The battle for Ukraine unfolding before our eyes has the potential to be the most transformational event in Europe since World War II and the most dangerous confrontation for the world since the Cuban missile crisis.
I see three possible scenarios for how this story ends. I call them “the full-blown disaster,” “the dirty compromise” and “salvation.”
The disaster scenario is now underway: Unless Vladimir Putin has a change of heart or can be deterred by the West, he appears willing to kill as many people as necessary and destroy as much of Ukraine’s infrastructure as necessary to erase Ukraine as a free independent state and culture and wipe out its leadership.
This scenario could lead to war crimes the scale of which has not been seen in Europe since the Nazis — crimes that would make Vladimir Putin, his cronies and Russia as a country all global pariahs.
The wired, globalised world has never had to deal with a leader accused of this level of war crimes whose country has a landmass spanning 11 time zones, is one of the world’s largest oil and gas providers and possesses the biggest arsenal of nuclear warheads of any nation.
Every day that Putin refuses to stop we get closer to the gates of hell. With each TikTok video and cellphone shot showing Putin’s brutality, it will be harder and harder for the world to look away.
But to intervene risks igniting the first war in the heart of Europe involving nuclear weapons. And to let Putin reduce Kyiv to rubble, with thousands of dead — the way he conquered Aleppo and Grozny — would allow him to create a European Afghanistan, spilling out refugees and chaos.
Putin doesn’t have the ability to install a puppet leader in Ukraine and just leave him there: A puppet would face a permanent insurrection. So, Russia needs to permanently station tens of thousands of troops in Ukraine to control it — and Ukrainians will be shooting at them every day. It is terrifying how little Putin has thought about how his war ends.
I wish Putin was just motivated by a desire to keep Ukraine out of Nato; his appetite has grown far beyond that. Putin is in the grip of magical thinking: As Fiona Hill, one of America’s premier Russia experts, said in an interview published by Politico, he believes that there is something called “Russky Mir,” or a “Russian World”; that Ukrainians and Russians are “one people”; and that it is his mission to engineer “regathering all the Russian-speakers in different places that belonged at some point to the Russian tsardom.”
To realise that vision, Putin believes that it is his right and duty to challenge what Hill calls “a rules-based system in which the things that countries want are not taken by force.”
And if the US and its allies attempt to get in Putin’s way — or try to humiliate him the way they did Russia at the end of the Cold War — he is signaling that he is ready to out-crazy us.
Or, as Putin warned the other day before putting his nuclear force on high alert, anyone who gets in his way should be ready to face “consequences they have never seen” before.
Add to all this the mounting reports questioning Putin’s state of mind and you have a terrifying cocktail.
The second scenario is that somehow the Ukrainian military and people are able to hold out long enough against the Russian blitzkrieg, and that the economic sanctions start deeply wounding Putin’s economy, so that both sides feel compelled to accept a dirty compromise. Its rough contours would be that in return for a cease-fire and the withdrawal of Russian troops, Ukraine’s eastern enclaves now under de facto Russian control would be formally ceded to Russia, while Ukraine would explicitly vow never to join Nato. At the same time, the US and its allies would agree to lift all recently imposed economic sanctions on Russia.
Thomas L Friedman
The writer is an opinion columnist for TNYT