The global costs of a Russian-Ukrainian truce
By accepting and legitimising a deal resulting in net gains for Russia, western countries would not only fail to respect Ukraine’s political sovereignty and territorial integrity, but they would also contradict their own obligations under international law to not legitimise aggression against another state.
Many nations across the globe, including some western ones, are, in contrast to Ukrainians, ambivalent in their approach to Ukraine’s territorial integrity and political sovereignty. Unlike Kyiv, they do not worry much about the long-term stability of a possible ceasefire or peace agreement between Ukraine and Russia. Electoral cycles and pacifist moods in democratic states suggest to politicians to go for a questionable deal today, rather than holding up norms and principles in a multi-year stand-off.
Yet, even politicians and governments unconcerned about justice, freedom, self-determination, emancipation and similar values cannot separate their behaviour vis-à-vis Moscow and Kyiv from broader issues of international stability and security. Many in Washington, Brussels, Paris or Berlin – not to mention capitals in Asia, Africa or Latin America – may view the Russian war against Ukraine as a regional, post-Soviet, or/and inner-Slavic dispute. Some politicians argue openly that this East European confrontation is of little concern for them.
Ukraine is geographically, culturally, historically and politically remote from these actors’ homelands. That implies not only, so the story goes, that outside financial, military and political investment in Ukraine’s defence, security and recovery should be limited or even discontinued. It also means, for this camp, that a bad but quick peace now is preferable to a, perhaps, noble but long military confrontation.
However, Ukraine is – like Russia – part and parcel of the world’s political and legal order. It constitutes a full member of the international community of states. In 1945-91, the Ukrainian Soviet Republic was, unlike the Russian Soviet Republic, a non-sovereign yet formally full participant of the United Nations. Post-Soviet Ukraine became, after gaining independence in August 1991, not only a regular member of the United Nations as a properly sovereign state. It is today also a well-respected and orderly participant of the Council of Europe, OSCE, Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, as well as other international organizations, regulations and agreements.
For this reason, Russia has, already with its official annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014, created a fundamental problem for the international community of states – including those caring little for the fate of the Ukrainian people. Moscow insists that the Ukrainian nation and state have no full value. Yet the structure, logic and functioning of the international legal order, security system and trans-border cooperation of nation-states suppose that it does.
Eight years after its armed capture of Ukraine’s Crimea, Russia doubled down on its denial of Ukrainian statehood. It officially annexed four more regions, now in Ukraine’s south-eastern mainland. This additional demonstrative violation of international law as well as Moscow’s escalating terror campaign against Ukraine’s civilian population and infrastructure since February 24th 2022 have increased the stakes. The war’s course, duration, outcome and repercussions have become even more fateful for the international system of states than was the case in 2014-21.
Nine years ago, the Kremlin’s story about the allegedly disputed status of Crimea was partly bought by the international community. Today only a few would, however, still accept the Kremlin propaganda’s odious justifications for Russia’s outrageous behaviour in Ukraine. The Kremlin, of course, still provides putative explanations as to why Ukraine has no right to exist – at least, not in its current internationally recognized borders. Moscow continues its select presentation or plain falsification of this or that aspect of Ukrainian history, law, politics, culture etc. All of this is meant to substantiate the Kremlin’s claim that Ukraine is not really a thing.
The problem of this disinformation campaign is not only about the lack of factual accuracy and cherry-picking or de-contextualisation of certain past events. Moscow’s more fundamental challenge with its narrative on Ukraine is that rhetorically similar stories could be told about many countries. There are plenty of states, territories and borders across the globe with confusing histories, contradictory tendencies, and odd episodes in the past or present. All countries of the world, like Ukraine, did not exist. They all were, like Ukraine, at their beginning not yet nations and may have had, like Ukraine, different borders.
In spite of the explosiveness of Russia’s behaviour towards the international order, the Kremlin continues to insist that Pandora’s Box is empty. Even worse, Russia is not just any country in the post-Cold War world. It has inherited from the Soviet Union a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, and the status as an official nuclear-weapon state under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The Russian Federation is thus one of those five UN members which have special responsibility for upholding the order of nation-states, the global security system and international law. With its actions, Moscow undermines the most fundamental principles of the UN Charter and is turning the logic of the non-proliferation regime on its head.
