TELL ME HOW THIS ENDS
This famous phrase is now almost 20 years old. When General Petreaus asked it, it was about the Iraq war. But it applies to every engagement in conflict, especially to the situation in Ukraine after 100 days of war. Because, frankly, the stakes are much higher than any conflict since WWII.
The phrase includes the basic definition of the end state of a conflict. But it can be a projection of one’s wishes, or a prediction of reality, and these two don’t always correspond.
FACTS ON THE GROUND
For anyone with at least a modicum of respect for the rule of law, “Facts on the Ground” is one of the more dreaded phrases in contemporary use. It basically means “whatever your rights are, sorry, but they currently have it and we have no idea how to get it away from them”. Most often it relates to territory, but it can include various rights (anything from extraction to telecommunication) and circumstances (such as who represents a territory internationally). And over the past thirty or so years, it became an unfortunate staple of everyday peacemaking. From Kosovo to Georgia, from Afghanistan to Africa, from Syria to Iraq to the Holly Land, “facts on the ground” matter. Rarely more so than in Ukraine today.
A View from Moscow
Three months ago, when Russia finally invaded Ukraine, we questioned the sanity of that move. It seemed obvious that the forces engaged in the invasion would not be sufficient to conquer such a vast country, so why do it? Obviously, because when VV Putin asked how it ends, his minions told him “with songs of love and liberty, and a hero’s welcome for you”.
That ended with a humiliating defeat in the battle of Kyiv. It also ended with unprecedented international sanctions pushing Russian economy back into the early 20th century, political restoration and enlargement of NATO, and reducing Russia to a pariah status among the developed nations for the foreseeable future.
On the other hand, when more serious planners were allowed back in the room, the “end” changed and so did the planning. It reversed back to the more feasible invasion to secure a corridor to Crimea and widen the territory Russia controls in the Donbas region. If Russia succeeds in this attempt to expand territory and influence, it would end up with several clear gains.
The corridor would provide Russia with a permanent connection to Crimea, including securing the water supply, it would cement Russia’s hold over the Sea of Azov and all of its routes and resources, and it would provide a starting point for an eventual drive to Transnistria. In conjunction with the already occupied Crimea, it would also make Russia an absolutely dominant force in the Black Sea region. And connecting the DPR/LPR into a coherent territorial entity would provide a political achievement of establishing Novorossiya, grabbing more industrial and agricultural resources, and expanding territory further to the west. This alone is not a bad “how it ends”, if Russia manages to keep it.
Much of the captured territory won’t be of much use because of the enormous destruction. Normally, one would question the sanity of such tactics, thinking why would one obliviate something one is trying to win? What good is Azovstal to Russia today? But it seems this was not a concern in Moscow, because for most of the conflict its tactics seem to be based on the same premise – pulverize the area into oblivion, then move in. The net result is enormous destruction in both territories now controlled by Russia, and those it is currently attacking. That does not seem to matter to the invaders, but the logic behind this attitude escapes us for the time being.
For now, it seems clear that Russia cannot conquer entire Ukraine, nor topple the government to install another, nor even extend the land corridor past Crimea towards Transnistria. Its losses are staggering, its military depleted, and its reserves almost empty. Sure, it still has one of the world’s largest storages of old equipment, but that does not seem very helpful in the field. And the nuclear arsenal seems, for now, firmly off limits, despite daily clamor about the end of the world on Russian TV.
So for Russia, it seems a good ending would be to quickly round up the remainder of Donbas, fortify its holdings in the south, and declare victory. The public may ask why were the losses of life, resources and reputation necessary just to create a land corridor to Crimea, which would be the only strategic difference in this case, but Kremlin’s propaganda machine seems more than capable of dealing with it.
Although our crystal ball is a bit foggy at the moment, we would profess this to be a very likely scenario. If Russia manages to close the Donbas front, and not lose strategic ground in the south (in particular around Kherson), Russia is likely to sue for peace claiming its aims have been achieved and call on the international community to stop the bloodshed by Kyiv.
This would leave Russia with control over more of the Donbas, which it claims for itself anyway. But the real prize would be the control of the south. The land corridor would link Crimea to Russia much more strongly than any bridge can, control over the water supply would eliminate Ukrainian pressure, and the entire territory would provide a bridgehead for a possible further push towards Odessa and Transnistria.
Peace on those terms would also provide Russia with practically exclusive control over the Sea of Azov and large part of the Black Sea, with access to all of the underwater resources (and it seems the reserves of fossil fuels under the Azov and the Black Sea are quite significant).
