Sascha Hume '23
May 9th, which usually passes without much excitement in the United States, carries immense importance in Russia. It is Victory Day, the holiday which marks the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany in 1945. This year, it has a special meaning: Vladimir Putin, who has a flair for the symbolic, is expected to make an announcement regarding Russia’s war in Ukraine. It is quite likely that Putin will attempt to claim some sort of victory on the holiday, which would be consistent with the Russian narrative of linking the “special military operation” with the Soviet Union’s struggle during World War II. Russia has not been as successful in Ukraine as they had hoped, but the war is still ongoing, and no one can say for sure what will happen next. Thus, it is important to consider many different possibilities for a conclusion to this war. There are an infinite number of possible endings to the war, but most of them can be safely grouped under either “Ukrainian Victory” or “Russian Victory”. These groups can be further subdivided into “Partial” or “Total” victories.
A partial Ukrainian Victory would mostly entail a restoration of the status quo antebellum (or at least, ante 2022). Ukraine would reverse all or almost all of Russia’s gains since February, but would be unable to retake the Eastern Donbass given the heavy trenches and fortifications built up at the borders of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics since 2015. At that point, the conflict might either settle into a stalemate or be settled by a ceasefire. Without much ability to keep pushing, Ukraine would probably be quite amicable to a ceasefire which de facto restored the pre-2022 borders (by requiring Russia to retreat to behind them) but allowed it to continue claiming Crimea and the Eastern Donbass, thus relieving the burden of war without having to admit defeat. Russia would be quite unfriendly to such a ceasefire proposal because it would look like a loss, but the Kremlin propaganda machine could justify it to the Russian public by demanding symbolic concessions from Ukraine as part of an armistice agreement. Above all, Ukraine would preserve its independence, and Russia would be diplomatically, economically, and militarily weakened for years to come.
A total Ukrainian Victory would essentially be the same as the Partial Ukrainian Victory, but, instead of stopping at the pre-2022 battle lines, Ukraine would successfully push Russia out the whole of the Donbass, and maybe even take back Crimea. While it is unlikely, Ukraine definitely could regain these territories with the use of the immense Western equipment shipments they have been receiving. Ukraine would then possess all of its claimed territories and would press to an official end to the war. would have nothing more to gain from Russia besides an end to bomb and missile attacks against them. However, this outcome would be a disaster for Russia, and, without any way to justify it back home, they would be extremely unwilling to end the war. Russia might just retreat with their tail between their legs, but more likely would be the beginning of a general war mobilization, which, while thoroughly embarrassing, damaging to the economy, and bound to incite tensions among the citizenry, would bolster their military power for a second invasion of Ukraine. At that point, it is hard to say who would win.
A partial Russian Victory would probably occur in one of two scenarios: either Russia’s current offensive in the Donbass succeedes and Russia captures the entire Donbass, or the Donbass offensive fails but Russia advances further in the south, into Zaporizhia, Mykolaiv, and Odessa oblasts. In either of these cases, Russia would have captured enough territory to fulfill their secondary war aim of seizing the area (their first war aim being the failed toppling of the Ukrainian government). Russia might then announce the formation of Novorossiya (“New Russia”), which was a plan for a confederation of southern and eastern Ukraine. The Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics had announced the confederation in 2014, anticipating that, amidst the ongoing pro-Russian separatist protests across southern and eastern Ukraine, the territories would be ripe for the taking. The project was put on hold in 2015, as the Donbass War dragged on into a stalemate, but Putin could revive it to claim that Russia had gotten what they wanted and was ready to consider peace. Russia could also claim to have successfully “denazified” Ukraine through the destruction of most of the Ukrainian far-right Azov Regiment in Mariupol. This outcome is not the worst of all worlds, but it is certainly subpar. Millions of Ukrainians would be subject to Russian occupation, and the Russian government would score a victory over the West. At least Ukraine would live to fight another day.
A total Russian Victory is probably the least likely out of all four scenarios because Russia already tried and failed to make it happen. In order to turn the war completely around, Russia would have to conduct a very successful advance in the Donbass and continue pushing forward in the south. If the Russian army does both of these while encircling and destroying significant Ukrainian troop formations, they could move against Kyiv again and forcefully remove the elected Ukrainian government. Obviously, this outcome would be a great triumph for Russia, and a great defeat for the West. Russia would be able to move on to other targets like Georgia. Western countries might begin to remove sanctions against Moscow, with a general pessimistic fatalism replacing the optimism and hope inspired by Ukraine’s defiance. China would feel more comfortable associating itself with Russia, and the two nations would focus on building a global alliance together.
All in all, we just have to wait and see what happens. Hopefully Ukraine blows up the Crimean bridge like they are promising they will.