06 March 2022

Ukraine - "end-game" hopes

Like every morning these days, I'm waking up and scrolling through the various news sites, even before my first coffee is ready. My initial reaction this morning was: so not much changed in Ukraine overnight, at least not that we are seeing on the "big news". I'm pretty confident that a considerable amount continues to happen on the ground. 

I'm wondering about the "end-game" and how that may have changed over the past ten days. I do think that the original idea was to dismantle Ukraine into a number of smaller "independent republics", all subservient to Moscow. I wonder if that is still the realistic desired end state. I think it will depend on Putin's ability to change his objectives. In Georgia, he was satisfied to stop any future aspirations to join NATO (and to prove to NATO that Georgia would be a step too far). He hoped that Ukraine would have learned that lesson, but apparently, they did not. Crimea was a bit of a given, as the vast majority of the population was/is Russian, and there was no real danger of war, or even a difficult occupation.

Ukraine has turned into something very different. Can Putin alter his objectives, and can he find a way to "sell" those new objectives? This is what I call the "Vietnam Solution: Declare Victory and Withdraw", not that he would actually withdraw. But declare victory with the current (or consolidated) lines of engagement, negotiate a "disarmament" of Ukraine and a disbanding of all the "Neo-fascist" and "Nazi" brigades, and require Kyiv to recognise the breakaway republics might be acceptable to Putin. Included would be a statement that Ukraine will withdraw applications for membership in NATO and the EU and that Ukraine will not re-arm.

None of that will be palatable to the Ukrainian leadership (or their voters) or their western backers, but the alternative is Grozny, and they know that. They also know that promises made at the negotiating table may or may not stick once the tanks and troops are back in their barracks. Ukraine will re-arm; there's no question about that, but as a defensive country only. Putin will get his buffer-state.

This would satisfy his stated objectives, giving him the "victory" that he must have to even contemplate an end. That might give him the win he needs, and something to sell to the Russian people. 

He will then need to crack down again on the oligarchs, to make sure none think of backing a replacement.

The alternative is that he carries through with the complete destruction and subjugation of Ukraine, but with a very much weakened military and economic capacity, and the burden of a long-term insurgency in Ukraine. 

There will be no let-up on sanctions for the foreseeable future, and ordinary Russians will know that they are in for another decade or more of economic pain before returning to pre-Ukraine levels. Meanwhile, he knows that the EU, reliant on Russian oil and gas today, will have a crash programme of installing renewable energy across the continent. Within a decade, or sooner, there will be no European market for his oil or gas. His only markets will be China and the developing world, through pipelines that will need to cross many thousands of miles. 

Despots need "wins" just like everyone, but sometimes they don't know how to gain those without destroying others. Putin may be a despot, but he is neither insane nor failing. He knows what he is doing and will be looking at the situation carefully. If his generals gave too optimistic projections, he is seeing that play out now. If they expected (or were prepared for) the level of opposition they have encountered, I expect he has planned for that also.

His primary objective remains to protect Russia from the west, militarily, economically and culturally/socially. We have been ignoring those needs, and Ukraine is paying the price. He knows (knew) that an invasion of Ukraine would not come 'cheap', and he has figured that into his calculations. He is ready to accept a certain 'price' to achieve those objectives. 

My suspicion is that the price does not include a militarily emasculated Russia with little left but nukes. He cannot threaten to nuke everyone over a border skirmish, and he will still need a viable military to keep internal dissent in check. Therefore, he has a limited (though still very large) military capacity that he can expend in Ukraine before he undermines his ability to retain longer-term control. 

So Putin has come choices to make. How much of his reserves can he use for the complete subjugation of Ukraine? What is "enough"? And most importantly, how does he sell his end-state as a victory that was worth the short and long-term cost, both in people and economic capacity and futures.

I'm hoping that he sees the opportunity to declare victory.


The above was written and published on 6 March 2022.

Today, 7 March 2022, the following is reported in the Daily Mail (screenshot).

Putin was careful at the start to present the invasion as a limited operation with limited goals. Now that he appears to be on the back foot, and a quick win is no longer possible, he will be able to claim victory in relation to those goals.

We might be seeing the beginnings of that process.


It is worth noting that, regardless of any peace deal that is agreed, it will be a temporary deal designed to stop the fighting while giving Putin a "win" that he can use to attempt to hold onto power. There is nothing that any deal will do to stop the crippling sanctions that are beyond the two parties to influence. There will be no status-quo ante for Russia and Putin, and Ukraine has a decade of reconstruction ahead of it. Russia has a decade of economic pain, intellectual flight, infrastructure degradation and increasing poverty for the mass of Russians.