The endgame shouldn’t be teaching anyone a lesson, but laying the groundwork for a lasting peace writes Dr. Alexander Hill

US Defense Assistance to Ukraine, Jan 2022

In recent weeks there have been signs in the Western press that at least some Western politicians might be thinking that it is time to nudge Ukraine towards the idea of peace negotiations with Russia. Indeed, there have even been hints that Russia might be extending out feelers about a possible peace along the lines discussed here in a piece first drafted at the end of December 2023. In the context of a war in which a decisive outcome for either side currently looks unlikely, we would be well served to mull over words attributed first to Benjamin Franklin in a letter of 1783 that ‘There was never a good war, or a bad peace’.

Negotiations are, in all likelihood, still some time away – too many politicians on all sides have invested too much political capital in ‘victory’ to be quite ready to accept compromise, but sooner or later they will have to come. In the meantime we are left with the pantomime of Volodymyr Zelensky’s peace discussions without Russia, but sooner or later the two sides are likely to talk. We should certainly be making the case for meaningful peace talks to try to bring an end to the increasingly mindless slaughter.

After the Russian invasion of February 2022 promising negotiations taking place between Ukraine and Russia in the spring of 2022 were, sadly, brought to an end – apparently due to a large extent to Western pressure that they cease, combined with commitments of support for Ukraine if it continued the war. Such revelations are particularly frustrating given the West’s willingness to see the breakup of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s – back then the West was apparently willing to see international borders redrawn in an apparent attempt to reduce ethnic conflict. Such hypocrisy isn’t lost on the Russian public – and particularly where Russian war aims at the time of the invasion and even today do not, contrary to Western hyperbole, include the destruction of Ukraine in the way that Yugoslavia was destroyed as a geopolitical entity.

Since the spring of 2022 tens of thousands have died and negotiations haven’t restarted over what today would be very similar issues and terrain to that being discussed back in the spring of 2022. At that time Russia would have been happy with independence for Donbass and recognition of Crimea as Russian, but would also have sought to pressure Ukraine to commit to stay out of NATO and undertake some sort of ‘demilitarization’ of Ukraine that Vladimir Putin has recently reiterated as a Russian war aim. Now however Russian territorial demands are likely to be greater – as a starting point the full territories of all of the four regions incorporated into Russia in late 2022. Ultimately Russia may have to accept territory similar to that its forces currently control, but as time passes that territory is only likely to increase in size.

Ostensibly, Russia is still looking for a ‘demilitarized’ non-NATO Ukraine at the end of this war, but such assertions should be taken as a starting point in any future negotiations. It is difficult to imagine Ukraine committing to staying out of NATO indefinitely, or indeed wholesale ‘demilitarization’. Even if Ukraine does commit to staying out of NATO for the time being, such a commitment might still end up being undone at some point in the future. In the meantime, the prospect of eventual EU membership will be a ‘victory’ of sorts for the Ukrainian government, in combination with some sort of formal security arrangement with NATO. If the war was to end on the sort of basis outlined above – with essentially territory being traded for the remainder of Ukraine’s further incorporation into a Western orbit – nobody would have got exactly what they have wanted, but perhaps that would be for the best for longer term stability in the region?

Whether Western pundits like it or not, the populations of the Donbass and Crimea in the main see themselves as ethnically Russian – as highlighted in their voting for pro-Russian regional parties and presidents in Ukrainian elections since 1991. Since February 2022 those regions have become more Russian as those with allegiances to the government in Kyiv fled. Had Ukraine been able to retake those areas as in Volodymyr Zelensky’s fantasies for the summer 2023 counteroffensive, Ukraine would have been left with a thorny problem. Having all but outlawed the Russian language and many aspects of Russian culture, re-incorporation of those regions into Ukraine would have been all but impossible. They would have remained a thorn in the Ukrainian side that might possibly have upset plans for EU and certainly any hope of NATO membership in the future, as well as been a potential target for future Russian attack. Without them Ukraine is more culturally homogeneous and doesn’t have the same baggage that would be likely to upset plans for future integration into the Western world.

While realistically Russia may not be able to keep Ukraine out of NATO indefinitely, keeping NATO nuclear weapons out of Ukraine might be a more viable long-term goal for negotiations that go beyond bilateral ones between the Russia and Ukraine. Indeed, it is possible that some sort of agreement that keeps regular non-Ukrainian NATO troops out of Ukraine, perhaps in all but the event of foreign attack, might be possible. Such an agreement would reduce tensions with Russia while at the same time still leaving Ukraine armed to the hilt and with the threat of some sort of ‘NATO’ intervention to protect it. Some sort of Ukrainian security arrangement with NATO, even if that falls short of full membership, would probably act as a brake on any future Ukrainian ambitions to try to recapture lost territory – something that Russian negotiators might keep in mind.

The fearmongering by Western ‘hawks’ that if the West and Ukraine gives anything up in negotiations with Russia Vladimir Putin will go on to attack NATO members lacks credibility and is not based on any meaningful evidence. It is, to a considerable extent, a desperate attempt by Western politicians and their quite possibly their allies in their military industrial complexes to keep the war going, to save their egos, or both. It is not Canadians, Brits and Americans being killed in their thousands, so it is a relatively easy decision to take to support continuation of the war as long as Western popular political support holds up, knowing that Volodymyr Zelensky’s political future depends on the mirage of the sort of total ‘victory’ he pinned his star to when he acquiesced in Western pressure to break off negotiations back in the spring of 2022. Key Western leaders certainly know that a weak Ukraine will be even more beholden to the West as time goes on.

The West could easily push Ukraine towards negotiation – by halting or further slowing the flow of arms and funds until Ukraine was willing to sit down and negotiate. Although Vladimir Putin’s government in Russia has suggested that it sees little scope for negotiation at the moment, such utterances have to be understood in the context of Ukrainian proclamations that Ukrainian war aims remain the ‘liberation’ of Ukraine’s pre-2014 territory.  Endless war isn’t in Russia’s interests either.

The end result of any realistic negotiations between Ukraine and its Western puppet masters and Russia wouldn’t allow any one party to claim an overwhelming ‘victory’ – but all sides would be able to proclaim a ‘victory’ of sorts. The key outcome will be the separation of the Russian-dominated Donbass and Crimea from the remainder of Ukraine – something that will hopefully be the cornerstone of a lasting peace in the region. There are many additional potential options to facilitate bringing an end to this war, and much that could be traded in negotiations. Diplomacy is the art of compromise – something that politicians and diplomats from all sides should remember when they finally sit down again to talk. The desirable endgame here shouldn’t be teaching anyone a lesson, but laying the groundwork for a lasting peace for both ethnic Russians and Ukrainians.

Dr. Alexander Hill is Professor of Military History, Centre for Military, Security and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary, Canada.

01 Feb 2024 by Alexander Hill

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