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Whither Ukraine?

The possible outcomes from the start of the war remain the same today.

Humanitarian aid and war scenes continue in Ukraine
Ukrainian servicemen work disassembling a broken tank after it rolled over an anti-tank mine near Novopetrivka, Ukraine, November 17th, 2022. (Photo by Narciso Contreras/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

From the moment Russian troops crossed into Ukraine, there were only two possible outcomes. Ukraine could reach a diplomatic solution that resets its physical eastern border (i.e., Russia annexes much of eastern Ukraine to the Dnieper River, and establishes a land bridge to Crimea), and so firmly reestablishes its geopolitical role as buffer state between NATO and Russia. Or, after battlefield losses and diplomacy, Russia could retreat to its original February starting point, and Ukraine would firmly reestablish its geopolitical role as a buffer state between NATO and Russia.

As of Day 286 on this fifth of December, despite much noise about nuclear war and regime change, those are still the only realistic outcomes. Diplomacy is necessary and diplomacy is sufficient to resolve the crisis in Ukraine. Until all parties realize that, and agree to sit down, the increasingly bloody and efficient meatgrinder will continue. The current status of the war—this 20th-century, WWI-style conquering of territory by creeping land advances with 21st-century weaponry—cannot continue indefinitely. Both sides will run out of young men to kill.


Vladimir Putin's goal in his invasion has never been something quick and has never included Kiev. It has always been to widen the speed bump that is Ukraine between Russia and NATO. This problem for Putin is ever more acute as NATO builds up strength in Poland. While powerless to negotiate for itself at the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia was promised NATO would not expand eastward—a lie—and now Poland is sacrosanct NATO territory, as blessed as Paris, Berlin, and London, untouchable by foreign invasion.

The Russian countermove (and there is always a countermove, these guys play chess, remember) is to deepen the border with Ukraine and make it strategically impossible for NATO to cross in force. The war would be fought with NATO on Ukrainian territory. The idea that the Soviet Union was tricked in 1989-90 is at the heart of Russia’s confrontation with the west in Ukraine and no conclusion to that fight will take place without acknowledgment on the ground. That's why any plan to drive Russia back to pre-February 2022 borders would be a fight to the end and an impossible victory for Ukraine no matter how much U.S. weaponry they are gifted.

So Russia wants the eastern portion of Ukraine (east of the Dnieper River) as buffer ground. It wants Crimea and maybe Odessa as staging grounds to drive northward into NATO's invading flank if things ever come to that. The invasion of Ukraine is survival-level action in Putin's mind (the West doesn’t have to like that or agree, but to understand it), and a settling of an old score from 1989, and it is impossible to imagine him, having taken the inevitable step of starting the invasion, backing off without achieving results. It is not a matter of "face," as portrayed in the Western press, but one of literal life-or-death in the ongoing struggle with NATO. There is no trust, after 1989, in Putin's calculus. Imagine North Korea asking to renegotiate the location of the DMZ at this point.

A quick word about the non-use of nuclear weapons. Putin's plan depends on fighting Ukraine, and thus the U.S. by proxy, not direct conflict with the militarily superior United States and whole of NATO. Despite all the tough talk, Ukraine is not a member of NATO and is unlikely to be a member in the near future, and so the only way to assuredly bring America into the fight on the ground or in the air is a nuclear weapon. That opens the door for anything; until that mushroom cloud, Russia and the U.S. are a married couple having an argument, saying anything but limiting themselves to angry words and the occasional thrown dish. Set off that nuke and it is as though one partner escalated from late nights out with the boys to a full-on affair, and at that point all the rules are thrown away.

Anything can happen, and Putin's plan cannot withstand "anything" in the form of U.S. direct intervention. Hence, no nukes. Putin will fight conventionally.


Sanctions don't matter, they never have. From Day One, U.S.-imposed energy sanctions have played to Russia's favor economically as oil prices rose. Things may come to a head in a month or two as winter sets in in Germany and that natural gas from Russia is missed but that is a domestic German problem the U.S. is likely to simply poo-poo away (once economic powerhouse and U.S. competitor Germany showed its first negative foreign trade imbalance since 1991, a nice bonus for America.)

Things got so loose that “someone” needed to blow up the Nordstrom 2 pipeline to make the point with Germany that it may have to do without Russian energy to maintain the fiction sanctions will bring an end to this war. Sanctions are a Potemkin mirage for the American public, not a restraint on Russia. There is no regime change coming in Moscow as there is no one with the power to pull it off who would want anything to change.

Putin's call for diplomacy will occur only if the costs continue to mount on his side under his form of warfare. Here Putin faces a weakness, his chosen style of warfare. The First World War was still a play on 18th-century warfare, where two sides lined up across a field and shot at each other until one side called it quits. But it saw armies face off across those fields with 20th-century artillery, machine guns, and other tools of killing far more effective than an 18th-century musket. It was unsustainable, literally chewing up men and eventually simply wore out both sides. Fresh troops from the U.S. gave the advantage to the British and French side at the crucial end game of the First World War, but if the U.S. had stayed home in 1917 the war would have been, militarily, a ghastly tie.

Putin knows nothing short of a NATO strike can dislodge him from eastern Ukraine and thus he has no incentive to leave. Putin has from the first shots calibrated his invasion not to give the U.S. a reason to join in. That is why the tit-for-tat on weaponry used is so near comical; Russian fires missiles on Ukrainian cities, Ukraine demands anti-missile weapons from the U.S. America can salvage its self-proclaimed role as defender of the Ukraine simply with these arms fulfillment packages, along with a few special forces and CIA paramilitaries. Where are the Russian strategic bombers? Where is the global war on Ukrainian shipping? Where are the efforts to close Ukraine's western border with Poland? Where is the gargantuan Red Army that NATO has expected to roar into western Europe for 70 years?

The conquest of Ukraine being treated as a small unit exercise tells us much. None of this is any great secret. The off ramp in Ukraine, a diplomatic outcome, is clear enough to Washington. The Biden administration seems content, shamefully, not to call forcefully for diplomatic efforts but instead to bleed out the Russians as if this was Afghanistan 1980 all over again, all the while looking tough and soaking up whatever positive bipartisan electoral feelings are due for pseudo "war time" President Joe Biden. As with Afghanistan in 1980, the U.S. seems ready to fight until the last local falls (supplying them just enough weaponry to avoid losing) before facing the inevitable negotiated ending, a shameful position then and a shameful one now.

A spheres-of-influence world has returned; acknowledge it with diplomacy and stop the killing.