Russia is, for now, the insurmountable obstacle to peace

December 5, 2022

It has been a while since I’ve written an update on the war, and now several recent events have prompted some analysis. The events in question: recent surveys about support for the war in Russia (both public-sourced and leaked internal to the Kremlin), the continuing fallout of the misstep by a host of the Russian opposition TV channel Dozhd operating out of Latvia, the turn in the official propaganda line on Russian state TV, and the repeated calls for negotiations by Western commentators and, perhaps more significantly, by French President Macron. These are all related, and paint a grim picture of the likelihood of peace anytime soon. Here’s why.

The Operational Situation on the Front

Let’s start with an operational overview. After ZSU’s dramatic liberation of the city of Kherson and the entire right bank of the Dnipro River, the war resumed it’s “stalemate” form in the sense that there have been no further drastic changes in territorial possession despite escalating fighting in several sectors of the front. While we still do not know how many losses the VSRF suffered while withdrawing from the right bank, we do know that very large numbers of men and equipment made it to safety across the river. Despite breathless recent reporting about ZSU establishing a bridgehead on the left bank, it appears that nothing of the sort has happened. A small detachment, most likely reconnaissance, did cross and temporarily operate in an area where there were no Russian troops. Meanwhile, the Russians have not even evacuated outside of artillery range on the left bank (so talk about them falling back to positions to defend Crimea is all wishful thinking at this point), and many of the good units have now been transferred to the hot sectors.

There are several hot sectors. To the south, the VSRF is attempting a breakthrough at Vuhledar, trying to encircle the defending ZSU forces at Avdyivka and Bakhmut, and fighting to contain the ZSU counter-offensive in Luhansk on the Kreminna-Svatove line. The Vuhledar attempt has been beaten back, the Luhansk defense seems to be failing, but the VSRF has made some (limited but discernible) progress along the entire Donetsk frontline, especially around Bakhmut, where the fighting has been raging for months with hundreds of casualties daily on both sides.

It is not entirely clear to my why the Russians continue to press to take Bakhmut. I have written about its importance before, and it seems that the large grouping the Russians have been forming to the east of it is intended to go into offensive when Bakhmut falls, with the obvious target being the Slovyansk/Kramatorsk agglomeration that they failed to reach in the summer. This would encircle the ZSU forces in the Syversk-Soledar area. The problem I am having is that even if they do break through here — and this is by no means clear that they would since ZSU already threw them back once a month ago, forcing them to painstakingly recover land at great cost, and because ZSU has rushed reinforcements there as well — the operation would come to naught if they fail to the south and to the north.

And in both directions, VSRF seems to be failing. The Ukrainians are mum, as always, about what’s happening but from the Russian channels we can infer that the Luhansk situation is very bad for Russia despite reinforcements (many of whom are recently mobilized). VSRF seems to be fighting a holding action in Luhansk and maybe are hoping that defenses in depth would slow down ZSU even if it breaks through the Kreminna-Svatove line, and maybe even suck in resources in an attempt to liberate Luhansk, which would enable VSRF to achieve numerical superiority in Donetsk and to the south. By some accounts, the Russians have 1:5 to 1:7 ratio in their favor in men in some sectors of the front already. The problem is, as before, many are still-useless mobiki (recently mobilized). The units sent to batter the Ukrainian defenses around Bakhmut, however, are from the good ones withdrawn from Kherson. Which is why I wondered at the time why ZSU was allowing them to cross the Dnipro — then, as now, I think that this was mainly due to inability to hit them properly rather than some shady “agreement”. So now we are seeing these relatively fresh units arriving to make ZSU’s task a lot harder in Donetsk.

The time for ZSU to make significant gains before Russia’s mobilization makes them even costlier is running out, and while US intelligence says major operations are unlikely in December, I am thinking there will have to be some. As soon as the weather gets cold enough to freeze the mud — which might be even this week — both sides will probably go on the offensive. The question is who goes first and where. I am reduced to pure guesswork here, so I won’t bother with a prediction save to say that the imperative for the Ukrainians is to act now, which means the Russians — with their offensive doctrine — will attack as well.

