Eduvation Blog

Potential Futures for Ukraine

Good morning, and happy Vernal Equinox! (2 days late)

It’s a busy week for observances. Aside from Holi and Nowruz, the UN is observing World Poetry Day, World Down Syndrome Day, the International Day of Forests, World Water Day, and International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. This week Harry Potter fans can recognize Slytherin Pride and Gryffindor Pride. And some of us will be celebrating (very quietly) National Introverts Week, too!

The Russian war on Ukraine has also entered its 4th week, so I’d like to take a big-picture look at its economic and geopolitical repercussions – and of course, how they could impact higher education.  

A good starting point (especially if you’re a futurist) is to begin with the end in mind. What are the potential outcome scenarios of this war for Ukraine and Russia? Experts around the world have been weighing in for weeks now, and here’s my days-long effort to summarize…


Ukraine Wins

Obviously, the best-case scenario for Ukraine (however unlikely) would be a quick ceasefire and the full retreat of Russian forces from all of Ukraine, or an ongoing stalemate in which NATO supports help halt Putin’s advances…

Russian Defeat

Ukrainians have fought admirably and slowed the progress of Russian forces far more than anyone expected. The initial invasion plan “collapsed within days.” The Russian airforce, with 1,172 planes, has barely been deployed against Ukraine’s airforce of just 124 craft. Although an estimated 10M Ukrainians have been displaced and at least 780 civilians killed, Russia has reportedly suffered as many as 7,000 military casualties. Says a uKentucky prof, “we’re seeing a country militarily implode.” The US committed an additional $800M in military aid, including cutting-edge drones, last week. Still, it’s hard to imagine Putin conceding any sort of defeat, or even a stalemate. “At every stage of the conflict… Putin has chosen to escalate, to become more inhuman.” Given time, Russia could flatten more Ukrainian cities with aerial bombardment, as it has Mariupol. uRegina historian Maris Rowe-McCulloch concurs: “civilians are increasingly likely to bear the brunt of the growing frustration of Russian troops as the conflict stretches on.”

No Choice but Fight

As columnist Gwynne Dyer succinctly puts it, “the Ukrainians have no option but to keep fighting and hope for the best, but Russia has a plethora of choices from ‘quit and go home’ to ‘use nuclear weapons.’” Politically, though, Putin cannot choose retreat, so his only choice will likely be “mass slaughter.” (See my detailed look at Putin’s goals and motivations in “Putin’s Antic Disposition.”)

Stalemate is a Win

If Ukraine’s military and civilian resistance are able to hold off the world’s second most powerful army, that in itself constitutes a victory. And if Russia is unable to take Kyiv or depose Zelensky, the war has been a failure. Ukraine hasn’t so much surrendered ground to Russia, as made a tactical decision to “trade space for time,” withdrawing to less open terrain where the Russian advantage is minimized. Now, as Carleton politics prof Jeff Sahadeo puts it, Russia is “on pace to lose no matter what.”

“So, really, it’s this question of, what does Russia do next? Because they are on pace to lose no matter what.”Jeff Sahadeo, politics prof, Carleton U

Russia Backs Off

It remains unclear how long Putin can pour resources into war, while Western sanctions choke the Russian economy. No matter how matters unfold militarily, Putin “is unwinding nearly 30 years of Russian diplomatic, economic, political and even military development,” and Russia will emerge “weaker and poorer” after this conflict. As one Johns Hopkins historian puts it, “This is probably unlikely, but my hope is that the people around Putin realize they’re increasingly becoming a much bigger version of North Korea, and they don’t want to live in North Korea… That would be better than a lot of bad options.”

