There are three scenarios for the outcome of the war. Each of them would have far-reaching geopolitical consequences. Even greater chaos is possible.

The armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine is not an international conflict: ethnic Ukrainians and ethnic Russians are fighting on both sides of the front line. And contrary to many statements from Moscow, radical nationalism is not the main motivation for the Ukrainian resistance.

Nor is it a religious war. Both Russia and Ukraine are largely secular states, so the recent renaissance of religion in both countries is only a superficial phenomenon. In my view, the fight is not primarily about territory either (although the related disputes remain a formidable obstacle to a peace agreement).

In this conflict, two completely different ways of social and political life meet in two countries that once formed a large part of the Soviet Empire. At the same time, a confrontation takes place on an intellectual and moral level between two mentalities: two views on the modern international system and the world in general; two opposing conceptions of right and wrong, of justice and injustice, of legitimacy and illegitimacy, and of the importance of national leadership.

It would be difficult to claim that Ukraine has already become a paragon of Western-style liberal democracy. Still, the country is well on its way in this direction – albeit with slow, faltering steps, justified setbacks, and unavoidable delays. Russia, on the other hand, is not a classic Asian or European authority state, but has increasingly moved away from the free-democratic model at least in the last 20 years.

While Ukrainian society is generally organized along a ‘bottom-up’ principle, Russian society is essentially governed by a ‘top-down’ mentality. Since gaining independence in 1991, Ukraine has elected six presidents. They all came to power after hard-fought (and sometimes very dramatic) elections. During the same period of time, only three heads of state ruled in Russia. Each new head of state was carefully selected and supported by his predecessor.

There is disagreement among historians, cultural anthropologists, and sociologists as to the reasons for this remarkable divergence. The most important thing, however, is that the fundamental incompatibility of both models of social organization has not only led to devastating military fratricides, but will also determine the behavior of both sides in this war. Be it personnel or propaganda, strategy or statecraft – the two competing post-Soviet models are being put to the test. The result of this debate is likely to reach far beyond Europe.

Kyiv can use the unequal meeting conditions as an argument. After all, Russia is larger, wealthier and endowed with greater military might than Ukraine. On the other hand, Ukraine enjoys international sympathy and almost unlimited support from the West on defense, economic, humanitarian and intelligence issues. For Russia, which can only rely on itself, the pressure from ever tightening sanctions is becoming more and more noticeable.

Many Russian pundits are wont to say that Ukraine has not been overthrown or capitulated just because of the massive military and other support from the West. This narrative, however, leaves Ukraine’s motivations unanswered. Just think of Afghanistan, where the unstoppable offensive by the Taliban last year could not be prevented despite years of massive military aid from the United States and its partners. Although a direct comparison of the two conflicts is difficult, the facts seem clear: while in 2021 Afghans were no longer motivated to fight for their country and their values, in 2022 Ukrainians undoubtedly are.

There could hardly be more at stake in this war. It is about the future of world events and order. Above all, however, it is about our understanding of modernity itself – and thus also about our preferred models for social and political development.

There are three scenarios for the outcome of the war, each of which would have enormous geopolitical consequences. Should the Kremlin suffer a decisive defeat in this epic stalemate, there would likely be a resurgence of the “unipolar moment” — despite Beijing’s continued opposition to the arrangement.

While Ukraine may be an unfinished project for Putin, the status of Russia remains an open issue even for many in the West. A victory for Ukraine could lead to the taming and domestication of Russia. A tame Russia could allow the West an easier relationship with China, which would be the only major obstacle to liberal hegemony and the long-awaited “end of history.”

If there is an imperfect but mutually acceptable solution to the conflict, then the final clash between the Russian and Ukrainian models will be postponed. The fierce competition between the two societies will continue, albeit, I hope, in a less brutal way.

A suboptimal compromise between the West and Russia could be followed by an even more significant and fundamental compromise between the West and China. If Putin allows an agreement, an agreement with Xi Jinping would be the only logical consequence.

By contrast, rapprochement between China and the West is likely to require more time, energy and political flexibility on the part of the West. The consequence would be a reform of the global order that would entail significant changes in the UN system, outdated norms of international public law and a reorientation of the IMF, the WTO and other institutions.

If there is no agreement on Ukraine and the conflict persists in cycles of unstable ceasefires and new phases of escalation, the global and regional institutions can be expected to disintegrate. Ineffective international institutions could be brought to their knees as a result of an accelerating arms race, nuclear proliferation and rising regional conflicts. Such an upheaval would only lead to greater chaos in the years to come.

Estimating the likelihood of any of these three scenarios is extremely difficult – too many independent variables could affect the outcome of the conflict. I consider the Reformation scenario, in which an agreement is reached to end the war, to be the best option for all parties involved. The other scenarios either lead to changes too quickly or block the way when they are urgently needed; in either case, the political risks will multiply. If the war brings about a gradual, orderly and non-violent transition in which the global order becomes more stable, it would mean that Ukraine’s sacrifices have not been in vain.

The article first appeared in The Economist under the title “Andrey Kortunov offers three scenarios for the end of the war in Ukraine” and was translated by Cornelia Zink.

The original of this article “There are 3 scenarios for the outcome of the war: The consequences are always enormous” comes from The Economist.