- By Chris Kremidas Courtney
Discussions on how to stop the full-scale Russian aggression in Ukraine have intensified over the last few weeks. Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin, whose country decided to start NATO accession procedures immediately after Russia invaded Ukraine, has proposed her vision of “the way out of the conflict”. Asked to comment on United States President Joe Biden’s suggestion that Vladimir Putin may need an “off-ramp” from his war in Ukraine to avoid a nuclear strike on Ukrainian land, given that the Russian army has been unable to achieve any feasible results of its invasion, Marin said: “The way out of the conflict is for Russia to leave Ukraine. That’s the way out of the conflict.”
Historian and author Timothy Snyder has also proposed his own vision on how the Russia-Ukraine War will end. Unlike Biden, Snyder thinks that giving in to Putin’s nuclear blackmail would neither end the conventional war in Ukraine nor reduce the threat of nuclear war. Despite Putin’s demand that NATO “back off” last December, the Russian president has provoked the opposite response. Finland and Sweden are now likely to join NATO, adding 1,000km to the border between NATO member states and Russia. However, this context does not mean that Putin would cease attempts to deter NATO with further nuclear threats against his neighbours.
The Kerch Bridge was jokingly named “an off-ramp for Putin” because it was used to deliver heavy weapons to Crimea and then onwards to the south of Ukraine by rail. In early October, it was blown up. Some experts suspect that the explosion was arranged by Russian intelligence agencies to keep Putin in the war. Just days before the explosion, Russian Federation Council Speaker Valentina Matviyenko proposed to Ukraine’s delegation that the two countries begin peace negotiations immediately. It is impossible to imagine that a highly-skilled Russian politician would make such a statement if not under Putin’s orders. This could be interpreted as a clear sign that Putin wants to find his way out of the war, but the explosion of the Kerch Bridge and pre-planned missile strike on Kyiv just days later say otherwise.
According to Snider, Putin is now trapped in a situation that was supposed to be a televisual story about a faraway place. Instead, the war has turned into an instrument that has undermined his legitimacy. The explosion of the Kerch Bridge has hit Putin’s pride.
Political destabilisation in Russia has already started, with some political actors attacking their competitors openly
If we look back through Russian history, we see that undermined legitimacy always leads to the physical elimination of a sovereign or tsar. Putin is fighting for his life, and the massive missile strike on the Ukrainian capital in mid-October proves that the president wants to renew his legitimacy in Russia by putting on a televised spectacle for his vassals. Russian TV is totally controlled by Putin, unlike the battlefield in Ukraine. The bombing did not affect any Ukrainian military objects.
As such, Snider argues that Putin does not need an excuse to pull out from Ukraine. Rather, he will do so for his own political survival and will contend that the absence of electricity in Ukrainian cities after the missile strike is the victory that he expected. And Russians will mostly believe this.
However, political destabilisation in Russia has already started, with some political actors attacking their competitors openly. The Wagner mercenaries leader Yevgeny Prigozhin and the Head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov have directly criticised Russian Minister of Defence Sergey Shoigu. Recently, an information attack on Shoigu’s daughter Ksenia Shoigu and son-in-law Aleksey Stolyarov were organised on Russian Telegram channels. Tensions among Russian political elites increased after the country’s partial mobilisation decision and the Kerch Bridge explosion.
American journalist Thomas Friedman has proposed three paths toward an endgame for Putin’s war: Ukrainian victory, “a dirty deal with Putin” or “a less dirty deal” with Putin.
The future of Ukraine and Russia after a Ukrainian victory is the most important issue that needs to be addressed
A dirty deal would mostly mean that the occupied territories of Ukraine, including the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhia oblasts, remain under control of the Russian army. In return, Putin would stop shelling Ukrainian civilian areas. This scenario is entirely unrealistic because the Ukrainian army and people would never allow Ukrainian political elites to make a deal of this kind. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky would fail to receive support for such a deal despite the massive missile strikes and shelling of civilian areas.
Under Russian control, the citizens of Ukraine are threatened by torture, rape and death, as proven in dozens of liberated Ukrainian cities. For this reason, negotiations only stand a chance if the Russian army leaves occupied territories.
In Friedman’s “less dirty deal”, the Russian army leaves all Ukrainian territories occupied since 24 February, while previously occupied Ukrainian territories remain under Russian control. This scenario is also no longer realistic because Putin has cut off this retreat option after the sham referendums and annexation of new territories to Russia. Making decisions about leaving these ‘new Russian territories’ is politically impossible – even political suicide – for the Kremlin.
This leaves one remaining scenario: a Ukrainian victory. Although this path has become the unanimous consensus of Western political elites, the scenario remains unclear and proposals on what the victory should look like are unfortunately non-existent. And what will happen after the fighting stops? The future of Ukraine and Russia after a Ukrainian victory is the most important issue that needs to be addressed in order to create opportunities to stop this war.
The only outcome of the war should be substantial changes in Russia
Firstly, EU and other Western political leaders must make a choice in the path towards peace. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said in May 2022: “Russia must not win this war.” This statement was echoed by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg: “Russia should not be allowed to win the war in Ukraine. It’s in our interest that this type of aggressive policy does not succeed.” These are strong statements made by strong leaders. However, careful analysis of their statements reveals the logic that Russia cannot win a war that is still ongoing. In other words, Scholz and Stoltenberg appear content with Russia continuing its war against Ukraine so long as a Russian victory is not declared, hence why we must ask Western politicians to clarify their positions.
The real aim of Western politicians should be the military victory of Ukraine, which has to be declared as the desirable outcome of the conflict and detailed in absolutely specific terms, including international recognition of the territory of the independent Ukrainian state, as declared in 1991, including the Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
Ukraine’s recapture of Crimea will be the start of Putin’s demise and the destruction of Russian imperialism. It is obvious that this scenario scares Western politicians for numerous reasons. Who will control the nuclear weapons in the case of political destabilisation in Russia that will follow after a Ukrainian military victory? Or cope with a new Russian refugee crisis in case of a potential civil war inside Russia following Putin’s demise?
Russia’s future as a federation with democratic elections and freedom of political and ethnic identity remains highly elusive but still possible if the dissolution of the existing imperial state structure is under the control of the international community.
The only outcome of the war should be substantial changes in Russia, if only regional and local leaders focused on investment projects in their communities, instead of blindly fulfilling Putin’s orders.
The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.
- Area of Expertise
- Peace, Security & Defence
- European Defence Studies
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