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Conflict termination in Ukraine

In the past week or so the situation in Ukraine has escalated significantly:

  • At the Munich Security Conference of elite national security experts there was a discussion of the end game in Ukraine, I am told by a participant.  He went on to argue that there was no need for a public discussion of the conditions for ending the ongoing armed conflict. The discussion in Munich was significant, but of course it has not been made public.
  • The president visited Ukraine and Poland where he made wide sweeping accusations against Vladimir Putin and pledged almost endless United States support for Ukraine. Biden declared in Poland that: “Ukraine will never be a victory for Russia, Appetites of the autocrat cannot be appeased. They must be opposed.”
    • Relatedly, Leopard tanks started arriving in Ukraine.
  • Russia made threatening mentions of resorting to the use of nuclear weapons and suspended adherence to the START Treaty.  The Russians then did an ICBM test, which failed.  (Talk about mixed messages.)[1]
  • The Chinese continued to move closer and closer to Russia in their growing alliance.

The above being said the conclusions in my December article about Ukraine still stand.

The problem to reaching a conflict termination is either a lack of clearly defined definitions of acceptable end states by the participants to the conflict or totally mutually exclusive definitions of such end states.   Actually, the situation could be both.  In short, the war in Ukraine isn’t likely to end anytime soon. Both sides believe they can win on the battlefield, and thus little room exists for peace negotiations. This position was reinforced by President Biden and the Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff who said: ‘Russia has lost; they’ve lost strategically, operationally and tactically.’

The conflicting national objectives are personified by actions in the theater of operations. Ukraine is reportedly preparing offensives to regain the roughly 18% of its territory still occupied by Moscow, including the Crimea peninsula and parts of the eastern Donbas region that Mr. Putin seized in 2014. Russia’s goals are defined by its recent declaration that four Ukrainian regions, none of which it fully controls, are its own sovereign territory.  Its current military objectives are to conquer those lands. However, Putin, in a speech last Tuesday, indicated that his aspirations remain much broader, referring to Russia’s “historical territories that are now called Ukraine.”  There are also noises coming out of Russia of a “belt sanitaire”, which would include a part of Poland.  There are further threats against Moldova.  In short, the Russian objectives are based upon trying to create a neutral zone between it and the rest of Europe.  The Russian psyche remains scared by the history of invasions from the west.

The promise of a post-war Ukraine joining NATO adds fire to this historical Russian fear.

The obvious totally irreconcilable differences do not create much optimism for a settlement any time in the future. However, during the next year the situation may change.

We are now a year into Europe’s bloodiest conflict since World War II, Ukraine’s own military industries have been shattered by Russian missile strikes, and its reserves of Soviet-vintage weapons are virtually exhausted. It is maintaining some of its strength thru captured Russian arms and munitions. Ukraine will quickly reach the point, if it has not already, where it can keep fighting only as long as Western assistance continues or ideally grows. Though public support for Ukraine has proven remarkably resilient, there is no guarantee that the mood won’t shift in the future, especially if the predicted global economic downturn has any duration.  Thus, the west has leverage on Ukraine[2]. A return to the current administration’s previous gradualist approach might be the signal to Ukraine that a new tact is needed.  This would be evidenced by a continual delay in the delivery of the promised M-1A1 tanks and continued denial of the desired F-16 fighters.

To reach such a return to the gradualism of survival versus battlefield victories the pro-war retired generals will need to have concluded that the war is no longer winnable. Retired LTG Ben Hodges, a former commander of the U.S. Army in Europe, has been quoted as saying: “It has taken the Pentagon a long time to come to the realization that Ukraine can win, and will win, especially if we give them what they need. There has been all too much defeatist hand-wringing.” General Hodge’s perspective is shared by numerous active and retired general officers.  They represent a significant domestic lobby for increased materialistic support for Ukraine.  Conversely, there is a growing number of pundits and politicians who argue that the almost $200 billion dollars given to Ukraine could go a long way to alleviating many domestic problems.

