Putin, his rat and six ways the war in Ukraine could end

Russian President Vladimir Putin during a press conference. (PHOTO: Sputnik/Sergey Guneev/Pool via REUTERS) (Sputnik Photo Agency/)

No one knows how Russia‘s war of aggression against Ukraine will end, but most scenarios go from bad to worse. To understand them, one must begin by considering what is undoubtedly the most notorious rat in the world.

Russian President Vladimir Putin claims that once, as a child in what was then Leningrad, he chased a rat down a hallway. corneredthe rat turned on him and attacked him.

Why has Putin made sure that this anecdote keeps being picked up by Russia watchers around the world? Conventional wisdom is that it’s another one of his veiled threats. “I’m that rat, except I have nuclear claws, he hints. So don’t corner me”, seems to be his threat.

This point of view, let’s call it the rat’s eye view, must take into account all possible scenarios. If the analysis was about what is good for Russia, the invasion would never have started and could end at any time with a negotiated settlement. After all, the attack has only harmed national interests, isolating the country internationally and impoverishing a larger part of its population. But Russia is not the relevant actor. The metaphorical rat in the Kremlin is him.

People walk past the remains of a missile at a bus terminal, as Russia's invasion of Ukraine continues, in Kiev, Ukraine, March 4, 2022. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko
People walk past the remains of a missile at a bus terminal, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues, in Kiev, Ukraine, March 4, 2022. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko (VALENTYN OGIRENKO/)

To all appearances, Putin is today isolated and in his own mental world. Unlike his Soviet predecessors, he has no political bureau around him or other credible checks and balances; he decides alone. And like other current and former tyrants (Saddam Hussein comes to mind), he has reason to worry that his own political failure is likely to end in a tedious but peaceful retirement rather than something more violent and abrupt.

Seen from the rat’s perspective, therefore, there are many dead-end corridors around. With that in mind, the scenarios look like this.

ukrainians win

A heroic Ukrainian defense that actually repels Russian forces remains militarily unlikely, but of course it is the preferred result for most of the world. A traumatized but triumphant Ukraine would link up with a newly coherent European Union and resolutely hasten its integration into the democratic West. NATO would have a new sense of purpose. China, with its eye on Taiwan, would think twice before getting into more trouble.

But Putin would be in that metaphorical corner. He has been posing everywhere as the defender of Russia against a supposedly aggressive West and redeemer of ethnic Russians and the Slavic brothers. A Ukrainian victory would make all that propaganda untenable. He could not survive the defeat politically and he knew it.and. Therefore, you will not allow this scenario to happen. Instead of retreating, he will follow one of three other paths.

Russian invasion of Irpin
On March 4, 2022, the UN Human Rights Council voted overwhelmingly in favor of creating a high-level investigation into the violations committed after the takeover of Russia. invasion of Ukraine. More than 1.2 million people have fled Ukraine to neighboring countries since Russia launched its full-scale invasion on February 24, United Nations figures showed on March 4, 2022. (Photo by ARIS MESSINIS / AFP) (ARIS MESSINIS /)

A Russian Reign of Terror

It could scale the attack dramatically, but still only with conventional weapons. Basically that means bomb Ukraine into submission. The loss of civilian and military life would be horrendous, but Putin wouldn’t mind. It would incorporate a seething and resentful Ukraine, either as a nominally independent puppet state or as a subdivision of Great Russia, and perhaps add Belarus for good measure.

To suppress dissent at home and in Ukraine, Putin would have to complete his transformation of Russia into a police state, removing and persecuting the last remnants of free speech.. His empire would become a permanent pariah in the international community. The world would have a new Iron Curtain.

Another Afghanistan

Or it could scale less dramatically, sending enough Russian military might to Ukraine to avoid total defeat. The country could then become what Afghanistan was to Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev after 1979, or to the United States and its allies after 2001: a quagmire.

