How Does This War End?

Russian war crimes have made a diplomatic settlement next to impossible.

The title question is one I’ve been asking and unable to answer since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine “proper” turned out not to be the cakewalk Vladimir Putin envisioned. It seemed clear early on that neither side was going to be able to achieve its maximalist ends (a complete conquest of Ukraine by Russia or a restoration of the status quo ante 2014 for Ukraine) and yet neither leader seems to have an offramp. The has been further complicated by the fighting itself, which has deepened Ukrainian resolve.

I tend to roll my eyes at anecdote-driven reporting but Valerie Hopkins’ chilling NYT piece “‘We Can Never Forgive This’: In Odesa, Attacks Stoke Hatred of Russia” adds color to real grievance.

Standing on a bridge overlooking the road to Odesa’s main port, Nina Sulzhenko surveyed the damage wrought by a recent Russian missile strike: The House of Scientists, one of the Ukrainian city’s best-loved buildings, was in shambles. The mansion’s destroyed gardens spilled down over a ruined residential complex, and burned bricks lay strewn across the sidewalk.

“I feel pain, and I want revenge,” said Ms. Sulzhenko, 74. “I don’t have the words to say what we should do to them.”

She gestured toward other buildings in various stages of ruin. “Look at the music school! Look at what they did! The fact that those who live next to us, and lived among us, could do this to us — we can never forgive this. Never.”

Hers was a common sentiment in Odesa this past week after a series of missile strikes damaged the city’s port and 29 historic buildings in its Belle Époque city center, including the Transfiguration Cathedral, one of Ukraine’s largest.

Odesa plays an important role in the mind of imperial Russians, and especially President Vladimir V. Putin, who views it as an integral part of Russian culture. But if Mr. Putin believed that Odesans would feel a reciprocal bond, he could not have been more mistaken, residents and city officials interviewed this past week said. Especially after the recent spate of missile attacks.

“The Odesan people are tired,” the city’s mayor, Gennadiy Trukhanov, said. “People are tired of uncertainty, tired of anxious nights, of not falling asleep. But if the enemy is counting on this, he is wrong. Because this fatigue turns into the strongest hatred.”


“I am even trying not to speak the Russian language,” said Marat Kasimov, 60, the city’s deputy head of city planning and architectural preservation, as he looked at the wasteland next to the House of Scientists, which was originally built by Russian aristocratic relatives of the writer Leo Tolstoy.

In other parts of Ukraine, people are increasingly speaking Ukrainian instead of Russian, a relatively recent development for Odesa.

Indeed, President Volodymyr Zelensky Friday signed into law a change of the country’s Christmas celebration from the Russian Orthodox date of January 7 to the traditional European date of December 25.

The legislation’s sponsors said its passage would help Ukraine “abandon the Russian heritage of imposing the celebration of Christmas on January 7,” and help Ukrainians “live their own life with their own traditions (and) holidays.”

Ukraine and Russia are both majority Orthodox countries, but since Russia illegally annexed Crimea and began supporting separatists in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region in 2014, a large part of the Orthodox community in Ukraine has moved away from Moscow.

Russia’s war in Ukraine further accelerated the divide between the two branches of Orthodox Christianity, especially given that the head of Russia’s Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, fully endorsed the invasion and framed it as a culture clash between the wider Russian world and Western liberal values.

The new law will effectively formalize what some churches in Ukraine had already begun practicing. A branch of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine allowed its churches to celebrate Christmas on December 25 last year. Ukraine’s main Greek Catholic church said in February it was moving to a new calendar to celebrate Christmas on December 25 as well.

The decision appears to be popular. In December, the Ukrainian government launched a poll asking citizens whether the date for Christmas should be moved to December 25. Nearly 59% of the more than 1.5 million people who voted supported such a move.

Alla and Oksana, two teachers from the Zaporizhzhia region who had been forced to flee their homes, said they supported the decision to change the date. They added that they celebrated Christmas on December 25 last year and felt they would “quickly adapt.”

“Ukraine should be a civilized European country,” Alla said. “This should be the norm for us.”

All wars spark outrage, of course. But this seems very different. It will take sheer and utter defeat for the Ukrainians to acede to living under Russian domination.