The situation with Belarus remains murky. A week or so ago, the Belarusian Foreign Minister Makei suddenly died, raising the possibility that he had been poisoned by the Russians. (Makei had been helping Lukashenko conduct his “multi-vector” policies and was responsible for negotiating deals with the Europeans.) Then, a couple of days ago, Russian Foreign Minister Shoigu made a sudden visit to Belarus, where he negotiated some changes in their security agreement, and then met with Lukashenko who had to rush to Minsk to meet him. The Russians have been steadily increasing the number of troops in Belarus, and while there are several thousand Wagner mercenaries and experienced troops there, the vast majority are mobiki, who appear to have arrived for training. The Russians have also taken out a lot of Belarusian equipment to make up shortfalls in Ukraine, practically ensuring that the grouping they are creating in Belarus would not be able to mount another attack on Kyiv. While the speculation is about another attempt on Kyiv, it could be that the Russians are planning to strike in order to interdict the Western supply routes in north-western Ukraine. A force insufficient to besiege and take Kyiv might be sufficient for that task. If this happens, the timing would have to coincide with an offensive in the East, and so if ZSU hold Bakhmut, this might not be realized anytime soon. The pressure on Lukashenko must be intense, and the sudden death of Makei — a warning that the time has come to pick a side 100% rather than 85%.

The Russian Strategy and Ukrainian Response

While the situation on the front remains tense and awaiting new developments, the Russians are continuing to bomb the civilian energy infrastructure of Ukraine. Just today they unleashed another massive barrage, and I am still reading incoming reports of damage. The situation is quite hard for the civilians despite heroic efforts of the Ukrainian government to restore power and increasing help from the West to provide generators and assistance. The Russians have several goals with these terrorist campaigns: (1) to worsen the life of Ukrainians and weaken their resolve to fight to victory, (2) to generate another massive wave of Ukrainian refugees to Europe just when the European economies are straining because of the gas shortages and high prices, and (3) break Western unity by increasing their domestic costs of continuing to help Ukraine.

There is no evidence that the first would succeed. All surveys in Ukraine show that the Ukrainians remain steadfast in supporting fighting until the Russians are kicked out of their country. And yes, they mean it to include Crimea. Vast majorities oppose negotiations with Russia or any concessions — this is important to keep in mind when we discuss demands for negotiations that are being advocated in the West. If anything, the continuing attacks on civilians are increasing the intensity of the anti-Russian feelings in Ukraine. This is evidenced by the government finally moving to eliminate the Ukrainian Orthodox Church — Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP).

For those who might have missed this, the orthodox church in Ukraine split from the Moscow Patriarchate (that is, it asserted its independence from the Russian Orthodox Church) — this is now called the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), and it includes the vast majority of parishes. But not all: key institutions, among them the famous Kyiv Pecherska Lavra (an ancient monastery that is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site), have maintained their allegiance to Moscow. A few weeks ago, a video surfaced with a service at the Lavra where the priest was praying for Russia. This caused outrage in Ukraine, and a week or so ago, the security services raided the Lavra and several prominent establishments of the UOC-MP. They found Russian propaganda and suspicious people with Russian passports hiding on the premises. (They also caught a priest in flagrante delicto with a young man in his bed — which caused said priest to record video explanations about how he had been framed.) It was no secret that UOC-MP has been toeing the Moscow line, where Patriarch Kirill had been blessing the war, and telling Russian soldiers that they will surely go to heaven for what they are doing in Ukraine.

Zelenskyy recently signed a decree urging the parliament to draft new legislation to eliminate the UOC-MP conduit of Russian propaganda and influence. The Russian channels are screaming about Jews banning Christianity, but Zelenskyy has not actually banned anything. If and when a law comes, it will be from the Rada, and it will most likely take the form of instituting the OCU as the sole recognized Orthodox Church in Ukraine. Similar measures have been taken by governments in the Baltics on account of the deep penetration of the Russian church by FSB (this dates back to communist times), which has turned it into an effective arm of the regime. While the Ukrainian government has been stepping gingerly around the powerful UOC-MP, the terrorism of the Russian government has made any form of support for the Kremlin odious, which has made it possible to overcome some of these reservations.

The second part of the Russian strategy might work — Ukrainian officials have called on Ukrainians abroad not to return until the spring, for residents of large cities to go to the countryside if possible, and for those with the means to leave the country to do so for the winter. The mayor of Kyiv even said that it could become necessary to evacuate hundreds of thousands of residents to avoid overloading the energy system. Ukrainians are going for days without electricity and heat, and the weather is just going to get colder. The Western allies have rushed generators to the major cities, and the government has been setting up centers where people can go to warm themselves, charge their devices, and get water, or even take showers. But it’s very very hard. So far, the Ukrainians prefer to stay put, however. As residents of liberated Kherson said, we have no heat, we have no light, we have no water, but we also have no Russians — and this is the most important thing! Thus far, a mass refugee wave has not materialized, but the winter has just started.

