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Is there any “endgame” in the Russian-Ukrainian war?

The West needs to reimagine its strategy regarding a possible end to the war in Ukraine. At the moment, all possible strategies appear to result in more challenges. A more positive vision can only come when western governments challenge the precepts of their thinking.

October 25, 2023 - Valerii Pekar - Articles and Commentary

US President Joe Biden, France's President Emmanuel Macron, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Italy's Prime Minister at the time Mario Draghi and Germany's Chancellor Olaf Scholz during the first day of the G7 summit in Germany in June 2022. Photo: Thomas Lohnes / flickr.com

Any war has to end with peace, and the history of wars proves this statement to be true. But another statement is also true: one cannot end a war without knowing what the peace will look like. Can we see any “endgame” in the Russian-Ukrainian war?

It is useful to start with observing the strategies of the parties.

1. Ukraine wants to restore its territorial integrity and then stop the war.

2. The West supports Ukraine “as long as it takes”. Here is the first problem: the undefined “it”. This statement of support says nothing about a Russian defeat. Nobody knows how to end the war without a Russian defeat.

3. Russia plays the game of exhaustion, preparing itself for a long war. Moscow knows how to avoid sanctions and buy necessary military components. The Russian population supports the war except for a minority which left the country.

4. China is ready for the long game as it wins in any case. If Moscow consolidates its power, then it depends more and more on China and could become a satellite. At the same time, if Moscow’s power collapses then China can take whatever it wants from Russian assets.

Western strategy is based on the false assumption that Russia one day will be ready for negotiations. This is similar to the popular myth that extensive trade with Russia will prevent aggression. Both statements are based on a bad understanding of Moscow’s strategy. Imagine that one day Ukraine will gain an important victory on the battlefield, and then it is assumed that Putin will negotiate. This conclusion is not correct. There are no reasons why Putin would negotiate, as far as Moscow’s strategy is to continue the war as long as possible. They have enough resources to continue, including the economic basis for a prolonged war, ways to get around sanctions, and the patience of the population. This strategy is aimed at making either Ukrainian society or the West reach a point of fatigue. The Kremlin is also pressing on with disinformation campaigns meant to undermine internal unity. One day the democratic processes in the western countries will bring to power opponents of Ukraine in a critical number of states, just like in Slovakia. Then the West will convince Ukraine to make serious concessions, as well as lift the sanctions as a means of returning to business as usual. This will provide Moscow (and also Beijing) with a victory, as well as with time and resources to prepare for the next wave of aggression, which will be much worse.

Ukraine and the West currently have nothing to oppose this strategy. As a result, the aforementioned clash of the parties’ strategies can only lead to the strengthening of the authoritarian axis, the weakening of the free world, and an invitation for more aggressive actions. This is a way to achieve the strategic defeat of democracy.

To oppose this course of action and understand how to end the war, we have to reconsider the strategy.

Fears of the West

With certain simplification, we see that western elites are now afraid of three options regarding the war’s ending:

  1. Western elites fear the defeat of Ukraine. This means the political failure of all those who supported Ukraine and the strengthening of the global authoritarian axis led by China. This could also result in the spread of Russian aggression in Europe and the beginning of Chinese aggression.
  1. Western elites fear the defeat of Russia. This means disintegration, collapse, a humanitarian catastrophe, a large-scale refugee crisis, the possible growth of radical Islamism, the uncontrolled spread of nuclear weapons and the excessive strengthening of China.
  1. Western elites are afraid of prolonging the war. This means growing fatigue among their societies, the aggravation of internal political confrontations, and ultimately the defeat of Ukraine with all the local and global consequences from the first point.

I dare to note that if all the possible scenarios are bad for you, then you have already lost, at least in your head. Instead, the one for whom all the scenarios are good or at least acceptable, which is currently China, has won. But it is not possible that the stronger player loses in all scenarios. This is just an indicator of having a totally inadequate analysis of the possible scenarios. I shall come back to this point later.

If you are afraid of the defeat of Ukraine, the defeat of Russia, and the prolongation of the war – then what remains?

