With Russia pressing on and Ukraine digging in, how will Putin's war actually end?

Not only is President Vladimir Putin isolated by much of the world, but if we presume his ideal outcome was a quick campaign in which he'd remove Ukraine's leadership and be welcomed by its citizens, then he has fallen short of his objectives.

For Ukrainians, the war's legacy will last generations no matter the outcome

Russian President Vladimir Putin listens in a meeting in Moscow on March 2, 2022. His invasion of Ukraine has not worked out the way he expected, experts say. (Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/Kremlin Pool/The Associated Press)

In the eyes of its growing army of critics, Russia has already lost the war it started.

Not only is President Vladimir Putin isolated by much of the world, but if we presume his ideal outcome was a quick campaign in which he'd remove Ukraine's leadership and be welcomed by its citizens, then he has fallen short of his objectives.

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The campaign has wrought destruction, wanton loss of life, and the forced displacement of two million people — without counting those on the move internally.

These are hardly conditions conducive to an easily or satisfactorily negotiated end to the crisis. Not for a leader accustomed to near-impunity in other military ventures. And not for Ukraine, the aggrieved nation that in any scenario will suffer the consequences of the ensuing brutality for generations.

So how does Russia's war in Ukraine actually end? Here are some possibilities.

1. A negotiated solution

Two weeks into the invasion, Russian forces continued to shell several cities, hampering efforts to evacuate civilians. More than 400 civilian deaths have been recorded, although the UN human rights office says the true number is much higher.

A Kremlin spokesman said on Monday that the fighting could stop "in a moment" if Ukraine would "stop their military action" and agree to Russia's demands: recognize Crimea as Russian, the Luhansk and Donetsk regions as independent, and enshrine in its constitution a vow to remain neutral and out of any bloc, namely NATO.

Unsurprisingly, Ukraine rejected the offer, describing it as "an ultimatum."

A police officer says goodbye to his son as his family flees from advancing Russian troops in the town of Irpin outside Kyiv, Ukraine, March 8, 2022. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Russia, for its part, is unwilling to back down. At a campaign event Monday, French President Emmanuel Macron said that in his last conversation with Putin, the Russian president refused to even entertain a ceasefire.

"I don't think that in the days and weeks to come there will be a true negotiated solution," said Macron.

So, a negotiated solution will likely neither be easy nor quick. Still, a lineup of leaders from Russia-friendly nations — Turkey, India, China and Israel — have emerged to try their hands at diplomacy. The Vatican has also offered its mediation services.

Even Ukraine's foreign minister called Monday for face-to-face talks between Putin and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky.

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It's hard to imagine that meeting materializing any time soon, especially when one of Putin's main stated objectives was a change in Ukraine's leadership. Plus, as he would discover, Ukrainians would fight back, and fight back fiercely.

"This campaign has not worked out the way [Putin] expected," Roman Waschuk, former Canadian ambassador to Ukraine, said in a phone interview from Poland. 

There's growing evidence that Russian troops are under-motivated, he said, badly organized and badly supplied, and have been surprised by the sustained resistance.

"What we're seeing now in a number of areas is that Ukrainians are actually holding their own and sometimes even counter-attacking on the ground," said Waschuk.

"The question is: as the war grinds on … how does the willingness to fight on both sides change," said Christopher Miller, assistant professor and co-director of Russia and Eurasia program at the Fletcher School at Tufts University in Massachusetts.

That willingness, says Miller, depends on the extent of losses both sides are taking, and the amount of force Russia uses, especially in civilian areas. It also depends on the cost of the sanctions against Russia and its military casualties.

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2. A quagmire

Think Soviet forces in Afghanistan, or U.S. forces in Iraq — in charge of a hostile population through military means.

In the Ukraine scenario, Putin's forces would impose his demands, including installing a Russia-friendly government, but only after a brutal, relentless pummeling. 

Putin has indicated he's planning exactly that. He has "a determination to continue the military operation and to continue it to the end," according to a French official who briefed the media following that latest call between Macron and Putin.

As a result, the official said, Macron expected "that the worst is to come."

It is a scenario that would come at enormous cost for both Ukraine and Russia, says Liana Fix, currently a resident fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Washington.

Moscow would try "to achieve its aims through terror, through a bombing campaign in major cities … to make Ukrainians somehow more willing to accept some of the Russian demands," said Fix.

Fix recently co-authored two pieces in Foreign Affairs magazine called "What if Russia Wins?" followed by, "What if Russia Loses?" 

In the former article, Fix and fellow author Michael Kimmage warn that a Russian victory in Ukraine "is not science fiction." In a "Russianized Ukraine scenario," Russia would be forced to maintain a sizeable force on the ground to impose political repression and fight pockets of insurgency, they explain.

