Ukraine is losing and will lose its war with Russia. For Moscow not to lose the peace, it is unfortunately the case that a rump Ukraine may no longer provide in Russian eyes the security from the NATO/Ukraine threat it understandably (to some) seeks. Time is running out to avert a larger, truly Ukraine-wide war carried successfully by Moscow into the country’s more anti-Russian western regions and Kiev, putting an end to the Ukrainian state in lieu of NATO military intervention. However, a Russian-occupied Ukraine will simmer with partisan warfare and neofascist terrorism for some time, leaving the risk of a larger war in place should the West persist in arming Moscow’s foes. Unless Western diplomacy, first of all US policy, moves into high gear and is prepared to make the necessary compromises with Moscow, Ukraine is likely to disappear from the world stage as an independent state and a larger Russo-NATO war will become an imminent prospect, threatening not just Europe and Russia but the world with a nuclear conflagration. Edward Lutwak recently called for a “dirty, contemptible agreement” (www.tabletmag.com/sections/news/articles/three-blind-kings-edward-luttwak). Unfortunately, wild-eyed idealist, such as those that now inhabit the corridors of power in Washington, Brussels and elsewhere in the West do not do such agreements. Ask any American conservative or Republican. This bodes poorly for the future.
All parties to the Russo-Ukrainian War are hardening their positions because of a desire for revenge, in order to save face, or (in Ukraine’s case false) hopes for victory. The Ukrainian government of Volodomyr Zelenskiy has rejected further peace negotiations other than a discussion of a ceasefire and the withdrawal of all Russian forces from Ukrainian territory, including Crimea and Donbass. The West has reinforced this entirely unrealistic stance fully detached from any and all reality on the ground. For Washington and NATO, the war has become all about putting an end to ‘Putin’s regime’ and deluded dreams of ‘decolonizing’ Russia have replaced democracy promotion efforts (https://niccolo.substack.com/p/delusion). The US government and NATO are using the Ukrainian state and people as its battering ram, encouraging Kievan nationalist fantasies about defeating Russia and becoming the saviour of the West.
On the other side, Russian progress on the ground and the intensifying attrition of Ukrainian forces offer no incentive to halt the war and simply settle for its original, probably minimal war goals of ‘denazification’ and ‘de-miitarization of Ukraine and seizing all Donbass up to the administrative borders of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions – the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DNR and LNR) as they are regarded in Moscow, Crimea, and Donbass – in support of their independence recognized by Moscow three days before its invasion. Every inch of territory Moscow seizes beyond the former ‘occupied territories’, as regarded by Kiev, including the additional Donetsk and Luhansk regional territories makes implementation of a ceasefire and withdrawal more complicated. They also make Kiev less likely to negotiate in the short- to mid-term, in lieu of an almost inevitable existential threat to the Ukrainian state such as it exists. By that time there will be a rump Ukraine territorially, a decimated Ukraine economically, and an unstable Ukraine politically.
Every day that Washington refuses to open a channel to Putin and urge Kiev to negotiate means more death and destruction for both sides, global economic disaster, and the risk of a much wider war. In Donbass and the LNR/DNR armies, hard-won military victories are creating a thirst to extend the revenge for eight years of humiliation and terror in the breakaway regions of Donbass, as they move out beyond their administrative borders into regions such as Zaporozh’e, Kherson, Mikolaiv, and Kharkov (Kharkiv). Peace would mean the end to ‘military glory’ and the return to the hard work of restoration and state-building for all sides. The Donbass’s exuberance reinforces the Russian attitude of exacting more and more revenge in the form of seizing Ukrainian regions in compensation for the West’s perfidy and the loss of Russian lives in the ‘special military operation’, military and (in Donbass) civilian.