Conversely, Putin has gambled too much Russian blood and treasure on his “special military operation” to back down without something meaningful to show for it. Nor is it obvious that, were he to be ousted, the replacement would be more reasonable.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Tony W says:

    Ultimately the war ends by attrition.

    Russia will run out of money/willpower to continue fighting, but the war doesn’t end until Putin is dead, or until Ukraine, having pushed the Russians out, is taking Russian soil themselves.

    At that point Ukraine’s terms can be – we’ll stop taking your land, and we’ll revert to pre-2014 borders, or we continue our March toward Moscow.

  2. EddieInCA says:

    This will only end when Putin has a bullet, or six, in his brain.

    That’s the only way it ends. A Russian General who has had enough will do the deed.

  3. MarkedMan says:

    A year ago I couldn’t see any way for this to end, but now I see an inkling. It appears that in Russia the war is increasingly being tied directly to Putin, whereas at the start it was more tied to Russian nationalism and identity. This may open the way for a scenario where Putin is overthrown and the new rulers focus on building order and just walk away from the war while blaming Putin for everything.

    I’m not predicting this, but it is the first glimmer of an end I’ve seen. It’s hard to imagine coup leaders wanting to take on the challenge of reversing the losses in Ukraine in addition to consolidating power.

  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @EddieInCA: Maybe he’ll fall out a 6th floor window.

  5. drj says:


    It appears that in Russia the war is increasingly being tied directly to Putin, whereas at the start it was more tied to Russian nationalism and identity.

    Interestingly, Prigozhin – the day before he launched his mutiny – made public statements that the war was based on lies, that the Ukrainians weren’t killing Russians in the Donbass.

    Prigozhin still lives, which suggests that he represents powerful interests, specifically – according to self-proclaimed “angry patriot” and pro-war hawk Igor Girkin (who was recently arrested) – the peace-at-any-cost party.

    Maybe there are some very powerful interests in Russia (powerful enough to protect Prigozhin from Putin) that are willing to make a deal in exchange for sanctions relief.

    Or perhaps not. Sometimes I wonder if even the Russians themselves know what’s happening.

  6. Sleeping Dog says:

    To borrow from Eliot: Not with a bang but a whimper.

  7. Michael Reynolds says:

    We should be clear that our interests and those of Ukraine are parallel at this point, but not identical. Two outcomes work for us. 1) Ukrainian victory or, 2) Frozen conflict.

    It would be nice to see Ukraine take over control (along with Turkey) of the Black Sea by retaking Crimea. That would drastically reduce Russian power in the Black Sea, advantage US, Ukraine, Romania, Turkey. But a frozen conflict means that Russia cannot start rebuilding, cannot reverse direction of its brain drain, cannot restart its trade, and continues to kill off the young men it will need to avoid complete demographic and economic collapse.

    I think it is very much in our interests to see Russia weakened further, not just because Russia is a perennial pain in the world’s ass, but because of their potential to act in concert with China. This has been a very good war for the United States. Russia weakened and divided, Russian arms industry diminished, the myth of Russian military power punctured, Russian exports of energy crippled, Sweden and Finland in NATO, and an energized, committed and capable Ukraine firmly in the western camp.

    It’s the victory we can never speak of at the official level. Russian deaths: 50,000 plus. US deaths: 0. Russian prestige in the toilet. The US bestrides the narrow world like a colossus, the only superpower. It’s not quite Nixon’s opening to China, but as bloodless (for us) victories go, it’s pretty good.

  8. Andy says:

    My analysis from the past 6-8 months is essentially unchanged.

    War is inherently a political activity – the use of organized violence by political communities to achieve political ends.

    Absent some black swan or a fundamental shift in the battlefield that can’t be seen at present, neither side has the ability to achieve its desired ends. The hope that Ukraine would and could quickly adopt the capabilities of the US in terms of mobile combined-arms warfare has proven to be overly optimistic – to put it charitably. Russia’s ability for offensive combat potential is even more limited, but it is showing it is quite capable on the defense.

    So the war continues to be one of attrition, and how that evolves is anyone’s guess since each side has advantages and disadvantages. Eventually, attrition will force a change in political goals, or at least the will to achieve them.

