How Will Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine End?
Let me start with a simple admission. Nobody really knows how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will end. However, careful observers can make some measured predictions based on geopolitical interests, past behaviors, and historical lessons. It’s always possible Putin will defy conventional wisdom and logic to chart his own course. It’s also possible the Ukrainian people will continue to surprise the world in negotiations in the same way they surprised us on the battlefield. At the same time, both sides will face some hard realities that make any resolution to the conflict difficult.
Perhaps the single greatest obstacle for peace involves a question most commentators have so far overlooked. Nobody has discussed who will finance the reconstruction of Ukraine or how it will be achieved. The war may have led to a rebirth of a genuine Ukrainian identity. However, the reconstruction could seal the fate of Ukraine’s geopolitical destiny. It’s unlikely Russia will agree to pay for Ukraine’s reconstruction. A negotiated financial settlement is a fancy description for reparations. So while Ukraine may win the war, it’s hard to imagine Russian reparations as part of a peace agreement.
Instead, it’s more likely for the European Union and the United States to finance the reconstruction through low-interest loans. It’s not hard to imagine some sort of Marshall Plan designed to rebuild Ukraine after the war is over. If the.West finances the reconstruction, Ukraine will tie its economic and political future permanently to the United States and its allies. Indeed, Russia’s greatest fears for Ukraine will come to pass. So, Russia has little reason to negotiate a peace. The war will either have a decisive victor or else Russia will permanently avoid any resolution to the conflict.
A Forever War
Conflict between Russia and Ukraine dates back to 2014. The Revolution of Dignity, also known as the Maidan Revolution, led to the resignation of Russian-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych. Shortly afterwards Russian troops emerged in Crimea leading to its annexation by Russia. However, violent conflict arose when separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk began the Donbas War. Russia and Ukraine have effectively fought a war in the Donbas Region since then with only an uneasy peace negotiated in Minsk.
For many in Ukraine the conflict never came to an end. In 2016 Brian Whitmore said on the podcast Ukraine Calling, “When the conflict became frozen in Georgia what happened in the rest of Georgia? Well, they turned completely pro-Western…. And I think they understand, correctly, that the exact same thing’s going to happen in Ukraine. So they’re going to try and keep this thing going and simmering at a low boil.” In other words, a peaceful resolution was never in Russia’s interests.
Even more to the point, it’s unclear how a negotiated peace is in the interests of Russia right now. Whitmore’s observation makes just as much sense in 2022 as it did in 2016. Russia’s only leverage over Ukraine is its continued hostilities. Any resolution to the invasion of Ukraine will remove its only point of leverage in any negotiations with Ukraine moving forward. So, Russia may seek to deescalate the conflict, but it has little reason to end it unless it is ready to allow Ukraine to depart from its sphere of influence.
Neutrality is Impossible
Of course, Volodymyr Zelensky has officially put neutrality onto the negotiating table. Yet, it’s only a paper neutrality. After reconstruction, it’s hard to imagine how Ukraine will not develop even closer ties to the United States and Europe. Indeed, the war has already drawn Ukraine closer to the United States and its allies through military and humanitarian aid. Zelensky’s promise really just amounts to formal changes in the constitution regarding aspirations to join NATO and possibly rescinding his recent application to join the European Union.
However, Russia understands how promises in foreign relations change with geopolitics. In 1984, Russia promised to respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine in the Budapest Memorandum. Obviously, circumstances change over time. So, it’s unlikely Russia will take Ukraine’s assurances of diplomatic neutrality as anything more than an empty promise. Its own behavior shows they have little respect for empty assurances without something more substantial as a guarantee.
But what qualifies as a guarantee of neutrality? How can Russia ensure Ukraine does not join NATO or the EU? It’s only meaningful long-term point of leverage is the continuation of hostilities. It’s not even enough to simply occupy territory in the Donbas. They must maintain active hostilities with only intermittent periods of peace. A permanent sense of conflict will delay any effort for reconstruction and keep Ukraine at the negotiating table with Russia in a never ending cycle.
Is there Hope?
At the same time, America and Europe may not have the same patience as either Ukraine or Russia. The United States has just concluded a twenty year war in Afghanistan. Moreover, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has already imposed greater hardships for ordinary Americans and Europeans than the Wars in Afghanistan or Iraq even though both of these wars involved actual troops on the ground. Prices for oil and natural gas have already climbed substantially, while grain prices will likely skyrocket later in the year. So, ordinary people will face higher prices in the two most sensitive areas for household budgets.
It’s unclear how long voters in Western Democracies will continue to support sanctions as they realize the consequences could last years rather than months. In the United States both Republicans and Democrats remain committed to support Ukraine against Russia. However, their support has not kept Republicans from scoring political points. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has already blamed President Biden directly for the rise in gas prices due to his “attacks on American energy production in order to fulfill his campaign promise to ‘get rid of fossil fuels.’”
Russia knows elections expose political cleavages and disagreements within democracies. Even if Republicans and Democrats remain united in America, it’s not certain its allies will remain as resolute. Russia may eventually turn their invasion of Ukraine into something less dramatic. However, it’s unlikely to bring about a permanent diplomatic solution. Instead, their fallback position is likely to keep the conflict active enough to keep Ukraine on edge, but reduced enough to outlast Western outrage. Of course, this strategy does not guarantee success. Recent reports of Russian atrocities could harden political resolve, while Ukraine may shock the world once again and win a decisive victory over their Russian aggressors. Time will tell.
Craig Whitlock joins the podcast tomorrow to discuss his recent book The Afghanistan Papers and the lessons learned from America’s last protracted conflict.
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Timothy Frye (2021) Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin’s Russia
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Clifford Krauss and Michael Shear (2022) “Biden Will Tap Oil Reserve, Hoping to Push Gasoline Prices Down.,” The New York Times
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