It did not have to be this way. The solution that would have avoided this terrible war was Western (NATO and Kiev) agreement to a neutral Ukraine—an option available for two decades but rejected in Washington and Brussels. On neutrality, there have been false assertions that “Zelenskyy appeared ready for compromise on key questions in March, for example, offering to set aside Kyiv’s ambitions of joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and accept neutrality. But his Russian counterpart did not take up the possibility to secure a neutral Ukraine and perhaps other gains. In retrospect, that may turn out to be a missed opportunity for Moscow” (https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2022/05/23/the-russia-ukraine-war-at-three-months/). Former US Ambassador to Russia and proponent of NATO expansion argued the same (www.reddit.com/r/chomsky/comments/uvblo2/munk_debate_russiaukraine_war_stephen_walt_john/). In fact, Zelenskiy added conditions to this point of agreement, stipulating that a referendum would be required to insert a neutrality clause into the Ukrainian constitution; something that would have taken many months even more than a years to carry out. Moreover, Washington and NATO in fact insisted on its ‘open door’ and that Ukraine and Georgia will be members, For years they had maneuvered by preparing these states in preparation for any political opening, and they did nothing to encourage Zelenskiy to aggressively pursue this compromise with Putin. The present war is as much a war for the right to expand NATO on the West’s part as it is a war to stop NATO expansion to Ukraine on Russia’s part. The solution of Ukrainian neutrality remains available as one element in a peace bargain, but no one seems interested right now, condemning tens of thousands of Ukrainian citizens and soldiers and Russian troops to death and maiming.
The March Istanbul was a good start, but, according to some sources, was scuttled by Western veto delivered by British PM Boris Johnson. The Istanbul plan would establish a well-institutionalized form of Ukrainian neutrality. It envisions Ukraine as a permanently neutral state with international legal guarantees for its nonaligned and nonnuclear status. Ukraine would agree not to join any military alliance or have any foreign military bases or forces stationed on its territory and multinational military exercises would require consent of all the guarantor states. Although Ukraine would not forego its legal claims to its pre-2014 and internationally recognized territory, the guarantees would not regard Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine. The treaty’s guarantors would commit to supporting Ukrainian membership in the European Union. Treaty guarantors are to be the UN Security Council’s permanent members—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—as well as five NATO states—Canada, Germany, Italy, Poland, and Turkey—plus Israel. One can imaging that on this point Moscow might seek some additions, deletions, or substitutions (e.g., Belarus for Canada, Armenia for Italy). Any attack on Ukraine would require upon a request from Kiev that the guarantor states provide rapid assistance to Ukraine. If necessary, this would include the use of armed force “with the goal of restoring and then maintaining Ukraine’s security as a permanently neutral state.”
But Istanbul remains incomplete as a full-fledged peace plan. It does not cover or, in some cases, does not envisage resolving the following issues: which states will become guarantors as noted above; specific mechanisms for implementation, most notably the establishment and enforcement of a ceasefire and withdrawal of Russian troops; internal Ukrainian complications; and the larger geopolitical context beyond NATO expansion created by the war: mutual economic sanctions, nuclear and other arms issues between Moscow and the West, and confidence-building measures towards the restoration of some minimal level of trust and respect. The Italian plan put forward in May envisaging four stages took up some of the slack. It envisages: a UN-controlled ceasefire and elimination of the contact line; rapid entry of Ukraine into the EU and Ukrainian neutrality and non-aligned, non-NATO status; a grand deal on Crimea and Donbass and a resolution of territorial disputes; and multilateral treaty on peace and security in Europe that would cover arms control and conflict-prevention in future Russian-Western relations (https://strana.news/news/391716-italija-peredala-henseku-oon-plan-prekrashchenija-vojny-v-ukraine.html).
For full establishment and enforcement of a ceasefire and full cessation of the war, Russian troops will probably have to withdraw from some territories regardless of how many regions Kiev might agree, at least temporarily, to forego contending for their re-subordination to Kiev. At this point, Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporozhia, Mikolaiv, Kherson are probably not recoverable; Odessa and Kharkov (Kharkiv) could follow. Russia is likely to annex these regions at least over time in order to establish a land bridge beyond Crimea to Transdniestria, making it impossible for Moldova to reincorporate that breakaway region back into its fold. But the areas Russia will have occupied are unlikely to correspond with these regions’ borders. Moreover, they are more likely to produce partisan fighters, creating a quagmire Putin cannot extricate himself from and prolongation of the disasters the war is fomenting and will continue to foment. Ironically, one of the reasons that Putin claims led to his decision to invade could also make it more difficult for him to withdraw Russian troops. That Ukraine is significantly infused with neofascism and ultranationalism means that he has taken on a fight with the kind of country that is more likely to fight hard. If the Ukrainian army is defeated, it will disperse and elements will team up with dispersed members of the often neofascist dominated ‘national battalions,’ who will carry on the fight by means of partisan guerrilla warfare and terrorism. This will make it difficult for Moscow to fully withdraw from Ukraine, which, moreover, will require whole scale reconstruction once the conventional war has wound down.
