The unfortunate reality of ending the war in Ukraine.
Competing priorities will make it almost impossible to reach a peace agreement.
It’s been almost 20 days since the Russian Federation began it’s all-out invasion of Ukraine.
While many, including the United States government, have been warning of this possibility for months, the beginning of a large-scale conventional war in Europe has sent shockwaves throughout the world.
In spite of the destruction and death, there are some reasons to be hopeful. Most of the Western world seems to be aligned with their condemnation of Putin and his corrupt, authoritarian regime.
As for the war itself, it is going better than expected for the Ukrainians. They’re putting up stiff resistance and conducting small unit attacks behind enemy lines, frustrating the Russian advance.
It has to be noted that the Russians aren’t doing themselves any favors by doing a poor job of securing occupied territory, controlling the airspace or using their long range artillery capabilities against the Ukrainian military.
(Although, they seem to have been addressing these exact points over the operational slowdown during the last few days)
They have, however, been less reluctant to deploy long-range fires against civilian targets, especially in Kharkiv and Mariupol, resulting in catastrophic damage to civilian infrastructure and, more importantly, lives of everyday Ukrainians who did little more than desire a more prosperous future for their country.
The war is consuming the attention of the media in the West. Their focus right now is primarily on escalatory actions like the No-Fly-Zone (NFZ) and MiG-29 discourse. Both of these are bad ideas, not just because they are escalatory in nature, but also because they fail to offer the Ukrainian military cost effective solutions to their immediate problems.
I wrote about both of these on Twitter. Short version :
NFZ is bad because it will inevitably lead to war between NATO and Russia. It is also bad because NATO fixed wing aircraft deployed in the region may be enough to deter (and maybe even repel) a theoretical attack by the Russian armed forces against a NATO country, however there are nowhere near enough resources to establish Air Supremacy over Ukraine.
Shipping MiG-29s is bad because it provides little upside, with a lot of downsides.
Running an airforce requires a lot of resources, not just the planes themselves but also ground crews, fuel, munitions, spare parts, repair facilities, airfields and so on. Critical infrastructure that, if destroyed, can render the Ukrainian airforce inoperable.
Thankfully, the West is aware of the downsides of these actions and is focused on aid that produces better results : Anti tank rockets, munitions, equipment, rations etc. This gives me some hope that cooler heads are, for now, prevailing.
What doesn’t give me hope is that there is little talk about so called ‘off-ramps’ and what will be needed to negotiate peace in Ukraine.
What even is peace, anyway ?
Let’s take a look at what the players’ priorities are and what these tell us about the odds of an end to the conflict.
Ukraine is suffering the lion’s share of the damage in this war. Do not be fooled by the lists of Russian equipment losses. Despite doing better than expected on the military side, Ukrainians are suffering most of the damage to civilian infrastructure, industrial and agricultural capacity, trade, as well as the sheer terror of being displaced by a war that is only going to get more brutal.
President Zelensky has done a remarkable job of rallying his country in a David vs. Goliath battle. He has his country’s support and the West’s admiration.
He and his government are facing 2 divergent issues, however.
Continued resistance against the Russian advance will attrite Russian military capabilities and decrease the likelihood of another military conflict in the near-future. Further resistance also means Ukraine gets to exert sovereignty, retaining it’s independence and fighting to maintain it’s territorial integrity.
Continued resistance against the Russian advance will lead to more destruction of Ukrainian infrastructure and loss of lives.
Both of these will have implications for Ukraine in the future, after a cease-fire or peace deal is reached.
There is another not insignificant matter. Russians have a tendency to not retreat from occupied territory (Ossetia, Transnistria and the Kuril Islands come to mind).
Securing a Russian withdrawal from Ukrainian territories is going to be the most contentious topic in any peace negotiation.
EU, NATO, US et al (i.e. the West)
First, a caveat: all of these players have diverging interests. I’m putting them in a single category here for simplicity. While there is definitely a lot of unity at the moment, I fully expect these differences to emerge once the economic impact of the war will start to eat into approval ratings. I also expect the Russians will try to exploit these differences for their benefit when the time comes.
Russia is the biggest security threat in Europe. Keeping them bogged down in a costly, asymmetric war relieves security pressure at relatively low cost and buys time for the West to adapt and learn more about Russian actual military capabilities.
Notice how this lines up with one of Ukraine’s priorities.
Cost of the war is small in military terms, but will be felt in economic terms.
Europe and US are facing inflation at a level that hasn’t been seen since before the Great Recession of 2009.
Trade sanctions against Russia, coupled with stalled economic output will only exacerbate the rise in prices.
This tells me that Western governments might be tempted to push Ukraine and Russia to a resolution sooner, rather than later, in order to stabilize trade.
China has been rather quiet, so far. They have made their displeasure with this entire affair known (by abstaining from 2 key UN votes, whereas they would typically tow the Russian line).
The relationship between Russia and China is … complex to say the least. I think it’s fair to say that the Chinese plan for world domination isn’t being helped in any way by the economic instability caused by the war.
The Chinese would like, however, for the West to be taken down a notch. I assume that’s why they’ve surreptitiously accepted to ship some military equipment to the Russians. (The fact that they need aid after 20 days of war against a non-peer enemy would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic).
