How wars end

How Russia’s attack on Ukraine ends—by outright victory, ceasefire or stalemate—will determine Europe’s future

March 14, 2022
Lloyd George, Emanuele Orlando, Georges Clemenceau and Wilson at Versailles. Photo: Classic Image / Alamy Stock Photo
Lloyd George, Emanuele Orlando, Georges Clemenceau and Wilson at Versailles. Photo: Classic Image / Alamy Stock Photo

Like all wars, Russia’s barbaric attack on Ukraine will finish at some point. How it ends will determine whether Europe is destined to live with a festering sore of bitterness and division at its heart.

There are broadly three ways in which wars end, and we have seen examples of each in recent memory. First, there is outright victory by one side or the other. Second, there is a negotiated ceasefire leading to a peace settlement of some kind. Third, an inconclusive outcome, with the fighting gradually subsiding leaving a stalemate or frozen conflict.

Outright victory with unconditional surrender by the losing side is rare. The obvious case is the defeat of Germany and Japan in 1945. In both countries, a new generation of political leaders came to power determined to make a complete break with their terrible past, and to concentrate on economic recovery and a foreign policy with a strongly pacifist flavour. The outcome of the Second World War was far from resolving all the world’s problems, as the rapid emergence of east-west confrontation in the Cold War showed. But it laid the foundations for an unprecedented period of strategic stability and growing global prosperity, with Germany and Japan playing a central role.

Military victory has frequently led to a much more ambiguous political outcome. The 1990 Gulf War was a stunning military success in ousting Iraqi forces from their occupation of Kuwait. President Bush’s decision to stop the operation without going all the way to Baghdad was important in maintaining worldwide public support for this first post-Cold War use of force to uphold the principles of the UN Charter. But it left Saddam Hussein still in control of the Iraqi state and in a position to rebuild its apparatus of repression despite far-reaching UN sanctions. The conditions in which the Gulf War ended sowed the seeds of future conflict. 

The same could be said of the end of the First World War—which is an example of my second category: a negotiated ceasefire leading to a peace settlement. When the armistice was declared in 1918, the Allies were in a dominant position. But many in Germany refused to accept that they had been defeated, and rapidly came to resent the terms of the Versailles peace treaty imposed upon them. Hitler exploited that sense of grievance and within 20 years the world was back at war.

In recent decades, there have been many negotiated ceasefires, and some have fared better than Versailles. They were often brokered by the Americans in their role as chief arbiter of the liberal international order. Kissinger was famous for his shuttle diplomacy in pursuit of ceasefires in the Middle East, particularly to end the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. In the case of Bosnia, President Clinton only decided to bring to bear the full might of the US after years of brutal ethnic cleansing and failed peacekeeping efforts by the EU and the UN. In 1995, he dispatched his top diplomatic gunslinger, Richard Holbrooke, to do a Kissinger-style shuttle and wring an agreement out of the parties at the Dayton peace talks. When the Kosovo crisis broke out in 1999, it was a broader coalition of the G8 countries (including Russia) which pushed Serbian President Miloševi into agreeing a settlement. In both Bosnia and Kosovo, the peace has held even if long-term stability has proved elusive.

The third way conflicts end is in a stalemate, with no clear winner and no peace agreement, but a gradual ebbing away of the fighting, leaving a more or less chaotic and unstable situation. Examples include the failed US/UK occupation of Iraq after 2003, and the various frozen conflicts around the periphery of Russia which occasionally flare up, for example the dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh and (between 2014 and a few weeks ago) Russia and Ukraine.

How will Putin’s latest Ukraine war end? None of these analogies will apply precisely. But they give the range of possibilities. Outright victory by one side looks the least likely. After the shambolic Russian military campaign, neither side looks capable of it and both are strong enough to avoid total defeat. Even if Russia managed to topple the Zelensky government and install a puppet regime, subjugating the whole country would require a massive army of occupation, far larger than Moscow can muster.  

That would suggest scope for a ceasefire. The fact that the Russians have so far regularly violated the agreed pauses in the fighting to allow civilians to escape from beleaguered cities does nothing to create confidence that a wider agreement could be possible. Moscow and Kyiv have set out their opening positions. But these are light-years apart. The objective of the Russian military action in the south of Ukraine seems to be to occupy a land corridor linking the break-away Donbas region in the east to the Crimean peninsula and then running all along the Black Sea coast including Odesa, cutting Ukraine off from the sea. If Putin could achieve a pro-Russian administration in this area, could he sell it as a sufficient win, on the grounds that it would enable Russia to maintain a stranglehold on whatever government held power in Kyiv? Perhaps; but having watched Zelensky’s fighting speech to the British parliament last week, I see zero prospect of him conceding such an amputation of Ukraine’s territory. And if Zelensky were replaced, a successor government which made territorial concessions of any kind would be unlikely to last long. 

The most likely outcome is therefore some form of stalemate. There would be a de facto partition, as in Georgia where Russian forces occupy the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But Russia is inflicting far more damage on the rest of Ukraine than was the case in Georgia. The prospect would therefore be not an armed truce, as has existed in Korea since 1953, but a hostile stand-off, with regular upsurges of fighting along a line of separation. The west would need to continue massive economic support and arms supplies to the independent rump of Ukraine and would be back to a full-scale Cold War with Russia.

Is that scenario too dark? Possibly, and events continue to surprise us. Over time, the level of hostility might fall. But it is hard to see a route to a more stable outcome while Putin remains in the Kremlin.