Even to pose the question is to seem hopelessly optimistic. As I write there are no signs at all of fighting coming to an end and most realistic predictions are based on an increasingly desperate scenario. The most widely accepted is that Russian forces will continue to bombard Ukraine until they are in control of the country and have installed a puppet regime. God alone knows how long that will take and how many innocent lives will have been lost. But there are other scenarios and it’s worth considering them. You may have your own. They matter. All politicians – even those as brutal and irrational as Vladimir Putin – need a degree of public support. Nevermore so than when they embark on something as ferocious and depraved as invading another country. So let’s consider some of the possible scenarios and how we might react to them. The BBC’s diplomatic correspondent James Landale has produced a list of his own. The first is perhaps the bleakest.
The war will be short and even more bloody. Not only will there be more indiscriminate artillery and rocket strikes but more fighters and bombers of the Russian air force will be ordered into action. They will launch devastating airstrikes against civilian as well as strategic targets. There will also be massive cyber-attacks aimed at everything that is needed in a modern country to make any semblance of normal life impossible. No power for homes and hospitals. No communications. No food in the shops. Sickness and starvation will kill those who had managed to survive the bombs and shells and bullets. Any remaining resistance will be wiped out and Kyiv will fall to the invading army. If President Zelensky survives the onslaught he might flee to another country (possibly this one) and try to establish a governed in exile, but it would be meaningless. Ukraine will become, like Belarus, a client state of Moscow.
So much for the ‘short’ war. A long war, Landale suggests, is perhaps, more likely. In this scenario Russian forces get bogged down, hampered by low morale, poor logistics and inept leadership. Instead of a swift invasion of Kyiv there is a long siege – just as there was when Russia invaded Chechnya in the 1990s and the capital Grozny was virtually destroyed. But Kyiv is not Grozny. It’s a big city with many young men determined to fight street by street. The siege of Leningrad, the bloodiest in modern history, is cited again and again. Russia would need a vast force and their soldiers would not have the same motivation as the force they would be facing. Western forces would not, of course, fight alongside them but they would get the weapons and ammunition they need from the west. The longer the siege continues and the more body bags sent back to Russia, the greater the pressure on Putin. It might end with a bullet in the back of his head and new leadership in Moscow. It would not be the first time in living memory an overwhelmingly superior Russian force has been forced to retreat. Remember Afghanistan.
Another possible scenario is that the war could spill over into other countries that were once part of the Soviet Union and Putin still regards as part of the Russian empire. Moldova and Georgia are two of them and they are not members of Nato. But the Baltic states are in Nato and Lithuania is a tempting target. In this scenario, Nato would have no choice but to get involved. Even more frightening is talk of nuclear warfare.. When Putin put his nuclear forces on a higher level of alert it’s unlikely that the United States was in his sights Most analysts doubt this means their use is imminent let alone likely, but it does raise the horror of tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield.
The most optimistic scenario – unlikely as it seems at this stage - is that diplomacy might ultimately prevail. In the words of the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres: "The guns are talking now, but the path of dialogue must always remain open." It’s true that the conversations
between Putin and President Macron of France have served only to emphasise Putin’s determination to obliterate any resistance to his territorial ambitions, but it’s also true that the Russian economy is already beginning to feel the effect of sanctions imposed by the west. The longer the war continues, the greater the pain. And the greater the grief as more and more body bags are delivered to the homes of Russian mothers whose sons were sent to war.
Many Russians will continue to believe the bile pouring from the lips of a deranged dictator, but many more may question the benefits of sacrificing so much to occupy a country they had been accustomed to regard as friendly neighbours. Even more threatening for Putin is that his inner circle may turn against him: the vastly rich oligarchs and powerful military leaders whose loyalty will be tested if they see their own wealth and status at risk. If, for instance, the economy collapses. Or if, God forbid, Putin’s finger strays towards the nuclear button. Or if China turns against him.
Until only a few weeks ago the bonds between Russia and China seemed to be growing ever closer: united against a common enemy. The two nations issued a joint statement condemning Nato expansion. Only a few days before Putin sent the tanks across Ukraine’s borders, China was accusing the U.S. of being the 'culprit'. They blamed Washington for 'heightening tensions, creating panic and even hyping up the possibility of warfare'. Their foreign ministry refused to say that the invasion was a violation of Ukraine's sovereignty. They criticised Western sanctions on Russia.
But, as the highly respected commentator Edward Lucas notes, that policy has changed ‘swiftly and shockingly’. Lucas says the Chinese leader Xi Jinping is reportedly furious with Putin. Xi might have accepted the prospect of a swift victory but not a protracted war. There is a very good reason for that. Nothing matters more to the Chinese leadership than the continued growth of their own economy. It is seen as vital that the living standards for its 1.4 billion people continue to rise. The alternative is serious unrest in the poorer regions of the country and, with it, a threat to the leadership in Beijing.
As Lucas notes, there are other powerful factors at play too. One is China’s ambition to be recognised as the most powerful country in the world by the middle of the century. A long war in Ukraine would jeopardise that. It would introduce new risks to the international financial system and cast a chill on global trade. Most countries are already seeing the price of energy soaring and, with it, the price of food and fertiliser. It’s true that China produces a vast amount of energy, largely from coal, but its growing economy needs imports too.
There is more evidence of China’s unease about the invasion of Ukraine. It did not approve when Russia first attacked Ukraine in 2014, nor when it annexed Crimea. It has never acknowledged the Russian backed breakaway territories in eastern Ukraine of Donetsk and Luhansk.
This full-scale invasion of Ukraine is even more troubling from a Beijing perspective. It is in the interest of an expanding power like China to see the western alliance growing weaker rather than stronger. The effect of the invasion has seen the opposite happen. Nato is united in opposition to Putin. Europe’s biggest economic power Germany, which had been refusing for years to meet its own financial commitment to Nato defence, has turned full circle. Its new chancellor has committed the country to increasing its defence spending to more than 2 per cent of GDP after years of refusing to meet its Nato commitment.
And something else has been happening that’s more difficult to quantify than punitive economic measures or military commitments. It’s the public discourse. For the first time in years, our politicians are showing unity behind a common cause. It’s not just the unprecedented sight of MPs of all parties giving a standing ovation to the Ukrainian ambassador, a guest in the public gallery. It’s happening in shops and pubs and out there in the streets. We may have very different ideas of how the west should deal with a tyrant like Putin, but we know which side we are on. Only the most extreme make even the slightest attempt to justify his outrageous actions.
Public attitudes may not win wars, but they matter. If the people and politicians of Russia know the western world is united against the invasion it must surely play a part if - or when - the time comes to talk peace.
Given all that, what do you think is the most realistic scenario for Ukraine over the coming days and weeks? Or perhaps I should offer you another timeframe: over the coming years.
Do let us know.