Three months after Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, the prospects of a decisive Kremlin victory have evaporated. Yet even amid Russia’s failures on the battlefield, heroic Ukrainian resistance and abundant Western military aid, the tide has not completely turned.

In April, we presented four scenarios of how the outcome of the war could reshape the world. At that time, it was not necessarily obvious that our slow-moving “frozen conflict” scenario, in which both sides strive to make quick or decisive progress, was the most likely to materialize. But that’s where the conflict has headed in recent weeks.

Also less obvious at the time was the level of shock that war would inflict on the global economy, setting the stage for major food and fuel crises. Depending on how long the conflict lasts, these effects could prove even worse for the developing world than the 2008 financial crisis. And although the shockwaves are hitting Europe harder than the United States, both are struggling. economic. (In Ukraine itself, the United Nations Development Program has already estimated that the vast majority of Ukrainians will face “extreme economic vulnerability” by the end of the year if the war continues.)

This global economic slowdown will likely emerge as an increasingly influential factor in US and NATO decision-making, potentially opening a wedge between Europe, which may be seeking a quicker end to the war, and the United States, which wants to see Moscow suffer total defeat.

So how could a frozen conflict unfold on a global scale over the next two years? Below are three variations of what this scenario might look like:

Scenario 1: Ukraine is slowly strangled

Russia is consolidating its land bridge to the Kremlin-controlled Crimean peninsula and, without securing complete control of the rest of Ukraine’s Black Sea coast, destroying or blockading the port city of Odessa, leaving the country landlocked. Putin continues to bomb infrastructure elsewhere in Ukraine and annex parts of the south and east, further destabilizing the country as a fully functioning state. He declares a “victory” while successfully suppressing dissent at home.

The scenario could still go like this:

  • Putin calls for ceasefire in early 2023 but not ready for peace deal; he still hopes for greater land gains in the future (perhaps connecting with Moldova) as well as NATO concessions (such as recognition of Crimea as Russian sovereign territory if residents agree during an internationally supervised referendum). Western sanctions against Russia remain in place and economic conditions there are deteriorating. But the United States and Europe are also plunging into recession, fueling growing political discontent over inflation and shortages of goods.

  • A large-scale global food crisis leads to spiraling riots and unrest from Sri Lanka to Egypt (where the ripple effects of war are already being felt), while business models deteriorate dramatically after major exporting countries such as India, Indonesia and Malaysia are increasing their food protectionism. The slow response from the Group of Seven (G-7) countries and the International Monetary Fund is exacerbating the debt crisis facing developing countries. Instability is growing in Africa and Asia, while leftist politicians are surging in Latin America.

  • Further into 2023, NATO allies continue to send deadlier military aid as Ukraine – which has refused Putin’s proposed ceasefire – attempts to retake occupied territory. The quality and quantity of this aid prompts Moscow to continue disrupting supply flows to Ukraine, increasing the risk of attacks near (or even on) NATO territory while widening the conflict between the Alliance and Russia.

  • At the end of 2023, the Western consensus is fraying. Concerned about the economic costs, Ukrainian suffering, refugee burden and escalating fears (including the risk of a nuclear attack by Russia), Germany and France are leading a multinational effort to pressure Kyiv to explore a peace deal with Moscow.

Scenario 2: Russia makes no gain

Thanks to increasingly competent Ukrainian tactics – a continuation of those deployed during the defense of the capital by Kyiv, plus a successful counter-offensive in the eastern region of Donbass – Russia is pushed back to before February. 24 areas of control (retaining Crimea and separatist-occupied parts of Donetsk and Luhansk) by early 2023. But further gains by Ukraine prove difficult due to entrenched Russian and separatist defenses . Despite Western deliveries of more advanced weapons, Ukrainian forces are making minimal progress.

The scenario could still go like this:

  • Faced with growing discontent at home over a collapsing economy and an exhausted military angry at repeated operational failures, Putin is under heavy pressure to strike a deal with Ukraine before his hand falls. worsens even more.

