Editor’s note — This article was written 12 hours before Yevgeny Prigozhin sent his troops up the M4 highway from the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don towards Moscow. Since then, Prigozhin turned his forces around, in his words, to “de-escalate” the situation. He has ostensibly been given safe harbor in Belarus in exchange for a pardon and amnesty for his Wagner troops. Nevertheless, the entire episode is problematic for Vladimir Putin and his military. I’m leaving the original article intact since it is mostly still relevant; yet, at the end of the column I have addressed what I think the aftermath consequences might be. It’s been said that violent acts, whether local, national or international, will inevitably have adverse consequences.
Attempting to answer the question of how the war in Ukraine will end is to some extent a fool’s errand, because there are so many variables at play.
Before I weigh in on that question however, what continues to puzzle me is how it defies strategic and economic sense that Russian leadership continues its “thumb-in-the-eye” relationship with the West. It could be wildly successful economically and politically if it developed a partnership with other western nations.
Why press such confrontation? It’s a legacy from the czarist and Stalinist past and an enduring compulsion for power by authoritarian leaders who seek unearned global prestige and somehow believe that they still live in the 19th century.
Some in the transatlantic alliance say that Russia’s relationship with the West can’t change as long as Putin remains in power, and by inference, the same could be said of ending the war in Ukraine. One question that’s very much in play today is, does either side have the capacity to actually win the war, that is, short of escalating to theater nuclear weapons.
One of the difficulties in calculating how the war will end is that Putin’s end game has never been clear. Volodymir Zelensky’s postulation is clear; return of all Ukrainian territories. Given these blurring components to a solution, some experts say the war is unwinnable, even if Ukraine were able to recapture most if not all of its territory, that Russia would likely create never-ending border clashes turning the conflict into a permanent military struggle.
Samuel Charap, who served on President Obama’s Policy Planning staff at the State Department, said recently that a study from the Center for Strategic and International Studies indicated that “when interstate wars last longer than a year, they extend on average to over a decade.”
Another factor in the question is the idea that this war in Ukraine is really a proxy war between NATO and Russia, implication being that a solution to the war is globally and strategically complex.
Yet another factor in this question is the presence of Yevgeny Prigozhin, “Putin’s Chef,” and head of the private military called the Wagner Group. Initially seen as a partner with the Russian military, it now seems as though the two are in conflict with Prigozhin saying this week that the war was a mistake and was being prosecuted by Russian elites who sit back in splendor and luxury while young Russians die in the trenches of Ukraine. This kind of criticism is unheard of in Putin’s Russia. Prigozhin’s power and influence are on the rise and how this accelerant will affect Russia’s ability to function without disarray is hard to predict.
The infighting between Russia’s military and Prigozhin’s army brings into question Putin’s ability to manage this standoff without serious consequences that might include a potential coup d’état. Putin can’t afford to mismanage this internal conflict or to lose the contest of his “special military operation.”
On a related note, Giacomo Chiozza and H.E. Goemin reported recently in Foreign Affairs magazine that “between 1919 and 2003, just under 50 percent of rulers who lost wars also lost power shortly thereafter.” Vladimir Putin is probably acquainted with this historical note, which may play into his wartime psyche.
So all these factors beg the question of how the war in Ukraine will end? There is a growing feeling among experts in these matters that the only viable solution is an armistice agreement, that is, an agreement to stop fighting without officially ending the state of war. Korea is the best example of an armistice in modern times.
I’m not as convinced of this as the “experts” are because I think it underestimates the resolve of Volodymir Zelensky and his Ukrainian fighters. Samuel Charap describes such an outcome this way in the July-August edition of Foreign Affairs: “An endgame premised on an armistice would leave Ukraine — at least temporarily — without all its territory. But the country would have the opportunity to recover economically, and the death and destruction would end. It would remain locked in a conflict with Russia over the areas occupied by Russia, but that conflict would play out in the political, cultural and economic domains where with Western support, Ukraine would have advantages.” That sounds to me like a banquet of lemons that doesn’t fit with Zelensky’s endgame appetite.
Conflict diplomacy is in short supply in today’s polarized world. Neither President Biden nor Xi Jinping can be the honest brokers in this affair. Perhaps Prime Minister Modi, but that’s a long shot.
My best guess given recent events is that Zelensky senses weakness in Putin’s leadership and will press his counter offensive, continuing to prosecute the war vigorously. The odds of Putin’s leadership failing have just increased way more than the experts have heretofore contemplated. Internal pressures and tensions between Prigozhin’s army and Russia’s regular army are likely to increase making predictions at this point almost impossible.
The argument for continuing to pump up Ukraine’s military with high-tech western weapons just got a big boost. There’s an old adage that is particularly pertinent here and it must be ringing in Taiwan’s ears right now.
Deterrence is cheaper than war.
Xi Jinping must be seriously thinking about what this war is costing Russia militarily, economically and diplomatically.
At this point no one can honestly predict how the war will end, or what will become of Mr. Putin. He has been seriously wounded politically, and his fall from power may be imminent. For now, it’s my belief that more is to come on the battlefield, and more is to come in the evolution of Russia’s internal struggles.
Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.