China’s recent stand of sliding towards Russia while not wanting to anger its European markets is an interesting political dance.  Thus far China has not provided lethal aid to Russia but recent pronouncements by Secretary of State Blinken suggests that it is strongly considering such an action. Thus far it hasn’t. Aside from statements from China’s leader Xi Jinping that nuclear war must be avoided—the sort of truism few would argue with—China has offered no criticism of Russia’s actions.  China and Russia have scheduled a Spring summit.  One can fear what might result from that.  Interestingly, Zalenski has said that he would like to meet with Xi Jinping.

In its attempt to assuage the western Europeans, while not angering Putin, the Chinese recently released a paper, which appealed to the European desire to return to cheap Russian energy, The12-point document on Ukraine called for a cease-fire and peace talks. It included demands, such as not strengthening military blocs or using unilateral sanctions, that clearly catered to both Russia’s and China’s interests.

Another view is that China’s leadership is concerned that a prolonged conflict could leave its strategic partner severely crippled. The increased sanctions that the west is imposing on Russia could both adversely affect China’s sales to Russia but could also be applied to China itself.  China fully realizes that currently the US is dependent upon Chinese goods. But that even this administration might eventually see the folly in that position.

Given all of the swiftly changing geo-political currents and military realities around the conflict in Ukraine how does it end?

Militarily, excluding the use of nuclear weapons, there are really only three options:

  1. Ukraine wins by expelling the Russians from all Ukrainian territory either including or excluding Crimea
  2. A decisive Russian victory, resulting in Ukraine becoming an integral part of the Russian Federation
  3. An extension of the current standoff with both sides relatively exhausted and a subsequent ceasefire and other mutual accommodations.

In the first scenario, following a much faster supply/resupply of Ukrainian forces there would be a series of crucial battles this year in which Ukraine’s military forces impose a succession of decisive defeats on the Russians, forcing them to retreat back over the pre-2014 Ukrainian border into Russian territory. Such victories would be more decisive if Russian troop defections increased. Will Russia give up its possession of Crimea at any cost?  Probably not! However, it might be a practical proposition to envisage Ukraine evicting Russian troops from Donetsk, Lugansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson.

The second scenario involves a decisive military defeat of the Ukrainian Armed Forces by Russia. Such a defeat would most likely include the bombing of Kyiv. That would result in the complete crushing of the Ukrainian language, people, religion and culture. A victorious Russia might then be encouraged to chance its luck elsewhere and threaten the Baltic countries, Poland and other states on its periphery—such as Moldova and Kazakhstan—with forced incorporation into the Russian motherland. The aim of the Russian leadership since the end of the cold war has been to reestablish a cordon sanitaire of buffer, which effectively created defense in depth for Russia and put 1,000 kilometers between it and the nearest NATO borders. The challenge for Washington would be to demonstrate that any such Russian attack on Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland or any other NATO country would automatically provoke prompt US global strikes on Russia, including Moscow. That could well take us all to a larger World War III.  Failure to defend Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and the rest of NATO would be the death of NATO.

The final scenario involves eventual negotiations between the two sides resulting in a durable truce and international safeguards against any repetition of military attacks across agreed international borders. Coupled with some from of cease fire and the creation of a demilitarized zone along the extent of the border to include most of Crimea would be the requirement for some sort of international agreement imposed to prevent Moscow from rebuilding its military forces and having another go at it.  Ukraine would have to renounce its goal of joining NATO, while NATO would most likely need to provide some territorial guarantees to the new boundaries.

The reality is that a negotiated outcome is unlikely in the immediate future. It is more likely that the intensive war will continue with no resolution in sight. The outcome of this prolonged war of attrition or protracted military stalemate would depend on which side has the most durable military industrial base (in the case of Russia) or guaranteed external military resupplies (in the case of Ukraine).  It is at this point that the roles of China and Iran must be considered.

A prolonged stalemate that would include increasing human and resource costs could eventually result in some form of negotiated agreement.  However, since Ukraine is unwilling to cease to exist the key is an eventual realization by Russia that the gains are not worth the costs.  Russia must come to realize that it will emerge from this stalemate as a reduced national power—a second class power like the individual NATO countries—with nuclear weapons.  In short, it must decide to pack its bags and wait for another day.

