Wars sometimes start easily, but it is a tenet of strategy that they are always unpredictable and extremely hard to end. Putin’s war of choice in Ukraine is already escalating faster than most experts would have imagined just a week ago. He has now encircled major Ukrainian cities with his army and threatens to flatten them with thermobaric weapons, cluster munitions and guided missiles. This will terrorize the civilian population and could demoralize the budding Ukrainian resistance. He could escalate the conflict to another region, such as the Balkans, where longstanding conflicts fester and Russia has an extensive network of intelligence and security services. He may turn the lights off in a major US city with a cyber-attack. Most frighteningly, he has raised the alert level of Russian nuclear forces and may be considering introducing martial law.
Meanwhile, Nato, the G7 and a host of other countries have turned the dial of economic punishment up to unprecedented levels. Several European nations that had previously hesitated to involve themselves militarily in the conflict have now done so, sending weapons and financing Ukraine’s resistance. A growing number of voices in Washington are clamoring for a more aggressive approach from the United States and Nato, pressuring the White House to support a Ukrainian insurgency with a broad menu of weaponry or even calling for Nato to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine.
Amid this escalation, experts can spin out an infinite number of branching scenarios on how this might end. But scores of war games conducted for the US and allied governments and my own experience as the US national intelligence officer for Europe suggest that if we boil it down, there are really only two paths toward ending the war: one, continued escalation, potentially across the nuclear threshold; the other, a bitter peace imposed on a defeated Ukraine that will be extremely hard for the United States and many European allies to swallow.
Putin deliberately frames his operation in Ukraine in the same way that the United States has framed its own regime-change operations in Kosovo, Iraq and Libya, charging that Ukraine has committed human rights violations and is a terrorist state. For good measure, Putin throws in the ludicrous assertion that Ukraine is fascist. These are transparent fig leaves for what is nothing more than a war of brute imperialism.