Capstones: Piecing Together a Ukraine-Russia Peace
As Russia’s criminal war against Ukraine bleeds into its second autumn, exactly when and how the war might end remains unclear. Even as Ukraine presses its well-resourced counteroffensive, we should brace for more twists and turns. But owing to the fact that Vladimir Putin has failed in his main objectives—removing Ukraine’s democratically elected government, demilitarizing Ukraine, turning Ukraine into a Russian puppet state, and brandishing Russian military might to rebuild the Russian Empire—the trajectory and ultimate outcome of the war are coming into focus: No matter the final boundary lines, Ukraine will emerge from this war a battle-hardened, sovereign, independent, Western-oriented nation-state—far stronger and more unified than it was before February 24, 2022—and Russia will emerge weaker than it was before Putin unleashed his three-day “special military operation.” This trajectory could lead to several different kinds of “peace.”
Let’s start with the least likely peace: all of Ukraine liberated and restored, Putin ousted and replaced by a Russian Havel or Brandt, a democratic Ukraine welcomed into NATO, and a reformed Russia turning toward Europe.
That’s possible but not probable. Russia’s sheer mass gives it advantages that may make it difficult for Ukraine—even with its motivated army of clever and tenacious warriors—to claw back every inch of its pre-2014 territory. Russia’s poisoned politics raise questions about reform and liberalization. And some NATO members—wrongly concluding that Putin invaded Ukraine because Ukraine wanted to join NATO, when in fact Ukraine wanted to join NATO because Putin planned to invade Ukraine—view their decision to keep Ukraine out of NATO in 2008 as a bullet dodged. Thankfully, this skewed view inside NATO is starting to shift (more on that below).
A Just Peace
Dictators don’t always survive the wars they start—or the subjects they rule.
Hitler died in a bunker as his enemies closed in. Many of Imperial Japan’s military madmen met a similar fate. Italians strung up Mussolini after years of criminal war. Libyans took a similar approach with Qaddafi. Iraqis put Saddam on trial and then executed him for decades of war on Iraq’s people and neighbors. The Serbs delivered Milosevic to a war-crimes tribunal after he turned the Balkans into a graveyard. Argentines prosecuted members of the military government that launched the Falklands disaster. The Russians executed Czar Nicholas II after the Great War overwhelmed, bled and impoverished the Russian Empire. The Soviets removed Khrushchev not long after his Cuba gamble nearly triggered World War III.
If justice is to be done, Putin and his henchmen should end up at The Hague or on the gallows. While the conventional wisdom is that war criminals generally escape the long arm of justice, the Atlantic Council details how postwar justice may be more likely than we think. “Some eighteen heads of state or heads of major military forces have been wanted by international justice,” according to the report. Of those eighteen men wanted prior to Putin, “Fifteen have faced justice of some kind before a judicial tribunal…Two others of the eighteen faced rough justice and were killed or committed suicide before they could be turned over to an international tribunal…Only one of the eighteen major figures on this list is still at large.” That man is Joseph Kony, accused of committing war crimes in Uganda.
Although Russia has military and demographic advantages—at least on paper—and still has the trump card of nuclear escalation, it is possible that Ukraine’s ongoing offensive could break through Russian lines in the south, retake Melitopol and Mariupol, range Crimea with Western-supplied missiles, and make Crimea untenable for Russia’s occupying army. If that comes to pass—and it’s worth noting that Crimea is now being pelted by Ukrainian strikes—Ukraine could break the Russian army. And if that happens, not only Putin’s regime, but Russia itself could come undone.
We are already catching glimpses of what such a “catastrophic success” for Ukraine might do to Russia—the metastasizing guerilla attacks and sabotage operations inside Russia, the drone strikes against Russian targets emanating from inside Russia, the full-blown cross-border rebel offensives, rebel occupation in the Belgorod region, reports in the spring of Wagner mercenaries and Russian regulars exchanging fire, and of course, Wagner’s full-blown mutiny in the summer.
This is what can happen when a dictator sows the wind. The coming whirlwind could be much worse for Russia. The Russian Federation comprises nearly 200 ethnic groups and 270 languages. Such ethnic diversity, in and of itself, doesn’t mean Russia is destined to fracture. After all, there are hundreds of ethnicities and hundreds of languages in America. Such diversity can be a strength for a country—as long as there’s something that holds those diverse groups together. For Americans, what holds us together is an idea—that all people “are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Russia’s ethnic groups have no such shared founding idea. Nor are they assimilated into something bigger than their group. Nor does it appear that Putin’s regime has the power—or largesse—to hold them together indefinitely.
In addition to rebel forces and anti-Putin militias such as the Free Russia Legion (FRL), there are well-armed mercenary groups (including Wagner’s fragments), corporate militaries (see here and here), regional leaders with their own militaries (Bashkortostan has a 40,000-man military force “loyal to its president”), and veterans of this very war (anti-Putin Chechen units and pro-Putin Chechen units). All of them have scores to settle, deep reservoirs of anger at the regime and rapidly-draining allegiance to Putin. Chechnya fought unsuccessful wars for independence against Moscow in the 1800s and 1990s. The Ural Republic attempted to go independent in 1993. Tatarstan, Siberia and Karelia all declared “sovereignty” in the early 1990s; Kalmikia has made moves toward independence.
Although Putin’s demise—and Russia’s defeat in Ukraine—would be welcome news, chaos in Russia would not. Russia’s fragmentation into ethnic shards would create countless new national security concerns for the U.S. It pays to recall that Russia fields more nuclear weapons than any other nation. Russia’s territory borders regions of vital importance to America’s security and prosperity—the Euro-Atlantic, the Indo-Pacific, the Arctic. And Russia’s natural resources help sustain many countries.
