On Oct. 28, 1962, President John F. Kennedy placed a call to 88-year-old former President Herbert Hoover. The matter at hand was so serious that Kennedy phoned each of the three living former presidents that day, including Hoover, who had left the White House 30 years earlier. He wanted to assure his predecessors personally that he had stood firm against the Soviets, insisting that they withdraw their nuclear missiles from Cuba without the U.S. offering to remove its own missiles from Turkey in exchange.
Kennedy, we now know, was lying. He had promised Premier Nikita Khrushchev that those American missiles would be withdrawn. He just did not want the public to know about it, and the three former presidents (Hoover, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower) unwittingly became part of a grand deception. Kennedy feared, perhaps rightly, that Americans would never accept any settlement that smacked of appeasement. The deal was kept secret, and the world averted a nuclear war.
In cutting a deal with Khrushchev, Kennedy was not weak but wise. He recognized the limits of American power and acted accordingly. It is the failure to grasp those limits that usually leads to disaster. And it is our emotions—the thirst for revenge, the hunger for justice—that can make us insist on outcomes beyond what is possible. This lesson is especially relevant right now, as the U.S. and its allies try to determine how best to end the war in Ukraine.
In times of war, compromise can feel unbearable. When an enemy commits unprovoked aggression by devastating cities, murdering innocent civilians and perpetrating war crimes, the idea of negotiation becomes unthinkable. All of this is true of the current war in Ukraine. Russia’s repeated missile strikes on Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities reminds us that the human costs of this war continue to rise. President Volodymyr Zelensky has conditioned peace negotiations on Russia withdrawing from occupied territory, paying the Ukrainians reparations for the war, and ensuring that Russians accused of war crimes be tried. Despite Russia’s withdrawal from Kherson, Russian President Vladimir Putin is vowing that annexed Ukrainian territory belongs immutably to Russia. Both sides claim Crimea as their own.
Each leader is digging in on maximalist demands. With such intransigence is a nuclear escalation inevitable? If maximalist demands continue and compromise is abjured, there are four probable pathways to peace. None is especially appealing.
The First Scenario: Ukrainian Victory Leads To a Wider War
In this event, Ukraine recaptures all of its lost territory, including the Donbas and Crimea, restoring its pre-2014 borders—exactly as most of us in the West would wish. But if Putin cannot accept the loss of Crimea, with its essential naval bases and his hold on power at stake, he would likely escalate through intensive missile attacks on civilian populations in Ukraine; or by cyberattacks on critical Ukrainian and possibly Western infrastructure; or with biological, chemical or even nuclear weapons. In other words, Ukrainian success would bring far more suffering upon the Ukrainian people.
Putin has other options as well. He might choose to attack Western powers indirectly, by stoking ethnic tensions in Serbia to compel EU states to focus their attention on the Balkans, or by sabotaging their already limited access to fuel during winter, or through targeted assassinations of key leaders, including Zelensky. Putin has shown that his operatives are able to strike their enemies beyond Russia’s borders, most notably in London in 2006 with the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko with polonium, and in Salisbury in 2014 with the murder of Sergei Skripal and his daughter by means of a nerve agent. And then there was the poisoning of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko in 2004.
Finally, Putin might elect to attack NATO countries directly with conventional missiles. The recent accidental strike on a Polish granary has heightened the fear of escalation beyond Ukraine’s borders. In short, if Ukraine continues winning, its losses could ultimately be severe. In this scenario, Ukraine’s battlefield success leads Russia to widen the war.
The Second Scenario: Putin Is Removed From Power
Another possibility is that Ukraine’s continued recapturing of territory leads to Putin being overthrown. Regime change from outside Russia is almost inconceivable, as no other power would risk a full-scale nuclear war to replace him unless he takes truly extreme measures against the West. Putin surely understands that he is protected by the implicit threat from his nuclear arsenal. Imposing regime change from the outside was possible with Napoleon, Hitler, Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein because they lacked this high-tech safeguard. A man’s best friend might be a dog, but a dictator’s best friend is a nuke, as North Korea’s Kim Jong-un clearly understands.
Therefore, any regime change would have to come from within, either by a Kremlin or military coup, or from a popular uprising. All seem unlikely at this point, but if Russian casualties (which may have already reached 100,000) grow too high to bear, or if Russian forces continue to suffer humiliations on the battlefield, the possibility of Putin’s fall will rise.
There are three conceivable ways that Putin could be removed, each with antithetical outcomes. The first way involves Putin being deposed in a Kremlin coup. But the Russian leader has assembled a government of like-minded yes men. It does not appear that any moderates or doves exist within his inner or outer circle. Beyond this, the Russian security service maintains such a close ear to whispers of resistance that the odds of insiders successfully plotting a coup are extremely remote. Putin’s background in the KGB has served him well. When Mikhail Gorbachev was overthrown in 1991, the coup plotters cut off all presidential communications. According to Vladimir Milov, a prominent Russian opposition figure, Putin, in contrast to Gorbachev, has transferred control of communications to his personal command. Even if a coup were attempted, the plotters would probably not get far.
