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Letter from Europe: We still don’t know how the Ukraine war ends

The EU is divided on how to deal with the war — not on the big question of whether Putin is right or there is a threat, but on how to deal with the whole situation, especially where the populist backlashes emerge when people get totally stressed this winter
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine makes an unannounced visit to a flag raising ceremony in the main square of the recaptured city of Izium.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine makes an unannounced visit to a flag raising ceremony in the main square of the recaptured city of Izium.

Last week was an interesting week to be in Europe talking to national security experts, officials and business executives about Ukraine. Ukraine and its allies had just forced Russian attackers into a chaotic retreat from a big chunk of territory, while the presidents of China and India had seemed to make clear to Russian President Vladimir Putin that the food and energy inflation his war has stoked was hurting their 2.7 billion people. On top of all that, one of Russia’s iconic pop stars told her 3.4 million followers on Instagram that the war was “turning our country into a pariah and worsening the lives of our citizens.”

In short, it was Putin’s worst week since he attacked Ukraine — without wisdom, justice, mercy or a Plan B.

And yet... maybe I was just hanging around the wrong people, but I detected a certain undertow of anxiety in many of my conversations with Ukraine’s European allies.

I learned long ago as a foreign correspondent that sometimes the news is in the noise, in what is being said and shouted, and sometimes the news is in the silence, in what isn’t being said at all. And my interpretation of what wasn’t being said last week went like this: Yes, it is great that Ukraine is pushing the Russians back some, but can you answer me the question that has been hanging out there since the fighting started: How does this war end with a stable result?

We still don’t know. As I probed that question in my conversations, I discerned three possible outcomes, some totally new, some familiar, but all coming with complicated and unpredictable side effects:

— Outcome 1 is a total Ukrainian victory, which risks Putin doing something crazy as defeat and humiliation stare him in the face.

— Outcome 2 is a dirty deal with Putin that secures a cease-fire and stops the destruction, but it risks splintering the Western allies and enraging many Ukrainians.

— Outcome 3 is a less dirty deal — we go back to the lines where everyone was before Putin attacked in February. Ukraine might be ready to live with that, and maybe even the Russian people would, too, but Putin would have to be ousted first, because he would never abide the undeniable implication that his war was completely for naught.

The variance among these outcomes is profound, and few of us will not be affected by which way it goes. You may not be interested in the Ukraine war, but the Ukraine war will be interested in you, in your energy and food prices, and, most important, in your humanity, as even the “neutrals” — China and India — have discovered.

So let’s go under the hood of all three possible endings.

Outcome 1: No one expects the Ukrainian army to be able to immediately follow up its substantial military gains of the past two weeks by just sweeping the rest of the Russian army back across the border. But for the first time I could hear people asking: “What if the Russian army actually collapses?”

Surely more than a few Russian soldiers, and the Russian-speaking Ukrainians who threw in their lot with them, thinking they would win and stay forever, are now asking themselves the John Kerry Vietnam War question: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

Everyone can now see just what a big lie this whole war was.

Everyone hears the stories that some of the reinforcements Putin is sending to the front are convicts who bartered their way out of prison by agreeing to fight in Ukraine for six months. Many others are mercenaries from as far away as Syria.

Wait a minute. If Ukraine really had become, as Putin claimed, a state led by “Nazis” and the spearhead of a Nato plan to push farther east towards the Russian motherland, how could Putin not ask the Russian people to mobilise for that fight? If the cause was so just and the war so necessary, why did Putin have to pay criminals and mercenaries to rise up and expect the middle classes of Moscow and Leningrad to just shut up?

People talk, and every Russian soldier or Russian-speaking Ukrainian who sided with Putin has to be thinking: “Do I stay? Do I run? Who will protect me if the front breaks?”

Such an alliance is highly vulnerable to cascading collapse — first slowly and then quickly. Watch out.

Why? Because Putin has already alluded several times to being willing to contemplate using a nuclear weapon if Ukraine and its Nato allies start to overwhelm his forces and he is staring at complete humiliation. I sure hope the CIA has a covert plan to interrupt Putin’s chain of command so no one would push the button.

Outcome 2: I cannot imagine Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy accepting a cease-fire or something near it right now, with his forces currently having so much momentum and his having committed to recovering every inch of Ukrainian territory, including Crimea. But keep this outcome in the back of your mind as winter sets in and Putin’s refusal to sell natural gas to Europe drives up energy prices so high that it forces more factories to close and poorer Europeans to choose between heating and eating.

Even though it would mean Putin’s war gains fell far short of his goals, he may be interested in seizing this outcome, so he has at least something to show for all his losses and avoids total humiliation.

A lot of European leaders would grab this deal, even if they will not say so out loud. Here is how a retired senior European statesman, who spoke on condition of not being quoted by name, explained it at a business and politics seminar that I attended.

The goal of Ukraine is to win, he said. The goal of the European Union is a bit different. It is to have peace, and if there is a price for that, some leaders in Europe would be ready to pay the right price. The US is far away, and for the US, he added, it is not the worst thing to keep the war going to weaken Russia and make certain it doesn’t have the energy for any other adventures.

To be sure, he added, the EU is more united than before the war started. However, in the next few months things will get quite difficult. There will be a big divide in the EU — and it will get more and more difficult because the goals will become more and more different, the former statesman said. Even if the public statements are the same, the EU is divided on how to deal with the war — not on the big question of whether Putin is right or there is a threat, but on how to deal with the whole situation, especially where the populist backlashes emerge when people get totally stressed this winter.

Some European leaders will begin to ask, “Is there a way out through negotiations?” Sure, some like the Baltic countries will 100 per cent support Zelenskyy. But others will not care about freezing for Donetsk or Luhansk, he concluded.

Outcome 3: This is a less dirty deal, but with the Russian people, not Putin. In this scenario, Nato and the Ukrainians propose a cease-fire on the basis of the February 24 lines: where Russia and Ukrainian forces stood before Putin’s war. Ukraine is spared more destruction, and the principle of the inadmissibility of changing borders by force is upheld. But Putin would have to admit to his people: “We suffered some 70,000 casualties, lost thousands of tanks and armoured vehicles and experienced terrible economic sanctions — and I got you nothing.”

Of course, it is impossible to imagine him saying that. But such a deal could be in the interest of the Russian people. So, as far as I can imagine it, Putin would probably have to be ousted by a popular mass protest movement, or by a palace coup. All blame for the war could be pinned on him, and Russia could promise to be a good neighbour again if the West lifted its sanctions.

Zelenskyy would have to give up his dream of recovering those areas of Ukraine seized by Russia in 2014, but Ukraine could begin healing and at least resume the process of joining the European Union, and maybe even Nato. --- New York Times

Thomas L Friedman

The writer is a US political commentator and author

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