Ukraine Endgame: Putin’s Bad Options
No matter which one he chooses, the Western response should be the same.
You must also have a sense of when to stop—Garry Kasparov, How Life Imitates Chess
Ukraine’s brilliant and tenacious resistance on land, as well as the sinking of the Moskva in the Black Sea, have checked Russia’s offensive in Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin would be wise to follow the advice of his countryman, chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov, and know when to stop. Instead, Putin appears intent on further escalation. In response to these events, Russia warned the United States to stop arming Ukraine, or face “unpredictable consequences.” Putin even went so far as to prescribe the weapons that the United States should not provide to the Ukrainian Army.
As Putin comes to terms with his looming defeat, he is now left with three bad, but not equally bad, options. The least bad Russian option is to sue for peace on the most favorable terms Ukraine will grant and end this pointless and reckless war. A worse option would be to go on the defensive in Eastern Ukraine and vainly hope for a more favorable correlation of forces in the future. The worst option of all would be for Russia to attempt another offensive, gambling the entire army in Ukraine on one last thrust with no hope of success. The West, in considering its responses to these actions, would do well to remember Napoleon’s advice (more or less): “Never interfere with an enemy in the process of destroying himself.”
Least Bad: Sue for Peace
Russia has not only lost the war in Ukraine, but is at risk of creating the very encirclement this war aimed to prevent. The United States and other NATO allies are pouring guns and money into Ukraine at breakneck speed. Ukraine is more fully integrated in the West than ever before. NATO is moving to strengthen its eastern flank, and many NATO members, most notably Germany, have committed to substantial increases in defense spending, Finland and Sweden are considering applying for NATO membership. Economic sanctions on Russia are not only holding, but growing: the European Union is considering banning Russian oil imports.
Faced with such a dire situation, Russia’s wisest move would be to sue for a peace that restores the status quo ante. In exchange for withdrawing its forces to their pre-invasion positions of February, Russia could ask Ukraine to recognize the independence of the Donbas region. This move might fracture the thus far rock-solid coalition against Russia, and prevent the fatal blow threatened by a European embargo on oil imports. Such a move might also shore up weakening support for Russia on the world stage, most notably in India and China. Putin could justify this retreat by characterizing its invasion as a successful punitive expedition in response to Ukraine’s (largely imagined) offenses.
While wise, this option is also unlikely. A Russian retreat and restoration of the status quo ante will be seen both at home and abroad for what it is: a defeat for the Putin regime. Like previous Russian autocrats, Putin fears his real domestic enemies far more than his imagined foreign foes. The oligarchs, generals, and spies he relies on to remain in power might reasonably conclude that his head is a small price to pay to ameliorate Russia’s suffering. Putin, a spy who took power from a frail and faltering Boris Yeltsin, understands these calculations all too well.
Worse: Defend the Donbas and Hope for Better Days
If Putin cannot end the war without losing his head, he might conclude that he can live to fight another day by going on the defensive in eastern Ukraine. Under this option, Putin would not seek any formal end to hostilities requiring Ukrainian assent. Instead, he would merely reposition his forces on defensible terrain in an attempt to hold the ground he already had before February. Putin might then adopt the maximalist aim of building sufficient combat power to resume offensive operations at some point in the future. Alternatively, he might adopt the more modest aim of transforming a ceasefire into yet another frozen conflict stuck in the netherworld between war and peace.
This strategy is doomed to failure because time is not on Putin’s side. Ukrainian nationalism and Ukrainian arms are stronger now than at the outset of the conflict, and grow stronger with each passing day. The correlation of forces has shifted decisively in Ukraine’s favor, thanks both to a surprisingly effective domestic arms industry as well as generous Western aid. Meanwhile, Russia’s military and economic position continues to weaken. On the battlefield, the Russian forces have reportedly lost more than 20,000 troops, 460 tanks, and 300 aircraft. On the home front, Western sanctions are pushing Moscow to the brink of financial default on its Western loans. Putin cannot play for time because he hasn’t any: each passing day brings new losses on the battlefield, and diminished resources at home to replace those losses.
Despite the futility of this strategy, it is the one that he will most likely adopt. Putin has isolated himself from advisors willing to tell him the truth, and this strategy allows him to remain in denial for a little while longer. His final defeat will come more slowly, but no less inevitably.
Worst: One Last Gamble
The most reckless option of all would be for Putin to attempt a final offensive to attempt to reverse the fortunes of this most unfortunate war. In this fever dream masquerading as a strategy, Putin would marshal his forces for a counterattack to cut Ukraine off from the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea. Such an offensive would require the final destruction of Mariupol, already well under way. Putin would hope to limit Western assistance to Ukraine through disinformation and nuclear bluster.
The absurdity of this strategy is plain on its face. Russia didn’t have the troops, tanks, and aircraft to accomplish this objective when its military and economy were at full strength. After a month of horrific battlefield losses, it has far less. Russia’s fragile logistics system was incapable of sustaining its forces at the outset of the war, and is certainly incapable of replacing battlefield losses to support a renewed offensive. The West wasn’t cowed by Putin’s bluffs when many believed the Russian Army was a juggernaut. That Army now stands revealed as an empty shell, and Putin’s bluffs are less credible than ever.
This reckless strategy would be the most dangerous option not for Ukraine or other Western states, but for Putin himself. The approach is reminiscent of the Ludendorff offensive at the end of World War I. Faced with horrific losses on the battlefield and growing discontent at home, Germany gambled everything on one last attack on the West under the leadership of Field Marshal Erich von Ludendorff. While achieving some initial tactical success, this operation failed because Germany had neither the logistics nor the manpower to sustain the attack. The war ended with the disintegration of the Germany Army and the toppling of the German government.
The Western Response: We Can Do This All Day
No matter which option Putin chooses, the Western response should be the same: aid the Ukrainian military, relieve the suffering of the Ukrainian people, maintain the unity of the NATO alliance, and increase the military and economic costs of Russia’s continued aggression. The only elements that need to vary are the emphasis and pace of those efforts. If Putin opts for peace, the West must maintain diplomatic, economic, and military solidarity to ensure Ukraine receives the most favorable settlement possible. If he opts for defense, the West must continue its efforts to strengthen Ukraine and isolate Russia to reveal the futility of playing for time. Finally, if he opts for offense, the West must surge every form of support to Ukraine to discredit Russia’s imperial delusions fully and finally.
In his recent démarche to the U.S. demanding an end to military support for Ukraine, Putin has helpfully provided a list of those capabilities Russia most fears. The U.S. should treat this message not as a Russian ultimatum but rather as a Ukrainian shopping list. When Russia launches artillery strikes at civilian populations, the West should send Ukraine Multiple Launch Rocket Systems and counter battery radars. When Russia uses aircraft in a reckless and vain offensive, the West should redouble shipments of Stinger anti-aircraft missiles and add the Patriot Surface-to-Air Missile System to the mix. When Russia dispatches its remaining tanks on a final, suicidal attack, the West should not only further accelerate shipment of Javelin and Switchblade anti-tank systems, but also begin arming Ukraine with M1 Abrams main battle tanks and other maneuver capabilities to drive Russia from Ukrainian soil once and for all. These weapons shipments are the clearest form of diplomacy, communicating to Putin that we can do this all day.
Vladimir Putin is in the process of destroying himself, and every day that passes, and every arms shipment that arrives in Ukraine, makes that outcome more inevitable.
John Nagl is a retired Army officer who teaches at the Army War College. Paul Yingling is a retired Army officer who lives and writes in Green Mountain Falls, Colorado. This article reflects their own views, not those of the Army or the Department of Defense, and is not based on any special or classified information.