No Winners in This War – by Jeff Sahadeo

We enter the second month of the war in Ukraine with Russian advances largely (but not completely) stalled and Ukrainian defenders holding fast, even retaking some territory. As the battlefield settles into a back-and-forth for now, civilian casualties mount relentlessly as the Russians adopt a strategy to bomb cities without regard for human life. This lack of regard for life includes their own conscripts and soldiers, without proper food and equipment, who have been ground up in a battle that is not their own. As this toll on the battlefield rises, however, both Russia and Ukraine feel they can, indeed must, win this war. In Moscow, a loss would be the end for Putin’s image as a strong, successful leader. In Kyiv, Zelenskyy has courageously rallied a nation and talks primarily of full victory, of driving Russia out and restoring Ukraine’s strength and sovereignty. Both leaders—if we dismiss the slight possibility of some kind of palace coup against Putin or a successful assassination of Zelenskyy—will, sooner or later, have to face the reality that they cannot achieve complete victory.

And both will have to make compromises they had not imagined at the beginning of this invasion. Putin cannot win—in the sense that even if he destroys Ukraine and is able to defeat its army, which is plausible if not probable—he will face a failed state and likely an active insurgency on his borders and will lack the ability and funds to rebuild it. Zelenskyy, even if he is able to push the Russian army back to its positions before the invasion—plausible but not probable given the still substantial Russian military advantage—will never inflict a defeat on Russia itself. So it will face a larger, richer, aggrieved and revanchist nuclear state on its borders. The question is what might bring either leader to seriously negotiate a painful peace? Putin especially, but Zelenskyy also, likely considers now that a peace deal would be the end of their political careers. Would Putin accept a Ukraine with Zelenskyy still as leader and potentially with the possibility of EU membership? Zelenskyy has signalled he might accept renouncing NATO ambitions, but would he formally yield Crimea and the Donetsk and Luhansk territories? His announcement that he would put a peace deal to a referendum signals his nervousness to make such concessions on his own. Will regime change need to happen before this war ends? This is the question I frequently ponder when I look towards an endgame.

~ Jeff Sahadeo

Professor, Institute of European, Russian and Eurasian Studies, Carleton University (