All these problems mean that any peace agreement is unlikely to be a final solution to the problem. The best that can probably be achieved is that Ukraine will remain a frozen conflict. For now, outside or — if Moscow is more flexible about its annexation plans — inside or across the administrative-territorial borders of these regions there will have to be a peacekeeping force made up of troops from impartial states, as I suggested for implementation of Minsk 2 before the outbreak of the war (https://gordonhahn.com/2017/11/27/a-un-peacekeeping-mission-for-ukraine/). If this fails, then the situation will revert to the Minsk 2 status quo but along a much longer and perhaps volatile line of contact. This could raise as many problems for Russia as for what remains of Ukraine and would likely lead to a renewal of war with Russia driving to the Dnepr to reinforce its new territories’ security. This is the eternal logic of security-driven expansion reminiscent of the internal logic of NATO expansion, with each successive wave of expansion requiring another to protect the previous wave or ‘exposed flanks’.
Internal Ukrainian complications are likely to be profound. Ukraine is likely to feel itself the loser in this conflict once it ‘ends’ under any new agreement. Nationalist, ultranationalist, and neofascist groups will have the knives out for Zelenskiy. It is easy to forget now – with Zelenskiy poised to win the Nobel Peace Prize in the next award – that he and his party were extremely unpopular, seen as corrupt but having promised to fight corruption and now to be seen as having brought war when it promised peace. The West is tempted — and US President Joe Biden has already issued the first salvo — to make Zelenskiy the scapegoat for the war so as to avoid considering the role of NATO expansion in its making. To be sure, Putin can be blamed, but so now is Zelenskiy, as Biden’s recent assertion that Zelenskiy ignored his warnings that Russia was set to invade. Expect to see similar scapegoating tied to the conduct of the war. All this will play into the hands of the militants, who will come away from the war embittered and better armed. In order to implement a peace agreement containing a clause stipulating Ukraine’s neutral status written into Ukraine’s constitution, a referendum will be required, according to Ukrainian law. This will be impossible for Moscow to accept, given the time it will take in a post-war Ukraine to hold such a vote. But any attempt to establish this principle in Ukrainian law by executive fiat will only antagonize the radicals further. After all, they were the ones who made it impossible for Zelenskiy to negotiate with the Donbass breakaway DNR and LNR.
The disastrous position along most of the war front and the present risk or imminent reality of utter defeat and a coerced capitulation combines with the nationalists’, ultranationalists’, neofascists’ and their more moderate allies who support Zelenskiy oppose peace talks with Putin, creating a perfect storm of political upheaval in Ukraine. Kiev’s weakness extends far beyond the battlefield and will envelop Kiev itself. There are mutual recriminations between the civilian and military leadership. Ukraine’s already anti-Zelenskiy neofascist elements are sure to be outraged at the failure to rescue neofascist Azov fighters at AzovStal and elsewhere. And Zelenskiy’s trial of former Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko for corruption and treason and ban of all centrist and leftist opposition parties creates further polarization within the Maidan regime’s ranks that will explode with defeat in or an end of the war. This is why it is incumbent upon the West – first of all, upon Washington – to step in and begin to actually lead in bringing both parties to the table. The Chinese appear to prefer to keep their hands off the Ukrainian disaster, despite their pretensions to global or at least Eurasian hegemony.
