What Is Vladimir Putin’s Endgame?
After a series of horrific events, I am sat wearing four layers of clothing while penning this piece. Other than at the time I was writing the article, “Is Moscow Turning Off the Gas Tap?” — when the heating was coincidently not working at my office — I decided to turn off my radiator on purpose.
Ending the War in Ukraine
Ridiculous as it might sound, it is my tiny attempt to act against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, to somehow fight this sense of helplessness, being forced to watch the events unfold, without being able to do much.
Building Up to War in Ukraine
It all started a couple of days before February 24, which is when Russia invaded Ukraine. I was preparing for a trip to Kyiv to check on my friends in the Ukrainian capital. Following the latest developments, I tried to find any information that would confirm what the Russian ambassador to the EU had stated on February 16. Vladimir Chizhov said there would “be no escalation in the coming week, or in the week after that, or in the coming month.” Saying one thing and doing another has long been part of the Russian political playbook. Yet the cynicism in saying that wars in Europe “rarely start on a Wednesday” — in reference to US intelligence reports — just to actually invade eight days later is unacceptable.
On Sunday, February 20 at around 10 pm, I ultimately decided not to set the alarm for later that night in order to arrive at the airport on time. I went to bed with a heavy heart and a sense of cowardice: I decided not to travel to Kyiv. I felt as if I had betrayed the Ukrainian people, especially my friend, who assured me that everything was fine and everyone was calm. Over the next few days, I tried to drown out the voice in the back of my head saying, “You should have gone” by repeating this mantra to myself: If you bring an umbrella, it will not rain.
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And then we all heard the news. I can only imagine how it must have felt to be actually woken up by air raid sirens — it’s unfathomable. I saw a map of Ukraine showing where the Russian bombs hit. I reached out to friends and colleagues in these places. So far, they are fortunately all fine. I admire their strength and bravery for remaining in Ukraine.
Back in the office in Vienna, I sat with my colleagues. While we tried to at least grasp what this meant for all of us, we began to realize that this was not just another crisis; this was a decisive development in history. This is war in Europe. It is not the first conflict in Europe since the end of World War II. It is not even the first in Ukraine; the country has been at war since 2014. Back then, during the Revolution of Dignity, the Euromaidan, Ukrainians gave their lives for democracy, our democracy.
That is precisely why it is only logical for Ukraine to apply for membership in the European Union. Although there is no shortcut to joining the EU, under certain circumstances, it can become possible. Membership in the union should not only remain symbolic. I have written more about this here. In fact, I have been arguing with colleagues about granting such rights to all eastern partnership target countries since 2009. This would, of course, not have prevented anything today. Other actions might have, such as reducing the import dependency on natural resources after the Russia–Ukraine gas crisis of the same year.
But there is no use in dwelling on the past. Instead, I want to think about the future. Therefore, I have compiled five different scenarios about how the situation in Ukraine could develop. None of them must become a reality, and some of them, hopefully, will not.
1: All-out (Nuclear) War
Nuclear war is certainly the worst-case scenario for all sides. An increasingly frustrated and isolated Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, decides to use tactical nuclear weapons to submerge the Ukrainian resistance. Even if it will “only” involve non-nuclear attacks continuing the obliteration of whole cities and committing war crimes, the democratic international community seriously asks themselves if they can allow this to happen.
Even if they do, the probability that Putin will stop at the border with Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, the Baltics or Finland is delusional. Consequently, NATO, sooner or later, has to get involved, resulting in World War III.
I believe that we are actually already at war since February 24 but haven’t realized it yet. It might also continue as a war of attrition and continue indefinitely.
This second scenario refers to what Putin himself mentioned in one of his infamous television Q&As in 2014. It has been used in various contexts, with reference to Alexander Dugin, but also as an idea raised by the so-called People’s Republics in Donetsk and Luhansk of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine. The planned confederation was ultimately not implemented.
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The reference dates back to a more or less geographically same area referred to as “New Russia” during the Soviet era until the turn of the century. In any case, Putin mentioned the cities of Kharkiv, Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, Mykolaiv and Odessa — essentially the whole Black Sea coast of Ukraine, linking up the Russian Federation with Transnistria. Since the Transnistria War in 1992, Russian troops have been stationed in the breakaway territory, which is officially part of Moldova.
This scenario involves the creation of many more “people’s republics,” which are under the influence — politically and economically — of the Kremlin and dependent on it. Recognition of such republics by Moscow or even integration into the Russian Federation is also a possibility.
Further separatist regions beyond Ukraine are also declared, expanding Russian influence even more. This takes place mostly in the Caucasus, but also in the direction of the former spheres of influence of the Soviet Union.
In a more hopeful scenario, Putin’s aggression leads to destabilization within the Russian Federation. While having to devote a majority of the country’s military capacities but also attention and political capital toward Ukraine, old separatist attempts resurface.
The control over Chechnya is substantially weakened due to the de-facto defeat of Ramzan Kadyrov’s forces. But also further disintegration occurs. Not necessarily violently, but more economic-based toward dependence of Siberia on China or Vladivostok on Japan. The resulting fragmentation and volatility have major consequences for the whole neighborhood but also geopolitically.
4: Coup d’état
There have been (too optimistic) rumors about a possible coup being planned by the Federal Security Service (FSB) of Russia. Leaks from the “Wind of Change” lead to an ousting of Putin and his closest circle.
While it cannot be ruled out, there should not be any false hope. If the security forces and/or the military carry out a coup d’état, we will not see any democratic regime change.
Most likely, the people belonging to the closest circle of power are replaced, but the mafia system continues with a new godfather who ends the war but distributes the spoils. It is also possible that we will see a military hard-liner taking charge, which could then end in scenario one.
5: Democratic Revolution
The most optimistic, but unfortunately most unlikely, scenario would foresee the sanctions against Russia and the isolation of the federation as leading to the people bringing regime change and possibly democratization.
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In a Maidan-style occupation of the Red Square, Putin is unable to suppress the opposition any longer. It takes a lot of time to account for past actions, reconciliation and anti-corruption measures, but the missed opportunity of the 1990s is finally taken up. Coupled with the enlarged EU economic and security cooperation, there is now a counterpart to the geopolitical volatility caused by China’s ambitions and the political instability of the United States.
Regardless of which direction the situation takes (although I most certainly have a preference), it is necessary to be prepared for all eventualities. It is a good sign that there has been enough awareness for Ukraine as well as the necessity to think about the economic requirements to rebuild after the war.
Nevertheless, it is possible to achieve peace, especially with regard to the importing of oil and gas from Russia. Far too often, we are focused on the immediate costs and do not look at the possibilities. A transition to renewable energy is more necessary than ever, but the hesitancy has kept us dependent on Moscow. Just imagine what the situation would have looked like if a transition had been sped up in 2009.
Hopefully, we have finally learned the lesson. After all, the price we pay is just money. Ukraine is paying with its life, its infrastructure and, ultimately, its future.
*[Fair Observer is a media partner of the Institute for the Danube Region and Central Europe.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More