The war for Ukraine is over. Vladimir Putin’s withdrawal of his troops from the northern theatre of operations puts an end to the project of conquering Ukraine and installing a Russian-backed government by force. Another war, in the south and east, is still in progress – we’ll come to that in a moment – but what’s been decided is of huge significance.
The decision was probably made in the first few days of the invasion. Successful conquest had to be quick; Ukraine’s government had to be decapitated, its cities occupied and its people cowed before full realisation dawned of what was happening. But no Ukrainian quislings appeared in Kyiv. Instead, resistance was immediate, firm and ultimately successful.
With that resistance, Ukraine’s future was decided. Perhaps it was already decided by the events of 2014, but the last month has made it official. It will never again be a Russian satellite: it will orient westward for good. It will join the European Union and it will be an ally of NATO. It may one day be friends with Russia as well, but Russia will have to change.
Putin may now claim that he always had his eye on acquiring territory, but in reality his aim, since 2014 and before, has been consistent throughout: he wanted a friendly, compliant Ukraine, regardless of where its boundaries were. But that’s not a goal that can be achieved by force. At best, force could only install a puppet government and hold down a mutinous population – and in the event, even that task turned out to be beyond Russia’s resources.
The more limited objective, which Putin is still pursuing, is territorial: conquest and annexation of the remainder of the Donbas and perhaps more of the Black Sea coast. But a more limited objective need not translate into a more limited war: this is still a full-scale conflict between the two countries, and only comprehensive defeat (if that) will ever make Ukraine concede the loss of its territory. The Germans in 1871 only took Alsace-Lorraine, but they had to occupy Paris to get it.
In other words, Russia does not have the option, as some pundits seem to believe, of advancing to the limits of Donetsk and Luhansk (assuming that is militarily possible, which is by no means certain) and then stopping. Ukraine will continue fighting to liberate its territory, and Russia cannot stop it without winning a decisive military victory – without, that is, doing what it has already tried to do once and failed.
The Ukrainian government has already shown a willingness (sensibly, in my view) to discuss the future status of Crimea, but its minimum demand is restoration of full sovereignty in Donetsk and Luhansk. And even if, by some hitherto-unseen exertion of Russian force, it can be made to sign a treaty accepting less, that will just turn the Donbas (as I have said before) into another Alsace-Lorraine, preventing a reconciliation that is going to be difficult enough in the best case.
If Russia’s forces had withdrawn after an unequivocal defeat in front of Kyiv, it’s hard to imagine how Putin’s regime could have survived. The managed withdrawal, successfully accomplished, while in military terms it is a defeat, still gives him a chance to present as a winner: if, and only if, his goals in the Donbas can be achieved. But not only can a Putin regime never be reconciled with Ukraine, it can never again be accepted by the west as part of the law-governed world order.
And that, for Putin, is the best outcome. In the worst, his armies meet the same fate in the Donbas as they have further north – for while the withdrawal frees Russia’s forces to concentrate on the south, it also frees the Ukrainian armies, with the advantage of interior lines, to oppose them there. And given what we have now learned about Russian occupation, there is little doubt that the Ukrainians would be welcomed in Donetsk and Luhansk as liberators.
One war is over. Ukraine will be free. But the future of Russia still hangs in the balance.