What Is Russia's Endgame in Ukraine?
Negotiation, installation, or annexation?
Russia’s endgame in Ukraine will seek to protect Russia’s interests of peripheral influence, global prestige, and ethnic Russians. Broadly, Russia has three endgame options: negotiate surrender deal, install puppet regime, or annex Ukraine. These options vary by their duration and degree of losses and gains. Given the invasion and occupation costs in all three options, Russia’s prospective losses are relatively equal across all three options. However, Russian annexation of Ukraine permanently protects Russian interests in Ukraine, generating the greatest prospective gains for Russia. Thus, if Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to maximally protect Russian interests in Ukraine, Russia will seek to annex Ukraine.
Option 1: Negotiate Surrender Deal
Russia may seek to negotiate a surrender deal with Ukraine. This deal would require Ukraine to demilitarize and become neutral—that is, not join NATO nor the EU. On February 24, 2022, Russian Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov told RT that Russia is willing to negotiate a surrender deal establishing Ukraine’s “refusal to deploy weapons” and “neutral status.” Russia may require that these commitments be ensconced in the Ukrainian constitution, and Russia may also demand that NATO pledges to stop enlargement. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has indeed expressed willingness to entertain negotiations. Nonetheless, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that negotiations will only begin after Ukraine’s military effectively surrenders.
For Russia, negotiating a surrender deal has low losses and low gains. Russia would bear its current losses plus additional losses before the Ukrainian military surrenders. After the surrender deal, Russia would likely occupy Ukraine for a period of time, but it would not face significantly more casualties. Russia’s gains, however, would be limited. Regardless of the surrender deal terms, Russia would have less ability to protect its interests in Ukraine for the long-term. For example, Ukraine could ignore constitutional stipulations concerning Russia, especially if Russia does not establish permanent military bases in Ukraine. Russia may pursue this option if Ukraine quickly surrenders and concedes.
Option 2: Install Puppet Regime
Russia may seek to install a puppet regime in Ukraine. Indeed, in late January 2022, the UK government said Russia would attempt to install a pro-Russia puppet regime. Russia has frequently asserted its aim of “denazification” in Ukraine’s government, implying replacement of Ukraine’s political leadership and governance structures. A negotiated surrender or military overthrow could create this puppet regime. Russia would likely seek an arrangement similar to its relationship with Donetsk and Luhansk, which Russia de facto controls. A less likely course of action is Russia maintaining the current Ukrainian political regime and installing a new leader since this course would afford Russia less political control.
For Russia, installing a puppet regime has moderate losses and moderate gains. Russia will bear its current invasion losses plus further losses from conquering the rest of Ukraine, including major cities. A sizable Russian military force would likely occupy Ukraine for a moderate duration, inflicting financial costs and possibly Russian casualties from suppressing a Ukrainian insurgency. However, Russia would make moderate gains. For instance, Russia would likely establish permanent military bases in Ukraine, granting Russia long-term military influence. Yet, by not directly ruling over Ukraine and controlling its government, Russia risks installing a puppet leader (or his successors) that may seek some decision-making autonomy.
Option 3: Annex Ukraine
Russia may seek to annex Ukraine. Russia could annex all of Ukraine as it annexed Crimea and Sevastopol in 2014. Notably, annexation would require removing Ukraine’s current political leadership. The Russian Foreign Ministry explicitly said Russia aims to “bring the current puppet regime to justice.” Therefore, if Ukrainian leadership does not flee Ukraine, Russia may imprison Ukrainian leaders as it imprisoned prominent anti-Putin activist Alexey Navalny. Alternatively, Russia may kill the Ukrainian leadership in collateral damage, like a missile strike, claiming Russia was simply targeting legitimate military targets. Annexation would also likely require violently suppressing an insurgency and any dissent.
For Russia, annexing Ukraine has moderate losses and significant gains. The losses from annexing Ukraine are the same losses from installing a puppet regime: conquering and occupying all of Ukraine while facing international criticism and sanctions. International pushback would likely be limited in duration and degree since most countries need a working relationship with Russia given its energy exports and military significance. Moreover, Russian annexation of Ukraine would garner significant gains. Russia could permanently protect its interests in Ukraine by directly and totally controlling the territory from Moscow. Russia would establish military bases on the territory, cementing a long-term Russian military presence.
Russia’s endgame in Ukraine will seek to protect Russia’s peripheral influence, global prestige, and ethnic Russians. If Putin wants to permanently protect these interests, Russia will annex Ukraine. Russia’s military disposition of nearly 200,000 troops—a sufficient occupation force—in and around Ukraine indicates Putin’s long-term endgame. Russia’s stated aims of “demilitarization” and “denazification” indicate the serious degree of Putin’s endgame. And Russia’s current invasion indicates Putin’s willingness to bear losses to pursue his endgame. As Russia starts experiencing moderate losses from invading Ukraine, Putin may believe that Russia may just as well seek significant gains. Thus, Russia may seek the maximal endgame: annexing Ukraine.