“If the point is just to wreak havoc, then [Russia is] doing fine. But if the point is to wreak havoc and thus advance further — be able to hold more territory — they’re not doing fine.”Olga Oliker, program director, International Crisis Group

Putin Dethroned

Military setbacks on the ground look bad on Putin, and Western sanctions are definitely intensifying the frustrations of the oligarchs and the general public in Russia. “If this campaign ends in humiliating defeat for Russia, it will prove terminal for not only the country’s national prestige and power, but Putin’s regime itself.” A former diplomat, William Courtney, believes regime change in Russia is “not an improbable prospect,” driven by military frustration, economic sanctions or popular protests. Authoritarians tend to fall due to either a military coup or a popular uprising, but neither looks particularly likely in Russia right now. Putin has an unparalleled stranglehold on broadcast and social media within Russia, and propaganda and misinformation are proving persuasive for some Russians. He has designed the country’s security apparatus to be “coup-proof,” with redundant agencies and a massive “Praetorian Guard.” But the more he punishes members of his security elite for failures in Ukraine, the more they may feel compelled to get rid of him. “Unlikely is not impossible.”

“The fact remains that Putin’s Russia is an extremely effective autocracy with strong guardrails against coups and revolutions.”Zack Beauchamp, in Vox

Putin Weakened

Carleton’s Jeff Sahadeo believes that political forces within the Kremlin are divided, between those who want to end the sanctions for the sake of the Russian economy, and those who want to escalate the attack on Ukraine still further. “Who wins that fight will, I think, decide what the next steps are. Either way, the most likely scenario is that this ends Putin’s one-man rule.”

Kyiv Stands Strong

Some military analysts believe the mayor of Kyiv when he says Russian troops will “never” take his city – and that “control over Kyiv is an important symbol for both sides.” If Zelensky and his government survive this assault and hold Kyiv, that might well be considered a sort of victory too. Conventional warfare has been ongoing in parts of Ukraine for 8 years already, and this war could continue for months or even years at its current pace. As uToronto Munk School prof Andres Kasekamp observes, too, “the longer Ukraine holds out, the likelier they are to get a more satisfactory peace deal.”

“We can say that there’s no way the Ukrainian army can stop them, but we can also say that there’s no way an army of even 200,000 Russian troops is going to be able to hold a country of 43 million people.”Alexandra Vacroux, executive director, Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Harvard

Negotiated Peace

Global attention is focused on the potential of peace negotiations to arrive at a ceasefire, and while this may be the sort of compromise that allows Putin and Zelensky to save face, it still remains elusive right now…

Peace Negotiations

Russian and Ukrainian negotiators have met several times without making progress, but last week more things were reportedly starting to look more positive. (Despite the fact that Russian missiles continue to pummel major Ukrainian cities, and Putin is sounding more like Hitler daily as he raves about “cleansing” Russia of “scum and traitors.”) Volodymyr Zelensky has insisted he wants to meet personally with Vladimir Putin, although there’s no sign of that yet. Still, there is reportedly a 15-point draft deal in the works, brokered by Israel and Turkey. (It sounds too good to be true, but I’ve been surprised by other last-minute deals this week…)

Can We Trust Putin?

With world leaders now openly calling Putin a “war criminal,” and the UN World Court ordering Russia to withdraw from Ukraine, it’s pretty clear that Russia has no compunctions about violating international law. Skeptics argue that the peace talks are merely a way to “buy time for the Russian military to regroup,” and to “give the West a false hope,” postponing further sanctions or military aid. The British foreign secretary told the media she feared the negotiations were merely a “smokescreen.” Even if a peace agreement were signed, could it possibly hold? Considering that Russia has invaded Ukraine twice in 8 years, could they be trusted to stop?

Commitment to Neutrality

NATO has remained firm that it will not escalate hostilities with Russia by imposing any kind of no-fly zone, and Zelensky seems to have conceded that Ukraine will never join NATO. (A month earlier, and that could have de-escalated Putin.) Historian Leos Muller suggests Ukraine could adopt neutrality like Austria, which wrote it into the constitution in 1955. In a sense, Ukraine is already “de facto neutral” as a non-NATO country, observes McGill politics prof Maria Popova. uToronto politics prof Aurel Braun points out that what Putin really wants is not a “neutral” Ukraine, but a “neutered” one, demilitarized and “vulnerable to a rapid and complete takeover by Russia.”

Compromising on Freedom

A Notre Dame military historian believes Zelensky might consider something like “Finlandization”: independence with limitations on Ukraine’s foreign policy, and conceding “degrees of control” across eastern territories. Ukraine is reportedly seeking security guarantees from the West, and willing to enshrine Russian language rights.

