UVA Russia expert Allen Lynch analyzes how the Russian invasion of Ukraine might come to a close
Defense scholar Fred Ikle famously noted that “all wars end.” Moreover, they almost always end via negotiations and not the physical annihilation of the adversary. Even the “unconditional surrender” of Japan in August 1945 was conditioned upon U.S. assurances that Emperor Hirohito would stay on his throne, thereby saving millions of Japanese (and likely hundreds of thousands of American) lives. With the Russian war in Ukraine now in its third week, certain conclusions can be drawn with a high degree of confidence:
- The Russian leadership was unprepared for a war of this intensity. Putin expected that a show of force would induce the Ukrainians to capitulate and allow him to install a Quisling government that would formalize Ukraine’s status as a Russian vassal state. Instead, Putin has discovered that Ukraine is a real nation and that it will not accept rule from Moscow, directly or indirectly.
- Russia has the capacity to destroy almost anything that it wants in Ukraine, but it does not have the capacity to end Ukrainian military resistance, not to mention occupy and govern Ukraine. With fewer than 200,000 Russian troops of all kinds currently deployed (in a country the size of France, with 44 million people), there is relative parity on the battlefield, whereas historically, decisive offensive operations require a superiority on the order of 4:1 or more.
- With Ukraine having a roughly 900-mile land border with four NATO countries (Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania) in the mountainous west, it is unlikely that Russia would be able to seal off that border from the delivery of powerful anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons that have to date wreaked havoc with Russia’s military plans.
- The longer the war goes on, the harder it will be for Putin to disguise the true nature of the war and its costs from the Russian people, who in fact tend toward pacifism; that is why Russian censorship is so strict. But you can’t censor thousands of burials of sons.
- On the Ukrainian side, the European Union on March 10 rejected membership for Ukraine anytime soon and the nature of the Western commitment to Ukraine, impressive as it is, underscores that Ukraine will not be joining NATO either. President Biden’s pre-war declaration that the U.S. will not risk a direct war with Russia over Ukraine by sending troops, or now by trying to enforce a no-fly zone over Ukraine (affirmed by NATO on March 4), prove that Ukraine’s security future was never a vital interest for the United States or NATO in the way that it is for Russia.
- The Ukrainian military, with prolonged military aid from NATO countries, may be able to avoid defeat but it cannot impose defeat upon a determined Russia, which is actually advancing steadily if clumsily in the south and northeast of Ukraine.
Absent the political will in Russia, Ukraine and in the United States to explore some such terms of settlement, the prospect is for an indefinite proxy war between Russia and NATO during which Ukraine gets progressively destroyed.
It took the unexpected Vietcong/North Vietnamese Tet offensive in early 1968 (which in the end proved to be a “military-technical” disaster for the North) to induce U.S. leaders to reexamine their objectives in Vietnam; the price of sustaining the existing commitment had become too high politically. Likewise, the unexpectedly fierce and effective Ukrainian resistance to date has undermined Russia’s initial planning for this campaign. Putin has recently stated that, if Ukraine meets three conditions, the war will end. These are: recognition of Russian sovereignty over Crimea, the independence of the regions of Luhansk and Donbas, and Ukrainian neutrality; in other words, what was the de facto status quo antebellum. Is there a way to square the circle(s) of seemingly irreconcilable Russian and Ukrainian objectives? Given the premises outlined above, and assuming sufficient political will in Moscow, Kiyiv, and Washington, D.C., there is a range of diplomatic tools that could be exploited to end this war. Thus:
With the understanding that a settlement along the lines proposed below is to be negotiated in good faith, Russia and Ukraine agree to an immediate, comprehensive, and indefinite cease-fire pending the withdrawal of Russian troops to Russia and the end of the de facto naval blockade of Ukraine along its Black Sea coastline. The interim cease-fire line may be patrolled and monitored by UN observers.
The settlement might incorporate the following elements:
- Ukraine agrees to accept whatever status voters in Crimea and the East want, so long as the election is carried out under UN and not Russian auspices; refugees from the region should be allowed to return before the vote is taken. The region is to be defined as the areas in Luhansk and Donbas under de facto Russian control before the full-scale Russian invasion of February 24.
- Ukraine and Russia agree to a demilitarized zone of 100 km or so along each side of their border. Confidence-building measures modeled on the 1975 Helsinki Final Act (Basket 1) and the 1983 Stockholm accord on confidence- and security-building measures in Europe can be applied: limits on the size of troop movements in the vicinity, pre-notification of movements above a certain level (e.g., 10,000 troops); on-site and/or aerial verification of the absence of hostile intent, etc.
- Ukraine agrees to neutrality so long as Russia observes the conditions of the demilitarized zone. Such conditional neutrality could be embodied in the Ukrainian constitution (a Russian demand), in the way that the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty was linked to the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco formally ending the Pacific War.
- U.S./NATO agree not to deploy certain classes of strike weapons in Ukraine; this could be followed by a new Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) in Europe agreement, a point that the Russians indicated they were open to on March 11.
- Finland and Sweden declare that their policy toward NATO membership will be strongly influenced by the execution and maintenance of such a settlement.
- Once Russian troops have withdrawn from Ukraine, the West and Russia will lift all economic and financial sanctions in place since the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014.
- UN observers will be sent to monitor humanitarian corridors in the interim.
- There will be UN financing for reconstruction in Ukraine (to which Russia pays in part as a contributor to the UN budget).
Absent the political will in Russia, Ukraine and in the United States to explore some such terms of settlement, the prospect is for an indefinite proxy war between Russia and NATO during which Ukraine gets progressively destroyed, the debility of the allegedly “modernized” Russian armed forces continues to be demonstrated to the entire world, while NATO and Russia maintain a non-negligible risk of escalation to direct war between them, something that their predecessors managed to avoid over 42 years of cold.