The Russian invasion of Ukraine has entered its second week, with Russian forces continuing to advance into Ukrainian cities, sending residents fleeing from their homes or sheltering underground, and few signs of a ceasefire on the horizon.
As the fighting continues, it’s still unclear how the war will evolve and eventually conclude. Experts pointed to a number of possibilities that range from a long-term Ukrainian insurgency, Russia conquering only part of Ukraine in an agreement with the West, Russian President Vladimir Putin being replaced, or the possibility for escalation with members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
How long the war will continue depends on whether Russia decides to pull back or if it continues to push into Ukraine and escalates the use of force, said Christopher Miller, an assistant professor of international history and co-director of the Russia and Eurasia program at Tufts University’s Fletcher School.
If Russia intensifies its military operation into Kyiv and Kharkiv and defeats the Ukrainian military, it then has to face the question of how it will control Ukraine, Miller said. Thousands of Ukrainian civilians have volunteered to defend the country against Russia, and the military has distributed weapons to those who want to fight.
“There’s really no plan whatsoever as far as I can tell on the Russian side as to how you actually control the country even if you defeat the military,” Miller said. “I think in the worst case scenario this conflict could last years if you combine the conventional part of the conflict with the insurgency that is likely to follow.”
But Russian President Vladimir Putin is unlikely to back down in the next couple of weeks, Miller said, and what happens beyond that is unclear. If Putin were to retreat, it would involve either changing his mind about the goals of neutralization, demilitarization, and regime change — or someone replacing him in power, Miller said.
“It seems like we’re in very early stages of the war for him to be willing to roll back any one of those goals,” Miller said. “I suspect he’s willing to fight a bit longer.”
Putin told French President Emmanuel Macron in a 90-minute phone conversation on Thursday that the conflict will continue “until the end” unless negotiations meet his terms, The Associated Press reported. Putin said negotiations must center on the “neutralization and disarmament of Ukraine,” a goal that Putin would achieve militarily if not by diplomatic and political means, a French official said, according to the AP. The French official also told reporters that France’s assessment is that “the Russian ambitions are to take control of all of Ukraine.”
Mitchell Orenstein, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and a professor and chair of Russian and East European studies at the University of Pennsylvania, outlined four ways the war could come to end.
One possibility is that Russia will be able to take Ukraine but will be met with an insurgency operation that Putin won’t be able to quell, resulting in a long-term instability.
Another possibility is that Putin is aiming for a resolution that might be acceptable to the West, such as taking the Ukrainian territory that he wants and leaving the rest to a Ukrainian state in a kind of reconstruction of a Cold War-era divide, Orenstein said.
“I think that’s a reasonable possibility in the sense that he obviously risked isolation by launching this thing in the first place, so it says to me that maybe he’s comfortable with that. He’s taken a number of steps that that indicate that he’s probably OK with Russia kind of going it alone,” Orenstein said.
A third path is that Putin doesn’t last as Russia’s leader, Orenstein said. Russia’s military appears to be weaker than initially thought, oligarchs are speaking out in opposition to the war, thousands of Russian people are taking to the streets to protest, and claims surfaced that Russia may declare martial law, though Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov dismissed them as false. Putin no longer being in power opens up the possibility that he is replaced by a leader who has a different set of goals and isn’t as extreme in their rejection of the West, Orenstein said.
The final possibility is for a “World War III” kind of scenario, Orenstein said, that could take place if Russia continues bombing Ukraine, killing hundreds of thousands of people, and potentially forcing the West to engage in the conflict and sparking a war between Russia and NATO powers.
Igor Lukes, a professor of history and international relations at Boston University, said the political component will be hugely important to the resolution of the conflict, including what becomes of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Lukes said the Russians — and the world — underestimated Zelensky, a former comedian who has become a defiant symbol of resistance to Russia’s invasion.
The most likely path toward a ceasefire, Lukes said, is that Russia moves slowly across Ukraine, as part of an intentional strategy that the West will mistake for weakness, before eventually installing a puppet leader who will represent Moscow’s interests to replace Zelensky.
“When this future point is reached, the civilians will have suffered so long that they would be willing to accept a compromise of this kind, however illegitimate it is, because they can no longer sustain their existence underground,” Lukes said.
At this point in the conflict there is a sense of unity and optimism among the Ukrainians, Lukes said, coupled with the fact that Ukraine’s western allies have “performed brilliantly,” in Ukraine’s defense, issuing sanctions on Russia’s economy and oligarchs and delivering emotional speeches in support of the country.
“All of this gives the Ukrainians a sense that there is optimism, perhaps it’s not all lost. But I think ultimately it will be lost,” Lukes said.
Drawing parallels to his experience as an 18-year-old watching as Russia invaded Czechoslovakia in August 1968, Lukes noted it took months before they were able to install a pro-Soviet government in Prague in 1969. While there were still pockets of rebellion for years after, Russians were patient in their quest to establish total control.
“I anticipate that this will happen in Ukraine,” Lukes said.
There will be resistance from Ukrainian people if a puppet regime is installed in Ukraine, Lukes added, “but I think ultimately, force prevails.”
“In the long term, tyrannies fall,” Lukes said, emphasizing the words “long term.” “But it takes a long time, and human lives are ruined, generations are discouraged, and people’s lives are stolen, essentially, by tyrants.”