Finally, leaving Ukraine in a state of frozen conflict (unless, of course, it agrees to Russia’s demands) would be a point of pressure that Russia could use to destabilise Ukraine permanently over the foreseeable future. It would also be extremely difficult for Ukraine to pursue any Euro-Atlantic aspirations under those conditions.
What can Kyiv hope for?
So far in this conflict, Ukraine’s been as lucky as it gets when invaded by a bigger enemy. Unlike the 2014, and unlike some other conflicts involving Russia, there was a meaningful international reaction and a strong show of support from where it matters. The West (as a political concept) came together to support Ukraine and condemn Russia almost before the war started. Ukraine received funding, arms, intelligence and political support, and it was generally not left alone to face the invaders.
But Ukraine paid, and is still paying, a terrible price. Devastation and loss of life on this scale were not seen in Europe since WW2. Tens of thousands of people have died, entire cities were razed to the ground, apparently over a million Ukrainians were deported to Russia and millions left their homes.
In addition, it seemed that Kyiv was resigned to having parts of its territory occupied for the foreseeable future, as it has frequently called on Russia to withdraw to the February 23 positions. We are not sure how that would promote Ukraine’s future, as the situation was complicated even at that time. But it is highly unlikely that Moscow would ever agree to that (because how would it explain such a devastating loss of life, sanctions, international isolation, only to end up with what it already had before), so the point may be moot anyway.
Kyiv is, as is Moscow, very aware that the main factor in determining what any future arrangement will look like are the “facts on the ground”. And right now it seems it is trying to exploit the Russian concentration of forces in Dobnas by regaining ground in the south, possibly preparing to sever the only Putin’s real strategic gain in the war – the Crimean corridor.
For now, it also seems unlikely that Ukraine would be able to defeat Russia decisively. As much as Moscow’s resources appear stretched, there is still a lot of them. And although Ukraine is slowly building its military and getting more sophisticated weaponry from the west, it will take some time to arm and train all of them. By that time, the situation could change significantly.
If Ukraine is able to train and equip all of its current 700,000 troops, it will achieve a 3-1 advantage over the attacking Russians, with several other advantages (better motivation, local knowledge and support etc.). It is unlikely that Moscow is unaware of this development, but it is impossible for us to predict whether it will react with hubris, or with caution. In the first case, it may press on and lose. In the second, it may sue for peace seeking to reduce Ukraine’s political space for maneuver.
Most recent statements by President Zelensky indicate that Ukraine might be giving up on the 23 February option, as he announced that “Ukraine will fight for the entire territory” as it has already lost too much to simply cede territory to Russia.
But it seems clear that it is very much to Ukraine’s advantage to use the momentum and regain as much ground as possible before the pressure to conclude a peace agreement at any cost becomes too strong.
The “how it ends” also includes the international perspective. Ukraine cannot hold its own without international support. As Zelensky famously said in the first days of the war, “I don’t need a ride, I need ammunition!” and that ammunition had to come from somewhere.
The fact of Russian invasion was so shocking that it actually pushed a coalition of the “political west”, to borrow a phase, into forming a coherent front opposing Russia politically, imposing vast economic sanctions and providing military and technical support to Ukraine on extraordinary scale.
Russia was universally condemned and pushed out of many international fora it previously prided itself on being a member of. Ukraine also successfully challenged Russian claims of genocide in Donbas in front of the International Court of Justice, which ordered Russia to cease its military activities immediately. That was back in March and had no effect on Russia’s actions. The ICJ is the highest instrument of international law currently in existence, and since it was unable to influence Russia’s actions, we can probably assume that Russia would not be swayed by any future legal considerations.
What About Sanctions?
Unlike the ICJ orders, sanctions seem to have a real effect on Russia. Both on its military, by reducing its access to critical western-made components, and on its general economy. Of course, sanctions are hurting those who imposed them as well. The price of oil is skyrocketing, although it could calm down now that the OPEC countries agreed to increase production, and Russian invasion and naval blockade of Ukraine are creating global shortages of wheat, sunflower oil and other commodities.
Prices are rising throughout the world, making sanctions more unpopular as time goes by. This, in turn, worries the governments keeping them in place, and the pressure to lift them is slowly building up.
African countries are starting to feel the pain and are apparently trying to convince Russia to unblock shipments of grain and fertilizers. If Russia, as expected, answers with “we’d be happy to, if you convince Washington, London and Bruxelles to lift sanctions”, it is likely that some pressure to lift the sanctions could come from that direction as well. The recent spat at the UN Security Council indicates that the EU and the US are not likely to accept Russian attempts to deflect the blame. But others might, for a number of reasons.
