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Russia’s “demilitarisation” plan Ukraine: why Ukrainians will not disarm

A central element of Moscow’s justification for its “special military operation” is its desire to “demilitarise” Ukraine. Whilst this appears to be one of the Kremlin’s relatively less elusive goals, it is just as unattainable as the other aims.

June 20, 2022 - Andreas Umland - Articles and Commentary

Armed Forces of Ukraine during a military parade in Zhyhtomyr in 2018. Photo: Khorkins / Shutterstock

Most of Russia’s demands and plans regarding Ukraine that have been voiced since the summer of 2021 are either unacceptable or simply absurd in the eyes of Kyiv and the West. They have included, among other extravagant ideas, a revision of previous NATO enlargements, limits on the freedom of Sweden, Finland and other states to join the organisation, and the so-called “denazification” of Ukraine. This final point is in fact simply a thinly veiled agenda for regime change and purges, if not a quasi-fascist cleansing operation.

These suggestions demonstrably mock the fundamental principles and commitments of the European security order. The sheer ridiculousness of the Kremlin’s ideas precludes any serious policy-oriented discussion. Most of Russia’s public suggestions made to Ukraine and the West are of interest only to discourse analytical, comparative ideological, and socio-psychological research.

One of the few relatively more practical demands made by the Russian leadership involves the so-called demilitarisation of Ukraine. While this is also a clear violation of the basic rules of interstate relations, this is a plan that could potentially be implemented in the future. This could involve both a structural and material disarmament of Ukraine.

Demilitarisation cannot just mean the dissolution of most or even all the fighting units of Ukraine’s ministries of defence and the interior. There are now so many weapons circulating throughout Ukraine that it would have to also imply the collection of as many arms as possible – perhaps even hunting rifles – from the Ukrainian population. It could also involve a “cultural demilitarisation” through a re-education programme for Ukrainian combatants. An “industrial demilitarisation” through the looting and destruction of Ukraine’s arms industry is obviously also in the minds of Moscow’s power holders (aspects that are not dealt with in detail below).

Putin’s regime and the Kremlin-controlled mass media are suggesting to the Russian population that a “demilitarisation” of Ukraine is already under way. Russia’s ongoing “special operation” is targeting not only civilians, but also Ukrainian military units, installations, supplies and factories. Moreover, in a future peace deal, Ukraine could be forced to agree to limitations on the future acquisition of certain weapon systems. There could also be limits on troop numbers, the size and frequency of exercises, the geographical location of forces, the opening of foreign military bases, international troop deployments on Ukrainian territory, and certain military partnerships and cooperation with other states. Such possible future restrictions would place severe constraints on the post-war security policies of Ukraine.

Contrary to the Kremlin propaganda machine’s reporting about an ongoing Russian “demilitarisation” campaign, Ukraine is currently militarising at ever greater speed. Much of Ukraine’s adult male and parts of its female population are being armed and trained for combat, if not already in battle. The country is being flooded with increasingly varied, sophisticated and heavier weapons – either domestically produced or imported. Some of Ukraine’s new armaments oddly come from Russia, as Ukrainian soldiers have captured or found a variety of Russian weapons. In some cases, Russian soldiers have simply abandoned their vehicles, guns and equipment.

Circumstances and types of demilitarisation

Under certain catastrophic circumstances, an opportunity could emerge for the Kremlin to attempt a disarmament of Ukraine. In this case, the demilitarisation of Ukrainian territory could become a central agenda of Russian policy vis-à-vis Kyiv. As a material, rather than an ideational, legal or political aim, it is a less elusive project than, for instance, the “denazification” of Ukraine’s pluralist society. Demilitarisation, should it ever be attempted, would become a salient issue for Ukrainians – a nation with a past heavily marked by violent confrontations of various kinds.

