By ALEXANDER J. MOTYL
Everybody wants the Russo-Ukrainian War to end, but how, exactly, is such a happy outcome to be brought about? Many of the answers currently floating about focus on Ukraine, offering suggestions about what it should or should not do.
Among these suggestions: Ukraine should recognize that it cannot drive the Russians from all its occupied territories. Ukraine should recognize that the West’s ability to supply endless streams of weaponry is limited. Ukraine should recognize that a long war could destroy the country. In sum, Ukraine should recognize that a ceasefire under conditions of the status quo is the best it can get.
Fair enough, perhaps, but what’s missing from this picture? Well, any serious consideration of the brute fact that Ukraine’s views about the war and its continuation or conclusion are secondary to Russia’s — or, more precisely, to Russian strongman Vladimir Putin’s views. The bottom line is, Putin has no interest in ending the war on any terms short of Ukraine’s capitulation and subsequent transformation into a huge no-man’s-land or Russian vassal.
Consider a sampling of recent Western peace proposals that ignore the Russian factor.
The Wall Street Journal reported, “NATO’s Biggest European Members Float Defense Pact With Ukraine: French and German leaders told Ukrainian President Zelensky that he needs to consider peace talks.”
Thomas Meaney of the Max Planck Society believes that, “As it stands today, Ukraine’s economic future appears viable even without the territories currently occupied by Russia. Paradoxically, continued fighting also serves some Russian interests. It allows Moscow more chances to pummel Ukraine into being a de facto buffer state, making it an ever less attractive candidate for NATO and European Union membership.”
The Hoover Institution historian, Stephen Kotkin, opines, “If Ukraine regains all of its territory and doesn’t get into the EU, is that a victory? As opposed to: If Ukraine regains as much of its territory as it physically can on the battlefield, not all of it, potentially, but does get E.U. accession—would that be a definition of victory? Of course, it would be.”
And Anatol Lieven of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft argues that “this war should end in a peace that would leave Russia in de facto (if not de jure) possession of Crimea and the eastern Donbas (territory it seized in 2014) while returning (if Ukraine can recapture them) the land seized since the invasion began a year ago.”
All such arguments, though laudable in striving to end the death and destruction as quickly as possible, have more than a touch of unreality about them. They all assume that Russia wants to negotiate, that Putin is inclined to compromise, and that Ukraine — the victim of aggression —
is primarily responsible for stopping it. This is like saying that the best way to stop a rape is to insist that the victim request that the rapist stop.
The fact is that Putin has no interest in anything resembling a just and immediate peace for several reasons, and there’s nothing short of suicide that Ukraine can do to convince him to be reasonable.
First, Russia has formally annexed Crimea and all four provinces it currently partially occupies: Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson. Russia would need to change its constitution for these annexed territories to be de-annexed. And as a variety of Russian officials have stated repeatedly, Russia has no intention of abandoning these territories and any peace deal must proceed from that unalterable fact. The minimal “compromise” to which Russia might agree is a Ukrainian withdrawal from those parts of these provinces that Kyiv holds.
Second, the war is Putin’s war, and his continued ability to stay in power directly depends on the war’s continuation indefinitely. Putin, of course, would prefer to win but probably knows he cannot. Since defeat would mean his end, the only alternative is war without end. Or, as Russian sociologist Grigory Yudin puts it in a recent interview, “The war is now forever.”
In a similar vein, Russian analyst Maxim Trudolyubov writes, “Without bringing such a war to a complete victory and not being able to dictate the terms of peace, the ruler who unleashed it is guaranteed to face the most serious accusations against him, and possibly even threats to his life. Any peace other than one made on his terms would mean for such a ruler a loss of power and severe punishment.”
Third, Putin also believes that continued war is the best hope he has of conserving his regime and the integrity of the Russian Federation. And just as his survival presupposes an endless war, so, too, Russia’s survival presupposes either victory, which isn’t possible, or war without end, which is. Unsurprisingly, according to Trudolyubov, Putin hopes to make war a “way of life”: “Putin presents a murderous war as a new normal for the country. War is presented as a way to get a decent job and raise social status. War itself is constant, good ‘work.’ War is a way to get rich.”
It is Russia, therefore, and not Ukraine, that needs persuading that a withdrawal of its forces from at least those territories seized in 2022 (German Chancellor Olaf Scholz goes much further, insisting on a complete withdrawal as “the basis for talks”), the demilitarization of whatever remains under de facto Russian control, and a return to international legal norms are the minimal conditions for something resembling genuine, and not fake, peace talks to be conceivable.
Since such measures are unthinkable for the Russian tyrant, urging the Ukrainians to make peace with Russia today is like urging a rape victim to make peace with her rapist. Peace will be possible only if the rapist is arrested or flees the country.
Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, as well as “Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires” and “Why Empires Reemerge: Imperial Collapse and Imperial Revival in Comparative Perspective.”