In Russia’s war against Ukraine, are ‘a coup or a nuke’ the only endgames left?

Eight months into the war, both sides have lost any incentive to negotiate. That’s a dangerous place to be.

The longer the war in Ukraine lasts, the harder it gets to imagine how it might end.

There is no give at the moment on either side.

“The way out of the conflict is for Russia to leave Ukraine,” she said. “That’s the way out of the conflict.”

Taken to its logical conclusion, this state of affairs — with the two sides dug in and NATO firmly dug in as well — seems to leave only two plausible outcomes: a coup or a nuke. Or to put it slightly less crudely, either there’s major political change in Russia, or Putin rolls the dice and escalates dramatically. The first scenario is not particularly likely, the second almost too horrifying to contemplate.

Are these really the only options left?

Calls for negotiations

The trouble with talks

Dan Reiter, a professor of political science at Emory University and author of the book “How Wars End,” told Grid, “The sweet spot you’re trying to find is a deal that has some set of concessions that Ukraine and the west are willing to make, but it has to be big enough that it can serve as a fig leaf for Putin to withdraw from the war without getting thrown from power.”

If that’s true, it’s not clear what there is to negotiate about.

What will NATO do?

Of course, given that the resistance depends on international money and weapons, the decision about whether to bend at all to Moscow may not ultimately be Ukraine’s to make. NATO and the U.S. could theoretically apply pressure on Zelenskyy to make concessions.

“From the Western perspective, having Russia gain territory from a war of aggression in Europe, carried out under the shadow of nuclear threats, is not terribly conducive to the future of European security,” Olga Oliker, Crisis Group’s program director for Europe and Central Asia, told Grid.

Coup or a nuke

If there’s no way out via the negotiating table, that brings us back to those two often-discussed scenarios: a coup in the Kremlin or Russian use of a nuclear weapon.

So how does this end?

Turning points to come

For the time being, the most likely scenario is neither a nuke nor a coup, but simply more war.

A few potential turning points are looming on the horizon, however, and any of these could make calls for negotiations grow louder.

And while there are no signs of direct Ukraine-Russia ceasefire talks any time soon, there are still a number of intermediaries who are talking to both sides. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres and Turkey’s Erdogan helped facilitate the grain deal. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman and Russian tycoon Roman Abramovich played a role in negotiating a recent prisoner swap. United Arab Emirates Leader Mohammed Bin Zayed, a close U.S. ally, was recently in Moscow for talks with Putin. With the possible exception of Guterres, this seems an unlikely group of Nobel Peace Prize laureates, but the point is that there are potential intermediaries out there — if avenues for negotiation appear.

And they may. “Decision-making has to be based on the facts we have on the ground, not on virtual political reality,” Liana Fix, fellow for Europe at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Grid. “It just requires a lot of patience, because down the road other scenarios may open up that we’re not thinking of now. It’s a matter of walking through the fog in a cautious, step-by-step approach, without sacrificing our principles.”

It’s also worth remembering that while Feb. 24 may feel like a lifetime ago, only eight months have passed — a relatively short amount of time for a major land war between two well-supplied military powers. Right now, there’s no telling how long we may be walking through the fog.

Start your day with the biggest stories and exclusive reporting from The Messenger Morning, our weekday newsletter.
By signing up, you agree to our privacy policy and terms of use.
Sign Up.