Six Ways the Russia-Ukraine War Could Come to an End

An American protestor holds a sign that reads "Stop War"

An American protestor calls for an end to the Russia-Ukraine conflict. (Photo Illustration by Katie Couric Media/Getty Images)

From a Ukrainian victory to a nuclear attack.

There’s so much to unpack in the complicated geopolitical implications of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but anyone who’s paying attention to the heartbreaking images coming out of the region is most likely thinking about one major question: How can this conflict come to a close?

Andreas Kluth, the Bloomberg columnist and longtime Economist correspondent, penned a fascinating new piece laying out the six scenarios he believes are most likely to bring the battling to an end. Ranging from the best-case scenario — that Ukraine is able to repel the Russian invasion, putting the country on the path to joining the European Union — to the highly unlikely but still present threat of a nuclear attack.

Katie spoke with Kluth about each scenario, how they could all play out, and more. Watch their full conversation here:

Katie Couric: You wrote a piece about Putin and six ways the war in Ukraine could end. And I’d like to start by asking you to explain this anecdote that Vladimir Putin apparently likes to tell the Russian press, about his experience as a child with a rat.

Andreas Kluth: It’s a very short anecdote, but he’s made sure the media has been recycling it for years. The story is that he was a young poor child in Leningrad, which is today St. Petersburg, and the boys there in the tenement liked to chase rats all over the place. Putin chased a big mean rat down a hallway and was cornered. The rat turned and attacked young Vladimir and jumped in his face. So why is that anecdote popular? We think it might be that it’s another veiled threat: “Don’t corner me. I’m the rat in this metaphor, because I will attack and I will not be rational about it.”

Let’s talk about the possible ways that this could end — please walk us through those scenarios. The first is that the Ukrainian military wins.

That’s the one we want. That’s the one I would love, emotionally, on the face of it. That’s the best scenario. Maybe they could repel and expel the Russian invading forces and Russia would withdraw. Then Ukraine would start negotiations to enter the European Union and so forth. The problem, if you think about the rat story that Vladimir Putin has, is that after all the propaganda he’s been feeding the Russian population, he cannot survive politically if he allows that to happen. At least, that’s his fear. So, therefore, he will not allow that scenario.

How realistic is it that the Ukrainians overcome the Russian military? Obviously it hasn’t been easy  — they’re putting up an extraordinarily courageous fight. But is it conceivable that the Ukrainian military could overcome a significantly superior force, in terms of personnel and equipment?

Two weeks ago, I would’ve said, “No, it’s not conceivable.” From a strategic point of view, they’re the defender, and to win, they just have to keep the other side from winning. I don’t think the Ukrainians can overcome the Russian military, but they can keep them from winning, which so far — to my amazement — is what they’ve been able to do.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky is pretty incredible. What are your thoughts on how he’s emerged as a leader?

He is unbelievably inspiring. People are calling him the new Churchill. He’s risen to the occasion, inspiring his compatriots in this unbelievable way. He’s on a kill list, so the Americans offered to get him out, and he says, “I need ammo, not a ride.” But to have someone like that at the top, of course, is very risky.

Let’s tick off the other possibilities. The ideal is the Ukrainians defending their nation and holding off the Russian incursion. Another is a Russian reign of terror, you say, by bombing Ukraine into submission and transforming Russia into a police state, eliminating and persecuting the last remnants of free speech. The world would have a new Iron Curtain. Can you elaborate on that?

That best scenario [is something] Vladimir Putin cannot afford to allow. So he will escalate in one scenario, by basically using weapons. He says, “I will not concede defeat. We will essentially turn Ukraine into a parking lot or rubble. We will bomb them the way the Allies bombed the Germans at the end of WWII, until I’ve subjugated them.” It’s not clear to anybody what he would then rule over after that. And the Ukrainians would hate him, but he would win.

The even worse one scenario is that he just escalates things and it becomes a quagmire like Afghanistan. Then it could be a long grind that he wouldn’t be comfortable with, either. Because remember — he’s the rat: He wants to survive politically and biologically at home.

How likely is a scenario in which Russia initiates a nuclear attack?

I think it remains unlikely, especially if we get into the slightly more optimistic scenarios that we have to consider next. We have to consider whether Putin is stable, and he is definitely living in his own reality. Unfortunately, he keeps sort of playing with these threats. He has not said the word “nuclear” yet, but he’s put his nuclear arsenal on alert status. He said something about how if [outsiders] even think about interfering, the consequences will be greater than you’ve ever imagined.