The ZSU is not sitting on its hands, however either. Just last night (December 5) they struck two Russian airports, where the strategic bombers they use for missile strikes are based: in Saratov (Engels-2) and Ryazan. These are two of the three bases — it’s as if someone hit Edwards AFB here in California. According to current information, the Ukrainians used the same home-made drones that they used to attack the vessels of the Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol. These drones have a range of up to 1,200km: Ryazan is just 185km southeast of Moscow, and Saratov is 650km from the front lines. In other words, these drones penetrated the Russian air defense system, flew undetected hundreds of kilometers inside Russia, and then hit two of their three key bases. The attacks were acknowledged by the Russians although they claim the drones were “Soviet-manufactured” (what?). Preliminary information says the ZSU has destroyed one Tu-95 strategic bomber and damaged another plane at Engels-2, and damaged 4 planes at Ryazan where a fuel tank exploded.

This is significant for two reasons. First, this is the first time ZSU has struck deep inside Russia. Some of us have been arguing that this is coming and inevitable, and this is what Zaluzhnyi also said in his September essay. Russia cannot continue to operate with impunity, and so military installations in the interior are liable to become targets. It is important to note that the Ukrainians are not doing this with Western-supplied weapons, which people worry about. The time for that might come, but it is not now. If Iran does supply Russia with ballistic missiles — which right now appears to have been put on ice — then the West might provide Ukraine with longer-range weapons as well. But the Russians are not invulnerable, and it is important for them to know it.

The second aspect of this is that Russia does not have a huge supply of these strategic bombers. They have dozens of them, not hundreds, and so precision strikes like that could, in fact, make a difference. Perhaps make it difficult for Russia to keep launching these massive missile barrages at Ukraine.

The third goal of Russia’s bombing campaign is Western resolve and unity. As the flurry of publications in the West calling for negotiations and peace shows, either the Kremlin’s fifth column has been activated again or the campaign is having the desired effect on some people here. I have dealt thoroughly ad nauseam with these publications, so will not rehash the arguments here. The problem is that some of these ideas are repeated at the highest level, where French President Macron just the other day again talked about providing security guarantees to… Russia as part of a peace deal.

This brings me to the other developments, which all indicate just how problematic any peace deal is going to be.

The Russian Public and the War

The Russian opposition publication Meduza published an article on November 30 about an internal Kremlin survey of Russian public opinion about the war. Titled, “Make peace, not war,” the article reports that Russian attitudes toward the war have changed, and that now 55% favor talks (32% in July) and 25% support continuing the war (57% in July):

Before we break open the champagne, several cautions are in order. First of all, nobody I know has seen the survey instrument, the data, or the analysis. This is crucial because even if the pattern of the answers is correct, the inference Meduza makes might be impossible to sustain. In fact, it might mean nothing even close to what they suggest. The problem is that we do not know what “peace talks” mean to the respondents. The graph seems to suggest it is opposite to “continuing the war,” but it is not obvious to me why this means peace. I mean, even the Kremlin wants “to talk” but what they mean by this is that Ukraine must capitulate. (Peskov just explicitly said that a precondition to any talks is for Ukraine to concede the annexed territories.) Do the respondents also assume that Russia would get to keep what it took, just proceed no further? Do they mean that maybe Russia should relinquish some of the territories it annexed even though they are now “Russian” under their law? Do they mean that Russia should hand back to Ukraine all territory it has seized since 2014, including Crimea?

Talk about “peace” without specifying on what terms is absolutely meaningless.

A similar problem occurs with another recent survey, this time from the respected Levada Center. Here are some interesting graphs:

According to this, support for the war has remained steady: it was 68% Yes/Rather Yes vs 23% No/Rather No in February, and it is 73% vs 20% now. Moreover, 56% support partial mobilization vs 38% who oppose it, although fears that it might become general have increased (66% thought it would not in February vs 31% in October). As for negotiations vs military actions, here’s the result:

There is a drop, albeit not as large as in the internal survey: 44% wanted to continue to fight in September vs 36% now, and 48% wanted to start negotiations back then vs 57% now.