Another challenge for both Zelenskiy’s Ukraine and Putin’s Russia will be completing ‘denazification’. Zelenskiy will risk his head if he negotiates and comes to an agreement with Moscow no less assists Moscow in completing the denazification process—i.e. eliminating all neofascist groups and propaganda in Ukraine. Without it, the well-armed and embittered ‘ultras’ will carry out partisan and terrorist operations against Russian forces and civilians in occupied regions annexed or otherwise held by Moscow, making the ceasefire no more stable than the Minsk one that just blew up in our faces. The potential for regime instability in the event of defeat in the war and compromise at the negotiating table is all too real for Kiev, though much uninformed ‘analysis’ and commentary has projected that for Moscow. In short, both Putin and Zelenskiy, Moscow and Kiev, need to be offered exit ramps to a dignified end to the war. But the state and demands of both sides, including Ukraine’s Western allies, make such an outcome virtually impossible. The West has no leverage over no less any desire to pressure Ukraine’s neofascists to play ball with a peace agreement. In addition, the neofascists play no heed to the West other than to receive weapons. They despise the liberal West and seek and Black Sea to Baltic Sea ‘Intermarium’ of Ukraine, Poland, the Baltic that would counter both Russia and the West. A weak or overthrown Zelenskiy would leave Ukraine completely unable to implement a peace. A military coup might be a solution, but it could very well be followed by a neofascist coup, renewing Russian anger and restarting the war. The radicals’ anti-Westernism will be empowered by former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul’s false, in my view, assertion that Washington was always lying to Kiev about NATO membership. Perhaps the Obama administration lied; that was its modus vivendi. This created the worst of all dynamics, emboldening Kiev (along with massive military assistance from 2014-2022) and outraging Moscow.
“(T)aking Kyiv and occupying one-half to two-thirds of the country” were not Putin’s goals (https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2022/05/23/the-russia-ukraine-war-at-three-months/). These objectives are becoming his goal by necessity should Kiev continue to refuse to talk peace and the West contiue to provide military and financial assistance to Kiev. Under such conditions, as long as there is any independent Ukrainian territory, remaining Ukrainian military forces or subsequently informal partisan fighters will pose a threat to Russian forces and civilian populations on Russian-seized lands. In order to avoid a quagmire of Ukrainian partisan warfare and neofascist terrorism, the Kremlin will be forced in the end to march to the Polish border to ‘secure its flanks’. Only there will Putin be sure he can more quickly contain and ultimately quash Ukrainian resistance. This and the deterrence of NATO over the border and the threat of nuclear confrontation stay Putin’s hand from any further military action all else remaining equal—that is, in lieu of Western provocations elsewhere such as attempts to open a ‘second front’ through dangerous gambits such as the Lithuanian/EU land transport blockade of Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave. A fragmented and partly dismembered Ukraine, neither fully part of the West nor entirely within the Russian sphere of influence and deprived of Donbass, Crimea, and even the entire ‘Novorossiya’ land bridge from Donbass to Moldova’s breakaway Transdniestria, is a conceivable but likely only an interim outcome of this present war. It is already not a viable final solution to the threat Ukrainian partisans will pose to Russian troops along a contact line established under any new agreement involving a rump Ukraine.
It is on the international tier of this half-proxy war (only the West is using proxies, Russia is directly involved) that any peace will require another set of agreements in order to avert escalation to a direct Russian-NATO conflict and an even more catastrophic if not apocalyptic World War III. Here the prospects for conflict resolution are little better than they are at the internal Ukrainian level. Elements of a viable agreement exist, to be sure, as contained in the Istanbul proposals: Ukraine’s neutral status as noted before; Russian commitment not to undermine Ukrainian efforts to achieve membership in the EU; and the termination of mutual sanctions. However, for the West, NATO expansion has become a must on the level of an existential requirement. Western hegemony, NATO prestige, powerful economic and idealist interests, and various states’ prestige, most notably that of a crisis-ridden and decaying Washington, ride on continuing NATO expansion in the minds of Western leaders. After all, the West could not even muster the wisdom to agree to an intermediate-term agreement on Ukraine’s neutral status, knowing that sooner or later Putin will die and other changes will occur that might allow for Ukrainian membership.
For now any settlement of the security dilemma NATO expansion drives with Russia is an unrealistic proposition. Former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s recent claim that Kiev signed the Minsk accord to buy time to reform and arm its military in order to retake Crimea and Donbass only exacerbates the sense created by the McFaul thesis. Moscow trusts the West less than the West trusts Moscow and that is saying something.
About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, http://www.canalyt.com and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, www.cetisresearch.org. Websites: Russian and Eurasian Politics, gordonhahn.com and gordonhahn.academia.edu
Dr. Hahn is the author of the forthcoming book: Russian Tselostnost’: Wholeness in Russian Thought, Culture, History, and Politics (Europe Books, 2022). He has authored four well-received books: The Russian Dilemma: Security, Vigilance, and Relations with the West from Ivan III to Putin (McFarland, 2021); Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War” (McFarland, 2018); The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media. Dr. Hahn taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and was a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.