Scenario 1: Ukraine is slowly strangled

Russia consolidates its land bridge to the Kremlin-controlled Crimean Peninsula and, without securing complete control of the rest of Ukraine’s Black Sea coast, destroys or blocks the port city of Odesa leaving the country effectively landlocked. Putin continues to bomb infrastructure elsewhere across Ukraine and annexes parts of the south and east, further destabilizing the country as a fully functioning state. He declares a “victory” while successfully suppressing dissent at home. 

  • Putin calls for a ceasefire in early 2023 but is not ready for a peace deal; he still hopes for greater land gains in the future (perhaps connecting to Moldova) as well as concessions from NATO (such as the recognition of Crimea as Russian sovereign territory if residents agree in an internationally supervised referendum). Western sanctions against Russia remain in place, and economic conditions there worsen. But the United States and Europe also plunge into recession, which fuels growing political discontent over inflation and shortages of goods.
  • A full-scale global food crisis results in spiraling riots and unrest from Sri Lanka to Egypt (where the knock-on effects of the war are already being felt), while trading patterns drastically deteriorate after major exporting nations such as India, Indonesia, and Malaysia double down on food protectionism. A slow response from the Group of Seven (G7) nations and the International Monetary Fund exacerbates the debt crisis facing developing nations. Instability grows in Africa and Asia, while leftist politicians surge in Latin America.   
  • Further into 2023, NATO allies continue to send more lethal military aid as Ukraine which refused Putin’s proposed ceasefire tries to retake occupied territory. The quality and quantity of this aid tempts Moscow to continue disrupting supply flows into Ukraine, increasing the risk of attacks close to (or even on) NATO territory while widening the conflict between the Alliance and Russia.  
  • By late 2023, Western consensus is fraying. Concerned by economic costs, Ukrainian suffering, refugee burdens, and fears of escalation (including the risk of a nuclear attack by Russia), Germany and France lead a multinational effort to press Kyiv to exploring a peace arrangement with Moscow.

Scenario 2: Russia makes no gains

Thanks to increasingly competent Ukrainian tactics a continuation of those displayed during Kyiv’s defense of the capital, plus a successful counteroffensive in the eastern Donbas region Russia is pushed back to pre-February 24 areas of control (retaining Crimea and the separatist-occupied parts of Donetsk and Luhansk) by early 2023. But further gains by Ukraine prove difficult because of entrenched Russian and separatist defenses. Despite Western shipments of more advanced arms, Ukrainian forces make minimal progress. 

  • Facing growing discontent at home over a collapsing economy and an exhausted military angry over repeated operational failures, Putin is under heavy pressure to strike a deal with Ukraine before his hand worsens even more. 
  • Starting in early 2023, Turkey, Qatar, and India which since 2020 have sought to cast themselves as global peacemakers press for a ceasefire as the global economic crisis stokes a sense of urgency. But emboldened by its success on the battlefield, Ukraine is resistant while Putin still hopes for a military comeback.  
  • Meanwhile, some European leaders also start quietly pushing for a formal diplomatic framework: French President Emmanuel Macron teams up with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, to call for talks in Geneva among Ukraine and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (which includes Russia), plus Germany (modeled on the 2+4 talks on German reunification) to find a solution. Xi and Macron privately try to persuade Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, respectively  dangling the promise of Russian reparations as part of a settlement. Beijing does not want to appear to be undercutting Putin’s plans, but China’s sputtering economy leaves Xi little choice.  
  • Emboldened by a landslide Republican victory in the November 2022 midterm elections in the United States, a growing number of GOP legislators press for ending US military aid to Ukraine and refocusing Washington’s attention on Beijing as a leading security threat.

Scenario 3: Ukraine wins back nearly everything

As a result of significantly increased Western arms shipments to Ukraine, a collapse in Russian morale at both the tactical and strategic levels, and Moscow’s inability to replace military hardware at the levels needed (thanks to Western sanctions), Russia is pushed completely out of Ukraine except for Crimea, but Kyiv is gearing up to retake the peninsula (which Putin would effectively view as an invasion of Russian territory).