All of these problems make a very strong case for abolishing the sanctions. And a functional relationship with Russia would be good for everyone involved.
Russia knew that going into the invasion. It spent years creating western dependency on its oil and gas, and it was betting that major economies such as Germany will not be able to survive without them. It also knew the western community, the only one likely to seriously oppose his invasion, is deeply hurt by the pandemic and the threatening recession.
But the sanctions, as intended, seem to be biting Russia more. The first concrete proposal by Putin on lifting the blockade of the Black Sea ports was to ask for removal of sanctions in return. The media were amused by photos of civilian GPS equipment taped to highly sophisticated cockpits of Russian attack planes, and the Red Army is apparently digging out half a century old equipment from deep storage in order to fill the gaps on the front line. Russian military industry is apparently unable to produce more of the sophisticated weaponry it used in Ukraine, lacking microchips and other components Russia used to import from the west. Restricted access to technology is yet to show its real effects, but once Russia uses up the reserves, it is likely to be devastating. Finally, many of the previously glamorous shops in Moscow, or simple Starbucks and McDonald’s are now boarded up, and the Russian consumers are facing very restricted choices.
So the governments that keep the sanctions regime in place now face a dilemma – keep the sanctions in place, and suffer the consequences, or lift them prematurely and risk facing another “special operation” in Ukraine or somewhere else. Pressure will be stronger in the west, simply because the governments there are more used to listen to their citizens and fulfill their needs. Russia, on the other hand, is by now a proper totalitarian state, where opinions of the masses count for close to nothing and those who keep voicing their opposition simply end up in jail.
SO, HOW DOES IT END?
The best way, of course, would be for the conflict to end. From a distance, it seems slightly less important if the lines of separation follow the lines of 23 February, or some new lines, or a combination. Especially if setting this question aside would enable the end of the war, sanctions and all the trouble that came with it.
So Russia does have something to offer to the international community, and the main question still is whether Russia’s short-term offers of cheap oil and gas will appeal to the west more than matters of international principle. We believe adhering to the principles is the right way to go, even from a purely realpolitik perspective. It seems very likely that Moscow would use any respite to regroup and try again, either to push towards Transnistria, or to conquer Ukraine entire. In addition, the current crisis exposed all the negative sides of being overly reliant on Russia for energy. It therefore seems that going back to the status quo ante is hardly a viable option unless something substantial changes in the nature of the Russian regime.
There are, of course, many many reasons why relations with Russia should be improved as soon as possible. The key words being “as soon as possible”, not before. Requirements for that are a different topic, but they would certainly include restoration of international rules-based order in relation to Ukraine.
However, combination of all of these factors (human, political and economic cost of war and sanctions, international pressures, internal dynamics in all the states concerned etc.) is likely to produce a push towards a settlement as soon as possible. Ukraine’s position is more dependent on the west, so it is likely to feel more any fluctuations of political determination in the main capitals.
In addition, Russia seems close to achieving its “reduced aims” of securing the land corridor and linking the two areas in the east, while Ukraine’s aims seem much further off especially if restoring sovereignty over Crimea is even considered as a part of those.
So Russia would have reasons to call for a truce as soon as it can. After all, who could reasonably say “no” to a peace initiative, after so much suffering? Ukraine might resist, claiming it is finally gaining initiative, and that any truce at that point (whenever it may come) would basically favor Russia. But it would certainly come under strong pressure from at least the European capitals (and possibly some in Washington who might think America’s done enough) to accept the truce now and deal with the details later. We believe this realization is behind British PM’s warning that Ukraine should not be pressured into a “bad peace deal”.
We believe Russia is likely to do that soon as it manages to close the gap on Kramatorsk, or some “reduced-aim” line west of Sieverodonetsk. Relying on reason in Russian decision making these days seems a losing proposition, but it is hard to imagine that Moscow would not appreciate a breather to recuperate and consolidate. On the other hand, it is entirely possible that the “maximalists” in Moscow prevail again, and try to conquer the rest of Ukraine as well. The way things are going now, this looks like a very bad idea. But so did the initial invasion, and yet Moscow decided to attempt it.
And here’s where the “facts on the ground” come in. Russia undertook the entire operation to expand its holdings in Ukraine. Returning to the status of 23 February would be completely unacceptable to Moscow, especially after suffering such heavy losses in the field and the international humiliation of sanctions and ostracism. Knowing that, some western governments might be tempted to accept the “facts on the ground”, and try to persuade Ukraine to accept a (most likely) very complicated peace agreement.
