There has been considerable celebration over Ukraine's offensive against Russia. The Ukrainians have liberated large parts of their country under Russian occupation and the collapse of the Russian army appears at hand. However, as the old saying goes, "it's aint over until the fat lady sings." I don't believe Russia will win this war. The Ukrainians have proven to be courageous, committed, and masters of the operational art of war, at least in this conflict. However, as professionals know, many things can change; things can go wrong, or an unanticipated event can quickly change the dynamic. The Ukrainians can overextend themselves or become exhausted in their pursuit of victory. A lot can happen in the coming months. This will go on for some time, but right now it is looking very bad for Russia.
It is worth looking at the reasons for Russia's invasion in order to understand where this conflict will end and some possible outcomes. Russia is, understandably, fearful for its security, having faced numerous invasions throughout its history. The Poles captured Moscow and installed a puppet ruler in the 17th century. Sweden invaded in the 18th century, France in the 19th, and Germany in the 20th century being the most famous. That last invasion cost Russia 25+ million dead, so many they can't even hope to count them. They fear another invasion, this time led by the U.S.
While Russia's fear of invasion is justifiable and understandable, the problem is that Russia came away from this history with the lesson that offense is safer than defense. Rather than relying on diplomacy and developing alliances to prevent invasion, Russia came away with the belief that to protect the Motherland they need to build up a system of border states. These states would be the battlefield of any future war. These states would, in turn, face the devastation of war instead of Russia. Because of this long-held belief, it means Russia is more than ready to militarily occupy bordering nations as part of this defense.
Those very same states that Russia wants as a buffer on its western flank, Eastern Europe, have also experienced invasion and occupation, most recently by Russia, then the Soviet Union. They do not trust Russia and know that Russia seeks to dominate them as buffers. Lacking the military and economic strength to oppose Russia on their own, they have chosen diplomacy to defend themselves. They preferred to develop a series of alliances, in this case, NATO. This alliance is what Russia fears and as East European nations join NATO Russia sees a threat. A vicious circle.
A second driving force behind Russia's aggression is its long-standing inferiority complex. For centuries Europeans viewed Russia as a backward, barbaric nation. Large and heavily populated it might be, but Europeans never viewed Russia as the equal of the European imperial powers, such as the United Kingdom, France, and Germany. Peter the Great, Tsar of Russia, launched a modernization program in the 18th century to bring Russia up to what he viewed as European standards, but European attitudes toward Russia remained the same. As important a role as Russia played in the Napoleonic Wars and WWII, they have always believed that the West viewed them as less than equal. This is one reason why Russia is still working to expand its influence in the Middle East and Africa. It needs to be viewed as a serious world power.
This leads us to the conclusion that Russia cannot and will not accept a full-out military defeat in Ukraine. The humiliation and loss of prestige and influence are too much to bear. Russia will exhaust all its options before it comes to the negotiating table with the sincere intention of reaching a peace agreement. In addition to waging a more brutal military campaign, which might include chemical weapons, Russia will fight desperately on other fronts, maybe more aggressive active measures, more severe economic moves, and destabilizing nations friendly to the US and NATO. They might fully mobilize for war. I note chemical weapons because Russia likely believes the use of chemical weapons will be easier to deny than nuclear weapons. Remember the use of chemical weapons in Syria and the uncertainty about whether they were actually used or not shortly after they were used, and the lengthy UN investigation that followed. Russia will also likely blame Ukraine for the use of chemical weapons to further muddy the issue. In this scenario, chemical weapons might be used to give Russia a breakthrough to keep control of its current territory.
It is likely we will also witness a greater effort by Russia to influence Western elections, working to cause confusion, divisions, and instability in Western countries, as well as helping bring to power governments that would be less likely to support Ukraine.
The short-term solution to the conflict would be for the Russian establishment to remove Vladimir Putin from office. He remains the driving force behind the invasion. Without him, it might be more palatable for Russia to negotiate its way out of this disaster. But back to the beginning of this post. There are reasons why Russia invaded Ukraine. These reasons might not make sense to you and me, they might not be valid, but what we believe matters little in this situation. What matters is what Russia believes. When this war is done, when Putin is gone, either through a coup or natural causes, these reasons will remain. Russia will still fear foreign invasion, it will still feel slighted by the West, and it will still see offensive power as its only solution.