There is a long tradition of armed Ukrainian self-defence. This is built on powerful historical myths partly based on historical facts, but also partly rooted in hagiography and heroising mythology. Among other things, this tradition refers to the political autonomy and military prowess of the pre-modern Ukrainian Cossacks – a self-governing peasantry located primarily in Ukraine’s central, southern and eastern regions. It also draws on the primarily Western Ukrainian armed nationalist movement during the Second World War and especially the anti-Soviet fighters of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA).

In today’s Western Ukraine, there is still a strong historical memory of the UPA’s resistance. This is cultivated both verbally and visually by the elites and the wider population of Galicia, Volhynia and other regions. In 2014–15, a large, initially semi-regular or irregular, armed volunteer movement was formed that partly referred to the Cossacks, UPA and other past examples of Ukrainian armed resistance. The experience of the broad social volunteer movement during and after the Euromaidan left a mark on the wider population, which supported the irregular and regular fighters. The practical experience and historical learning associated with this period were among the reasons why Russia’s February-March 2022 blitzkrieg scenario did not unfold as smoothly as the covert operation to annex Crimea had done in February-March 2014.

It is possible to identify two pathways for a Russian effort to demilitarise Ukraine, beyond the destruction and capture of equipment that is already taking place. First, there may be an attempt to achieve an “endogenous demilitarisation”. This would result in a form of disarmament that is, for one reason or another, implemented by Kyiv itself. Alternatively, Moscow might try to impose an “exogenous demilitarisation”, using its own or proxy troops and police forces stationed in Ukraine.

It is doubtful, to be sure, that either scenario ever becomes reality. Nevertheless, Moscow may currently be considering both options, or that a combination of both scenarios could be promoted by Russia’s planners. The two scenarios are treated here as two distinct and quasi-ideal-type developments. (Elaboration on various possible permutations of real attempts to implement demilitarisation would demand a longer text.)

Endogenous demilitarisation by Kyiv

The Ukrainian government would not, of course, in and of itself participate in its own country’s demilitarisation. However, it might be forced to agree in writing to conduct a demilitarisation following, for instance, an unconditional capitulation. There are two major instruments by which Moscow could achieve such a capitulation.

First, Russia could step up its already large-scale bombardment to a carpet bombing of Ukrainian cities, not least the city of Kyiv, until Ukraine capitulated. Alternatively, it could deploy a nuclear warhead or other weapon of mass destruction (WMD) on or over Ukrainian soil, perhaps even within a major city. The first strategy would follow the Allies’ strategy of 1944–45 to force Nazi Germany into an unconditional capitulation. The second would be an attempt to emulate the effect of the US deployment of atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

The first of the two strategies would, for the reasons discussed below, be politically less costly for Russia than the second. It therefore appears, all things considered, somewhat more likely than the second. In fact, large-scale bombing of civilian infrastructure has already taken place in Mariupol and some smaller settlements. This has revived an approach practiced in the Second Chechen War of 1999–2000 and Moscow’s so-called “counterterrorism operation” that continued there until 2009. The current strategy in Ukraine already resembles Russia’s military involvement in the Syrian Civil War in 2015–18.

The use of some kind of WMD in Ukraine is also possible. However, this would only further stigmatise Russia in the West and trigger a currently unspecified reaction, not least from the US. It might also alienate hitherto quasi-neutral geopolitical players such as China and India. Both states abstained in the United Nations General Assembly vote in March that condemned Russia’s official invasion of Ukraine. Such neutrality could become less easy to justify if Russia were to deploy one or more WMDs in Ukraine.

An official Ukrainian capitulation could follow if tens or even hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian civilians were killed by carpet bombing. It could also be the result of the explosion of a nuclear warhead or another form of mass murder, such as chemical and/or biological weapons. A capitulation document could be signed by either the current president and government of Ukraine, or a new leadership. In the second case, assessing whether or not a new government had some degree of legitimacy within Ukraine, or was a mere puppet regime installed by Russia, would be critical for any prospects of an attempted demilitarisation.

