Vladimir Putin knows he cannot win. In any case, not with the brutal and ineffectual army that has disappointed even his enemies. Russia also cannot afford to lose. Moscow’s geopolitical identity precludes such a scenario entirely. With the unlimited destructive capability of its missile arsenal and the threat of nuclear force, under the orders of a centralized and autocratic authority that controls a colossal expanse of territory – the largest sovereign country in the world – any endgame to the Ukraine war that leads to capitulation and the imposition of a regime stripped of its military capacity and subjected to the international order of the victors, as happened at the end of the First and Second World Wars with Germany and Japan, is not an option for the Kremlin.
Who can lose the war, and probably will lose the war, is Putin himself. For Russia to win, or at least save face, somebody will have to pay, and there is little more logical than the person responsible for the mess taking the fall. As a preemptive argument, there are those who argue that whoever replaces Putin will be even worse, as cruel and criminal as the Russian president or perhaps more so. It is not a scenario that excludes negotiation between the toughest hardliners of both sides, as has happened before over the course of history. On the contrary, it may facilitate it. Charles De Gaulle, who knew a thing or two about war and peace, would describe it as La Paix des Braves (The Peace of the Brave).
Unable to secure victory militarily, or to lose politically, it is clear that Putin has negotiation on his mind. What is yet to become clear is the exact moment that will best suit his purposes. Nothing will happen before next spring, after General Winter has crushed Kyiv’s allies and left the Ukrainian people without water, heating and electricity. The economic warfare of energy supply and grain export restrictions, inflation and the popular discontent such privations and hardships will sow, may lead to the first scenario. The second will be brought about by Russian missiles, artillery and drones, which are busy destroying essential infrastructure and services in as many Ukrainian towns and villages as possible.
The front lines, where Russian forces are being pushed back, will become static in the mud and the cold. On the other hand, the war will continue unabated in the economic siege and under artillery attacks, for which only ammunition and control of taps are needed. The outcome of the winter campaign will depend on the capacity for resistance, first among Ukrainians, who will suffer the brunt of it, and secondly among their allies in the rest of Europe.
Moscow’s nuclear intimidation, which has served Putin so well, will be shelved for the time being. It will return with the dawning of spring, if the resistance sees off General Winter and, as the war enters its second year, Russian troops continue suffering battlefield defeats and retreating as we have become accustomed to. Under the threat of nuclear intervention, the desire for negotiation and peace will also blossom. Putin will have to take advantage of that.