In essence, he was threatening nuclear war, wasn’t he?

Yes. His gamble here would be to do this by dropping a few tactical nukes, to declare a victory and hope it doesn’t escalate into actual clear war between the West and Russia. That that would be his gamble. But he may not care, because he may think he wouldn’t survive defeat, so what’s the difference to him?

Let’s continue with the potential scenarios. Russia could revolt and center around an opposition leader. A homegrown Russian revolution would be by far the best outcome. The new regime in Moscow could blame the attack on Putin alone, and therefore withdraw without looking weak.

Exactly. The best, but unfortunately unlikely, scenario is that the Russians themselves take care of this. Lindsay Graham, the U.S. Senator, made a huge mistake by seeming to suggest a violent regime change, which feeds into Putin’s propaganda. But if the Russians themselves become aware of the risks that we’re talking about and say, “This man has to go,” the new leader that takes over in Russia could immediately say, “This was Putin’s idea,” and that would be the truth. And they could withdraw without looking weak, and therefore they will withdraw.

I don’t know about the Ukrainians — how quickly they’ll embrace the Russians again — but we could at least immediately embrace a new Russia because we have a problem with the man, not with the Russians in general. Sanctions would be dropped. We could improve Russia. We could improve the world and we could get to work immediately. So that would be by far the best option, but it doesn’t seem likely because of that reign of terror that we described.

The last and second-best scenario you describe is China intervening. Can you talk about that?

China is fascinating in so many ways. Even during the Cold War, Richard Nixon broadened the scope and included China and changed the game. And we may have to do that again. China is not really an ally of Russia, but is its strongest partner. Allegedly Putin promised that he would wait for the invasion until the Olympics were over. I mean, it’s that surreal and macabre. They just recently had a joint statement saying there was no limit to their partnership. They’ve got each other’s back in the security council of the United Nations and so forth.

And yet their interests are not actually aligned because Xi Jinping, the president of China in Beijing, he sees Putin and worries this could ruin his plans. He wants more time to become a proper superpower, and then one day take on the U.S.. And along the way, at some point, the island of Taiwan. Jinping certainly doesn’t want the scenarios we’ve talked about. I don’t think he wants a quagmire. I don’t think he wants to the Taiwanese to notice how bravely and successfully the Ukrainians can fight. He certainly doesn’t want tactical nuclear weapons being used. He wants stability for now. I believe the Chinese could find Putin a trap door or an exit ramp, so he saves face and declares victory. Or somehow makes it out to safety with Chinese help.

What are Putin’s ultimate ambitions? If in fact he’s successful in Ukraine, what is Putin likely to do after that? Will he invade other countries — other non-NATO countries, or even NATO countries?

It could spread very soon, but I don’t think it will before Putin’s digested Ukraine. And he doesn’t seem to be able to digest it. But of course with Moldova right next door, there are already Russians. I mean, look at all the countries in the region that were part of the Soviet Union or under the sphere of influence of the Soviet Union, including the Warsaw Pact before. Putin was actually claiming that the Ukrainians were planning or committing a genocide against ethnic Russians. It’s absolutely absurd, but that’s how he views it. That’s how Hitler did it: When he went into the Czech Republic first, it was claimed there was actually a genocide going on against Germans. He just made that up. I mean, percentage-wise, there are huge Russian populations in Poland, Moldova, Georgia, Kazakhstan, you name it. He could at any point invent additional excuses to pressure those back into the Soviet Union.

The Germans are welcoming Ukrainian refugees with open arms. Can you talk about the situation that’s going on in Germany and how it might impact Germany politically? Because we’ve seen how an influx of immigrants has brought so many countries increasingly to the right, and ushered in some authoritarian regimes worldwide.

I think psychologically it’s great, because it’s a positive thing during this time of anxiety and fear. In Germany, it dredges up old war memories, but the idea is that anyone can help. But the polls are more interesting than looking at the Germans’ actions, because remember, the Germans were pretty welcoming until 2015 during the last refugee crisis, right? There are populist right-wing leaders in Hungary and Poland who built their entire identity and their electoral success on anti-immigrant backlash. But for the time being, this response to the refugees is yet another way in which Putin has lost and miscalculated. Because in terms of the response, it seems to have united the European Union almost overnight.