Endgame: How Does The Invasion of Ukraine End for Vladimir Putin?

Ty Wycoff
4 min readFeb 28, 2022

The Russian President made a severe miscalculation. What comes next?

Photo by Max Kukurudziak on Unsplash

This was originally written in response to a question I received on the This Historic Moment Instagram (@thishistoric) where I’m updating regularly on the invasion of Ukraine.

The unpredictability of the situation cannot be understated. In a mad pursuit to test the limits of Western power, Vladimir Putin has found himself confronted by something he likely didn’t expect: the entire globe rallied against his unjust, unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

Putin isn’t acting like he always has in the past. The world has long known him to be a shrewd tactician; cold, but calculating; brutal and ruthless, but a rational actor. And incredibly smart.

But none of this is smart. Russian forces — facing logistical issues, a lack of fuel, and fierce Ukrainian resistance — have continuously been rebuffed. Putin’s hopes for a lightning campaign to take the capitol have all but vanished and Russia has thus far failed to capture any major city. Putin may yet topple Kyiv, as Belarus is increasingly likely to join his authoritarian crusade.

Everything, however, comes with a price. If he were hoping for the Sunday stroll into Kabul the Taliban had, finding the doors unlocked after President Ashraf Ghani bailed on his people and fled, Vladimir Putin is out of luck. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy will not be moved, having rejected U.S. offers to evacuate him. For the last several days, Zelenskyy has been instructing a master class in public relations and use of social media, endearing the world to him. Willing to die for his country, he has rallied his nation, now armed with western weapons and willing to die with him. No matter what happens from here, Zelenskyy has met the moment.

And there will be no Sunday strolls into Kyiv.

Kiyv, Ukraine. Photo by Maksym Tymchyk on Unsplash

So, what is Putin’s endgame?

Putin’s State of Mind

First, what is Putin’s state of mind? It’s entirely impossible to say, and any attempt — mine included — is reductionist at best. But I think the thought experiment is useful in navigating these uncertain seas.

I think we have two scenarios:

  1. Putin is a rational actor who made a bad bet. If he was betting on the West being unable to inflict pain in their avoidance of war, it’s now increasingly likely that was a severe miscalculation.
  2. Putin is not (or no longer) a rational actor, having been consumed by his ideology (nostalgia for Russian imperialism and a restoration of former Soviet territory and glory).
Photo by Josh Appel on Unsplash

Scenario 1

In Scenario 1, I imagine Putin realizing he’s in too deep and quietly looking for an off-ramp.

But we’re not seeing any indication of that, and I’m not sure there is an off-ramp at this point. Honestly, I’m not sure there should be. A growing body of evidence — from videos and photos to satellite images — testifies to Russian forces attacking civilian targets. Civilians are being killed with indiscriminate shelling in what is likely to be determined to be war crimes. I don’t see any way out of this where it is not fundamentally necessary to hold Vladimir Putin himself accountable. Anything short would be a gross injustice.

Scenario 2

And in Scenario 2? The seatbelt sign is on, please return to your seats and place your tray table in the upright and locked position.

Ideology consumes with a near religious sense of inevitability and invincibility. Authoritarians already have a predisposition toward self-delusion. Throw in a high-stakes situation where you’re forced to either admit that you’re wrong or dig your heels in?

Heels it is. It’s just simply easier to die for one’s beliefs than it is to question them. If that’s the case, then all bets are off. Putin may very well be prepared to go full hee-haw here: Take on N.A.T.O at the eastern flank, use nuclear capabilities, and burn the world to ash if necessary.

Photo by Nico Smit on Unsplash

Other Possibilities

In another scenario, it’s both. A rational actor that made a bad bet, but upon realizing just how deep in he is, he’s now a dog backed into the corner. Heels it is.

There is another rational actor scenario as well. With the coming ability to position nuclear weapons in Belarus, right along N.A.T.O.’s eastern flank, Putin may be pushing his initial bet further. I’m just not sure how much I put that in the rational actor category.

In sum: We simply just don’t know right now. I wish I had a better answer, a more comforting one. But, whatever Putin’s state of mind, all scenarios seem to end with one constant.

The Common Denominator In All Scenarios

Putin is quickly losing friends, like Hungary, Kazakhstan, and Turkey. One by one, and far and beyond N.A.T.O., the world’s nations are turning their backs on Moscow to inflict the kind of pain Putin bet the West wasn’t capable of.

In his foolish gambit for lightning war, Vladimir Putin lost the war for hearts and minds. However this unfolds — and I very well could be wrong — it appears to me that in every scenario, there is a common denominator:

Vladimir Putin loses.