Russian invasion of Irpin
A wounded soldier rests in a military hospital in the city of Irpin, west of Kiev, on March 4, 2022. (Photo ARIS MESSINIS / AFP) (ARIS MESSINIS /)

The cost in human terms would continue to be staggering, especially for Ukrainians, but also for Russian soldiers and ordinary Russians who suffer worse sanctions repression and hardship. Putin wouldn’t mind that, as long as he thinks his place in the Kremlin remains secure. But from the rat’s point of view, a quagmire is a lot like being stuck in the corner of that hallway indefinitely.

Escalate to de-escalate

If he really is like the rat that attacked himOr, Putin will consider at least one other option, literally nuclear. It’s the one you’ve already hinted at. Claiming that NATO and the EU are cornering him by supporting Ukraine with weapons and other means, he could launch one or more “limited” nuclear strikes with so-called tactical warheads (here meaning low-yield warheads).

I’d bet the West wouldn’t retaliate on Ukraine’s behalf, because that would trigger a nuclear exchange with larger “strategic” weapons., which would end in Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), as it was known during the Cold War. But like the rat, he would take the risk.

Ukraine, like Japan in 1945, would have no choice but to surrender. That’s why military experts call this strategy “escalation to de-escalation.” But the world would never be the same. The names of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would be joined by others on the list of humanity’s doom. And yet, Putin could tell that he came out of the corner of a particular corridor.

joaquin sanchez mariño ukraine kiev metro
A woman and her daughter take refuge from the bombings in the Kiev subway Photo: (Joaquín Sánchez Mariño)

another russian revolution

There are also more optimistic scenarios. Despite Putin’s curtain of propaganda and disinformation, Enough Russians understand the circumstances of their unprovoked invasion and the catastrophic risks. They could rebel. This could take the form of a broad-based movement centered around an opposition leader like Alexey Navalny. Or it could be a coup or putsch from within the elite.

Unfortunately, neither type of insurrection seems likely at the moment. The Russians may have noticed that Belarusians next door have been heroically resisting their dictator since August 2020, unsuccessfully but with plenty of brutal repression to show for it. And any member of what remains of the inner circle of Putin contemplating a coup will recall the fate of the conspirators around Claus von Stauffenberg in 1944.

Nonetheless, a homegrown Russian revolution would be by far the best outcome. The new regime in Moscow could blame the attack on Putin alone, which turns out to be true. Therefore, he could retreat without appearing weak. The international community could welcome Russia with open arms. The world, including Russia, would become a better place.

China intervenes

Chinese President Xi Jinping applauds during the opening of his party's National Congress.  (PHOTO: REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins)
Chinese President Xi Jinping applauds during the opening of his party’s National Congress. (PHOTO: REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins) (CARLOS GARCIA RAWLINS/)

A second best but more plausible scenario involves Beijing. Officially, China, under the presidency of Xi Jinping, is, if not an ally of Russia, then at least its partner in the joint fight against the US-led West. But China sees itself as a rising power and Russia as a falling one. As Xi sees it, Putin is sometimes useful, but also a potential liability.

In particularChina is deeply conflicted with Putin’s attack because it violates another country’s national sovereignty, the principle Xi would invoke if he ever swallowed Taiwan. (which it considers a Chinese province) and demanded that the United States stay out. And China, which has a small but rapidly growing nuclear arsenal, would certainly not condone the use of tactical nuclear weapons and the resulting global chaos.

For now, Xi’s ambivalence has doomed Beijing to untenable doublespeak. At the United Nations this week, 141 countries voted to deplore Putin’s aggression. China could have joined the four scoundrels (Belarus, North Korea, Eritrea and Syria) who voted with Russia against the resolution. Instead, along with 34 other countries, it simply abstained.

If China decided to contain Putin, it would have the clout. It could withdraw the economic and diplomatic lifelines that Moscow needs. At the same time, he could discreetly find secret hatches at the end of the corridors. After all, the best way to deal with a cornered rat is usually to let it get away before it does any more damage.

Andreas Kluth Andreas Kluth is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously editor-in-chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for The Economist. He is the author of “Hannibal and Me”. he is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously editor-in-chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for The Economist. He is the author of “Hannibal and Me”. @andreakluth @andreakluth


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