Again, however, we do not know what this means. It is indicative that the Russians most concerned about what’s going on in Ukraine are the oldest (75%), who also happen to be by far the most supporting of the actions of the VSRF there (also 75%). In other words, when one reads “concern,” this might well mean “I am very concerned that Ukronazis are bombing their own cities and we are there to try to stop it.”

What both surveys seem to indicate is that Russians have started to worry about the war in Ukraine, but they do not explain why. One natural interpretation is that it was the mobilization that caused whatever decrease in the support for war one can see. But the road from “I do not want me or my son/father/husband/boyfriend to go to war” to “the war in Ukraine is illegitimate and Ukraine must be independent and territorially whole” is very, very long indeed. In fact, for the vast majority of Russians it might terminate at the abyss called “Greater Russia.”

I am using “Greater Russia” as a shorthand to denote the attitude of many Russians have toward their neighbors and how they see “their place in the sun.” The Russian worldview is in some respects similar to the American in the sense that it accords their nation a unique role in the world and in history, a mission of sorts. The Russian world (Русский мир) is what they call their version of the American Dream, with the key difference that the American vision is intensely personal and domestic, although it can be weaponized for foreign policy and war, while the Russian one is international — or rather anti-national — at its core. It seeks to unify disparate ethnicities into a Russian state (российская держава), wiping out regional nationalism in the process. This was a project pursued by the Tsars, by the communists, and by Putin’s regime. The closest analogue we have in the US would be the situation with the Native Americans in the sense that distinct subgroups are denied national expression. In the Russian Federation, there is a unifying cultural and linguistic force (both Russian) and, more recently, religious (the Russian Orthodox Church).

But, as the communists found much to their chagrin, it is not easy to root out national identities even if you wield a unifying non-nationalist ideology. The had to repress, savagely, any expression of this nationalism in Ukraine, in Kazakhstan, in the Caucasus, among other places. The effort would naturally involve measures to suppress regional identities, languages, and cultures, replacing them all with Russian imports. It is no surprise that the state ended with a hierarchy of ethnicities as well, with Russians on top, followed by “fellow Slavs” like Belarusians and Ukrainians, followed by “fellow Christians” like Armenians and Georgians, followed by Caucasian Muslims, followed by Central Asians (mostly Muslim), with the rear brought up by people in the far East and extreme North (many Buddhist). The hierarchy is instantly detectable in regional jokes, and is exacerbated by the urban-rural divide, where Russian Moscow and St Petersburg also form the core of an imperial structure that sucks resources from the “periphery.” Russians see themselves as civilizers and unifiers, and they do so to this day. The rest are either on their way of improving themselves by accepting the Russian project, or are going to get repressed as enemies. And so you get the otherwise puzzling spectacle of Buratyans marching off to war in distant Ukraine even though they are literally on the bottom of this hierarchy.

This worldview makes it nearly impossible to see Ukraine as a legitimate independent state, and the Ukrainians as a separate nation. As far as Russians — who, after all, form the vast majority of the population — are concerned, the reason Ukrainians sometimes “act out” against them is always found in some malign foreign influence, be it Polish, Austrian, German, or American. Hence the belief that Ukraine is an illegitimate state in possession of territories that belong to Russia and were only “given” to the Ukrainians either by misguided Bolsheviks or through temporary weakness as a result of the breakup of the USSR. The vast majority of Russians believe Crimea is Russian, as is Donetsk, as is Malorossiya (Little Russia) — Putin here has always been preaching to the choir.

This is why Putin’s rating sky-rocketed in 2014 when he annexed Crimea (and attempted to annex all these territories although that failed, leaving him only with parts of Donetsk and Luhansk). Finally, Russia was flexing its muscle and could redress the historic wrongs inflicted on it (because in this story, the USSR did not fall apart because it was a petro-state funding a military complex it could not afford by energy exports, but it was destroyed by a hostile West that has always lusted after Russia’s riches). Crimea was just the first step.

And therein is a fundamental problem that any peace accord would have to face: Russia would have to accept that whatever territories it considers “Russian” end up in Ukraine are Ukrainian. Either that, or the agreement has to provide for a security structure that deters Russia from attempting to “recover” them.

The first seems unrealistic in the extreme, as the recent snafu with Dozhd shows. I have written before that the Russian “liberal opposition” that has been denouncing Putin and opposing the war — all seemingly great things — is not, in fact, a friend to Ukraine. The recent episode illustrates well why.

