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What's the Endgame of the War in Ukraine?

by Robert_de_Neufville {{qctrl.question.publish_time | dateStr}} Edited on {{qctrl.question.edited_time | dateStr}} {{"estimatedReadingTime" | translate:({minutes: qctrl.question.estimateReadingTime()})}}
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  • Robert de Neufville is a superforecaster and former Director of Communications of the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute. He writes a Substack on forecasting called Telling the Future.

    A reading of this essay is featured on the Metaculus Journal Podcast here.

    Russian President Vladimir Putin remarked in 2002 that Russia has historically never been either as strong as it wants to be or as weak as it’s thought to be. It’s a modified version of the conventional wisdom—attributed variously to European statesmen from Talleyrand to Churchill—that Russia is never as strong or as weak as it seems. Depending on the angle and the light, Russia can look either like a superpower with an enormous nuclear arsenal and vast resources or like a weak state with a middling economy and corrupt institutions. This conventional wisdom captures the truth that the Russian state has both incredible strengths and remarkable weaknesses, and has throughout history been at the same time both ineffectual and indomitable.

    The complex mediocrity of Russian power makes the outcome of the invasion of Ukraine hard to forecast. Russia itself seems to have miscalculated its strength. Even with more forces and more sophisticated weapons, it has been unable to defeat the Ukrainian military. Ukraine’s veteran, highly-motivated forces deserve a lot of credit for their success against Russia, but Russia also has been hampered by a lack of intel, poor planning, inadequate preparation, and poor morale. Nevertheless, Russia’s failures on the battlefield should not fool us into thinking it’s nearly beaten or on the verge of collapse. Russia may struggle to achieve its goals in Ukraine, but will be hard to defeat decisively.

    As Richard Hanania writes in his recent Metaculus Journal post, it’s hard in general to forecast the outcomes of wars. Wars are moments when the rules of normal behavior break down, and rapid change becomes more possible. This war in particular—because it involves key powers that shaped the global system—seems likely to be a pivotal, transformative moment in world history. We should not be too confident we know where the war will lead. Things that normally seem impossible—including the use of nuclear weapons—could happen; the near future may not look like the recent past. 

    Almost two months into the war, my best guess—although I expect the war to continue to surprise me—is that we’re headed for some kind of stalemate in Ukraine. Russia has underperformed relative to almost everyone’s expectations and has abandoned its initial war plan. But it’s unlikely to be completely defeated or driven from Ukraine. Like Hanania, I want to highlight the key features of the conflict that are driving my forecasts:

    1. Russia has withdrawn from the area around Kyiv and the north of Ukraine to focus on the eastern and southern part of the country. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Russia has given up permanently on capturing Kyiv or taking a larger part of Ukraine. But doing so would mean retaking territory Russia has already given up and could require more forces than Russia has available.

    2. Russia also seems to have given up—at least temporarily—on the idea of winning a political victory in Ukraine. Initially, Russia appeared to believe it could remove Zelensky from power, replace his government with a client regime, and claim it had “denazified” Ukraine. But instead of making an effort to avoid civilian casualties, Russia is now actually targeting civilians in an apparent effort to break their will to fight rather than to win them over.

    3. Putin’s hold on power appears to be strong. Putin controls the media and has largely crushed opposition to his regime. It’s hard to know what’s going on behind the scenes in the Kremlin, but polls suggest Russians broadly support the war. Sanctions are hurting Russians, but may in the short-term may actually consolidate Putin’s support. There certainly doesn’t seem to be evidence of the massive popular opposition that it normally takes to force autocratic leaders from power.

    4. Neither side seems to have strong incentives to reach a negotiated agreement. Both sides appear to be able to hold out indefinitely. Russia doesn’t seem to be able to defeat Ukraine militarily, while international sanctions aren’t doing enough damage to force Russia to stop. Both sides would also pay a political price for making concessions to their adversary. Russian attacks on civilians increase the humanitarian cost of the war, but make reaching a deal with Russia harder politically.

    For these reasons, I’d break down the likely immediate outcomes of the war in Ukraine into four broad scenarios:

    Military stalemate (45%): In this scenario, Russian and Ukrainian forces reach a relatively stable equilibrium, in which neither side can readily push the other side back, although they continue to shoot at one another across the line of control. Russia controls large areas in the south and east, but Ukraine refuses to recognize Russian gains as legitimate. Russia remains largely ostracized by the international community, although support for sanctions gradually wanes. Some kind of peace agreement may be signed eventually, but it could take years to negotiate.

    Negotiated stalemate (42%): In this scenario, Russia and Ukraine agree to a ceasefire once it becomes clear what territory each can control. Ukraine agrees to be neutral and to recognize the independence or annexation of Donbas and Crimea—and possibly other territory as well—in exchange for Russia pulling back from other areas and strong international guarantees of its future security. The international community may lift some sanctions, but many countries refuse to normalize relations with Russia.

    Escalation (7%): In this scenario, NATO becomes directly involved in the war. NATO leaders already face political pressure to do more to help Ukraine. Evidence of Russian atrocities—particularly any clear evidence that Russia is in fact using chemical weapons—could lead NATO to take action against Russian forces. Because significant NATO involvement would likely turn the balance against Russia fairly quickly and save Ukrainian lives, it is politically appealing. Russia would then face a choice between accepting a humiliating defeat and escalating further, either by attacking NATO forces elsewhere in the world or by using a nuclear weapon. This is the scenario that most scares me.

    Russian defeat (4%): In this scenario, Russia withdraws its forces entirely and essentially sues for peace. Putin would probably have to be removed from power or face extremely strong internal pressure for this to happen. Even if Putin were no longer in power, it would likely be politically difficult for his replacement to admit a defeat of this magnitude. Since there doesn’t seem to be widespread opposition to the war or any sign of an imminent military revolt, I think this scenario is unlikely.

    My probabilities don’t quite add up to 100%, because I’m sure there’s a real chance the war develops in a way I’m currently unable to imagine. Some other, difficult-to-foresee crisis elsewhere in the world, could shift the situation dramatically. I think it’s likely—here’s a metaforecast for you—that I look back in a month and wonder how I got some things so wrong. But in any case it’s hard for me to see any of these scenarios as a victory for Russia. In the two stalemate scenarios, Russia would win much of what it demanded before the war, but its gains would come at the cost of a revitalized NATO and long-term damage to the Russian economy. That said, it’s hard to see these scenarios as a victory for anyone, except in some relative sense. War is hell.

    I wrote earlier about the prospects for a peace agreement here, the chance that Putin will be removed from office here, and the dangers of a no-fly zone here.

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