The third year of the Ukraine war and its possible end

Drawing parallels with the end of the First World War, Albrecht Rothacher looks at the prospects for an end to war in Ukraine. He starts with the worst-case scenario and then considers four further ways in which hostilities might cease

End of the First World War: a worst-case scenario

It is August 1916. The third year of the war has just begun. One battle is followed by another. Ypres, the Somme, Verdun, the battles go a couple of kilometres forward and then a few kilometres more back…

The human losses back then were more than twenty times those of the current trench warfare in the Donbas. Verdun alone experienced 1.2 million dead on both sides. The US intervention changed that, and within another two years, the Central Powers collapsed in defeat.

In 1916, the Axis Powers had offered compensatory peace. The Peace Settlement of 1919, by contrast, was the worst-case scenario in terms of vindictiveness. Indeed, it sowed the seeds for a future conflict.

In Ukraine 108 years later, the trenches are much more sparsely manned. Entire regiments are not being wiped out on a daily basis; nevertheless, war weariness is spreading. Both sides are aware that every war must end at some point, even if rarely as planned and usually not as expected.

So, what are the scenarios for war’s end? Here, I envisage five, starting with the worst-case scenario and working upwards.

Scenario 1: Trump and Putin

Presidents Trump and Putin meet in Mar-a-Lago or Sochi in November 2024 and make a deal. Trump offers Putin the Brotherhood in Arms of 1945, with the demarcation lines of May 1945 as exclusive zones of influence. In return, Putin, as a new US ally, must abandon his previous allies of China, North Korea and Iran. Soviet pipeline gas flows to Eastern Europe again in exchange for manufactured goods. American liquefied natural gas flows to the West. Meanwhile, the German and Austrian governments have fled to Bonn and Bregenz respectively. Only Slovenia remains free.

Scenario 2: Goodbye, Zelenskiy

In a demoralised Ukraine, the Russian secret service manages to overthrow Zelenskiy and instal Viktor Yanukovych, or a similar quisling, in Kyiv. He concludes a peace and friendship treaty with Putin to form a forever confederation with Russia and Belarus. Since the Americans are uninterested in Europe, Russian peacekeepers are also brought into the country by Robert Fico, Viktor Orbán and Aleksandar Vučić in return for free Russian gas, and are therefore in Bratislava and Sopron. Now Putin is threatening to 'free' the Baltics, Finland and Moldova from 'fascists'.

Scenario 3: Stalemate

The front 'freezes', as it did in Donbas in 2014 and in the other post-Soviet wars in Transnistria, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, in a barren, mined landscape with an informal ceasefire that is repeatedly disrupted by shootings and drones from uncontrollable militias of all kinds. No peace, no war. The economies of both sides cannot develop. Everyone is waiting for the next stage, which does not seem to come.

Scenario 4: Peace settlement

An unencumbered statesman from the West – let's call him Chancellor Kickl and his deputy Nehammer – fly to Kyiv and Moscow with the blessing of the Americans and negotiate a face-saving peace for both sides. It starts with a ceasefire and the demilitarisation of the disputed Donbas oblasts and Crimea. The UN’s blue helmets go in. There is the beginning of reconstruction and the return of displaced persons and refugees. All sanctions on Russia end. After one or two years, Ukraine holds a referendum under international supervision on the national affiliation of the respective oblasts and administrative units. In 1920, this had all already happened in Carinthia, German West Hungary, North Schleswig, Upper Silesia and South East Prussia. But this time, it would be with whatever new borders NATO and US security guarantees for Ukraine.

Scenario 5: Goodbye, Putin

Russia is always good for surprises. Especially when you least expect it. During a break in a meeting of his top advisers, Putin, in keeping with what appears to be tradition, falls out of an open Kremlin window. Or he chokes on a polonium tablet from the Kremlin pharmacy. Or he disappears into a sanatorium in the Urals after feeling unwell.

A triumvirate takes over, from which a pro-Western reformer suddenly emerges who, like Mikhail Gorbachev or Boris Yeltsin, was until then on no one's radar as a supposed apparatchik (otherwise he would not have fared well). The war ends with minimal territorial concessions (because no Russian, including Navalny or Nemtsov, could ever have done without Crimea) and reparations for reconstruction. Western investments are welcome again. Romano Prodi's 2001 vision of a Eurasian free trade zone from Lisbon to Vladivostok comes alive again, as does the 1997 vision of a NATO partnership with Russia. A nightmare is over…

So, five ways in which the Ukraine war could end. And yet, as the conflict drags into its third year, we still have very little sense of which scenario is likely to prevail.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Albrecht Rothacher
Albrecht Rothacher
Independent Researcher

Albrecht gained his MA in sociology from the University of Bridgeport in 1978, and a PhD in international relations from LSE in 1982.

A stint at Deutsche Bank in the EU’s diplomatic service followed from 1984–2020, with postings in Vienna, Singapore, Paris and Tokyo, lastly as Minister Councillor, mostly dealing with economic and trade issues.

He then worked in Brussels as a policy officer, mostly concerned with economic relations with countries 'East of Berlin and Vienna'; lastly with Russia mainly.

He has published 24 books mostly on Asian affairs, economic and military history, but most recently a biography on the French presidents of the 5th Republic.

Current research work includes a collective biography of the Austrian chancellors of the 2nd Republic, and French colonial wars 1945–1962 (Indochina and Algeria).

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4 comments on “The third year of the Ukraine war and its possible end”

  1. I think it is necessary for Russia to be thoroughly defeated. And insulted. They need to see either NATO military marches in their own capital or, much better, their own democratic freedom fighters' victorious parades after toppling the Putler regime. They though need to have their empire dissolved. 10-20 new states would emerge. Köningsberg (now temporarily called Kaliningrad) should be independent. Stolen German, Prussian and Pomeranian property given back. Karelia, Salla, Petsamo and the islands of the Gulf of Finland given back to Finland. The four north Japanese islands to Japan. And the Russian support to arch idiots, like the dictators in Chechnya, Belarus and Turkmenistan would seize. They governments would fall. Georgia would be unified again. Moldova would take control of its entire territory. Ukraine would get its internationally recognised borders. Russia would forever loose its nuclear arms. School kids for generations would need to read about Lenin-Stalin-Putin and the act of horror made by the arrogant Russian autocrats. They would need to study this as much as the German school kids needed to read about the Holocaust. Russia needs this forced education and their own Nürnberg (Nuremberg) tribunal to become civilised. Yes, all Russian I know, all the Russian classical literature, rich culture and classical music that I love, would gain from a civilised, democratic and smaller, less imperial, Russia.
    I once spoke to a Russian, who said it is "so beautiful you can speak Russian from St Petersburg to Vladivostok." I replied to him, "no it is imperialism, not the least beautiful." This arrogant Russian attitude must be curbed. I really hope for a thoroughly defeated Putler regime. In essence, this defeat should come from inside and/or from NATO. Likely a combination. But it needs to be so profound as in Germany 1945. After this we will still have to face the imminent threat of religious fanaticism and China...

  2. No where does it show a military defeat for Ukraine that has no willing soldiers nor a win for Russia which realises NATO is out to undertake a Yugoslavia battering to it's country. I believe Russia will win and the west will economically be crippled. I don't want to see WWIII and the west apapear not to have learnt.

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