The Dozhd Fiasco and the Russian Liberals

Dozhd is a Russian opposition media that runs a TV station from Latvia as it is banned in Russia. It has been consistently anti-Putin and anti-war. They are not without controversy though: when the Latvians decided to take down the monuments to the Soviet Army, the editor-in-chief berated the Mayor of Riga — the Soviets had liberated Latvia from the Nazis! — while he tried to explain that Latvians see the Soviet Army as an occupying force. She was apparently incapable of understanding that one could simultaneously hate the Nazis and the Russians that replaced them. There were calls to evict Dozhd from Latvia back then, but the mayor himself defended their right to ask tough questions, and so they were allowed to stay.

After problems with the mobilization began surfacing, Dozhd began airing segments about the plight of newly mobilized Russian soldiers. It appears to have been conceived as an effort to counter the Kremlin propaganda of “everything is going according to plan” and to reveal the real conditions that await the men who submit to the draft, presumably with the idea that when people realize how bad it is, they might become more resistant to the mobilization idea.

Unfortunately, but predictably, the relatives of mobilized men that call into the program see it as a way to air grievances in the hope that they are corrected.

That is, while Dozhd might wish to portray the appalling conditions of the mobilized in order to discourage others, the mothers of these soldiers want these conditions improved so that their children have a chance of survival. They are not there to promote anti-war narratives — indeed, they might think this would put their sons at risk, maybe even themselves — but to demand the Kremlin fix this. Not stop the mobilization, but improve it.

In the December 1 segment, Korostelev asked viewers to share information about problems in the Russian army and send messages to the channel’s Telegram bot. This way, he said,

“We hope that we were able to help many military personnel, including, for example, with equipment and with simply basic amenities at the front.”

The reaction to this statement was swift and furious, and within hours, the editor-in-chief issued an apology and denied that Dozhd was in any way helping equip the Russian army. Soon after, they announced that Korostelev has been fired, which prompted a firestorm from Russian opposition members and the protest resignations from Dozhd by several of his colleagues, who claimed this had just been a slip-up and he deserves better because of his clear position on the war.

Korostelev issued a statement, in which he announced his willingness to be fired if that would keep the channel operating from Litva (whose government announced an investigation into its activities — having fined it earlier 10,000 Euros for showing a map with Crimea marked as Russian territory and because its journalists had referred to the Russian army as “ours”) but muddied the waters with his explanation, which flatly contradicted what his defenders had been arguing.

He explained that he was trying to provide “assistance to Russian soldiers with basic amenities” but did not call for buying ammunition for them.

Pause now for a second to digest this. Russian soldiers have been mobilized and sent into Ukraine to murder Ukrainians. Their government botched their preparation and is essentially dumping them into wet, cold, muddy trenches and killing fields. The self-described opponent of this aggression Korostelev is calling for resources to ease their lives… to what end, exactly? If a soldier does not get hypothermia, the soldier is more likely to do the job he’s been told to do, which is, let’s recall, murdering Ukrainians.

The fact that this man does not understand why people are mad at him would seem to defy a rational explanation…

…except that his defenders clearly suffer from the same debility. Scrolling through the wails and clothes-rending of Russian opposition on social media reveals an awe-inspiring lack of self-awareness, apparently boundless tone-deafness, and seemingly bottomless capacity for self-pity, all while decrying the lack of “freedom of expression,” or hyperactive “cancel culture” that is ruining a good man for one simple slip up, and accusing the West of all sorts of double standards. They simply can’t understand why they, the “good Russians”, are being treated so badly and unfairly.

When I wrote about that fake-opposition, I was referring to this problem, which I believe is very widespread and perfectly exemplified by these journalists showing a map with Crimea as part of Russia. They are just like Navalny, the darling of the opposition, who could not bring himself to even condemn the annexation of Crimea or Khodorkovsky, who has mused publicly about sending the military to the Caucasus.

Unfortunately (for everyone involved), too many of the “good Russians” are “Greater Russians” at heart, with the imperialist Russkyi-mir outlook, and the sense of entitlement and historical destiny that accompanies it. Their opposition to the war is not because they acknowledge that Ukraine is an independent country with an independent nation that has a right to decide its own destiny but because Putin’s war is not the way to keep Ukraine, or at least parts of it, Russian.