    Some still think that Putin is the lynchpin and killing him is the easy-mode button to ending the war. This frankly misunderstands Russia and the political situation in Russia. If Putin is killed or overthrown in a coup, he is likely to be replaced by those even more committed to the war than he is.

  9. JKB says:

    Do you really think Russia will return the stolen Ukrainian children?

    Maria Lvova-Belova, who reports to Vladimir Putin, was sanctioned by Western nations for allegedly taking children and subjecting them to ‘patriotic education’

    How do the “diplomats” sell out the Ukrainians when such atrocities are documented in even Democrat media and there is social media? They won’t be able to hide what they do like they did when they betrayed groups to the Soviets as WWII wound down.

    It is likely that the Ukrainians have staved off a Russian run to the Vistula and the Baltics for which Ukraine was on the way.

    The ultimate solution will be how to assure the Russians they are secure since it will be generations before they have enough men again.

  10. Jay L Gischer says:

    It seems plausible to me that we could end up with another Korea situation. That war never “ended”, it just stopped. Sort of.

  11. MarkedMan says:


    the use of organized violence by political communities to achieve political ends

    I think this is way too generous. War is almost always about killing people so you can steal their stuff. Whether it was Alexander the Great or the Ashanti Empire or some South Pacific tribe or Napoleon celebrating the “glory” of battle, it is fundamentally theft, and a crude and animalistic one at that.

    he is likely to be replaced by those even more committed to the war than he is

    Even a few months ago I would have agreed with you without hesitation, and I still don’t actively disagree with you. But I see the barest glimmer of a way out where those who kill Putin and take Russia from him won’t want to continue the war, and they will have a (dead) scapegoat for the losses.

  12. Mr. Prosser says:

    @Jay L Gischer: Do you think there would be a DMZ? How would it be managed? A sort of UN zone along the Russia/Ukraine border and the whole of Crimea a neutral protectorate or a sort of cold war East/West Germany situation? Of course there are also the atrocities that need to be answered for.

  13. dazedandconfused says:



    Some still think that Putin is the lynchpin and killing him is the easy-mode button to ending the war. This frankly misunderstands Russia and the political situation in Russia. If Putin is killed or overthrown in a coup, he is likely to be replaced by those even more committed to the war than he is.

    I would add that Putin would probably have to be assassinated by his own people for that to bring an end to the war. By my reading of the Russian character they are about as unlikely as we are to view the assassination of their President as an opportunity to make peace. Just like us, they are far more likely to feel compelled by national honor to avenge him, and about the only way I can envision that Russia can win is by total commitment and mobilization.

    Have to play this smart. Have to.

  14. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Mr. Prosser: I think it’s that the “conflict” will not be resolved, merely continue to fester. The possibility of getting a DMZ placed at the border of a current Security Council member is kind of a stretch (which I’m sure was your point to begin with). So, like Korea and not at all like it at the same time.

    And no, atrocities will NOT be answered for except in the eventuality of Putin being compelled to appear at the ICC in The Hague. Unlikely at best. It might be possible that many future history books note that Putin should have been prosecuted as a war criminal though, depending on how the war winds down, and how Chairman Mao’s (?) adage about history being written in the voice of the winner evolves,

  15. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    This is interesting:

    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who has sometimes raised the spectre of a nuclear conflict over Ukraine, said on Sunday that Moscow would have to use a nuclear weapon if Kyiv’s ongoing counter-offensive was a success.

    Medvedev, who is deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council, a body chaired by President Vladimir Putin, said in a message on his official social media accounts that Russia would be forced to fall back on its own nuclear doctrine in such a scenario.

    “Imagine if the.. offensive, which is backed by NATO, was a success and they tore off a part of our land then we would be forced to use a nuclear weapon according to the rules of a decree from the president of Russia.

    “There would simply be no other option. So our enemies should pray for our warriors’ (success). They are making sure that a global nuclear fire is not ignited,” he said.

    This may well be what “we gotta take out Putin” looks like in real life. (And once upon a time, Medvedev was the “moderate” anti-Putin, IIRC.) Be careful what you wish for.