An at least moderately legitimate new government would have more authority to peacefully implement varying degrees of demilitarisation. It could also count on some level of popular cooperation. In contrast, a puppet administration would not be much different to an occupying regime, apart perhaps from providing Moscow with some degree of plausible deniability. It would have to enforce demilitarisation by state-terroristic means, such as draconian policing of cities, summary shootings, forced displacement/deportation, hostage taking, show trials and concentration camps.

A probable outcome of any serious attempt by a fully or semi-legitimate Ukrainian government to demilitarise the country would be civil conflict, strife or war. This would be not only true in Western Ukraine. Any serious demilitarisation attempt by Kyiv would encounter resolute rejection and even armed resistance. The interstate conflict between Russia and Ukraine could be reconfigured as a confrontation between relatively defeatist and more patriotic Ukrainian groups, localities, regions and/or subcultures. Such a scenario is, perhaps, even envisaged and desired by the Kremlin. This might be one idea behind Moscow’s demand for demilitarisation.

Exogenous demilitarisation by Moscow

A disarmament imposed by a Russian occupying or puppet regime would appear to be an even more unlikely scenario. Ukraine’s disarmament by Moscow or a Moscow-installed government in Kyiv would demand a full military conquest by Russian troops of those Ukrainian territories that are to be demilitarised. It would also require a permanent deployment of numerous military and police personnel backed up with large material and institutional infrastructure. Finally, a state-terroristic enforcement of demilitarisation through various forms of repression, including executions, internment, torture and deportation would be necessary.

While an endogenous demilitarisation could split the Ukrainian nation and even state, an exogenous demilitarisation would have the opposite effect. It would lead to a continuing armed conflict between the Russian occupiers and Ukrainian guerrilla forces throughout the country.

Only at first glance does an exogenous demilitarisation thus appear to be the more feasible form of disarmament. It does not demand a – difficult to achieve – deal with a legitimate Ukrainian government. It could, in theory, be initiated unilaterally and swiftly following a hypothetical victory. However, it would de facto mean a continuation of Russia’s war in Ukraine against irregular combatants supported by the local population.

Differing approaches, similar result

Demilitarisation appears to be a more practical and comprehensible agenda than Russia’s wilder proposals made to Ukraine and the West. Demilitarisation is a familiar term that has been in use since the 1918 Versailles Treaty. Nonetheless, both scenarios for a demilitarisation of Ukraine are hampered by contradictions. An endogenous demilitarisation might, perhaps, be possible to implement. However, it would be difficult to initiate. In contrast, an exogenous demilitarisation might, after a hypothetical Russian victory, be easy to start but would be difficult to implement.

An endogenous demilitarisation would involve cooperation from a fully recognised – or at least semi-legitimate – Ukrainian regime. It would, however, be hard to achieve such cooperation. The large-scale mass murder of Ukrainian civilians through carpet bombing and/or the deployment of a weapon of mass destruction might force Ukraine to capitulate. However, the international and economic costs of such behaviour would be high. Even if a Ukrainian capitulation were achieved, it would be difficult to ensure the cooperation of a fully or partly legitimate Ukrainian government in the disarmament process.

An exogenous demilitarisation, in contrast, would not demand elaborate and risky preparations. In theory, it could be a unilateral measure taken by Moscow. This would “only” require a traditional Russian military victory. Following a hypothetical conquest of Ukraine, however, it would be highly challenging for a Russian occupation or puppet regime to implement demilitarisation – even if attempted by draconian means.

Ukraine’s strong tradition of collective self-organisation and self-defence means that armed resistance to Moscow’s rule would continue following a formal Russian victory. Irregular armed groups would resist demilitarisation with the help of the local population. In conclusion, neither an endogenous nor an exogenous demilitarisation of Ukraine is ever likely to happen.

Andreas Umland is an analyst with the Stockholm Centre for Eastern European Studies (SCEEUS) at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs. Jakob Hedenskog and John Zachau of SCEEUS made useful comments on an earlier version of this text. Responsibility for any remaining inaccuracies, however, lies with the author. 

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