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How the War in Ukraine Might End
In the first few weeks of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, most of the conversation in the West centred on how quickly the Russians would overrun the country and whether Putin would use nuclear weapons. As of late, the question I am now most frequently asked in interviews and private conversations is “How will this war end?”.
This in itself is a remarkable transformation which shows how successful the Ukrainians have been in defending their country but having been forced out of central and northern Ukraine, Russian forces have regrouped in the east and are now engaged in a large scale assault whose key aim is to ‘liberate’ the Donbass.
You don’t need to be a military strategist, and I certainly am not, to see that there are three potential outcomes here:
1. A Russian victory which results in complete control over the Donbass and possibly a land bridge to Crimea
2. A Ukrainian victory which results in Russia being pushed out
3. A long war of attrition which results in some kind of stalemate
While all of these are possible, based on previous performance and with Western support growing by the day, it seems likely that Russia will be unable to overrun Ukrainian defences and will certainly continue to suffer casualties at a high rate.
As I’ve argued from the outset, this war will end at the negotiating table and so the question is how we’re likely to get there. On a recent podcast with my friend Noah Carl, he argued that since Putin needs a win, a successful Ukrainian defence increases the risk of cornered rat syndrome whereby Uncle Vlad begins to seriously consider escalating the conflict because he has no way out. I don’t think this will happen for reasons we discuss in the podcast but what’s interesting here is whether a stalemate is truly a “no way out” situation for Vladimir Putin.
Thankfully, we have a historical precedent here which is highly instructive. On 30 November 1939, Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union launched an invasion of Finland. While the official casus belli was the shelling of Mainila, a false flag operation in which the Soviets used artillery against their own border guard post killing four and injuring nine, the underlying logic of the conflict was incredibly relevant to the present war in Ukraine.
Stop me when this sounds familiar: Stalin’s stated concern was that following a revolution in Finland (!), a country which had only recently been part of the Russian Empire (!) and was only lost as a result of the collapse of that Empire (!), Finnish nationalists were a threat to the USSR (!). Once Stalin had shored up his power domestically (!) his policy became one of outright reconquest of land lost as a result of the collapse of the Empire (!).
And so, having signed a secret protocol with Hitler in which the two dictators carved up all of Eastern Europe whereby Stalin was allowed free reign in Finland, the USSR declared the Finnish Government “a fascist clique” (!) and began its invasion.
In what became known as the Winter War, the Soviet plan was to overrun the country in 2 weeks (!) and confidence levels were so high Red Army troops were warned to be careful about accidentally crossing into Sweden, which sits on the other, western, side of Finland. My great-grandfather, Isaac Kisin, was one of the men who fought in that war.
While the Soviet Union’s official demands were to seize a portion of Finnish land, the reality was that they already had a puppet government in mind – once Finland was conquered, the pro-Soviet communist government would be used to make the country the 16th Republic of the Soviet Union.
The Finns, however, had other ideas. Despite being outmanned, outgunned and outmatched in every way, the Finnish army deployed guerrilla tactics with devastating effect. Using their superior knowledge of the terrain, the Finns exploited every mistake and vulnerability of the Soviet behemoth, bleeding it with a thousand daily papercuts. Simo Häyhä, the most prolific sniper in the history of warfare with over 500 enemy kills, known among Soviet soldiers as the White Death, remains a symbol of their spirited resistance.
The result? The war lasted just over 3 months, with the Soviet Union losing between 125,000 and 170,000 soldiers and a further 200,000 sick or wounded. In the end, Finland was forced to hand over a small portion of its territory to the USSR, which was sold as a triumph domestically despite the huge casualties and a total failure to achieve their real objective of returning Finland to the “fraternal” Soviet Union.
In summary, the Winter War began as an invasion intended to overrun the target country, replace its government with a puppet regime and absorb it into the Soviet Union. But the target refused to be conquered, put up a fight and ended up keeping the country and remaining independent.
Will the war in Ukraine become the Summer War? We’ll see soon enough.
P.S. My great-grandfather, Isaac, survived the war and returned home to his wife and baby son (my grandfather). A year later Adolf Hitler invaded the Soviet Union and Isaac was called up again. He went missing, presumed killed, in the first phase of the war and was never heard from again. Isaac was my age.