As recently as a month ago, many people were discussing the prospects of a negotiation process between Ukraine and Russia. Even then it was clear that no negotiations would be possible unless Moscow gave up its own military and political radicalism or improved its position on the battlefield. It has failed to achieve the latter goal in recent weeks, and its human and material resources have been severely depleted. Now Ukraine no longer believes there is anything else to negotiate with Moscow apart from the occasional humanitarian corridor or prisoner exchange. After the balance of power has tipped, time is now working against Russia, and the Kremlin is already in dire need of a scenario for getting out of the war.
From May 20 until mid-July, the Russian army must rotate conscripts and contract servicemen. Most of the 134,000 people who were drafted in the spring of 2021 and who refused to sign a contract during their service, despite the exhortations of their commanders, will be dismissed.
It will be also necessary to dismiss those contract servicemen, who signed a standard two-year contract in spring 2020 and refused to prolong it; there are tens of thousands more of those. The number of contract servicemen in all branches and types of the Russian Armed Forces can be estimated at 380,000-405,000; the number of draftees and the number of contract servicemen are overlapping sets due to the recruitment specifics. And the issue of losses is left out of the picture.
Simply put, the Kremlin is still willing to fight, but its human and material resources are severely depleted. And there are several scenarios it will have to choose from, probably as early as in the coming weeks.
Foreign policy Trotskyism: «neither war nor peace»
The first scenario involves a reduction in the intensity of hostilities, even to the point of halting them, but without formally ending the war. And as of today, this scenario seems to be the most likely. It is not only due to Russia's inability to force Ukraine to peace on its own terms and the need for a respite in the war, but also due to the fact it's highly probable the Ukrainian army will beat back Russian troops from the occupied territories using weapons received from the West. Here, Moscow needs to get a foothold, demonstrate its readiness for some kind of cease-fire agreement, and draw at least French and German diplomacy to its side. For the sake of this option, the Russian authorities, burdened neither by international law, nor by moral or ethical principles, nor by the need to keep their promises, can also use Ukrainian prisoners of war and displaced civilians as bargaining chips.
Russia may use Ukrainian prisoners of war and displaced civilians to force Ukraine to draw a ceasefire
The problem with this scenario is that the occupied territories are now ruined and have experienced a strong outflow of population – they have been turned into an economic desert, which will take a great deal of effort and resources to hold and control, with constant losses among the occupation forces from artillery shelling and guerrilla warfare. Even the so-called «land corridor» to Crimea simply makes no economic sense. The only thing that Russia can gain from this «desert» is a territorial buffer for protecting the annexed peninsula and the bridge and maintaining a constant threat to the Ukrainian ports.
In fact, we are talking about an extremely costly defense of Moscow's 2014 acquisitions, which, in the absence of not only any creative strategy, but even the ability to formulate such a strategy, will further wear Russia down and weaken it. At the same time, the suffocating sanctions will not go anywhere, and the already expended military potential will remain either hard to replenish or irreplaceable. Thus, it is a scenario of postponing defeat and relying on some serious global difficulties that could ease the Kremlin's current foreign policy and economic plight.
Another negative point for the Russian authorities is that the «no peace, no war» scenario does not remove from the agenda the issue of the complete restoration of Ukraine's territorial integrity. What is meant here is that even if Russia chooses the «no war, no peace» scenario, it does not mean that Ukraine will abandon its goals. Wearing out Moscow on the battlefield with the prospect of military defeat means it would become severely weakened on other fronts as well - it might simply lose control of other post-Soviet territories with frozen conflicts and unrecognized states in which it had a hand in the previous decades.
It means that the long-term weakening of Russia will not only lead to the loss of the Donbass and Crimea territories it seized in 2014 but may also face the possibility of having to withdraw from Moldova (Transnistria), Georgia (Abkhazia and South Ossetia) and Azerbaijan (Nagorny Karabakh). It will also need a final settlement of Japan's territorial claims (the islands of Iturup, Kunashir, Shikotan, and the Habomai Islands) and the question of the border with Estonia on terms less favorable than those that Moscow could have hoped for earlier.
De facto capitulation
Another scenario involves Russia's military retreat to the positions it held on February 23, 2022, and the conclusion of a cease-fire agreement (without the Kremlin officially recognizing the defeat). At the time of writing, this scenario seems significantly less likely than the first, but the ratio between their likelihoods may change depending on developments on the battlefield. Such an approach would not remove the issue of restoring Ukraine's territorial integrity from the agenda, but it would allow it to be postponed for the future, transforming a possible military scenario into a diplomatic one.
Curiously, Ukraine's willingness to retake Donetsk, Luhansk and Crimea is not obvious. First, an offensive would require a major effort on the part of the Ukrainian military and Ukrainian society, which, even if successful, would not, by itself, remove the existential threat posed by Russia. And the latter seems to be the more important problem for Kyiv today. Second, the economic reintegration of those territories would be difficult under the existing circumstances, even with the aid provided by the US, the EU and other allies.
Consequently, the abandonment by the Russian army of the territories seized at the beginning of the aggression, the return of all prisoners and deportees and the conclusion of a cease-fire agreement that would allow Moscow to stop fearing for the remains of the Black Sea Fleet and for the fate of the Crimean bridge, may be an acceptable outcome. Such a scenario could be propped by the point which has been already promoted by Russia's state media: the war is being waged not against Ukraine but against NATO, albeit on Ukrainian territory.
The weakening of Russia will not only lead to the loss of the territories seized in 2014, but will also raise the question of withdrawal from the other controlled republics
At the same time, one should not exaggerate the role of the actual Russian defeat for Russia's domestic political situation. After all, the Libyan dictator Gaddafi was able to remain in power for almost a quarter of a century after his defeat in the war against Chad in 1987. Iraqi dictator Hussein, for his part, stayed in power for 12 years after his defeat in the 1991 Gulf War. Although Russia is by all accounts far more complicated than Libya and Iraq 30 years ago, the Russian elite, bound by war crimes, can maintain consolidation around the Kremlin for a while, even despite a rapidly shrinking economic base.
Escalation (with or without a short respite)
Another scenario, the likelihood of which is relatively low as of today, but far from zero, is an escalation of the war with an attempt to draw the United States and NATO into direct negotiations. This scenario is the riskiest for Moscow but seeing as Sweden and Finland have launched the procedure of their accession to the Alliance and considering that the volume of military supplies to Ukraine keeps growing the Kremlin may see it as acceptable after all. A military operation in Moldova or a missile strike on the supply infrastructure, for example, in Poland, or some demonstrative but limited military action against the Baltic states, or even against Finland and Sweden - none of this can be ruled out completely in the current situation.
The goal of such an escalation would not be achieving a military victory but testing the strength of the West, torpedoing its unity. The need to negotiate exclusively with Kyiv would also be removed. Of course, the main cost of such a scenario would be an even greater economic isolation of Russia, primarily from Europe, which the Kremlin is also unlikely to risk under the current circumstances. However, in case of diplomatic success – if NATO's unwillingness to go to war against Russia is demonstrated and the hoped-for negotiations on a new European security are launched - the isolation could be presented as a «brilliant move.» In case of failure, however, it will be easy to switch to the «de facto capitulation» scenario.
Peace treaty: a missing scenario
What is definitely not visible today in Russia is its willingness and ability to sit down at the negotiating table, conclude a peace treaty with Ukraine, and abide by it going forward. This scenario seems possible only after serious political and economic changes within Russia itself, followed by its stabilization. This, in turn, can happen as a result of either a military defeat or strong political turbulence - a coup or a revolution, which would require a split of the elites. Neither of those can be predicted.