They cannot understand why providing aid and comfort to the soldiers of “their” army could be a problem, exhibiting that deadly moral equivalency that manages to equate the Russian invader with the Ukrainian defender — sure, they are both human, but just as sure one probably should not try to help the Russian soldier murder the Ukrainian soldier.

I recently watched another interview with a prominent Russian liberal who was explaining why she could possibly support Western aid to Ukraine — because Western missiles and arms were killing Russian soldiers. So while she was, like, totally against the war and all, she definitely saw Western aid to Ukraine as problematic.

This is the reality of Russian “liberal opposition” that we are dealing with today. They can’t even denounce the war without some caveats and reservations.

And this shows why peace with Ukraine would have to take the form of deterrence of Russian revisionism in any situation in which Russia does not take all the territories it considers “Russian.”

Russia is the Obstacle to Peace

The calls for negotiations in the West ignore all of this. They are either premised on the assumption that Russia will win militarily in the end (Mearsheimer) or that the war would eventually involve NATO/US and so Ukraine must be compelled now (Walt) or are just ignorant of the problem altogether (almost everyone else).

It is, of course, debatable whether Russia would win “in the end” enough to impose such terms on the Ukrainians. I happen to think that it is highly unlikely — after all, even the mighty U.S. had to agree to “peace with honor” when its economy tanked and could not continue the Vietnam War. Today we have a unified Vietnam. What is clear, however, is that Russia cannot hope to make any progress without a massive investment in its military. Instead of revising its war aims, the Kremlin is attempting to achieve them by increasing its war effort. The Defense Ministry announced that in 2023 its orders will increase 1.5 times, and the law banning any discussion of the mobilization effort, its problems, or lack of supplies has now gone into effect. Defense-related industries are working 3 shifts and even though the government has not yet intervened in the market to impose prices in its orders, it has compelled companies to fulfill them (and such controls are likely to come in the future as the budget gets squeezed by the loss of revenue due to sanctions).

The propaganda machine also swung into action. They now explain the problems with the special military operation (SMO) as being caused by Western intervention. You see, Russia beat Ukraine during the first week of the war, and is no longer fighting the Kyiv regime as such (this is what Simonyan literally said). Instead, Russia is now fighting NATO/West, which is a much more capable opponent than Ukraine. Because — for reasons that remain unclear given how “threatening the West/NATO has been in Putin’s mythology — the Kremlin had not anticipated this intervention, it had gone in with insufficient strength. Now that the West’s control of their puppets in Kyiv has finally been exposed, the Russian state has no choice but to continue the war.

The propagandists are now trying to scare the population with tales of how bad a loss would be. Everyone, up to the “street cleaner behind the Kremlin” would be sent to The Hague to stand trial. And regular Russians would be persecuted and ejected from Europe, at the very least.

For some bizarre reason, commentators treat this as open admission that Russia is losing the war, and that the propagandists are running scared.

They do not seem to understand the context. In the topsy-turvy world of Russia today, there is only one legitimacy — that of the victor. So when they say, “The Hague,” they do not mean it’s going to be some legitimate international tribunal, but a kangaroo court that the victorious West would use to wipe out the Russian elite. And since even regular Russians know that “The Hague” is not going to bother with them, the propagandists have a doomsday scenario for them as well. Hence, the part about being hounded out of everywhere.

This is pure scare-mongering, and is designed to paint a picture that there is no way for Russia to end this war short of victory. And since, as the propagandists also helpfully explain, Russia is not fighting Ukraine (and, according to Simonyan, for example, Ukraine has been defeated from the first week of the invasion) but the West, the effort that Russia had initially dedicated would not be enough. This is how they “explain” the lack of progress and (temporary) setbacks in the SMO.

Now that Russia is fighting “the West/NATO,” it will have to use all its resources because the alternative to total victory is total annihilation (NOT a negotiated settlement, by the way, much to the chagrin of Macron and the editors at Washington Post and NYT).

Make no mistake, the propagandists are not running scared — they are declaring for total mobilization and total war. The only remarkable thing here is that some of them — but not all — also explicitly rule out use of nuclear weapons, which is somewhat new in that setting.

Until the Kremlin accepts that it cannot achieve its goals by force, it will keep going, and no negotiations that fail to deliver said goals would stop it. By the same token, given the sky-high support for defending the country against Russia, the Ukrainians are not going to concede anything remotely close to these terms short of total military defeat. It is not at all clear to me what peace-mongers imagine negotiations can achieve.