  16. gVOR08 says:

    In a just world Ukraine gets back all territory pre 2014 and Putin and many other Russians get war crimes trials.. In this world I hope Zelenskyy is making maximal demands to establish a bargaining position and he, or Biden, has a realistic plan to end this. It would be easiest for Putin to end the war. He can quit anytime and have controlled media declare victory. But I his internal politics may not allow this.

    Someone mentioned war as politics by other means. I think Putin started this with what seemed realistic political goals. But as wars are won’t to do, things got out of control.

  17. Michael Reynolds says:

    @MarkedMan: @Andy:
    Even if a bigger warmonger were to replace Putin that does not necessarily mean they’d continue the war. Retrench for the avowed purpose of bringing the Putin-weakened military up to world standards, blame the war and its loss on Putin.

    A Russian may think back to the Kerensky government keeping Russia in the first world war. That was not a popular move and Lenin later made huge concessions to the Germans, and quit the war. Kerensky is an un-person and Lenin is still a secular god.

  18. Lounsbury says:

    @MarkedMan: It is not “generous” it is analytical, versus emotive judgemental.

    Wars are about power between communities, which may or may not resolve to steal their stuff, but is always indeed about power.

    In any case, the likelihood of a frozen conflict à la situation Korean seems high, and contra Reynolds this is not a brilliant thing for USA interest for one phase: grain exports although we can perhaps say further the combined phrase net global grain availability in the world of climate change constraint

  19. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Lounsbury: Actually, it’s not analytical, either. It’s an adage, or maybe, an aphorism. But, it may well be simply a slogan by now. In any event, good job on showing “us lefties.” Keep up the good work!

  20. MarkedMan says:

    @Lounsbury: Oops. Started reading your reply before realizing it was you and I thought, “who is this prick leading off with an insult?” but then I saw it was you, so yes, of course. And skimming the rest of your post… yep, argument by unearned authority. It’s you alright.

  21. JohnSF says:

    @Michael Reynolds:
    Frozen conflict may work for the US.
    It does not work so well for Europe; and still less for Ukraine.
    So one question is: why should Ukraine and its supporters in Europe settle for a frozen conflict?

  22. Modulo Myself says:

    Who knows? None of us have access to anything approaching real information about what’s going in Russia. The pro-Russia American dupes are as confident as they were about Holy Russia’s need to control its destiny before the crazy coup/whatever attempt. Biden has been masterful the entire time in administering this pointless atrocity from the other side, and he has given the US a ton of leverage over Zelensky. This last winter was touted by the dupes as what would break NATO. They still think NATO will break, but it’s just anything now, a twitch, a murmur, every day every hour, the dumbest motherfuckers on earth.

    With no actual knowledge, I suspect that next year there will be a settlement which pushes Russia to Donbass and Crimea, mostly pushed by through the US who lays down the law to Zelensky. Putin will survive another year or so and then die, and then whoever suceeds him will be bombastic but completely the opposite of this.

  23. JohnSF says:

    A lot of analysis focuses on “what Putin can accept” and therefore what the peace terms must be.
    This misses two things:

    – Putin is not primarily pursuing the interests of Russia, but the interests of the Russian regime elite. These two things are not the same thing. If Russia is deeply harmed by a policy on “forever war” and/or “truce and restart”, but the regime survival prospects are enhanced, Putin will opt for regime survival. And the same will apply to any Putin successors that emerge in the current Russian political economy.

    – Zelensky and the government of Ukraine are likely far more constrained in tactical diplomacy, by public opinion, than is Putin and Russia.
    What incentive is there for Ukraine to accept a “peace deal” on terms acceptable to Putin, if such exist at all short of surrender?

    What happens if the self-appointed “grown-ups” in Washington reach for a “deal”, and Ukraine tells them to shove it? And the Ukraine support bloc in Europe does similarly?

  24. JohnSF says:


    The hope that Ukraine would and could quickly adopt the capabilities of the US in terms of mobile combined-arms warfare has proven to be overly optimistic…

    I’d be interested to see how well the US Army would perform in “combined-arms warfare” without air supremacy to combine with.
    Perhaps not as well as some might think.
    To put it charitably.

