Nobody knows how Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine will end, but most scenarios range from bad to worse. To grasp them, start by considering what is indubitably the world’s most notorious rat.
That’s the one Russian President Vladimir Putin claims he once – as a boy in what was then Leningrad – chased down a hallway. Cornered, the rat turned and attacked him.
Why has Putin made sure that this anecdote keeps getting recycled among Russia watchers the world over? The conventional wisdom is that it’s yet another of his veiled threats. I’m that rat, except that I have nuclear claws, he implies. So don’t corner me.
This vantage point – let’s call it the rat’s-eye view – must factor in all possible scenarios. If the analysis were about what’s good for Russia, the invasion would never have started at all, and could be ended at any time with a negotiated settlement. After all, the attack has only hurt national interests, by isolating the country internationally and impoverishing more of its population. But Russia isn’t the relevant actor. The metaphorical rat in the Kremlin is.
By all appearances, Putin is nowadays isolated and in his own mental world. Unlike his Soviet predecessors, he has no politburo around him or other credible checks and balances; he decides alone. And like other current and former tyrants – Saddam Hussein springs to mind – he has reason to worry that his own political failure is less likely to end in a tedious but placid retirement than in something rather more violent and abrupt.
Viewed from the rat’s perspective, therefore, there are lots of dead-end hallways around. With that in mind, the scenarios look as follows.
The Ukrainians win
A heroic Ukrainian defense that actually repels Russian forces remains militarily unlikely, but is of course the preferred outcome for most of the world. A traumatized but triumphant Ukraine would link up with a newly coherent and determined European Union and accelerate its integration into the democratic West. NATO would have a new sense of purpose. China, with its eye on Taiwan, would think twice about causing its own trouble.
But Putin would be in that metaphorical corner. He’s been posing as Russia’s defender against an allegedly aggressive West and redeemer of ethnic Russians and brother Slavs everywhere. A Ukrainian victory would make all that propaganda untenable. He could not survive the defeat politically and knows it. Therefore he won’t allow this scenario to happen. Instead of withdrawing, he’ll follow one of three other paths.
A Russian Reign of Terror
He could escalate the attack dramatically – but still with only conventional weapons. Basically, that means bombing Ukraine into submission. The loss of civilian and military lives would be horrendous, but Putin wouldn’t care. He would incorporate a seething and resentful Ukraine – either as a nominally independent puppet state or a subdivision of Greater Russia – and maybe add Belarus for good measure.
To repress dissent at home and in Ukraine, Putin would have to complete his transformation of Russia into a police state, eliminating 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.
Or he could escalate less dramatically, sending just enough Russian military might into Ukraine to avoid outright defeat. The country could then become what Afghanistan was to Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev after 1979, or to the U.S. and its allies after 2001: a quagmire.
The cost in human terms would still be shocking – above all to Ukrainians, but also to Russian soldiers and ordinary Russians suffering worse repression and hardship from sanctions. Putin wouldn’t mind that, provided he thinks his place in the Kremlin stays secure. But from the rat’s-eye view, a quagmire looks a lot like getting stuck in that hallway corner indefinitely.
Escalate to de-escalate
If he is truly like the rat that attacked him, Putin will therefore at least consider another – literally nuclear – option. It’s the one he’s already hinted at. Claiming that NATO and the EU are cornering him by supporting Ukraine with weapons and other wherewithal, he could launch one or more “limited” nuclear strikes with so-called tactical (here meaning low-yield) warheads.
He’d wager that the West would not retaliate on behalf of Ukraine, because that would trigger a nuclear exchange with bigger “strategic” weapons, ending in Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), as it was known during the Cold War. But like the rat, he’d take the risk.
Ukraine, like Japan in 1945, would have no choice but to surrender. That’s why military wonks call this strategy “escalate to de-escalate.” But the world would never be the same. The names Hiroshima and Nagasaki would be joined by others on humanity’s list of doom. And yet Putin could say that he got himself out of one particular hallway’s corner.
Another Russian Revolution
There are also more optimistic scenarios. Despite Putin’s curtain of propaganda and disinformation, enough Russians understand the circumstances of his unprovoked invasion, and the cataclysmic risks. They could revolt. 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.
Neither kind of insurrection looks likely for now, unfortunately. Russians may have noticed that the Belarusians next door have been heroically resisting their dictator since August 2020, with no success but lots of brutal repression to show for it. And any member of what remains of Putin’s inner circle who contemplates a putsch will remember 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 happens to be true. It could therefore withdraw without looking weak. The international community could welcome Russia back with open arms. The world, including Russia, would become a better place.
A second-best but more plausible scenario involves Beijing. Officially, China under President Xi Jinping is, if not Russia’s ally, at least its partner in jointly staring down the American-led West. But China considers itself a rising power and Russia a falling one. As Xi sees it, Putin is sometimes useful but also a potential liability.
In particular, China is deeply conflicted about Putin’s attack because it violates another country’s national sovereignty, the principle Xi would invoke if he ever swallowed Taiwan (which he considers a Chinese province) and demanded that the U.S. stay out. And China, which has a small but fast-growing nuclear arsenal, certainly wouldn’t countenance the use of tactical nukes and the resulting global chaos.
For now, Xi’s ambivalence has condemned Beijing to an unsustainable doublespeak. At the United Nations this week, 141 countries voted to deplore Putin’s aggression. China could have joined the four rogues (Belarus, North Korea, Eritrea and Syria) who voted with Russia against the resolution. Instead, along with 34 other countries, it merely abstained.
If China decided to restrain Putin, it would have the clout. It could withdraw the economic and diplomatic lifelines Moscow needs. At the same time it could discreetly find secret trap doors at the end of hallways. After all, the best way to deal with a cornered rat is usually to let it escape before it does more harm.
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.