The False Promise of Security Guarantees

This brings me to the final point for today: what kind of framework should we envision to enforce a peace that is unlikely to give Russia all the territories that they are demanding?

Today is a good day to talk international security guarantees: it is the 28th anniversary of the infamous Budapest Memorandum — the 1994 agreement under which Ukraine (as well as Belarus and Kazakhstan) gave up their nuclear weapons in exchange for security guarantees. To see just how thoroughly Russia, one of the two main guarantors along with the US, violated these agreements, recall that Russia had undertaken to:

  1. Respect Ukraine’s independence and sovereignty within its existing borders — according to this document, freely signed by Yeltsin, Crimea is Ukrainian
  2. Not even threaten to use force, let alone take over parts of the country with little green men, Russian officers dressed up as fighters from imaginary “republics,’ and certainly not invade Ukraine with a huge conventional force
  3. Not use economic coercion to subordinate Ukraine — which would rule out the gas blackmail Russia periodically engaged in every time things in Kyiv did not go the way the Kremlin wanted; it would also rule out generously subsidizing political parties to do the Kremlin’s bidding
  4. Not veto UN Security Council resolutions when Ukraine seeks help against an invasion or against a threat to use nuclear weapons
  5. Not use nukes — which would also seem to imply not blowing up nuclear power plants or exploding dirty bombs in order to frame the Ukrainians

We have not (yet) gotten to the fifth item, but Russia has methodically ground the rest of the agreement into dust with wild abandon. (We are yet to realize the consequences for nuclear proliferation.) Incidentally, when Lavrov isn’t lying that the agreement only precludes the use of nuclear weapons, the Russians have argued that the 2014 “coup” has deprived Ukraine’s government of legitimacy, and prior agreements with Ukraine are null and void. One would like to apply the same logic to Russia and expel it from all organizations where it inherited USSR’s seat. Or maybe ask why this is the only agreement the Russians say is invalid.

This agreement was signed in bad faith by both Russia and the United States (West). On the Russian side, because even Yeltsin believed that Crimea is Russian, at the very least. (And, consequently, the Russians have always worked to “recover” it.) But on the American side, Clinton lied about the security assistance. He knew that the Senate might balk at ratifying any actual guarantees, and so the agreement provided “assurances” of assistance instead. The memoranda merely provide justification should the signatories wish to act, nothing more. Under Clinton, Obama, and Trump, the US might well have chosen to stay out.

In other words, it was a terrible agreement that the US bribed the Ukrainians to accept fully expecting to abandon them, as we did in 2014. The Ukrainians just had an insane good luck that Biden was in the White House when the Russians finally invaded openly.

This is a long way of saying that this sort of framework is not going to cut it. Ukraine would have to be the main provider of its own security within a larger alliance, either with NATO or with some subset of Western countries, where the United States and the United Kingdom would probably have to be the main actors. Internal security means that Ukraine would have to develop its own capacity — so a much-enlarged military-industrial complex, with a citizen-based army. This is a very far cry from any idea of “demilitarization” that the Russians are demanding. Ukraine would also have to be integrated with the West in recognition that it cannot sustain a protracted conflict with Russia, which is why there would have to be a military alliance. This is a far cry from any idea of “neutrality” that the Russians are demanding. Ukraine simply cannot be neutral and demilitarized with a revisionist Russia at its doorstep.

This is why all talks about negotiations are worthless: any sort of peace would have to deny the Russians everything they have set out to achieve since the invasion: the newly annexed territories, a militarily weak Ukraine, and a pliant regime in Kyiv. They must defeat ZSU on the ground to have any hope of imposing such extravagant terms. While the West remains united behind Ukraine, this is not likely. But the Kremlin would not revise its goals until crushing defeats in Ukraine either — and while its economy remains functional and it can mobilize more men, it is more likely to keep trying to fight its way out than abandon some of these aims.

Barring unforeseen circumstances such as Putin dying or being ousted in a palace coup, this war will continue. Even if the leadership changes, it’s not evident to me that the underlying preferences driving these demands would change as well. I am very pessimistic about any short-term resolution to this conflict. The best bet for the Ukrainians is to push the Russians to the pre-invasion lines and hope this would be enough to negotiate some agreement that would include the provisions above. Whether there would be anyone in the Kremlin ready to agree to something like this, I do not know.

One thought on “Russia is, for now, the insurmountable obstacle to peace

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