Self-proclaimed pragmatists and pacifists across the world may neither be on the payroll of the Kremlin nor have any sympathies for Vladimir Putin, and some may even have sincere compassion for Ukraine and its people. Their ceasefire or peace proposals might have even been drawn in the naïve belief that they correspond to the assumed real interests of the Ukrainian people – whatever the value of such a supposition.
Nevertheless, the various plans either explicitly or implicitly foresee a temporary or permanent limitation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and/or political sovereignty. They create not only a problem for Ukraine, but are in fact a global issue. The implementation of such peace proposals would mean that the borders, freedom and independence of a full UN member will be constrained not only by Russia, but also by other parties of such an agreement. After using large-scale military violence and nuclear blackmail, Russia would be officially allowed, by some multilateral group, to keep certain fruits of its aggression.
This would create a perverse incentive structure for future international relations. An internationally sanctioned land-for-peace deal could be seen as a model to be applied to conflicts between other UN members. In essence, the message sent would be that armed aggression, violation of borders, terror against civilians and threatening one’s perceived enemies with the deployment of WMDs will eventually be rewarded.
There is thus – what one may call – a moral hazard of security policy. What authority and legitimacy will the UN system and European security order have if Russia gets away with its violation of dozens of its bi- and multilateral commitments within various international treaties and organisations? Western countries accepting and legitimising a deal resulting in net gains for Russia would not only fail to respect Ukraine’s political sovereignty and territorial integrity. They would also contradict their own obligations under international law to not legitimise the harvesting of fruits of aggression.
Otherwise, not only may certain other revanchist countries try to be as smart as Russia; many nations around the world might want to make sure they do not end up in the shoes of the Ukrainians. What would stop other relatively powerful countries in different parts of the world with some semi-plausible explanation to not do things to their neighbours, similar to those which Russia did to its “brother nation”? Aren’t other territories – far away from Ukraine – not as disputed and as much waiting to be brought home as Crimea and “Novorossiya”? Why would, on the other side, governments of relatively weak nations across the world continue to rely on international law and multi-lateral organisations for the protection of their states’ borders, territory and independence? If western governments and other influential states signal that they cannot be counted on as staunch defenders of the international order and national borders, perhaps, other instruments may be necessary to do so.
The slow and half-hearted reaction of the international community to Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, and the hybrid war in Donbas in 2014-2021 has already contributed to the subversion of the international security system. Partly, this damage has been repaired by a more consistent western reaction to the large-scale invasion since February 2022. The implementation of a well-sounding peace plan would undo this positive effect on the international system. While it may temporarily end the fighting in Ukraine, it would deepen the cracks in the world order.
There is thus no common ground in the interests between Ukraine and the international community in upholding international law, on the one side, and Russia’s war aims, on the other. Since the start of its invasion in 2014, Moscow has been trying to take full political control over Ukraine. The Kremlin has been willing to pursue this war aim for more than nine years now. There are, until now, no reasons to believe that Moscow will not continue to pursue it, once the occasion arises again. A kind of “Minsk III agreement” would become a part of the problem, rather than the solution – as was the case with the infamous Minsk I and Minsk II accords of 2014-15.
A land-for-peace or similar deal would mean that Russian might is acknowledged as its right. This admission would derail not only the liberal order but international security and stability in general. It would ridicule the global regime for the non-proliferation of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. Key supporting pillars of the rules-based order of nations would be shaken. A questionable deal now may, moreover, mean only a temporary peace. The price of a short-term soothing would be a subversion of such basic principles of humanity as the inviolability of borders, sovereignty of states and integrity of national territory.
As long as the Russian armed aggression against Ukraine and the genocidal campaign against the Ukrainian nation cannot be fully reversed with non-military means, there is no other way than to meet force with force. This is in full accordance with international law, in general, and the UN Charter’s article 51, in particular. Compromises, concessions and other allowances to an aggressor state are no way towards a durable peace in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. They will seriously undermine the rules-based international order and the future rule of international law.
Andreas Umland is an analyst at the Stockholm Center for Eastern European Studies (SCEEUS) at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs (UI). This article is based on a larger SCEEUS project on hindrances to a Russian-Ukrainian truce: https://sceeus.se/en/publications/.