Surrendering Territory

Putin’s “special military operation” was ostensibly to liberate ethnic Russians in Donetsk and Luhansk, and he continues to press for Ukraine to surrender those territories. (As one former NATO secretary-general points out, though, “no matter what happens under duress, we do not need to acknowledge it.”) Harvard Law prof Robert Mnookin suggests Ukraine could agree to a referendum in Donbass to decide whether it joins Russia. For its part, Ukraine wants Russia to surrender Crimea. Neither party wants to leave this war with less territory than it had before – but as a politics prof from Illinois puts it, there’s a difference between “what each side wants versus what they will accept.” Putin will likely demand Ukraine recognize his annexation of Crimea and the independence of the eastern territories at a minimum.

EU Détente?

McGill politics prof Maria Popova believes the best way to protect a “neutral” Ukraine from future aggression would be to somehow put it on the road to membership in the European Union, signalling that if Russia threatened Ukraine again, it would be threatening the entire EU “in a more meaningful way.”

China Intercedes?

3 Harvard experts believe China could play a critical role in brokering a ceasefire or peace agreement between Russia and Ukraine. Economic coercion may be required to “trigger the humanitarian impulse in every belligerent,” and this crisis could give Xi Jinping the opportunity to position himself as closer to the US and to Russia than either of the superpowers are to each other.

Russia “Wins”?

At this point, Putin can never attain his original objective, the swift reunification of Ukraine into Russia, but in theory he could still achieve a military victory, albeit a bloody and devastating one…

Ukraine Surrender?

Currently, the morale of Ukrainian fighters far surpasses that of their Russian enemies, and their resolve seems only to grow stronger as Russians besiege and destroy urban centres. Relentless air and missile assaults on Ukraine could eventually flatten more and more cities, as it has Mariupol, and perhaps even eventually break the will to fight among Ukrainians. As more firepower targets Kyiv, president Zelensky could be captured or killed – which would also be a major psychological blow. Right now, it appears that any Russian military victory would also be a political failure.

Zelensky in Exile

Western powers have been “preparing” for the possibility of a Ukrainian government-in-exile in Poland, reports the Washington Post, in which Volodymyr Zelensky would maintain national morale while directing guerilla operations against Russian occupiers using NATO-provided weapons. (The UN resolution condemning Putin’s invasion helps lay the groundwork to recognize Zelensky’s administration as Ukraine’s legitimate government, even if it loses control of the territory.) There is a risk, of course, that Moscow could regard a Zelensky government operating in Poland as a form of NATO attack (see WW3 below).

Extended Conflict

“Wars are easy to start, but are also brutal, intractable, and difficult to end,” says Yasmeen Serhan in The Atlantic. And a long war in Ukraine is “seeming inevitable,” for the same reasons it is unlikely to slip off media front pages. On Europe’s doorstep, the EU and NATO have a “vested interest” in maintaining Ukraine’s sovereignty and curtailing Russian aggression. Putin has demonstrated his willingness to use “scorched-earth tactics” in Syria and Chechnya, and already, the bombardment of Ukraine “has strong 1999-2000 Grozny vibes.”

Ongoing Resistance

Ukrainians have demonstrated incredible fortitude and a willingness to resist Russian occupation, so even if Putin ultimately occupies the country, it seems more likely he will never quell insurgencies and rebellions. As US Secretary of State Antony Blinken put it, “One way or the other, Ukraine will be there and at some point Putin won’t.” Analysts tell the National Post that forcibly holding Ukraine would mean “an Afghanistan-style occupation, in which the Soviet Union poured blood and treasure into the country for roughly 10 years.” This is the potential scenario the Atlantic Council calls “a quagmire,” a ”pyrrhic victory” in which Ukraine’s military is gradually overcome but insurgents take a “significant, sustained human and financial toll on Russia.”

“Even if Kyiv falls to the Russians, that would not be the end of the war. After all, Napoleon took Moscow in 1812, and look what happened to him.”Peter Rutland, prof of Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies, Wesleyan U


A New Cold War

The Atlantic Council theorizes that if Russia conquers Ukraine through brutal force and erects a “new Iron Curtain” in Europe, Sweden and Finland may decide to join a newly strengthened NATO, and “newly suspicious NATO and Russian troops now stare at one another across a suddenly militarized border, once again raising the prospects of direct conflict by accident or design.”