    (This next is NOT addressed to Andy.)
    A lot of European pro-Ukraine analysis now believes that key elements of the US national security establishment deliberately refused supply of MBT, jets and ATACMS etc, and then demanded “results” from a summer offensive in order to then push Ukraine to a “deal”.
    So that the US can get back to the “real issues”.
    Bugger that.

  25. JohnSF says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    …atrocities will NOT be answered for…

    Most Ukrainians seem rather inclined that they will be answered for.
    If not via the Hague, then otherwise.

    Incidentally IMO, Medvedev has never been a “moderate” beyond a bit of Kabuki cum “bad cop/good cop” act.
    He seems to have had some hopes of establishing himself as an independent power-broker ant one point; but soon got cut off at the knees by Putin, and has since accommodated himself to being a marginal figure who can pick up some scraps from the siloviki high table.
    A million here, a million there, and plenty of vodka and champagne.

  26. just nutha says:

    With regard to what the Ukrainians want, an adage about what happens when you wish in one hand and spit the other may apply. On Medvedev, “Kabuki cum bad cop/good cop” sums up the situation well. Still, back in the days when I was still a rightie, I recall Medvedev’s being welcomed as a sign of Russia “, joining the world” or some such blather.

  27. JohnSF says:

    @just nutha:
    Ukraine has agency in this matter.
    Recall how many in the US security establishment expected them to lose quickly in Feb ’22, or to be forced to accept terms in My/June ’22?
    And they have a lot of support in the northern/eastern Europe bloc.

    This gets disparaged as a bunch of “little countries”.
    But combined, their population is c. 100 million and their combined GDP dwarfs that of Russia. EU structures are designed to work as a force multiplier for smaller states when they collaborate.

    Going by World War standards, Ukraine should be able to maintain a million strong military for at least 6 years (WW levels of force loss were MUCH higher). External support just makes that easier.
    As far as I can judge, Ukraine has zero interest at present in an unfavourable peace.

  28. grumpy realist says:

    Plus there’s the fact that who would believe any promises coming out of Russia? Any supposed “stop of the war” will be suspected to be nothing more than Russia taking the chance to re-arm.

    The only “good” way I can see this ending is if Russia breaks up into smaller countries. Of which there’s no sign on the horizon.

  29. just nutha says:

    @JohnSF: From your lips to God’s ear.

  30. Ken_L says:

    Right from the time it became obvious Russia’s attempt at an overwhelming total victory had failed, most discussion of the war has been about “off ramps” and negotiated solutions, as if both sides must realise the whole thing was a mistake and the only sensible thing to do is to end it. I’ve always found this perplexing.

    Firstly, the conflict began in 2014. The full-scale invasion was presumably a reflection of Putin’s frustration that it was taking so long to make the Donbas secession a reality. It didn’t work, but that’s no reason to think he’s given up. If worse comes to worst, he can simply hunker down in a totally defensive crouch behind the current front lines and let Ukraine exhaust itself trying to find a way through.

    Secondly, the expectation of a swift end to the conflict ignores lots of modern history. The Confederacy had lost the war by August 1863, but it took another 20 months to admit it. The USSR battled on in Afghanistan for 10 years, which the USA managed to double. It’s an open question whether the war which began in Iraq in 2003 has finished even today. The apparent impossibility of ending the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is known to everyone.

    These examples, except the Civil War, are I suppose open to the objection that they were not as large-scale as the Ukraine war, but there are other cases where this does not apply. The Vietnam civil war lasted almost 30 years, with massive involvement by both China/USSR and the USA for much of it. Many observers said “This is crazy, find a way to end it,” but the war went on regardless. Germany kept fighting in 1944-5 long after a top general said “Make peace, you fools!” and there was no realistic prospect of victory.

    Wars have a momentum of their own, independent of rational management, largely caused by sunk cost fallacies and the dominance of emotional over evidence-based decision-making. I’ve no more idea than anyone else how the Ukraine conflict will end – indeed, if it will end at all in the lifetimes of those currently fighing it – but there are no reasons to think it will happen soon.

  31. Lounsbury says:

    @MarkedMan: The self-important tribalistic and childish thin-skinned reactions of the Lefties here does provide a source of modest entertainment (as the entirely obliviousness to the ironic hypocrisy of ‘unearned’ etc.).