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"Ukrainians are well aware that any control by Russia would mean constant terror, police, military suppression, military administrations and so on," said Fix from Washington.

A permanent Russian presence or partial occupation in Ukraine would also pose an "immense security risk" to NATO, said Fix, and possibly a risk of escalation.

"This will be a very dangerous, unstable situation for the NATO/Russia relationship in the future."

3. An escalation

The longer Russia maintains a military presence in Ukraine, and the more permanent and transformative that presence is, the risk of escalation rises.

Notwithstanding the possibility that Putin has ambitions beyond Ukraine, a larger war is a scenario that most everyone involved would prefer to avoid. It is why, despite repeated calls from Zelensky for a no-fly zone, NATO countries are likely to resist — to avoid direct conflict with Russia.

It is a calculation NATO countries must make with every supportive act. A provocation could mean all-out war, and that in turn risks the use of nuclear weapons.

"We are completely deterred … by Mr. Putin and his nuclear threats," Philip Breedlove, retired U.S. general and former Supreme Allied Commander Europe of NATO Allied Command Operations, told CBC's Power and Politics on Monday.

"To see if we remain deterred," moral objectives are going to have to be considered over the coming days and weeks, he said.

In this photo taken from video provided by the Russian Defense Ministry Press Service on Feb. 19, 2022, a Russian military technician checks a MiG-31K fighter of the Russian air force carrying a Kinzhal hypersonic cruise missile parked at an air field. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service/The Associated Press)

For the moment, NATO remains deterred, but so does Russia: an attack on a NATO country would in theory trigger a NATO response.

Despite an ongoing war of words between Russia and NATO, the status quo isn't likely to change without a significant event on the battlefield — either by choice or by error.

4. Russians overthrow or replace Putin

Russia watchers say this scenario may be the least likely to materialize: that Russians themselves change the course of the war by overthrowing Putin or agitating for his replacement.

There have been numerous anti-war protests in Russia. Western sanctions continue to decimate its economy, devaluing the currency, sending investors fleeing, and prompting Morgan Stanley to predict a Venezuala-style Russian default by mid-next month. 

Putin is likely to respond with more repressive tactics, which risks wider protest. 

Police officers detain two women during a protest against Russia's invasion of Ukraine in central Moscow on March 2, 2022. (Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty Images)

Still, Miller says he's skeptical such protests could lead to sweeping political change.

"What's more dangerous for the regime is not the upper-middle class protesting, it's workers in smaller cities … that have not been politicized for 20 years or longer, but who are about to find that their factories are shutting down, that their salaries aren't getting paid."

Discontent could also be strengthened by a "more significant sort of Russian debacle" in Ukraine, that may embolden Putin's critics to say, "this has gone on for far enough … you've got to pull back" and change course, said Waschuk. 

Alternatively, there is the even more remote prospect of a palace coup — an overthrow of Putin from within, or, possibly a military coup. 

The chances of such scenarios have increased as the invasion falters, the economic situation worsens in Russia, and the number of body bags coming home increases, says Miller.

"If it were to happen, it'd come with pretty high certainty from inside of Russia's security services. And it's very difficult to know what these people are thinking," said Miller.

Russia expert Fiona Hill says if a palace coup scenario happens at all, it's more likely to be carried out by hardliners in Putin's inner circle.

Putin enters a hall to chair a Security Council meeting in Moscow on Feb. 25, 2022. Analysts say it's unlikely the Russian president will face a coup, but if he does, it will be by hardliners in his inner circle. (Alexei Nikolsky/Sputnik/Kremlin Pool/The Associated Press)

They're likely to act if Putin appears to change course, Hill said last week in an interview on the The Economist Asks podcast.

"They will not want to loosen up anything, or reverse course," said Hill, a former official at the U.S. National Security Council specializing in Russian and European affairs. "They'll want to double down and triple down. They're just as complicit as he is."

But the best-case scenario remains a negotiated solution, says Hill, with the help of China or other countries still close to Russia "to find ways of pushing Russia into another direction."

"Because Putin is not going to want to be seen to have lost and neither will the people around him."

5. A stalemate

Imagine a conflict that continues to simmer, with a constantly mounting death toll, and refugees who never return. Think of Russia as a permanently restive pariah state. Think of Ukraine as a failed one. 

That would be the outcome of a stalemate that sees Russian troops and Ukrainian fighters at it for months, or even years.

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A trial run of this scenario has been playing out in Eastern Ukraine for the past eight years, where an estimated 13,000 people have died in a conventional conflict just a short flight from the heart of Europe. 

"Why should this [conflict] be radically different?" said Waschuk.

Whether or when the conflict ends, Ukrainians will be fighting its legacy for some time to come, Waschuk said. 

"This will shape Ukrainian society for decades, if not centuries."


Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.