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4 ways the war between Russia and Ukraine is likeliest to end

Julie Coleman   

4 ways the war between Russia and Ukraine is likeliest to end
LifeInternational4 min read
An anti-war sign in the colors of the Ukrainian flag is seen in Berlin's Kreuzberg district.    David Gannon
  • Russia's war in Ukraine is grinding to a deadly stalemate after five weeks.
  • Russia can keep up its invasion or negotiate a cease-fire. It's unlikely it'll simply withdraw.

After nearly five weeks of war between Russia and Ukraine, a clear-cut end to the bloody conflict still isn't in sight.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has some Ukrainian cities surrounded, and civilian areas are being bombed daily as observers and eyewitnesses accuse Russian troops of war crimes. According to US estimates, more than 7,000 Russian troops have been killed — with NATO reportedly estimating as many of 40,000 have been killed or captured or have deserted.

According to the United Nations' refugee agency, the war has caused an estimated $63 billion in damages in that time and killed at least 1,179 civilians as 3.9 million have fled the fighting in the most rapid mass migration in Europe since World War II.

As hostility between Russia and Ukraine continues, world leaders and civilians across the globe can't help but speculate how the conflict might be resolved. Here are four ways the war could eventually end, according to experts closely following the invasion.


A defeated, Russian-controlled Ukraine is believed to be Putin's ultimate goal. With all that he's invested in this war —thousands of soldiers, bombs, and other weapons — it seems unlikely he'll easily settle for anything less. To defeat Ukraine, Putin would have to force Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his government from power.

Some experts say the only way for Putin to defeat Ukraine is by large-scale destruction — and even then, it may be out of reach.

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Christopher Chivvis estimated that to achieve a puppet government, Putin would "make an example" of Ukrainian cities like Kharkiv or Mariupol, bearing down militarily and leaving them in ruins, similar to the way Russia has treated Aleppo, Syria, and Grozny, Chechnya, in recent years. Then, Chivvis said, Putin would threaten to destroy Kyiv, Ukraine's capital. From there, the leader could set up a puppet government.

But the road to a successful puppet government would be greatly hindered by the Ukrainians themselves, who have shown that they are unwilling to surrender to Russian control. And nearly two-thirds of leaders installed in puppet governments are either assassinated or violently overthrown, The Washington Post reported, citing research by Alexander B. Downes, a political science professor at George Washington University, and Lindsey O'Rourke, a Boston College political-science professor.

The Russian military is continuing its offensive against Mariupol that's left the city in ruins and civilians trapped without heat, food, or water. It's losing ground around Kyiv and apparently trying to reinforce its positions there as Russian officials say they are shifting focus to the eastern region, a US defense official told reporters Friday.

Ukrainian servicemen stand by a Russian army tank in the northeastern city of Trostianets, on March 29, 2022.
Ukrainian servicemen stand by a Russian army tank in the northeastern city of Trostianets, on March 29, 2022.      Fadel Senna/Getty Images

Russian retreat

Over the past five weeks, Ukraine has put up a stronger fight against Russia than experts expected. Russia's military overshadows that of Ukraine in every way, yet it has been unable to overtake any of Ukraine's largest cities, including Kyiv.

One way the war could end is a Russian withdrawal. But that's highly unlikely, experts say.

"In Russia, bad things happen to rulers who lose wars," Mark Cancian, a retired US Marine colonel and senior advisor with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Insider.

"The last ruler who lost the war was deposed and executed," he said, referring to Nicholas II, the last czar of Russia.

Peace agreement

A peace deal is one of the likelier ways for this highly destructive war to draw to a close.

Any viable peace deal between the two countries would likely rely on Ukrainian neutrality — in other words, Ukraine's promise not to join Western security groups like NATO. Putin says he views Ukraine's bid to join NATO as a threat to Russian security. Ukrainian negotiators offered a guarantee never join NATO at peace talks Tuesday.

Another important factor in a peace deal would be sovereignty over the Donbass region and Crimea. At the start of the invasion, Putin officially recognized the independence of Luhansk and Donetsk, pro-Russian separatist-controlled regions. Russian forces, at Putin's orders, seized the Crimea peninsula with its Black Sea port of Sevastopol from Ukraine in 2014.

According to Cancian, a peace deal would likely include Russia's continued de-facto rule of the Donbass.

"I think they could make some arrangement whereby Ukraine does not recognize the loss of the Donbass but the Russians keep the status quo with their two autonomous regions," he said. "In other words, it stays unresolved."

In justifying the invasion on February 24, Putin called for Ukraine to be demilitarized and denazified — even though Ukraine has democratic government led by an elected Jewish politician. It remains unclear how important these positions remain to Russian leaders.

A US soldier wears a gas mask while firing a rifle during a marksmanship course.
A US soldier wears a gas mask while firing a rifle during a marksmanship course.      Sgt. Keegan Costello/US Army

Conflict with NATO

So far, NATO allies have tried to support Ukraine, while staying directly out of the conflict.

The US and other NATO members have sent weapons, ammunition, medical supplies, and other military equipment to Ukraine but have said they will not send troops. They've also placed strong sanctions on Russia, targeting banks and elites.

If NATO were to become directly involved in the conflict, the possibility of widespread destruction beyond Ukraine — and even nuclear war — would become more likely.

On Thursday, President Joe Biden said NATO would respond directly to the conflict if Putin's forces employed chemical weapons. The extent of such involvement wasn't clear, with Biden saying the nature of NATO's response would depend on how the chemical weapons were used.

Only once have two nuclear-armed sides directly fought each other. That conflict was between India and Pakistan in 1999 and did not escalate beyond conventional warfare. The Cold War between the West and the USSR, for example, was largely fought through proxy forces backed by the superpowers. The US in 2017 analyzed whether a hot war between nuclear combatants would go nuclear, Defense One reported at the time.

"It's clearly a place that we don't want to go," a general who ran the war game said.