Putin is a student of history – what can that teach us about the possible outcomes to the Ukraine war?

The famous Prussian general Clausewitz famously opined: “No one starts a war or rather, no one in his senses should do so without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it”.

Putin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine over a year ago initiated a conflict that shows no sign of abating.

What does Putin seek to achieve, and how and when will this war end?

It would be easy to dismiss Putin’s invasion as reckless and irrational; however, Putin is a student of history – inspired by leaders such as Peter the Great and their territorial conquests – and having suffered the ignominy of the fall of the Soviet Union, he has made no secret of his desire to rebuild the former Soviet empire.

Despite the poor showing of the Russian military and the huge casualties sustained, Putin has always referred to the Ukraine invasion as a “Special Military Operation” (not a war), thus enabling him to claim even modest territorial gains as a strategic success.

Formally securing Crimea and a buffer zone (Donbas) between Russia and Ukraine (NATO), might appear modest ambitions given the original intent, but it is an important stepping stone towards Putin’s wider ambition.

To understand Putin’s motives, history provides some context.

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In November 1939, the Soviet Union felt vulnerable – Leningrad was only 20 miles from the Finnish border – and following a “false flag” operation, the Soviets invaded Finland, initiating the Winter War.

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Has Russia launched ‘false flag’ operation?

Despite superior military strength, the Soviets suffered huge casualties and their military performed badly.

The League of Nations (forerunner to the United Nations) declared the invasion illegal and expelled the Soviet Union from its ranks.

But, with Finnish forces exhausted and the Red Army badly mauled, just over three months later the Moscow Peace Treaty was eventually agreed.

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Finland ceded 9% of its territory, and the Soviets had achieved their objective – the parallels to Russia/Ukraine conflict are palpable.

When Hitler invaded Europe, as when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, defeating and deposing the aggressor was the only way to secure peace.

However, defeating and deposing Putin – with the risk of nuclear Armageddon – is not a credible objective.

Unless Russia is ejected entirely from Ukrainian soil (unlikely), Putin will claim a victory.

Read more:
What would Russian success mean for Western security?
Ukraine invasion has shattered Russia’s illusion of invincibility

When Putin judges that his military has culminated, expect him to seek a negotiated peace, with Ukraine – like Finland before ceding territory.

President Zelenskyy would never want to compromise given the immense national sacrifice to date.

However, the West knows its military support to Ukraine is time-limited, and risks perpetuating an unwinnable war.

Publicly, western politicians will remain supportive, but privately expect growing pressure on Zelenskyy to end the conflict – a war Ukraine will struggle to win.

In return, the West will look to provide long-term security guarantees, and provide financial support to enable Ukraine to rebuild, with the potential to become one of the most modern and economically powerful nations in Europe – as Germany did following World War Two.

As the war enters its second year, the West risks perpetuating a conflict that Russia cannot lose and Ukraine cannot win; as a result, expect to see increasing international pressure for a negotiated end to hostilities.

The West then has to ensure that the long-term legacy of Russia’s decision to invade is so damaging that the strategic consequences far outweigh the immediate territorial gains.

Failure will risk further emboldening Russia (and indeed China), with huge implications for future global security.