Because a broken Russia would spawn something far bloodier and uglier than Yugoslavia or Iraq, we must prepare for the worst. Preparing for the worst means planning for the worst. As President Eisenhower observed, “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” Postwar and post-Putin planning needs to entail opening Russia-focused lines of communication between the White House and the Gang of Eight, standing up Russia-focused interagency taskforces, red-teaming possible post-Putin scenarios, identifying and quietly signaling post-Putin powerbrokers, prepositioning relevant military assets.
Cold War Peace
If the war ends in some sort of armistice—even if Putin is no longer in power—Ukraine and NATO will have to deal with a badly weakened, battered and bitter Russia. Again, short of the emergence of a Russian Havel, Russia is certain to menace postwar Ukraine and will represent an existential threat to postwar Ukraine. Whether it’s a wounded, weakened Putin or someone from Putin’s circle of kleptocrats, generals and spies, we should expect postwar Moscow to use any armistice to retool for round three, which means Ukraine (and NATO) will need to deploy the assets necessary to deter another Russian war.
The historical parallel here would be a Cold War-style “peace” like the one that created NATO and turned Europe into two armed camps—or the one that still divides the Korean Peninsula.
Kiev, by necessity, will need to turn Ukraine into a fortress—always ready for and guarding against another attempt by Moscow to finish what Putin started. The good news amidst this troubling truth is twofold:
First, Ukraine is more united today than it was on February 24, 2022. That unity will make it harder for Russia to conduct effective disinformation operations inside postwar Ukraine, engage in hybrid-warfare tactics inside postwar Ukraine, install or buy off pro-Russian politicians inside postwar Ukraine, and/or foment separatist movements inside postwar Ukraine. It’s been said that the state makes war and war makes the state. If Ukraine wasn’t a nation-state before 2022, it is today. Volodymyr Zelensky is something akin to a Winston Churchill/David Ben-Gurion/George Washington figure for Ukraine—having led Ukraine in what will be remembered as its war for independence, its war for survival, its war for national unity.
Second, Ukraine will have many benefactors to help it defend its postwar borders. The systems, relationships, programs and procedures developed between NATO and Ukraine over the past 19 months will only deepen and widen as the allies build up Fortress Ukraine.
A Mirage of Peace
A somewhat related but grimmer template for a Ukraine-Russia “peace” comes from the Middle East.
Like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait after the first Gulf War, Ukraine will be forced to share its neighborhood with a defeated foe that doesn’t accept its defeat, a wounded predator left in power. Those realities forced the Saudis and Kuwaitis to make heavy investments in defense and open up their territory to long-term U.S. military presence—which had long-term unintended consequences. Like post-Gulf War Iraq, we should expect postwar Russia to cause trouble for its neighborhood and the world for many years.
That brings us to another Middle East template: Like Israel after the 1967 and 1973 wars, Ukraine will be butted up against a bigger foe, a bitterly hostile foe, an embarrassed foe, a well-armed foe. Like Israel, Ukraine may be forced to fight repeatedly—or constantly—for its freedom, independence and existence. And so, like Israel, it will need to adopt a bristly self-defense posture. The good news is that postwar Ukraine will not be as isolated as the Israel of 1967 or 1973. Postwar Ukraine will likely have EU membership and will plant roots in a thick thatch of security ties with the U.S., Poland, Britain and other NATO members.
Zelensky is already thinking in these terms, concluding that Ukraine will need to “become a big Israel.” It’s a grim, costly and sober existence. But it’s preferable to the alternative.
Under any of these versions of “peace,” two things will hold true.
First, Ukraine will be seen by America, Europe and the world in a different light than it was before the war. Like the Americans after the Revolutionary War, the Ukrainian people will have outfought, outsmarted, outmaneuvered and outlasted one of the world’s great powers. Already, they have proven themselves not just to be part of Europe, the Euro-Atlantic community, the West and civilization—but as defenders of Europe, the Euro-Atlantic community, the West and civilization.
Second, Ukraine will have a special relationship with NATO and with NATO’s leading powers. Ukraine has earned a seat inside NATO once the war is over—the seat NATO promised in 2008. Growing numbers of NATO members are coming to this conclusion. But since NATO operates on consensus, every member will have to agree to Ukraine’s entry. That may be easier said than done for NATO’s pro-Ukraine caucus. Typically and predictably, Paris leads NATO’s headache caucus (as it did in 2008): “I’m not sure we will have a consensus…for full-fledged membership,” French President Emmanuel Macron shrugs.
The good news is that NATO and Ukraine will be closely connected—no matter what status Ukraine is given. Even Macron wants NATO to provide “concrete and tangible security guarantees” to postwar Ukraine. NATO’s hawkish eastern flank is calling for a “robust, multi-year and comprehensive support package for Ukraine.” There are whispers that—with or without an alliance-wide Ukraine security initiative—individual NATO members would deploy troops inside postwar Ukraine. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg says the alliance is planning “credible arrangements…to guarantee Ukraine’s security in the future and break Russia’s cycle of aggression.”
The new NATO-Ukraine Council is a sign of such an arrangement, as is the G7-led initiative enfolding almost two dozen nations committed to providing material support to the long-term defense, reconstruction, recovery and security of Ukraine.
These options are better than nothing, but what was true during Cold War I for Hungary and Czechoslovakia, what was true in the post-Cold War years for Georgia and Ukraine, remains true in these early chapters of Cold War 2.0: There is no real security for European nations outside NATO’s protective umbrella.
Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he leads the Center for America’s Purpose. A version of this essay appeared in Real Clear Defense.