The future is a forking path of innumerable possibilities. According to the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, every fork is taken in some world of the multiverse. If you need a little mind-stretch, the Borges story “The Garden of Forking Paths” is a riveting literary interpretation.
This applies to the conflict. Again and again, the garden path forks to left and right. On one pleasant extreme lies political change in Russia. On the other extreme of horror lies nuclear exchange. In between lie innumerable forks, each leading to a different world. Which world will we live in?
The sheer multiplicity of intermediate forks suggests a probable mixture of life and death. We would like to positively influence the forks taken. This would seem to imply free will to choose the path, which may be an illusion — a question that will not be solved by us. It seems to us that we do, which motivates Biden and Musk to seek negotiations.
Perhaps we cannot choose, but can influence. A weaker option, influence might push or bias the forks chosen, even if the ultimate choice lies with the inscrutable fates. This hinges on “clever recognition” of some aspects of a situation ripe for a push. Perhaps this is the basis of the proverb, “All things come to those who wait.”
One of the things we are waiting for is a sign that Putin is a rational actor in ways that are relevant. It is not a is/is-not proposition. Historically, he has been rational. Now, he is prisoner of an idea, victim of a folie en famille, the family disorder of ultra nationalists. In the 20th century, this delusion afflicted the majority of developed nations, and continues as a toxic derivative of healthy patriotism. As such, it is either a recurrent disease or unfortunate natural state of mankind. Putin’s thought seems a mix of the rational and emotional, tempting hope that we can somehow engage a part of Putin while ignoring the rest.
Although the forks are innumerable, speculation can be informed by conflicts of the 20th century:
World War I. Initiated by interlocking treaties and a random event, ruled by military science, ended by revolution in Germany, with a negotiated peace.
World War II. Initiated by a folie en famille , ended by crushing supremacy of the Allies.
Vietnam War. Ended by loss of political will in the U.S. No costs or penalties from loss, other than a loss of sense of national purpose.
Korean War. Ended by asymmetrical fatigue. China lacked the industrial base, while the U.S. was sensitive to casualties, even at a 10:1 ratio. U.S. aims were basically defensive, though undermined by MacArthur’s insubordination. The result was escalation, followed by a stalemate of ambition. Since both sides were sensitive to costs, their goals moderated towards a status quo ante bellum, resulting in an armistice.
The Korean War, with its innumerable forks, sudden reversals, overreach, and shifting fortunes, with end by stalemate, is not an inspiring picture. It is not the best of all possible outcomes, but neither is it the worst. This forking path occupies a large swath in the center of the garden; this intuitively assigns high probability, compared to the extremes.
Like most of you, I hope for Ukraine’s unconditional success and support all their operations. But hope is by itself effete, a wish for better without the mechanism. Prognostication is, like revenge, best served cold.
Is there any possible distillation for the policy maker? Keep your hand hidden, and be ready to turn on a dime.