Five ways Ukraine war could end: From diplomacy to all-out nuclear war

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In the latest developments, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky repeated his plea for a no-fly zone over Ukraine and called for further sanctions against Russia in an impassioned address to US Congress on Wednesday. Horrific reports are emerging daily, including one from the US embassy in Ukraine saying Russian forces shot and killed 10 people standing in line for bread in the northern city of Chernihiv this week. Meanwhile, Russian troops are allegedly holding 400 people, including doctors and patients “like hostages” inside a hospital in Mariupol.

So how might this war end?

1. Diplomacy

Peace talks between Kyiv and Moscow have failed to produce a breakthrough yet, though there are some early signs of hope.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky said negotiations were becoming “more realistic”, while Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said there was “some hope for compromise”.

The Kremlin said the sides were discussing status for Ukraine similar to that of Austria or Sweden, both members of the European Union that are outside the NATO military alliance.

Ukraine’s chief negotiator said it would give Kyiv binding international security guarantees to prevent future attacks, while satisfying Russia’s long-standing call for Ukraine to be kept out of NATO and prevent the Westernisation of the region.

But analysts are urging caution. While today’s news looks promising, there is still a long way to go before the bloodshed ends, and experts have said the talks could yet fall apart.

Dr Domitilla Sagramoso, an expert on Russian foreign and security policy at King’s College London, told Sky News: “Ukrainians are going to continue fighting. Russia, in turn, has indicated a willingness to still use massive force.

“It’s good there are talks – it is early days. Let’s hope there is a breakthrough soon.”

She added: “Putin may try for a solution to save face because he will need to show a kind of achievement.”

There is also the possibility that talks might only halt the bloodshed temporarily, with some analysts saying any cracks in diplomacy might lead to a fresh outbreak of violence after a period of respite.

2. Victory for Ukraine

What once seemed like the most unlikely of outcomes has become a real contender on the list since the war began, as Ukrainians dug in, delivering a fiercer resistance to the Russian invaders than anyone could have predicted.

Last weekend, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the BBC that Ukraine could “absolutely” win the war, praising the “extraordinary resilience” of the Ukrainian people.

He added: “If it’s the intention of Moscow to try somehow to topple the government and install its own puppet regime, 45 million Ukrainians are going to reject that one way or the other.”

US President Joe Biden will announce a further $800million (£611million) package of military aid to be sent to Ukraine this week, as NATO rallies in support of the region – although a no-fly zone, long called for by Mr Zelensky, remains off the table.

Not everyone shares Mr Blinken’s optimism. Some analysts have said it is only a matter of time before the far-superior weight of Russian firepower overwhelms the Ukrainian resistance.

Putin has reportedly called on just a fraction of the Russian air force available to him – when he calls this in, the potential for mass airstrikes will be devastating.

If Russia is successful in seizing key cities and blocking the access of aid, including food and fuel supplies, Ukraine could eventually be forced to surrender to spare hundreds of thousands of deaths.

Cormac Smith, a former British official who advised the Ukrainian government for two years, said that the more the West “cowed” then the “more likely Ukraine will eventually be overwhelmed militarily”.

He said the West’s decision to rule out a no-fly zone and its failure to provide arms quickly enough had emboldened Putin.

He said: “We need to put down a red line and it needs to be far ahead of nuclear strike.”

3. Victory for Russia

Putin has said he will recall his troops and stop the war in an instant if his demands are met. This would constitute a true victory for Russia.

Under Putin’s demands, Ukraine would recognise Crimea as part of Russia, as well as the independence of the separatist-run east in Donetsk and Luhansk.

Ukraine would also change its constitution to guarantee it will never join NATO or the EU.

He would also see NATO reverse its eastward expansion, complaining Russia has “nowhere further to retreat to – do they think we’ll just sit idly by?”.

That would require NATO to remove its forces and military infrastructure from member states that joined the alliance in 1997 and not to deploy “strike weapons near Russia’s borders” – meaning Central Europe, Eastern Europe and the Baltics.

4. World War 3

Even if all Russia’s demands were not met, an emboldened Putin, seeing a turn toward Russian victory, could decide to try to take more territory, by moving into NATO countries that border Ukraine.

NATO is boosting defences on its eastern flank, but Putin might use this as an excuse, blaming nations for shipping in arms to support the war in Ukraine, and thereby in direct conflict with Russia.

Last week, a British military source said that during times of war an enemy supply base could be considered a legitimate target, with fears that airfields in NATO countries used could come under attack.

Using that as a pretext for war, Putin could move forces across the border into Poland, Moldova, or try to take the Baltic States.

NATO would fight back – but by then there would be a wider war in Europe in which all bets are off.

5. Nuclear war

The worst-case scenario for the globe: nuclear conflict.

Soon after Russia invaded Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin said he was moving his “deterrent forces” ‒ meaning nuclear weapons ‒ to “combat ready” status.

Some analysts have said that, if Ukraine continues to grind down Russian forces and eventually exhaust them, the West cannot rely on Putin’s “rationality”.

Western analysts have said that, while the chances of all-out nuclear war are low due to Mutually Assured Destruction, Putin might still be tempted to use a smaller tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine.

But others have said it could go beyond this, with the actions of an increasingly isolated and desperate man hard to predict.

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