The second possibility involves a popular revolution sweeping away Putin and his Kremlin cronies and installing a democratically inclined leader, someone like the imprisoned opposition leader Aleksei Navalny. Russians do have a history of revolting against their government, in 1905, 1917, and again in 1991. But how such a revolution could occur is hard to envision at this moment. In today’s Russia, with its modern security apparatus armed with sophisticated surveillance tools, this prospect seems sadly dim.
The third possibility involves a nationalist uprising of Russians overthrowing the current leadership, but replacing it with a leader or leaders even more ardently anti-Western than Putin. We cannot ignore the possibility that a popular uprising might not produce a vibrant, pro-Western democracy. It could just as plausibly yield a new set of nationalists—younger, more world savvy, and still bent on restoring Russian dominance. These leaders might take the country in new, undemocratic directions. And in that event, once again, Ukraine and the West could be worse off.
The Third Scenario: Russia Rebounds
In this dark future, Russia regains full control of contested territory by breaking the Ukrainian will to fight. It might do this by any of the means specified above, most likely by continued missile strikes on civilian centers. At the moment, it looks as though Ukrainian will would only be strengthened by Russian assaults, but the more that wars drag on, and the greater the hardships a populace must endure, the higher the chance of Ukraine relaxing its demands or even becoming resigned to some form of defeat.
The Fourth Scenario: Stalemate and Compromise
The last, most likely outcome is that neither side can decisively change the situation by force. Russia tightens its hold on Crimea and portions of the Donbas. Ukraine advances a bit more but cannot dislodge Russian troops from most of the areas they occupy. And the two sides grind each other down by attrition as soldiers keep on dying and civilians continue to suffer. This is typically when earnest negotiations begin and maximalist demands relent.
Most of us who back Ukraine do not want compromise. We insist on justice. Many want revenge. Our values demand total victory for the perceived victims and total defeat for the aggressor. There is nothing wrong with this desire for justice. There are just two problems with maximalist demands: They may not be achievable short of nuclear war, and they might not form the foundation of a stable peace.
Although the Group of Seven, representing the strongest democratic nations, recently pledged unequivocally to help Kyiv “uphold its sovereignty and territorial integrity,” tiny cracks are beginning to appear in the West’s wall of support. The U.S. secretary of defense, Lloyd Austin, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Mark Milley, have suggested that Kyiv should remain open to negotiation. Perhaps fearing future stalemate, they want Ukraine to negotiate while it has the upper hand. They may have failed to say what others in government might be thinking: that the war is costing America enormous sums.
In a time of global inflation, and in the wake of massive government spending during the pandemic, Ukraine’s requests for ever more aid may become a burden beyond what taxpayers will bear. Both the left and right fringes of the Democratic and Republican parties have expressed their intention to curtail the flow of funds, and so far, the Biden administration has managed to muffle those calls. But these unlikely bedfellows may soon find common cause in a closely divided House of Representatives, forcing their parties’ mainstreams to impose constraints on support to Kyiv. This would be a tragic error, and it is exactly what Putin hopes will happen.
Most of us in the West are probably wishing for Putin’s fall, followed by the ascension of a democratic hero, who reforms Russian institutions, joins NATO and the EU, and leads Russia to a glorious future of prosperity and peace. Dreams are worth kindling, but we must brace ourselves for other outcomes. The West should continue to work toward Ukraine’s total victory by supplying it with all necessary military and intelligence assets. But if total victory cannot be achieved at an acceptable cost, then Ukrainians and the West will have to face the distasteful prospect of negotiation and compromise.
There are pathways to a settlement, none of them satisfying, but all of them potentially workable. It is too soon to engage in negotiation, but it is not too soon to begin envisioning the outlines of a peaceful arrangement, if total victory should prove elusive. This could include strengthened Western security guarantees to Ukraine short of NATO membership, which might partially assuage Russian fears of Western power on its most sensitive border. In return, Russia would have to withdraw from all annexed territory, including Crimea.
Russia must be made to pay some reparations for the damage it has wrought, and war criminals must be punished, but regarding Crimea, there might be room for compromise. Before 2014, both Russia’s and Ukraine’s navies shared use of the port at Sevastopol. In time, that arrangement could be reestablished. Given the vital importance of grain shipments to the world from Crimea’s other ports, some parts of the region might be placed under international control, where neither Ukraine nor Russia would have authority.
That being said, we do not yet know exactly what a settlement would look like, but we must begin considering possibilities, just in case Ukraine cannot achieve all its aims.
Only Ukrainians can determine what they are willing to accept, but the U.S. can aid in negotiations, just as it helped to end the Balkan Wars with the Dayton Accords. For now, Ukraine must press its advantage on the battlefield and a united West must help them through the winter. And if the time should come when both sides are ready to talk, we must hope that public opinion will support the creation of a stable, if imperfect peace.
The views expressed are those of the author alone and do not represent those of the Naval Postgraduate School, the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.