Ukraine: How might the war end? Five scenarios (2023)

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Ukraine: How might the war end? Five scenarios (1)Image source, Getty Images

By James Landale

Diplomatic correspondent

Amid the fog of war, it can be hard to see the way forward. The news from the battlefield, the diplomatic noises off, the emotion of the grieving and displaced; all of this can be overwhelming. So let us step back for a moment and consider how the conflict in Ukraine might play out. What are some of the possible scenarios that politicians and military planners are examining? Few can predict the future with confidence, but here are some potential outcomes. Most are bleak.

Short war

Under this scenario, Russia escalates its military operations. There are more indiscriminate artillery and rocket strikes across Ukraine. The Russian air force - which has played a low-key role so far - launches devastating airstrikes. Massive cyber-attacks sweep across Ukraine, targeting key national infrastructure. Energy supplies and communications networks are cut off. Thousands of civilians die. Despite brave resistance, Kyiv falls within days. The government is replaced with a pro-Moscow puppet regime. President Zelensky is either assassinated or flees, to western Ukraine or even overseas, to set up a government in exile. President Putin declares victory and withdraws some forces, leaving enough behind to maintain some control. Thousands of refugees continue to flee west. Ukraine joins Belarus as a client state of Moscow.

This outcome is by no means impossible but would depend on several factors changing: Russian forces performing better, more of those forces being deployed, and Ukraine's extraordinary fighting spirit fading. Mr Putin might achieve regime change in Kyiv and the end of Ukraine's western integration. But any pro-Russian government would be illegitimate and vulnerable to insurgency. Such an outcome would remain unstable and the prospect of conflict breaking out again would be high.

Long war

Perhaps more likely is that this develops into a protracted war. Maybe Russian forces get bogged down, hampered by low morale, poor logistics and inept leadership. Maybe it takes longer for Russian forces to secure cities like Kyiv whose defenders fight from street to street. A long siege ensues. The fighting has echoes of Russia's long and brutal struggle in the 1990s to seize and largely destroy Grozny, the capital of Chechnya.

Image source, Getty Images

And even once Russian forces have achieved some presence in Ukraine's cities, perhaps they struggle to maintain control. Maybe Russia cannot provide enough troops to cover such a vast country. Ukraine's defensive forces transform into an effective insurgency, well-motivated and supported by local populations. The West continues to provide weapons and ammunition. And then, perhaps after many years, with maybe new leadership in Moscow, Russian forces eventually leave Ukraine, bowed and bloodied, just as their predecessors left Afghanistan in 1989 after a decade fighting Islamist insurgents.

Russia attacks Ukraine: More coverage

European war

Might it be possible this war could spill outside Ukraine's borders? President Putin could seek to regain more parts of Russia's former empire by sending troops into ex-Soviet republics like Moldova and Georgia, that are not part of Nato. Or there could just be miscalculation and escalation. Mr Putin could declare Western arms supplies to Ukrainian forces are an act of aggression that warrant retaliation. He could threaten to send troops into the Baltic states - which are members of Nato - such as Lithuania, to establish a land corridor with the Russian coastal exclave of Kaliningrad.

Image source, Getty Images

This would be hugely dangerous and risk war with Nato. Under Article 5 of the military alliance's charter, an attack on one member is an attack on all. But Mr Putin might take the risk if he felt it was the only way of saving his leadership. If he was, perhaps, facing defeat in Ukraine, he might be tempted to escalate further. We now know the Russian leader is willing to break long-standing international norms. This same logic can be applied to the use of nuclear weapons. This week, Mr Putin put his nuclear forces on a higher level of alert. Most analysts doubt this means their use is likely or imminent. But it was a reminder that Russian doctrine allows for the possible use of tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield.

Diplomatic solution

Might there, despite everything, still be a possible diplomatic solution?

