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Earl Weaver, Hall of Fame manager of the Baltimore Orioles, famously summed up his management style as: “Pitching, defense and the three run homer.”
This is, you might say, a blinding flash of the obvious. Baseball games are won by scoring more runs than the other guy; have good pitching, don’t make any errors, and hit some three-run home runs.
What has that got to do with Zelensky and Putin and the war in Ukraine?
The issue is the war in Ukraine, the question is how does it end?
The Deus ex Machina ending is the one everyone wants. You remember Deus ex Machina: the device they had on the stages in the Roman (and earlier Greek) tragedies and comedies you had to read in high school. When the story became too complex and the playwright (and audience) needed an answer, a mechanical arm, usually with one of the gods or goddesses on it, would drop down and provide a solution. It was very handy in comedies, just before everything went tragically wrong the appropriate god or goddess would show up, fix the unfixable, and everyone rejoices, tragedy averted, laughter and merriment all around.
That is the solution it seems everyone hoping for: Putin is suddenly swept from power, a more sedate Russian takes his place, the Russian army is withdrawn, Russia says: “Sorry,” and we all go back to the way things were. Or try to.
Is that going to happen?
And even if it is going to happen, we won’t have any indication before it happens. When Khrushchev was overthrown in 1964 it was entirely executed by an inner circle of senior personnel who personally arrested him. If Putin were to be overthrown, we would know about it only after it was done.
So, while we might hope for the Deus ex Machina ending to this tragedy, what should Washington and the capitals of Europe be planning for?
The war will end in one of four ways, and like Earl Weaver’s comment, they are blindingly obvious.
The Russians will lose their will; the Ukrainians will lose their will, both countries will become exhausted, or there’ll be a nuclear exchange and it will become irrelevant.
So, the question is this: what would make Putin lose his will or Zelensky lose his will? And, while we’re at it, how do we make the use of a nuclear weapon less likely?
In practical terms, losing will in warfare translates into this: coming to believe that continuing the fight will yield less than ending the fight. That’s not always the case, but it is for all but a very few circumstances, none of which look to be likely in Ukraine.
For Russia and Putin, there seems no circumstances that are readily imaginable in which Putin will break, that he will concede, that he quits. Ukraine seems too central to his vision of Russia to be readily “discarded.” Putin will certainly explore different tactics, but there’s little reason to believe he’ll quit.
Zelensky and Ukraine is potentially a different problem, in that it’s conceivable Zelensky might lose his heart, or the country could, while the other still wishes to fight. But in reality there’s little likelihood of that in the near term. With 2/3rds of Ukrainians believing that it’s not possible to have friendly relations with Russia, and 98% identifying as Ukrainians, and with more revelations of war atrocities expected, there’s little chance Ukrainians, or Zelensky, are going to lose their will to fight; certainly not for the next year or so.
As for Putin using a nuclear weapon, that possibility remains available to him unless the US and NATO can send a strong enough, credible enough message to Putin that to do so would not only draw some sort of military response, but would also result in Russia becoming a political and economic pariah for the remainder of his life and the lives of all those who took part in the decision to use that weapon.
Which leaves us with the last path: the war ends through exhaustion.
Over the last few days this has begun to look more and more likely. Simply, the two fight on and on as their own economies and those of their friends and allies begin to slow down. As time drags on, more and more economies and industries begin to shrink. Eventually, this economic collapse directly impacts the ability of both countries to either produce (in Russia’s case) or be given (in Ukraine’s case) the weapons and support they need. This could easily take more than year. And, in fact, this war, from the perspective of Europe, is affordable even under the most dire economic conditions.
What may not be affordable is the potential economic collapse of Ukraine in the event of a global depression.
Stated otherwise, the West needs to keep Ukraine politically and economically afloat long enough that the economic stress on Russia becomes so great that it - Russia - must stop fighting. But that’s going to mean a great deal of economic pain in the West.
Which really reduces to this question: can the West take as much economic and social and political pain as it’s going to have to inflict on Russia to break Russia’s ability to fight the war?
About Pete O'Brien
Peter O’Brien has more than 30 years of successful leadership and planning experience in a wide range of organizations afloat and ashore on three continents. Mr. O’Brien’s Navy career included ten years at sea, more than a dozen years stationed overseas and multiple ...