  • From early 2023, Turkey, Qatar and India – which since 2020 have sought to portray themselves as global peacemakers – are pushing for a ceasefire as the global economic crisis stokes a sense of urgency. But emboldened by its successes on the battlefield, Ukraine resists while Putin still hopes for a military comeback.

  • Meanwhile, some European leaders are also beginning to push for a formal diplomatic framework: French President Emmanuel Macron joins his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, in calling for talks in Geneva between Ukraine and the five permanent members. of the United Nations Security Council (which includes Russia), plus Germany (on the model of the 2+4 talks on German reunification) to find a solution. Xi and Macron are privately trying to persuade Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, respectively, by dangling the promise of Russian reparations as part of a settlement. Beijing doesn’t want to come across as undermining Putin’s plans, but China’s sluggish economy leaves Xi little choice.

  • Emboldened by a landslide Republican victory in the November 2022 midterm elections in the United States, a growing number of GOP lawmakers are pushing to end US military aid to Ukraine and refocus Washington’s attention. on Beijing as the main security threat.

Scenario 3: Ukraine recovers almost everything

Due to the significant increase in Western arms shipments to Ukraine, the collapse of Russian morale at the tactical and strategic levels, and Moscow’s inability to replace military hardware at the necessary levels (thanks to Western sanctions ), Russia is completely expelled from Ukraine. with the exception of Crimea, but Kyiv is preparing to retake the peninsula (which Putin would effectively consider an invasion of Russian territory).

The scenario could still go like this:

  • There is a growing risk of Russian nuclear retaliation to end Western military aid, heightened by Russia’s loss of eastern Ukraine previously occupied by separatists. As Ukraine mounts a planned offensive to reclaim the Black Sea peninsula, Putin deploys nuclear-tipped Iskander-M (SS-26) missiles there and threatens to use them if Kyiv forces advance. Suddenly, World War III becomes a distinct possibility if France and China’s urgent meditative efforts to avoid further escalation end in failure.

  • But in mid-2023, nearly a year before he hopes to secure another reelection, Putin’s grip on power in his country is threatened by spiraling public anger. Humiliated senior military and intelligence officials force Putin to resign immediately but allow him to keep a nest egg and protect him from international prosecution for war crimes.

  • The United States and the European Union differ on the question of the lifting of certain sanctions against Russia: fearing the prospect of a giant North Korea next door (in the form of a deeply isolated Russia), Europe seeks a deal by easing sanctions on oil, gas, and other commodities under a quid pro quo agreement that a portion of Russian sales would be sent as reparations to a Ukrainian-led reconstruction fund by the World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

  • Global economic growth is waning, reaching a meager 1% in 2023 amid growing 1930s-style protectionism, nascent nationalism eroding global institutions, and popular discontent spilling over from the United States and America. Europe to a bubbling developing world.

What happens next on the battlefield will determine whether the current largely frozen conflict will ultimately benefit Russia or Ukraine. Various military outcomes are still plausible. With so many variables in play, it is difficult to associate probabilities with potential scenarios.

But in any case, the economic damage will be profound not only for Ukraine, but also for the rest of the world. Instead of waiting for the outcome of the war, policymakers must urgently explore solutions to the global food crisis, the growing potential for debt crises in the developing world, and the threat of recession in the West. In the meantime, the risk that Russia will use nuclear weapons during the conflict is not zero. The use of diplomatic means to avoid such an escalation is vital if the conflict is to remain contained and not envelop the whole world.

Mathew Burrows is director of foresight at the Scowcroft Strategy Initiative and co-director of the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. He is a former senior official of the National Intelligence Council. Robert A. Manning is a senior researcher at the Scowcroft Strategy Initiative. Previously, he served as a senior strategist at the National Counterproliferation Center in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the National Intelligence Council, and the State Department’s Bureau of Policy Planning. This was first published by the Atlantic Council — “Three Possible Futures for a Frozen Conflict in Ukraine”.