"The guns are talking now, but the path of dialogue must always remain open," said UN Secretary General António Guterres. Certainly dialogue continues. President Macron of France has spoken to President Putin on the phone. Diplomats say feelers are being stretched out to Moscow. And, surprisingly, Russian and Ukrainian officials have met for talks on the border with Belarus. They might not have made much progress. But, by agreeing to the talks, Putin seems to at least have accepted the possibility of a negotiated ceasefire.

The key question is whether the West can offer what diplomats refer to as an "off ramp", an American term for an exit off a major highway. Diplomats say it is important the Russian leader knows what it would take for Western sanctions to lift so a face-saving deal is at least possible.

Consider this scenario. The war goes badly for Russia. Sanctions begin to unsettle Moscow. Opposition grows as body bags return home. Mr Putin wonders if he has bitten off more than he can chew. He judges that continuing the war may be a greater threat to his leadership than the humiliation of ending it. China intervenes, putting pressure on Moscow to compromise, warning that it will not buy Russian oil and gas unless it de-escalates. So Mr Putin starts to look for a way out. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian authorities see the continuing destruction of their country and conclude that political compromise might be better than such devastating loss of life. So diplomats engage and a deal is done. Ukraine, say, accepts Russian sovereignty over Crimea and parts of the Donbas. In turn, Putin accepts Ukrainian independence and its right to deepen ties with Europe. This may not seem likely. But it is not beyond the realms of plausibility that such a scenario could emerge from the wreckage of a bloody conflict.

Putin ousted

And what of Vladimir Putin himself? When he launched his invasion, he declared: "We are ready for any outcome."

But what if that outcome was him losing power? It might seem unthinkable. Yet the world has changed in recent days and such things are now thought about. Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman, Emeritus Professor of War Studies at Kings College, London, wrote this week: "It is now as likely that there will be regime change in Moscow as in Kyiv."

Image source, Getty Images

Why might he say this? Well, perhaps Mr Putin pursues a disastrous war. Thousands of Russian soldiers die. The economic sanctions bite. Mr Putin loses popular support. Perhaps there is the threat of popular revolution. He uses Russia's internal security forces to suppress that opposition. But this turns sour and enough members of Russia's military, political and economic elite turn against him. The West makes clear that if Putin goes and is replaced by a more moderate leader, then Russia will see the lifting of some sanctions and a restoration of normal diplomatic relations. There is a bloody palace coup and Putin is out. Again, this may not seem likely right now. But it may not be implausible if the people who have benefited from Mr Putin no longer believe he can defend their interests.


These scenarios are not mutually exclusive - some of each could combine to produce different outcomes. But however this conflict plays out, the world has changed. It will not return to the status quo ante. Russia's relationship with the outside world will be different. European attitudes to security will be transformed. And the liberal, international rules-based order might just have rediscovered what it was for in the first place.

Related Topics

  • Russia-Ukraine war
  • Russia
  • Nato
  • Vladimir Putin
  • Ukraine

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What is the likely outcome of the war in Ukraine? ›

The most likely scenarios are continued fighting, a frozen conflict, or some form of negotiated agreement that, at least temporarily, stops the shooting. While no scenario can be excluded, the unequal strategic situation pushes future war scenarios toward variations of a stalemate.

How is the war in Ukraine going to affect the world? ›

The war in Ukraine has an obvious impact on those within the country. Outside of Ukraine, the war also continues to have a major effect on the global markets and food supply. The impact of the armed conflict on grain exports has worsened a global hunger crisis, with catastrophic impacts throughout the world.

Why is Ukraine so important to the world? ›

Introduction. Ukraine has long played an important, yet sometimes overlooked, role in the global security order. Today, the country is on the front lines of a renewed great-power rivalry that many analysts say will dominate international relations in the decades ahead.

What will be the effect of war between Russia and Ukraine? ›

I'll conclude: the main impacts of the Ukraine war has been to weaken Russia, to make Europe more or at least more visibly dependent on the United States, and to suggest quite clearly that only two countries really have the ability –the power—the shape world politics in the coming decades, and they are China and the ...