The international community at that point may attempt to create a mirage where the newly occupied territories would be under some “international supervision” or “international administration”, and although Moscow is unlikely to accept any foreign observers in the DPR/LPR area, let alone Crimea, it may allow for some “contested areas” to come under some international arrangement where Russia would have a say. That could be under the UN or the OSCE auspices, or even an UNMIK-like combination of the UN, the EU and the OSCE together. If Moscow does not annex (all of) the occupied areas outright, it may propose another Minsk-type arrangement concerning local self-government, special rights etc etc. There would be trilateral commissions, confidence building measures, demining operations, meetings to discuss the finer points of municipal administration, and many other elements of a peacekeeper’s daily routine. Ukraine would remain destabilized for as long as that situation persists, and whatever efforts it undertakes to get closer to the EU, or NATO, or any kind of closer ties with the west, would be rendered either technically impossible, or extremely difficult. It is very hard to integrate a country into a common customs area if that country has no set borders. It is difficult (not impossible, and it was done before) to arrange a visa regime with a country where several million people carry two sets of documents. And it is almost impossible to integrate into NATO a country in a state of suspended war with Russia. Add to the mix constant possibilities of ceasefire violations, complaints, minority positions, transport and communication challenges, telecommunication problems, TV and radio signals, international support to anti-corruption initiatives, and other daily problems, and Ukraine’s life would be complicated indeed.
It is important now to realise that any such solution works exclusively for the Russian side in this conflict. Ukraine gets a cessation of destruction, which in itself is a great achievement. While Russia gets the territory, the riches, and an almost permanently paralised Ukraine.
On the other hand, this solution works almost fine for the international community. And almost fine is often good enough. The shooting and destruction stop, NATO is enlarged, western alliance is strengthened, and most harmful sanction elements can be removed pushing Russia to deliver on some things on its own. Black Sea ports can be unblocked, although who controls them is another issue. Some arrangements can be made to get the oil and gas flowing again, reducing the domestic pressure created by rising prices. And even if Russia stays under some sort of conditionality regime, general relations can be safely restarted.
The added benefit of getting Russia back into the fold would be removing it from the slow but inevitable grip by Beijing. Although in this partnership Russia would be junior, it would still keep together two of three great nuclear powers. Coupled with China’s rising military might, and economic potential of Russia and China, this would be a powerful alliance indeed. But the real power behind it would be China, not Russia.
It is possible that NATO itself, strengthened with the newly found sense of purpose, accession of Sweden and Finland, and renewed Euro-Atlantic commitment, would feel strong enough to balance this out.
The real danger in this repositioning, for us, lies in the possibility of other “less-than-democratic” regimes trying to settle their favorite scores while big blocks are busy trying to resolve the Ukrainian conflict. If Turkey decides to attack the Kurds, China decides time is right to retake Taiwan, North Korea dececides the now or never
Finally, how does this end for Ukraine? Unfortunately, only one scenario allows Ukraine to come on top, and that includes an absolute or at least relative victory over Russia in Ukraine. Although Kyiv is obviously aware that this is a far-fetched aim, it seems slowly moving away from the February 23 position. Which would leave 15% of Ukraine under occupation or under the quagmire of the Minsk-type arrangements anyway.
Ukraine demonstrated several times so far that it can defeat Russian troops, but for that it still requires political and technical support from the west. While the momentum lasts, it seems that Ukraine’s best bet is to change the “facts on the ground” as much as possible in its favor. Especially if it manages to sever the Crimean corridor and retake some strategic points in the east.
So however one looks at the situation in Ukraine, getting a victory over Russia will require a concentrated effort of Ukraine and the international community. And for that, the international community needs to maintain the focus on a common goal. Even if Ukraine is allowed to slide into a stalemate of a “transitional peace arrangement”, the IC going in needs to have a vision how to get out. Again, before somebody moves in, we need to know how it ends. European support and assistance to Ukraine will certainly come in handy, but no amount of integrationing, fighting corruption, improving public administration and other things the European community is so good at supporting, will resolve the underlying problem for Ukraine – Russian occupation of parts of its territory. That, it would seem, Ukraine needs to resolve for itself.
As it seems fairly likely that an initial push for this “transitional peace” might come some time soon, the international community would do well to start looking into the “how it ends” rather quickly, looking for points of agreement between Ukraine and its international partners, and at least drafting the rules before the game starts.