We love a happy ending, a neat moral conclusion. But with the Ukraine conflict that will be no neat moral conclusion. There can't be one.

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Although people will be approaching the present war from different angles, looking to load their evaluations with differing amounts of blame for the various players—Putin, NATO, the EU, Ukraine, the West, the IMF etc.—we all desire a nice and neat moral solution. It doesn’t matter who you are and what side you are on, surely everyone would like this to be wrapped up with an efficient moral conclusion. We love a happy ending.

But there won’t be one because there can’t be one. And that doesn’t sit well in our psyches.

Realistically, there are three ways this clusterbomb can end:

  1. Ukraine’s army does so well, and Russia’s so badly, and the sanctions bite so deeply, that Putin gets deposed. This might be a military coup or popular uprising.
  2. Ukraine’s army does so well, and Russia’s so badly, that this thing drags on interminably, involving a huge cost to everyone involved. Perhaps Russia finds an excuse, like in Afghanistan, to exit the theatre a decade down the line after a huge cost to everyone.
  3. Ukraine is flattened into submission by outright Pyrrhic victory and destructive violence.

It’s an uncomfortable thing when it is so obvious who the aggressor is in such a conflict—you know, the one who invades a sovereign nation and bombs civilians and hospitals and schools and families into submission. Uncomfortable because we desire and even expect a fundamental moral solution, with a decisive victory for the good guys (whomsoever you might think they are).

It’s rather like, heck, it is the just world theory, where (no matter your worldview) one just expects life—the universe—to be fair.

But it’s not. Life is complicated and finding nice, neat moral solutions to geopolitical Gordian Knots is not going to happen.

We will have to work hard to make sure someone we loathe because he has done loathsome, abhorrent things, feels good about themselves.

Option 1 is unlikely. Even given the distaste some in Russia might have for Putin’s actions, the vast majority are held under the sway of state media and propaganda, propped up by institutions like the Russian Orthodox Church. Make no mistake that this is as much an information war as it is a war of armaments, and Putin holds many of the cards in terms of playing the game of information with his own population. Those who do have access to independent media sources, and who do read them, are possibly a smaller segment of elite or middle-class society, and court danger with every CNN webpage they might frequent.

Because there are more political prisoners in Russia right now than at the height of the Cold War, and there are more members of the internal security services in Russia than army personnel.

So although it could happen, a coup or Putin being publicly deposed most probably won’t happen.

And that there is the best moral outcome, as far as I am concerned, and one that would still require a vast amount of extra pain and suffering of Ukrainians, Russian soldiers, and the Russian public.

Thus it comes down to this fabled “off-ramp” that allows Putin to extract himself from this quagmire with his narcissistic head held high.

The end result for options 2 and 3 are some sort of concession and compromise whereby Ukraine will be used like a political football with no autonomy and will have to settle for large amounts of annexed territory and the inability to join the EU and NATO, or some similar scenario.

Indeed, no scenario appears to see Ukraine have a full sovereign entitlement and autonomy in the way that one might hope. And to get to anything near that would require it to be crushed down into its own boggy mud of the rasputitsa.

Putin will never back down and say, “Do you know what, I’m going to cut my losses. Sorry about that.” Because he is human and we have a tendency to throw good money after bad. But he is also a paranoid narcissist military dictator, making such an event impossible.

With no off-ramp, no ladder out of the hellhole of his own making, and having shifted from a grossly miscalculated quick overthrow of a government to a full-scale invasion and occupation of a nation that hates you, Putin really has lost.

But Putin cannot lose. He cannot allow himself to be seen to lose, so solutions will have to be provided given that the only other option is a third world and nuclear war. These solutions will entail a huge cost of life, liberty, and happiness, and they will involve a bucket full of compromise.

This means we will have to work hard to appease him. We will have to work hard to make sure someone we loathe because he has done loathsome, abhorrent things, feels good about themselves. We will have to make sure they come away from whatever deal we strike feeling like they have won.

This is a zero-sum game after all. If Ukraine gets something they want, that is at the expense of Putin not getting what he wants. There simply is no win-win situation.

And that moral calculation is a really damned bitter pill for us to swallow.

[For my latest analysis of the war, please see here:]

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...