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Reading the Tea Leaves on the End of the War in Ukraine

The Russian invasion of Ukraine that began in February last year has led to the biggest war in Europe in many generations. Even before the Wagner Group — the 50,000-strong paramilitary force that had been fighting alongside Russian soldiers — seized control of military sites in the southwestern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don last week, with the apparent aim of toppling Moscow’s military command, the incursion into Ukraine looked like a major failure for its instigator, President Vladimir Putin. Within a month of the war’s onset, it had already become “a [foul]-up of historic proportions,” as one veteran Ukraine correspondent recently put it. So it is no wonder that this year brings several new books aiming to summarize the conflict and to mull how it might end.

In considering where the war is going, it is useful to begin by remembering how wrong many Russian observers have been about its course so far. Back when it started, the Russian newspaper Izvestia promised a Ukrainian defeat within five days of the initial attack. Five weeks after the invasion, Putin’s spokesman claimed that Ukraine’s military was “largely destroyed.”

But a war intended to undercut Ukraine’s leaders and NATO has instead strengthened both. Bulgaria, Romania and the three Baltic states have all voiced strong opposition to Putin’s acts. Less noticed in the West is how Russia’s war has also alienated former Soviet nations such as Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.

To be fair, many non-Russian analysts were also wide of the mark. Just before the war, the Scottish American historian Niall Ferguson wrote that Ukraine would receive “no significant military support from the West” and speculated on the location of Putin’s victory parade. When the invasion began, the German finance minister, who is also an officer in the German air force reserves, reportedly told the Ukrainian ambassador that the war would be over in a matter of hours. The ambassador wept.

So who seems to have it right now?

The most thought-provoking of the new crop of books about the war in Ukraine is Alexander Etkind’s quick and incisive RUSSIA AGAINST MODERNITY (Polity, 166 pp., paperback, $19.95). The book is set in the future and cast as a postwar analysis of why Russia was defeated in Ukraine. Etkind, a professor at the Central European University in Vienna, builds his speculations off the flaws of the society Putin built — an antidemocratic, parasitic petrostate that historically relied on fossil fuels like oil and gas for two-thirds of its exports. Their extraction is mainly controlled in Russia by politicians and former security men who value political loyalty far more than managerial competence.

Etkind depicts Putin’s invasion as “a war between generations,” noting that Ukraine’s cabinet is mostly made up of people under the age of 50, while most of Russia’s cabinet members are older. He suggests that the officials who run Putin’s Russia know they cannot compete in a post-petroleum world, and so they are threatened by all aspects of modernity, from democracy to climate change to tolerance for homosexuality. Etkind portrays Russia’s leaders as living fossils living on fossil fuels. He has a point: When was the last time anyone bought a computer chip made in Russia?

The best look at the actual fighting is probably OVERREACH: The Inside Story of Putin’s War Against Ukraine (Mudlark, 414 pp., paperback, $21.99), by the journalist Owen Matthews. He offers a straightforward, readable overview of the different levels of the conflict, from the battlefront to the stances of the warring governments to the impact on civilians.

Matthews, a Russia correspondent for The Spectator, previously worked in Russia both for The Moscow Times and for Newsweek. His pessimistic discussion of why most Russians supported Putin’s war, at least until recently, is sobering. The Russian military’s reliance on the mercenaries who made up the Wagner Group was key. Wagner found recruits among “thieves and murderers, poor kids from distant provinces and troops from remote ethnic-minority republics,” Matthews writes. “Keeping casualties to an army of expendables reduced the chances of a popular backlash.”

Another journalistic effort, not as good as Matthews’s, is Christopher Miller’s THE WAR CAME TO US: Life and Death in Ukraine (Bloomsbury, 374 pp., $28). Miller, the Ukraine correspondent for The Financial Times, has spent more than a decade reporting from the country. This book felt to me like a reporter’s “notebook cleaner” in which the author simply dumps old field notes into a new manuscript. As with many other volumes on the war, Miller doesn’t get to the full-scale Russian invasion until more than halfway through his book — but once he does, he is particularly good at recounting the chaotic, precarious early days of the war. Some Ukrainian security officials were collaborating with the Russians, Miller reports, and Russian sleeper cells already in Kyiv were activated to carry out assassination and sabotage missions.

THE RUSSO-UKRAINIAN WAR: The Return of History (Norton, 376 pp., $30), by the Ukrainian historian Serhii Plokhy, is somewhat drier, although he is probably right when he notes that one effect of the invasion is already clear: “The Ukrainian nation will emerge from this war more united and certain of its identity than at any other point in its modern history.”

Samuel Ramani’s book PUTIN’S WAR ON UKRAINE: Russia’s Campaign for Global Counter-Revolution (Oxford University, 603 pp., $29.95) is a trudge to read, but its encyclopedic descriptions can yield interesting details and some solid tactical analysis. Interestingly, he notes that Putin’s reliance on the Wagner Group “allowed him to create an alternative power vertical that consolidated his personal grip on security policy” and “shielded Putin from a palace coup when the war did not proceed according to plan.”

Ramani, a specialist at Oxford in politics and international relations, argues that the least effective Russian allies in the fighting have been Chechen units. The Chechens’ weakness, he says, is that they are accustomed to suppressing civilians, not fighting armed opponents on a battlefield. The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has survived more than a dozen assassination attempts. Fortunately for him, many of those were reportedly launched by Chechen special forces units assigned the murderous task by Putin, while others were carried out by the Wagner Group.

The question hanging over everything is whether Russia ultimately will lose the war. The official line in Putin’s government is that Russia will prevail because of “objective historical processes,” as Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov puts it. Ramani’s conclusion is almost as murky: “Russia cannot win and cannot afford to lose the war.”

Matthews, a bit more clearly, argues that the war can end only in a negotiated settlement, which Putin will paint as a victory. He also presumes that even if Putin subsequently falls from power, he will probably be replaced by a hard-right ultranationalist, suggesting that a damaged Putin is better than a toppled Putin.

Plokhy, despite his prediction of Ukrainian national unity, argues that Ukraine will lose some portion of its territory to a Sino-Russian sphere of influence, with the dividing line representing a 21st-century Iron Curtain.

Etkind, who is the most persuasive of the bunch, foresees a far different outcome: Not only will Putin lose, but, as a result, the Russian Federation will fall apart, suggesting that Chechnya and other regions will loosen ties with Moscow or become altogether independent. I suspect he is right. In 2005, Putin famously lamented the collapse of the Soviet Union as the “great geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. It would be ironic if his war completes the Soviet dissolution.

But the war in Ukraine has already fooled many observers and participants, so we should be careful about placing too much faith in any prediction.

Thomas E. Ricks, the Book Review’s military history columnist, is the author of eight books, most recently “Waging a Good War: A Military History of the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1968.”

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