It’s safe to say that China wants the conflict to end quickly, preferably in Russia’s favor.
Russia is the aggressor and more powerful player directly involved in the conflict. Barring a miraculous Ukrainian counteroffensive that pushes the Russian forces back to the borders, Russia will have a big say in when and how the conflict ends. So let’s see what assumptions we can make about Putin’s priorities.
Political control over Ukraine.
This is a safe assumption to make. By all accounts the early days of the war showed that Russians wanted to quickly assault Kyiv, remove the Zelensky government and install a puppet regime in it’s place that would put Ukraine back in Russia’s orbit (think Belarus 2.0).
I think it’s safe to say, after 20 days of war, that this objective is completely off the table. Zelensky could be killed, he could run away, he could be revealed to have been a hologram all along and still I don’t see a Putin approved regime being able to exert anything resembling control over Ukraine in the near-future.
Prevent Ukraine from joining NATO/EU and becoming a security threat to Russia in the future.
No, I don’t buy the “NATO is to blame for the conflict” nonsense. But it is clear that in the mind of Putin (and possibly his yes-men in the FSB and Foreign Policy blob) Ukraine joining joining the West is a big red line. It’s such a big red line that he decided to commit 70% of his active forces to a war in order to prevent it. Imagined or not, the Kremlin sees this as a threat.
Can Russia achieve this, though ? If anything, Ukraine’s seen very favorably by Western countries in this conflict. The Russian invasion is a catalyst that seems to be pushing not only Ukraine, but also Finland and Sweden to join NATO.
(Finland and Sweden are already EU members, but they are not part of NATO).
Well, it’s tricky. Finland and Sweden might end up joining NATO at some point but that’s a story for another time (make sure to subscribe for free so you don’t miss me telling it).
Ukraine, however, will face a steep climb, even if the Russians decide to stop hostilities and withdraw.
On the military side (important for NATO membership) Ukraine’s infrastructure is being destroyed. Airfields, military bases, factories and anything the Russians think might help build up it’s military. NATO was quick to supply Ukraine with small arms and shoulder fired rocket launchers, but to operate the big guns, you need some domestic industry for manufacturing and maintenance. This will likely be gone before the war ends.
On the economic front (important for EU membership) it also doesn’t look good. IMF thinks it will shrink by 35% this year.
The estimates were calculated by looking at wartime economies in countries such as Lebanon, Iraq and Syria.
If the EU decides to integrate Ukraine, it will have to make significant investments in it’s post-war recovery. And the longer the war drags on, the more damage the Ukrainian economy takes.
Hey, and did I mention that you need a strong economy to support a strong military ? These 2 issues feed into each other and make the case to Vladimir Putin that even if he’s unable to achieve his first objective he can achieve the second by keeping Ukraine at war.
So Putin has a vested interest in keeping the war going, but what about his constraints ? The war is unpopular, after all. There are protests in St. Petersburg and Moscow. Oligarchs are unhappy with the sanctions.
The Russian regime, despite the repressive state and government propaganda, is subject to civil pressure just like anyone else, but there are several things to keep in mind.
An oligarch palace coup or popular revolution are highly unlikely. There is no shortage of authoritarian regimes that are under severe sanctions and economic hardship and no such coup or revolution have taken place (see : Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea, Iran).
As Cersei Lannister famously said “Power is power” and when it comes to regime change, the people with the guns have the power.
Will the people with the guns turn on Putin? They can’t be happy with their peers getting slaughtered in Ukraine, right?
It is very plausible that the officer class isn’t thrilled by what going on in Ukraine, but I think we’re far away from an army-lead coup. Military and security institutions tend to self-select people who are statists whose raison d’etre is to protect the regime (not to mention how this dogma will be burned into your brain after serving for 15 years inside such institutions). This means that these types of people can concurrently disagree with the government (Ukraine war bad), but still protect the regime (but Putin still good - or better than some Western appeaser).
In conclusion, Putin’s regime will adapt, it will harden, it will take more repressive steps, it may take a visible action against an oligarch to keep the others in line, but a revolution is unlikely.
This is where we are, right now:
Putin’s interest to keep the fighting going aligns with Ukraine’s interest to keep the fighting going, which aligns with the West’s interest to keep the fighting going.
Until something changes (i.e. Ukraine’s will to fight is degraded or Western support for Ukraine wanes or if we see an actual crack in the Russian’s security state) we shouldn’t expect a change in the status quo.
It’s important to note that all sides are taking appropriate steps to change the status quo.
The West is directly trying to destabilize Russian social fabric with the broader economic sanctions, and it’s trying to undermine the Russian military production with the targeted technological sanctions.
Ukraine is using the information war to show underprepared Russian conscripts and appealing to Russian parents to protest the war.
As for Russia, they’re trying to muddy the waters of Western support by spreading panic about biological weapons. (I suppose there is precedent in the West for supporting invasions on the back of fears of WMDs).
They’re also using indiscriminate artillery strikes on civilian infrastructure to terrorize and crush Ukrainian resolve - either that or it’s a consequence of the fact that the Russians simply do not have the numbers to storm a large city like Kharkiv (not to mention, Kyiv).
All in all - this makes me think there is little chance to see a de-escalation anytime soon.
I hope to be proven wrong.
Our coming-of-age has come and gone.