World War III

NATO has a goal that is even more important than reducing Ukrainian casualties, and that is containing the conflict rather than allowing it to spill over from Ukraine into a global conflict…

WW3 Hyperbole?

It may be hyperbole to describe a potential outcome of Russia’s invasion as World War III, but esteemed historian Margaret Macmillan has drawn parallels to Hitler and 1939, and Volodymyr Zelensky himself warned on Sunday that if peace negotiations with Russia failed, “that would mean that this is a third world war.” Putin’s nuclear sabre-rattling is intended to invoke Western fears of global conflict. Post-Soviet countries like Moldova and Georgia, who each have Russian-backed breakaway regions like Ukraine, are justifiably anxious they could be next.

Political Advantage?

In fact, direct NATO intervention would be such a political “gift” to Putin, that some analysts expect “he will soon do everything he can to provoke it.” War with NATO would make Putin’s extremism “seem patriotic rather than paranoid,” and suppress any sort of “palace coup” at the Kremlin. (Certainly he is framing the conflict as a fight for Russian survival against NATO encroachment.)

Nuclear Threat

I’ve written before about Putin’s explicit threats to deploy weapons of mass destruction, and his willingness to bomb both functional nuclear reactors and the site of the world’s worst nuclear meltdown, Chernobyl. Harvard experts think it unlikely that Putin would directly take on NATO by invading its member states, which would launch WW3 and a nuclear standoff: “As reckless as Putin has become, he’s not that reckless.” But as Tom Nichols points out, “a nuclear crisis is not an orderly duel or a game with rules, but rather a maelstrom of poor information, conflicting signals, and highly charged emotions.”

“The danger is not that the Russian war on Ukraine becomes a replay of 1939, in which a coalition must stop a mad dictator at all costs, but that a Russia-NATO war becomes a nuclear version of 1914.”Tom Nichols, The Atlantic


False Flag WMDs

Putin has already been signalling his intent to blame explosions at nuclear power plants on Ukrainian terrorists, and accusing the US and Ukraine of developing chemical weapons. It seems likely that he might unleash a nuclear “dirty bomb” or a chemical weapon attack under a false flag, in order to provoke NATO – while justifying his aggression back home in Russia.

Lose-Lose Proposition

And yet, as uWaterloo politics prof Alexander Lanoszka points out, war with NATO would be a “lose-lose proposition” for Russia, “absolutely certain death.” But the greater risk, observes the Atlantic Council, might be an inadvertent Russian strike in NATO territory through imprecise targeting or an errant cruise missile. Putin might also believe he could invade the Baltic states and NATO would back down.

“Fighting NATO is absolutely certain death for Russia.”Alexander Lanoszka, political science prof, uWaterloo

Why It Matters

You may be wondering whether I should pay as much attention to the war in Ukraine as I am. (Certainly I ask myself several times a day.) I think it’s quite possible this war reporter has the answer:

“This story is as big, if not bigger, than 9/11 and the fall of the Soviet Union… We’re just at the start of it. We have no idea what the consequences of this will be long term or even in the near short term.”Oz Katerji, freelance conflict journalist, cited in The Atlantic

No matter what the future of Ukraine ultimately looks like, Putin’s violation of the world order and the massive global economic sanctions it triggered will reshape the landscape for international higher ed, student mobility, research and programs – perhaps as much as the COVID19 pandemic did.

Stay tuned! Next time, we’ll take a look at more of those repercussions…




OK, as a palette cleanser before you get on with your day, here’s a colourful celebration of Holi…


Holi Celebration 2022

Duke U (NC) released a 1:20 video on Sunday sharing some of the joy of students celebrating the Hindu festival of colours, for the first time since the pandemic. It’s hard not to share in their enthusiasm (although I still cringe a bit at seeing such a large maskless crowd).  YouTube


As always, thanks for reading!

Stay safe and be well, 


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