between Russia and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which literally carved Ukrainian lands into two parts. Again, an improbable scenario given the degree of resistance of Ukrainian forces and the existence of multiple frontlines. 

The subjugation of Ukraine would put the country in a situation more or less akin to that of neighboring Belarus.

The subjugation of Ukraine would put the country in a situation more or less akin to that of neighboring Belarus, which was de facto placed under the yoke of Moscow after Putin saved the Lukashenko regime in 2020-2021. This could only occur if Russia is able to defeat Ukrainian forces and install a puppet regime in Kyiv. There is no doubt that this would be an unstable outcome, given the many Ukrainian citizens maintaining the current level of resistance. 

Entering the realm of slightly more credible scenarios, the Finlandization of Ukraine (understood here as a deliberate and sovereign choice of military neutrality) which would take care of one of Russia’s stated concerns: Ukraine’s possible future entry into the Atlantic Alliance. However, those promoting it - and many respectable experts and statesmen have done so in the past thirty years - forget that it would leave the country open to the Kremlin’s influence. This could only happen as part of a global settlement of the war, in which - as Finland did in 1939-1940 - the Ukrainian forces would force Russia into a stalemate. 
 
Then there are scenarios more negative for the Kremlin, starting with a prolonged quagmire for Russian forces, like in Afghanistan or, for the United States, in Iraq. But these parallels only take us so far: for the Kremlin, Ukraine is extraordinarily more important than Afghanistan was for the Soviet Union or Iraq for the United States. For this reason, it is also unlikely that Moscow could just withdraw after having given Ukraine a "lesson", as China did to Vietnam in 1979. 

Therefore, escalation scenarios appear more likely, opening up a range of final outcomes. Russia could seek to rupture European and transatlantic security by provoking incidents on borders with Europe - neutral Sweden is keeping a watchful eye on Russia’s intentions towards the Gotland island in the Baltic Sea - or through cyberattacks and even terrorism.

Therefore, escalation scenarios appear more likely, opening up a range of final outcomes.

Moscow could "open a new front" by encouraging and helping the small Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina, to declare its independence. Furthermore, it could agitate the nuclear route through aggressive statements (and visible strategic steps in its strategic forces posture), not unlike the Soviet Union did during the Suez crisis of 1956. The deployment of Russian nuclear weapons on Belarussian territory - a move now permitted by the change in the country’s constitution - could be another way to attempt to scare Europe and divide the Atlantic Alliance. Finally, as Turkey increasingly sides with Ukraine, blocking the passage of Russian ships in the Bosphorus straits could elicit a Russian response. Echoes of the Crimean War of the 19th century would then be heard. 
 
Alternatively (and not less likely), escalation could happen inadvertently, as opposed to deliberately. 
A Russian bomber flight could go astray, cross a European border and be downed by NATO forces, not unlike what happened during the Turkish-Russian incident of 2015. In Ukraine, Western instructors or volunteers could be killed en masse during a Russian bombing, prompting outrage and calls for retaliation in the West - recall, for instance, that more than 200 Russian soldiers were killed by US forces in Syria in 2018 during the battle of Khasham
 
A comprehensive listing of scenarios would need to include that of a massive Russian military defeat, eventually leading to the departure of Mr. Putin, as for Milosevic after the Kosovo war or the Argentinian junta after the 1982 Falklands war. This, in turn, could open the way for a rapid reconquest of the breakaway Donbas Republics, as Croatian forces did in 1995 during Operation Storm. 
 
Meanwhile, however, Russian forces will continue to obtain the maximum military results on the ground, with no clear objective other than crushing Ukrainian armed forces and State institutions with increasing kinetic force. As Lenin reportedly said, "You probe with bayonets: if you find mush, you push. If you find steel, you withdraw". Unfortunately, a final analogy must be made: the terrible destruction of Grozny in 1999 - a particularly troubling one as Chechen forces arrive in Ukraine to do the Kremlin’s dirtiest jobs. 
 

 

Copyright: Anatolii Stepanov / AFP

 

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