Why is US helping Ukraine in the war? ›

The United States, our allies, and our partners worldwide are united in support of Ukraine in response to Russia's premeditated, unprovoked, and unjustified war against Ukraine.

Does China support Russia? ›

While Beijing has been careful not to criticize Russia during the war and remains an ally, it has also been able to exploit its privileged relationship with Moscow, knowing Russia desperately needs a powerful friend and trading partner for its discounted commodity exports like oil and metals, the sales of which are ...

What are the consequences of war? ›

War destroys communities and families and often disrupts the development of the social and economic fabric of nations. The effects of war include long-term physical and psychological harm to children and adults, as well as reduction in material and human capital.

What are the global effects of war? ›

But the war also greatly compounds a number of preexisting adverse global economic trends, including rising inflation, extreme poverty, increasing food insecurity, deglobalization, and worsening environmental degradation.

How does war affect the economy? ›

Putting aside the very real human cost, war has also serious economic costs – damage to infrastructure, a decline in the working population, inflation, shortages, uncertainty, a rise in debt and disruption to normal economic activity.

Which countries are helping Ukraine in the war? ›

Additionally, the United States, United Kingdom, Denmark and the Netherlands contributed funding for additional air-defense missiles for Ukraine, Austin said. Italy also announced its latest tranche of military assistance, and Norway and Germany announced multiyear security assistance packages, he said.

How is the US involved in the Ukraine crisis? ›

Humanitarian Assistance

When Russia launched its invasion, the United States responded quickly to the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine—providing more than $1.9 billion to Ukrainians in need of assistance, including more than 13 million people forced to flee their homes.

What foods do Ukrainians eat? ›

The most famous traditional Ukrainian dishes are borshch, varenyky, holubtsi, Chicken Kyiv, banosh, and syrnyky, and it surely is not an exhaustive list. Borshch (sometimes written as borsch, borsht, bortsch, or borshch) is a sour soup with distinctive red colour.

Why is Ukraine important to the United States? ›

In his State of the Union address, President Joe Biden made clear that backing Ukraine matters “because it keeps the peace and prevents open season for would-be aggressors to threaten our security and prosperity.” Without NATO's support for Ukraine, which has created the quagmire that Russia now faces, the United ...

How does war affect society? ›

Destruction of infrastructure can create a catastrophic collapse in the social interrelated structure, infrastructure services, education and health care system. Destruction of schools and educational infrastructure have led to a decline in education among many countries affected by war.

How is Ukraine economy right now? ›

Ukraine's current account surplus was 5.7% of GDP in 2022, with grant inflows compensating for a growing trade deficit that reached 16% of GDP. Annual exports declined by 30%, while imports contracted by only 4%. Public finances remain under pressure.

How many people have left Ukraine as a result of the war? ›

Nearly 6 million refugees fleeing Ukraine are recorded across Europe, while an estimated 8 million others had been displaced within the country by late May 2022. Approximately one-quarter of the country's total population had left their homes in Ukraine by 20 March.

Why is Russia invading Ukraine? ›

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has continued to harbor significant resentment against Independent Ukraine, the country it still thinks of as a critical part of 'Mother Russia'. It therefore considers the conquest of Ukraine as being vital for the restoration of its so-called “Historical Russia”.

Is Ukraine going to join NATO? ›

Finally, leaders reaffirmed that Ukraine would become a member of NATO and agreed to remove the requirement for a Membership Action Plan. "This will change Ukraine's membership path from a two-step process to a one-step process," the secretary general said.

Is Ukraine a NATO? ›

At the 2023 Vilnius Summit, Allies reaffirmed their commitment that Ukraine will become a member of NATO. Recognising Ukraine's increased interoperability and substantial progress with reforms, they decided that Ukraine's path to full Euro-Atlantic integration has moved beyond the need for the Membership Action Plan.

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