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The War in Ukraine - Scenarios for a “Way Out” of the Crisis

The War in Ukraine - Scenarios for a “Way Out” of the Crisis
 Michel Duclos
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - Geopolitics and Diplomacy

Can Vladimir Putin still be considered a rational actor? Is it worth continuing to talk to him? Even if we believe the West must defeat Russia, is it not also necessary to offer Putin a "way out" (off-ramp) of the crisis to save face? Could this be the key to preventing further escalation of the Ukraine war? What price will the West have to pay in order to dissuade Moscow from new interventions and raise Ukraine from its ruins? How has the war changed China’s international role, and what will this role look like in the future? 

So many questions for which it appears difficult, if not impossible, to provide simple and definitive answers to. In order to see how events are unfolding more clearly, we may imagine different endgame scenarios to the current conflict. In an exceptional article for Le Monde, Piotr Smolar has already undertaken a similar analysis. Smolar illuminates the risk that Ukraine might be doomed to a similar fate as Syria, or that Russia may transform into a second North Korea. 

Let us broaden the spectrum of possibilities by considering four additional scenarios:

  • A prolonged battle without a decisive conclusion: this would bring us closer to the Syrian situation. It is true that the combined destruction and absence of any political settlement in Syria can hardly be translated to Ukraine. Still, only a few days ago, Russia’s invasion of the whole of Ukraine also seemed unimaginable.
  • An almost complete Russian victory: Kyiv would be conquered, Zelensky killed or forced into exile. This would be followed by a popular resistance, perhaps the development of a Ukrainian urban guerrilla war. Putin would not give in and would receive active support from China.
  • The partition of the country: this would enable Russia to win but only if it "concedes" the maintenance of a Ukrainian state in the west of the country, with Lviv as the new capital. Zelensky agrees to this arrangement to avoid more serious destruction, such as in Grozny or Aleppo. According to experts, the Dnieper river could serve as a demarcation line. Kyiv, perhaps, would be divided, as Berlin once was.
  • A Russian failure: for various reasons, the Ukrainians hold out. Faced with the growing economic and human costs of his invasion, Putin ends up backing down. It is likely that the Russian dictator will only agree to stop his military operations if he receives territorial pledges in return. This would certainly concern the south of Ukraine, at least until Odessa.

It is important to note that it is up to Volodymyr Zelensky to decide when to stop the fight. The current peace talks between Ukraine and Russia are most likely about humanitarian measures and a cease-fire. They do not concern a direct settlement of the conflict. Both options are not mutually exclusive, since it is likely that Moscow will make Ukraine's non-membership of NATO a precondition for a cease-fire. 

Let's add another dimension to the Syria/Ukraine parallel. The two situations differ in many respects, notably because Russia supports the Syrian authorities while it wants to eliminate the Ukrainian government. However, in Syria as well as in Ukraine, Russia employs a similar strategy of demonizing its adversary. In Syria, Russia was fighting so-called "terrorists", in Ukraine, it allegedly intervenes against "Nazis". In both countries, Russia lays siege to and bombards entire neighborhoods -in Ukraine we are only seeing the beginning of this process. To break the population’s will to resist, the Russian military targets public places like hospitals and schools. At the same time, Russia uses humanitarian or diplomatic proposals to divide and disorient resisting forces, and attempt to legitimize its military operations. The big difference between Ukraine and Syria is that this time the West is not averting its eyes. 

Ukrainians will not have to wait for reunification as long as the Germans did. 

There could be many more possible scenarios. Yet considering all possible outcomes, a more or less victorious President Putin will remain a threat. A scenario in which Ukraine’s territory is partitioned appears to be the least politically unstable one. It might, however, lead to a continued confrontation between the West and Russia.

While discussing the possible scenarios with a Ukrainian colleague, we could agree on one point: the Ukrainians will not have to wait for reunification as long as the Germans did. This is because 21st century Russia does not have the stature of the USSR, and the days of Putin’s regime are numbered.

Western dilemmas

From a broader point of view, it might seem that Vladimir Putin has lost in any case: the war in Ukraine has sparked unrest in Russia, it has reinvigorated NATO, European powers, especially Germany, are giving up their pacifism, and the economic sanctions against Russia are considerably weakening its international position. 

Will this "awakening of Europe", or of the entire Western world, translate into a long-term strategy like the post-1945 "containment policy"? While this is possible, it is not certain. In the meantime, European and American decision-makers are being faced with multiple dilemmas, two of which are particularly important: 

  • In the immediate term, how far can we help the Ukrainian military without risking further escalation, including Russia's use of nuclear weapons? Where should we draw the red line? Should we give up on the idea of a "no-fly zone" and emphasize arms transfers instead? How can we ensure that the implementation of Article 5 of the Atlantic Treaty is credible in the event of an attack on a NATO member? In contrast to his ambivalent position on Taiwan, President Biden has adopted a policy of transparency towards Ukraine. His administration clearly indicates what he will not do in Ukraine. However, by leaving Putin with additional leeway, this policy has proved counterproductive in Ukraine. 
  • In the event of a crisis exit scenario resulting from an agreement between Russia and Ukraine, how should the West react? If the West’s "awakening" is truly the case, it may appear logical to continue strangling the Russian economy and isolating the country. The invasion of a sovereign country violates the most fundamental norms of international law, and it is not a phenomenon that will simply disappear when the war in Ukraine ends. Vladimir Putin will remain dangerous in the long run, as we expect him to prepare for new offensives. Any long-term approach may need to include an off-ramp for the Russian dictator. However, this should not imply any weakness or concessions from the West. 

Keeping a firm line with Putin will inevitably raise objections. It is very likely that a similar situation will resurface to the 2008 attack on Georgia or the 2014 annexation of Crimea. The West may again feel the need to reintegrate Russia and take account of its security concerns. The case will be made for avoiding irreversible sanctions. The current sanctions aimed at Russia’s "decoupling" from the international economy also bear a high cost for our own societies.

It is very likely that a similar situation will resurface to the 2008 attack on Georgia or the 2014 annexation of Crimea.

The case will be made that sanctions are too costly for Europe’s economy to keep up in the long term. For example, will Europe’s new energy policy still be tenable if the fighting stops, and a peace agreement is reached?

Is the key to be found in Beijing? 

One of the key questions raised by the conflict is the extent to which Moscow and Beijing are aligned. Debates on China and Russia’s relationship have been revived, with Moscow asking the Chinese for military assistance. It is worth noting that these discussions also underlines Russia’s lack of military preparation.

Faced with the possibility that Vladimir Putin, exasperated by the obstacles he encounters, will lose all restraint, some believe that only Xi Jinping could incite him to moderation. Worried about the world economy’s rapid destabilization, the Chinese leader could mediate between Ukraine and Russia. This is, however, unlikely. First, because China, despite certain ambiguities, is clearly on Russia's side. Second, because Chinese diplomacy is not equipped for a mediation role. 

Undoubtedly, China will face a strategic dilemma of its own. The first option would be to go all the way in supporting Moscow and refusing to comply with American sanctions against Russia. This would expose China to countermeasures from Washington. As a consequence, this would bring about an "economic decoupling" with the West, which is not in China’s current interests. Alternatively, China could continue supporting Russia politically, or even economically, but avoid siding too far with Moscow’. This would preserve the current globalization dominated by the West, but which China needs in order to pursue its own economic development. 

The talks between Joe Biden and Xi Jinping on March 18 likely addressed these considerations. China may not be able to end the war. It may, however, hold the key to preventing Vladimir Putin's further aggressions once a way out of the crisis has been found.



Copyright: Dimitar DILKOFF / AFP

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