Michael KreponAll Wars Must End

Quote of the week:

“The quickest way to end war is to lose it.” — George Orwell

All wars must end, or so we have been told by Gideon Rose and Fred Iklé. But how will Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine end? Or might this war continue without ever really ending?

The answer could well depend on how long Vladimir Putin is the chief prosecutor of this war. The quickest end to the punishing carnage Putin has unleashed is for him to go. Soviet/Russian history suggests three options in this regard, but all are long shots.

Wars occasionally end in clear cut victory. Think of World War II, or India’s domination of Pakistan in their 1971 war, and the expulsion of Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait in 1991. These outcomes are rare by twentieth and twenty-first century standards.

More often, war has resulted in stalemates, most notably World War I and Korea. Or quagmires like Vietnam and Afghanistan. When quagmires involve nuclear-armed states, possessors have decided – at least so far — not to use their most powerful weapons in a cause that cannot be won. Despite what deterrence strategists theorize, the actual military utility of nuclear weapons in warfare since 1945 has been zero. Nada. Zilch.

Stalemates and quagmires are the functional equivalent of losses for nuclear-armed states whose leaders have made poor decisions to wage war. Now it’s Putin’s turn to decide whether to become the first leader in history to wage an aggressive war and to use a nuclear weapon in doing so. This would place him on the lowest circle of hell in Dante’s inferno. The use of chemical weapons would place him on the rung above.

The more Putin seeks victory – and the more ground he gains with crimes against humanity – the more he loses.

The U.S. Intelligence Community has assessed that Putin will double down in Ukraine. They’ve been on the mark so far. He will continue to lay waste to Ukraine’s cities, for this is the Russian way of war. Long distance shelling and missile strikes circumvent Javelins and Stingers. Nor are they subject to no fly zones. There will be much higher death tolls and refugee counts.

The Russian Army, like Putin, will lose by gaining ground. Its reputation is shot, its deficiencies have been on display, casualty counts are rising, and it will supply the Ukrainian Army with the fighting vehicles it leaves behind when, as will eventually be the case, Moscow retreats from ground it cannot hold.

The morale of Russian troops is presumably low. This war, like other quagmires before it, makes less sense the longer it is fought. Russian-Ukrainian ties used to be interwoven; this was, after all, Putin’s ostensible rationale for waging war. He has now severed these ties.

From a Russian perspective, the damage done to the Russian Army ought to rank high among the reasons for ending this war as soon as possible. Then there’s the damage to the Russian economy and international standing.

The easiest way to envision an end to this war is for Putin to leave. One way is for his colleagues to provide him with a golden parachute – a comfortable dacha beyond the reach of legal and political consequences. That’s how Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, left a battered Russia. Putin can do far better than this: he has his palace on the Black Sea. But it’s hard to see who would have the nerve to suggest his exit.

The second way Putin might go is the way that Nikita Khrushchev went. His fellow Politburo members grew weary of his erratic, personalized policies, topped off by his Cuban missile gambit, and gave him the boot. But that was when the Politburo consisted of rivals. Putin has no rivals. He has yes men.

The third way is the way that Josef Stalin went, either by a sudden medical ailment, or an ailment given a human assist.  But Putin is well aware of this scenario and is presumably guarding against it.

So, here we are. We know what’s needed to end this war sooner rather than later. We know what it will take to stop the carnage, the refugee flows, and the war crimes. We know what’s required to stabilize European security. We just don’t know long it will take for Putin to acknowledge the need to change course, let alone lose power.


  1. Jack Salmon (History)

    Are you channeling Lindsey Graham? Is it perchance time to reconsider the role of assassination? How about a Declared State of Assassination rather than of War? I’m not sure how that would work, but it could mean we’d quit killing cemeteries full of patriots and collaterals and accidents. Isn’t Putin a clear case of “no man, no problem?” If we can restrain escalation, it just might be worth trying.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      This is Russia’s business, not mine or Lindsey Graham’s. Or the USG’s.

    • Jack Salmon (History)

      If it is not the USG’s business, why is the USG involved to the degree that it is? Where is your cutoff point? If Putin used a tacnuke, would it become USG business?

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      War crimes, cluster bombs, missiles, air strikes are the USGs business. It’s our business to help Ukrainians defend themselves.
      It’s our business to make this war a losing proposition for Russia and for Putin.
      A tac nuke would certainly be the USG’s business.
      Assassination of a government leader is not the USG’s business.

  2. Zachary Schlabach (History)

    Given NATO’s limited, but recent history, to be used for non-UN supported policy goals (Kosovo & Lybia) I think Putin had a reasonable concern that a NATO Ukraine may eventually be used against Russia. Given that western countries seemed to just blow Russia’s concerns off- and Ukraine was agressively arming (not completely unreasonable, but I think what we’ve seen them accomplish it wasn’t malarky). There is a much quicker way to end this war; the same sort of way we did in Afghanistan- to just stop supporting a questionable democracy at best, corrupt, and pretty nasty right-wing nationalistic government against the Russians. Then they’ll maybe negotiate someting that would essentially be a neutral zone (though I’m not sure that could work anymore, too many lives already lost).