How the war in Ukraine ends is clearly the most important geopolitical question confronting the international community today. I do not claim to know how the war will end. That is because the mechanisms by which interstate hostilities normally cease—negotiated settlements and military victory—appear nowhere in sight.
Two intractable issues preclude the possibility of a peace agreement. The first is that Ukraine (understandably) demands the return of all the territory seized from it by Moscow beginning in 2014. This includes the oblasts of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, Zaporizhia, and Crimea. For its part, Russia sees this territory as a crucial buffer against Western encroachment and, therefore, has no intention of ever returning it to Ukraine. Absent Moscow’s willingness to return this land, there remain no grounds for a negotiated settlement.
The second issue involves that which arguably ignited the war in the first place—NATO’s intention to eventually extend membership to Ukraine. Moscow demands that the West renounce any present or future plans to incorporate Ukraine into NATO. Yet Ukraine and its Western allies refuse to accede to that demand, seeing it as morally reprehensible, an unacceptable violation of Ukrainian sovereignty, and counterproductive to their own national interests. Absent the West’s willingness to take NATO membership off the table, there remain no grounds for a negotiated settlement.
The possibility of an outright victory also appears unlikely for the foreseeable future. Because each side senses an existential threat from the other, Ukraine from Russia and Russia from the West, we can expect them to fight to the death. When it appears that one side is gaining the upper hand, the other side makes the necessary adjustments to even the playing field, with Moscow mobilizing more troops and increasing its defense spending and the West boosting its military support to Kyiv. Such has been the story since the war first broke out early last year, and the most important reason it has settled into a bloody stalemate today.
The caveat here, of course, is if the West eventually tires of supporting Ukraine and lets it go its own way. That possibility, though, shows no sign of materializing any time soon, if it ever does. The United States has demonstrated a remarkable ability to remain committed to unwinnable conflicts, as this one appears to be. Moreover, abandoning Ukraine would likely be seen as the greatest act of great power cowardice since the Munich debacle.
One thing is abundantly clear, though: this war is potentially even more dangerous than the Cold War. If Putin senses an existential threat to Russia or to his own survival, might he consider using nuclear weapons if the West continues to back him into a corner over Ukraine? This possibility represents one terrifying answer to the question of how the Ukraine war ends.
Nilay Saiya is an Associate Professor of Public Policy and Global Affairs at Nanyang Technological University.