First, to hope that one day Putin will die and Russia shall turn to democracy. This is a popular myth like the previously mentioned hope to pacify an aggressor by expanding trade. We have to acknowledge that the democratisation of the Russian Federation failed in the 1990s and could not be implemented without deep changes to the Russian political system. In fact, the real power in Russia belongs to the FSB and other successors to the KGB, as well as other power clans. None of them want democracy or even peace. Maybe the promotion of peace and democracy to the North Korean leadership would be more successful than to KGB officers.

Second, if all three options (the defeat of Ukraine, the defeat of Russia, and the prolongation of the war) are unacceptable, then one can come up with a fourth option, the freezing of the war. But for negotiations and freezing, it is necessary to somehow obtain the consent of both sides. We have discussed above that the Moscow regime has prepared for a long war and does not want negotiations. This is because they believe that they just need to wait until Ukraine is exhausted, as its allies will then suspend their support due to democratic political changes. To be frank, Ukraine is also not ready to embrace a temporary peace given the lives of millions of Ukrainians living in occupied lands.

To summarise, today the free world has no real strategy to end the war except waiting for Putin’s death or his sudden decision to negotiate. In a straightforward manner, this is a weak strategy.

It is worth noting that this article was written but not published yet when the first confirmations of this dead end appeared in western press, namely in the New Yorker.

The absence of a vision and strategy for the endgame makes it quite difficult, I would even say impossible, to achieve.

The real end of the war

Meanwhile, Russia and its allies from the authoritarian axis maintain their role as the operator of uncertainty, described in my previous article. Recent events in Israel and the damaged pipeline in the Baltic Sea prove that they can create uncertainty in a number of places and spheres, and they will continue to do so. Potential actions could include cyber-attacks, disinformation, election interference around the world, and infrastructure attacks.

This course of action creates a situation in which the free world wages a reactive, defensive global hybrid war against an axis which is active and offensive. This makes defeat just a matter of time.

The only way to end the war and then achieve a sustainable peace by containing the authoritarian axis is to become an active player with a clear strategy. The West needs to take the role of the operator of uncertainty from the authoritarian axis.

Scenario analysis proves that the choice between the possible consolidation or collapse of power in Moscow (with all the previously mentioned risks and negative consequences) is a false dichotomy, a trap prepared by the Moscow regime and encouraged by some traditional misconceptions. If we have a one-dimensional model, then we miss other scenarios apart from these two bad ones. Using a more complex model provides us with a scenario which sees growing agency among the regions of the Russian Federation, along with the decreasing domination of Moscow. The light version of this process is re-federalisation (making Russia a federation as is stated in its constitution), while the more extreme version means decolonisation. In practice, some national republics will leave the federation, while other regions will stay, having much more rights to define their future alongside more money from their resources.

This third way helps:

  1. Stop the war as far as people in the regions do not want to die for Moscow. Today they have no voice or right to speak up. The distribution of supporters of the war is not uniform, they dominate in the rich and well-protected imperial centre.
  1. Avoid the risk of nuclear proliferation. The regions hate the idea of having nuclear weapons, and popular leaders have stated this many times.
  1. Avoid the risk of a refugee crisis. The regions need peace, and leaders have stated that they are dedicated to human rights, removing any territorial pretensions for peace.
  1. Avoid the risk of radical Islamism. The growth of national identity and agency leaves no room for radical propaganda. Modern democratic nationalism is the only force that can oppose ISIS-like radicalism and extremism that does not acknowledge nations and borders.
  1. Avoid the risk of growing Chinese influence. Russia’s Turkic and Mongolic peoples do not want to exchange Moscow imperialism for Beijing imperialism, they do not want to follow the sad destiny of the Uyghur and Tibetan peoples.
  1. Open the way for the first steps towards democracy across a huge and diverse country.

The future of the whole world is now at stake because turbulence created by the authoritarian axis will only grow. Now it is time to prove the power of democracy by recognising the aforementioned dead end and making a breakthrough:

I. Become an active player, not a reactive one.

II. Throw away traditional Moscow-centrism.

III. Deeply analyse scenarios, risks and consequences.

IV. Start speaking to new allies outside Moscow.

V. Defeat the authoritarian axis not on the battlefield but by destroying its strategy and treaties, as the Chinese strategist Sun Tzu noted two and a half thousand years ago.

Valerii Pekar is a co-founder of the Nova Kraina Civic Platform, the author of four books, an adjunct professor at the Kyiv-Mohyla Business School and a former member of the National Reform Council.

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