Even with Covid and climate change to worry about, it’s hard to pay attention to much else besides the disaster in Ukraine. It’s easy enough to imagine a scale of escalation leading to nuclear war (Putin’s army occupies Ukraine, resistance bases itself in Poland, attacks into Poland produce NATO resistance, someone makes a mistake, and that’s that). What’s harder is to think about less extreme outcomes.
Making things even harder is that this is a field where there is no relevant expertise, because there is essentially no relevant data. Modern wars are rare and each is very different from all the others: no one could accurately predict the outcomes of the Iraq and Afghan wars, and no lessons can be drawn from them, except that things will usually turn out badly for everyone.
Having said all that, here’s my non-expert analysis. I assume that the fighting will continue for some time, without a clear victory for either side, and that the current US/EU response of sanctions and military aid will escalate further, probably including wider confiscation of assets, exclusion from the global banking system and (one way or the other) a partial or complete cutoff in energy trade.
Any outcome has to be acceptable enough to both sides that neither wants to go on fighting. I can’t imagine Putin admitting defeat, so a ceasefire with something close to the status quo ante borders seems like the best we can hope for. In return he might get a partial lifting of sanctions, but it won’t be anything like a return to the pre-crisis situation. There may be a form of words that puts formal NATO membership for Ukraine off into the indefinite future, but the fact that Russia now has a hostile and heavily militarised neighbour, allied to NATO, isn’t going to be changed by words.
The invasion pretty much guarantees an end to Russia’s role in the global economy. Russian oligarchs will get as much as they can out of Western banks before it gets seized, and investors in Russia will dump their assets for whatever they can get. European buyers of Russian gas and oil will rush to find new sources, and Russia will be looking to sell on spot markets, rather than through long-term contracts. The situation will resemble the latter stages of the Cold War.
As with Covid, there are bound to be some positives. The need to clamp down on the money-laundering global financial system is now obvious, as is the toxicity of cryptocurrency. A switch from Russian gas may delay the end of coal, but in the medium term it is bound to accelerate the rise of renewables. And, maybe (though past experience isn’t encouraging), Trump’s support for Putin will turn out to be the catalyst for a split between MAGA loyalists and Republican hawks, putting a halt to their plans to overturn US democracy.