  • There is a growing risk of Russian nuclear retaliation to halt Western military aid, heightened by Russia’s loss of previously separatist-occupied eastern Ukraine. As Ukraine mounts a planned offensive to recover the Black Sea peninsula, Putin deploys Iskander-M (SS-26) nuclear-tipped missiles there and threatens to use them if Kyiv’s forces advance. Suddenly, World War III becomes a distinct possibility if urgent mediation efforts by France and China to avoid further escalation end in failure.
  • But by mid-2023 nearly an entire year before he’d hoped to engineer another reelection Putin’s hold on power at home is threatened by spiraling public anger. Humiliated top military and intelligence officials force Putin to resign immediately but allow him to keep a nest egg and shield him from international prosecution for war crimes. 
  • The United States and European Union differ over the question of lifting some sanctions against Russia: Fearing the prospect of a giant North Korea next door (in the form of a deeply isolated Russia), Europe seeks a bargain by relieving sanctions on oil, gas, and other commodities under a quid-pro-quo agreement that portions of the Russian sales be sent as reparations to a Ukraine reconstruction fund led by the World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.
  • Global economic growth falters, reaching a meager 1 percent in 2023 amid increased beggar-thy-neighbor, 1930s-style protectionism, burgeoning nationalism that erodes global institutions, and popular discontent spreading from the United States and Europe to a seething developing world.  

What happens next on the battlefield will determine whether the current largely frozen conflict will eventually advantage Russia or Ukraine. Various military outcomes are still plausible. With so many variables in play, it is difficult to attach probabilities to potential scenarios. 

But in all cases, the economic damage will be profound not just for Ukraine, but also for the rest of the world. Instead of waiting for an outcome to the war, policymakers must urgently explore solutions to the global food crisis, the growing potential for debt crises in the developing world, and the threat of recession in the West. Meanwhile, the risk of Russia using nuclear weapons in the course of the conflict is not zero. Employing diplomatic means to avoid such an escalation is vital if the conflict is to remain contained and not envelop the entire world


If Russia prevails, we will remain stuck in a crisis not just over Ukraine but about the future of the global order far beyond that country’s borders. Left unrestrained, Putin will move swiftly, grab some land, consolidate his gains, and set his sights on the next satellite state in his long game to restore all the pre-1991 borders: the sphere of geographical influence he deems was unjustly stripped from Great Russia. 

Any subsequent acceptance of Russian gains will spell the beginning of the end of the international order. If Europe, NATO, and its allies in Asia and elsewhere fail to defend the foundational United Nations principles of sanctity of borders and state sovereignty, no one will. Any appeasement will only beget future land grabs not only from Putin, but also from China in Taiwan and elsewhere. And if the world’s democracies lack the political will to stop them, the rules-based international order will collapse. The United Nations will go the way of the League of Nations. We will revert to spheres of global influence, unbridled military and economic competition, and ultimately, world war. 

Nuclear Russia is a revisionist, revanchist power acting already as if there is no international order or United Nations, ignoring the Geneva Conventions, UN Charter, Helsinki Accords or any of the host of regional agreements Moscow has signed. 

Mustering American and European forces in response to Russia’s military and political aggression must be described for what it is: a fight to preserve the international order and the United Nations established to protect it, including NATO. The Western alliance was established under the umbrella of the UN Charter, which recognizes a role for regional security organizations to help keep the peace. But lately those organizations and their member states have proven unable to stop Russian expansion. 

The only way to reassert the primacy of international law and sanctity of international borders, and contain Russia, may be to issue our own ultimatum. We must not only condemn Russia’s illegal occupations of Ukraine and Georgia, but we must demand a withdrawal from both countries by a certain date and organize coalition forces willing to take action to enforce it. 

The horrible possibility exists that Americans, and European allies, must use their  military to roll back Russians even at risk of direct combat. But if we don’t now, Putin will force us to fight another day, likely to defend Baltic or other Eastern European allies. 

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