Come this February, it will be two years since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. History teaches us that, while no conflict can last forever, some can still drag on far longer than others. At the conclusion of any war, amidst so much suffering, the supposedly noble ends it was fought over may come to seem dubious. History also teaches that war has been the standard practice of nations since time immemorial; trying to take measure and advantage of enemies and striking at the opportune moment. The injustice of war has so thoroughly permeated the justice of war, that in the aftermath one is left with a confusing sense of which is greater: the cause for which one fought, or the tragic bloodshed and tears spilled in that pursuit. Imagining a just end to the Ukraine war becomes an obligation not only for those claiming to be Christian, but to any person with the slightest feeling of humanity. How then, will the Ukraine war end, and what will be gained or lost by it? Four scenarios to be explored come to mind.
No. 1, The Capitulation of Ukraine: No doubt, Vladimir Putin bit off a bit more than he expected to chew by attacking Ukraine. Putin’s generals likely predicted a speedy resolution, just as Yeltsin’s generals predicted a swift victory in what would become known as the First Chechen War from 1994-96. Yet the original Chechen campaign was not successful, and the Second Chechen War was more horrible still. Given his experience with costly wars, Putin must be wondering how he can sustain his current invasion. Mostly likely he is gambling on Biden losing power after the election and our new President and Congress choosing to capitulate in our responsibility to Ukraine. If NATO and the West fail to back Ukraine, this loss of support will translate into a loss of potency and resolve. Russia will then encroach further into Ukrainian territory. A victory for Putin would embolden other nations to follow suit, taking what they desire according to the ancient Loi du plus fort. If we really want international law to govern, however, this would be tragic defeat for democracy and justice.
It is no cosmic mystery what Putin wants. Annexing parts of Ukraine, as much as he can, secures more total access to the warm waters of the Black Sea. Everywhere else Russia is blocked off by icy oceans, often subject to Western or NATO influence. Seaside access is still a vital power in a world of trade and war, and by briefly studying a map of Russia you can see why this southern region has geostrategic interest. Yet, if Putin captures his desired territory, it will be clear “W” for authoritarianism, and an “L” for the proponents of international justice. In sports that matters little, but in the world in which we live it means everything.
No. 2, Quagmire and Status Quo: Another possible resolution for the Ukraine conflict is a protracted war, much as like World War I, with no real territorial gain. In this case, the war will grind to a halt somewhere near the current fighting lines, give or take some territory here or there. The Yugoslavian War was such a case, where a nation was destroyed, and a new political reality was established. In this case, a rump Ukraine would be maimed and injured, its soldiers discouraged and humiliated that they fought a conflict without a satisfying resolution. Yet it would at least be an end to the war, and a possible chance to pursue a new peace and world order. Zelensky and Ukraine will not settle for this end, of course. Nonetheless, if the war grinds on too long, and Western or other aid is insufficient, Ukraine may be forced to this negotiating table with no prospect of a better end.
No. 3, 2022 Boundaries Restored: The most just end to this war would roll back the borders to the point prior to where Putin’s 2022 aggression began. It would reset the borders to that time and stop the shooting. This is the best scenario in the eyes of morally realist observers, but Putin’s will is set against it, and Zelensky’s ambitions run a bit further. Unless Ukraine scores dramatic battlefield victories, which usually compel warring parties to negotiate for peace, they may find this outcome difficult, and the prior one more likely. Clearly, however, Ukraine demands more.
No. 4, Rolling back Russia Completely: Zelensky has pledged that Ukraine will not remain idle. Indeed, he hopes that Russia’s armed forces will be rolled back completely and that even Crimea, lost in 2014, will be retaken. From the standpoint of international justice and Western interests, this may seem like the best-case scenario, but it is also the one which entails the greatest possible hazard. It risks a brinksmanship that pushes a nuclear power to the limits of its own patience. So far, Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling has proven to be just bluster. But if Putin feels himself threatened or another man of even less moral resolve comes to power, who knows what ugly end might come? Rolling Russia back may well be a just and rewarding endeavor, but dare we back the nuclear-fanged cat too far into the corner? As much as a just, democratic, and Christian mind supports Zelensky in this maximalist approach, a realist must anticipate the unpredictable hazards of an extended war.
Most will agree that the first of these options – capitulation – is the worst. The second one is not as satisfactory as the third, but the fourth maximalist approach that Zelensky has espoused also entails much risk. Something between the second and third option seems the most probable, with the third clearly being more just. Pensively sitting in his chair, this writer is blessed with peace and security. For the sake of those fighting on the front lines in Ukraine, however, we need to start imagining the most satisfactory yet realistic conclusion to the war. Without a decisive Ukrainian victory on the battlefield, which might force a change in Putin’s resolve, bringing that just diplomatic resolution is still very difficult. That Russia withdraws to the pre-February 2022 borders is a just expectation, and beyond that there will be wrangling over the status of Crimea. That wars have long been the standard of international business does not mean they should be. Wars kill, disrupt, and render homeless countless civilians. They turn children into orphans and wives into widows. The proper use of diplomacy has always been a time-honored way to end wars. The question is the price tag for peace, which in blood has already claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. Who will find the right words and ideas, so that sabers can again be sheathed?