After all of the above is said and considered the conflict termination is dependent on Russia realizing (sooner rather than later being ideal) that there is no possible positive outcome from the conflict. This would substantiate the Clausewitizian dictum that, “once the expenditure of effort exceeds the value of the political object, the object must be renounced, and peace must follow.”  The political ramifications of this result in Russia and Europe are a subject for another analysis.

It is unfortunate that the only foreseeable termination of the conflict will entail such enormous loss of life and resources.  It will also usher in a changed world order.[3]

[1] The subject of Russian use of nuclear weapons is deferred to a subsequent article while noting that such use would change the whole nature of the conflict.  The threat must presently be seen only as an attempt by Russia to find more leverage.

[2] UK, French, and German officials are reportedly preparing a NATO-Ukraine pact that falls far short of the protections Ukraine would receive from NATO membership and appears to reflect a desire to press Ukraine to accept a negotiated settlement on unfavorable terms. The Wall Street Journal reported that the pact will provide advanced military equipment, arms, and ammunition to Ukraine, but not Article V protection or a commitment to station NATO forces in Ukraine—falling short of Ukraine’s aspirations for full NATO membership. The pact aims to provision Ukraine so that Ukrainian forces can conduct a counteroffensive that brings Russia to the negotiating table and deter any future Russian aggression. The officials reportedly expressed reservations about the West’s ability to sustain a prolonged war effort, the high casualty count that Ukraine would sustain in such a prolonged war, and Ukrainian forces’ ability to completely recapture long-occupied territories like Crimea.

[3] The exact composition of this new world order is a subject for future analysis.  However, if China remains above the fray, it will most likely emerge as the dominate global power.  It would not have expended resources in the battle while Russia, Europe and the US will have.


  1. Mike Reavey, Col, USAF, ret says:

    Bruce, Some thoughts
    – Scenario 2 does not need to include any attacks on Moscow. That is a giant(and bad) leap from helping defend NATO members under Art 5. I would not make that assertion as it is not necessary and the result would almost assuredly mean WW III.
    – F16s and M1s are at least a year away from being a reality on the battlefield(if we start the process tomorrow) due to training, planning, logistics issues, etc. and are not what they need. Leopards and state of the art air defense systems to maintain air superiority should be the goal.
    – I hear the numbers of $200B thrown around like it is a cash gift to Ukraine and think that is misleading. While I support an audit is it not correct that most of the $200B is really “war making stuff” not dollar bills? This, if correct, is a great boon to our Military/Industrial base


  2. George Webb, COL USA (Ret) says:

    Bruce — Excellent.
    A question is when does one side “confess itself beaten.” That’s yet to come, and given the illusive definition of “beaten,” it creates greater fog. We’re a ways away from a culminating point (if indeed that term can be applied to this war).

    I refer you to a recent post by Victor Davis Hanson at
    https://victorhanson.com/refighting-the-vietnam-war/ It’s compelling, albeit a good deal of it being a review of two books by the cited author, Mark Moyar. I was quite taken aback by that author’s assertion, presented by VDH, that the North Vietnamese were truly on the ropes in 1968, but political considerations at home in the US by LBJ and others ended up with our “confessing ourselves beaten” when we were not. We’ve always known that, but I didn’t fully appreciate the political pull in LBJ’s White House.

    VDH Writes: “What undermined the Johnson Administration’s war effort ultimately was its rank politicization of the conflict. LBJ became terrified that the left-wing anti-war movement would force him out of office in 1968 in favor of an anti-war candidate unless he capitulated and ordered a bombing cessation, froze troop increases or pulled soldiers out of Vietnam, and perhaps agreed to the unhinged calls for a “coalition” government in the South.”

    As you and von Clausewitz say, war is politics by other means.

    Khe Sahn is also cited in VDH’s article.



  3. Sarah Smith says:

    This is so interesting – I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard that before. What do you think the President said in Munich?


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