Peace or victory?

Two short pieces today on the war in Ukraine that are worth your time. One, at Politico, by Olga Oleinikova and Oleg Skrypka, from the University of Technology Sydney, on public opinion in Crimea; the other, in the Guardian, by Orysia Lutsevych, head the Ukraine Forum at Chatham House, on possible outcomes of the war.

The juxtaposition is interesting because one still sees an occasional lack of clarity about the west’s war aims in Ukraine. When the United States last week pointed out that one objective was to “weaken” Russia to an extent that would prevent future military adventurism, a number of pundits objected that this involved a strategic shift and a dangerous escalation of the conflict.

America’s explicitness on the subject may indeed represent a rhetorical shift (and may or may not be a wise one), but to suggest that objectives have changed seems far-fetched. The west’s goal is, and always has been, to defeat the invasion: that is, to force a Russian withdrawal. Since there is no prospect of Vladimir Putin simply admitting that the whole venture was misconceived and calling the troops home, that can only involve a massive strategic defeat.

Obviously, such a defeat would weaken Russia. How could it not? The only alternative (other than Russian victory) would be a compromise settlement under which Russia would withdraw its forces and pay reparations, but that would require regime change in Russia – which is also a western war aim, but one that it would be counter-productive to declare.

So the virtue of Lutsevych’s piece is that it sets out not just the desirability of Ukrainian victory, but also something of what it would look like:

The restoration of Ukrainian territorial integrity and, ultimately, peace will mean the collapse of Putinism as a doctrine and an end to Russian claims to territorial dominance elsewhere in eastern Europe and Central Asia. Demonstrating that a ‘gathering of historic Russian lands’ is doomed to failure is the only solid basis for sustainable peace and security in Europe.

As she concedes, such victory will not be easy. And it is not for the west, or anyone else, to tell Ukrainians how much of a burden they should be willing to bear to achieve it. If this was a matter of NATO pushing Ukraine to fight on when the Ukrainians themselves were willing to settle for less in order to halt the destruction of their cities, then the “peace not victory” crowd would have a valid point.

But there’s every sign of the opposite. It is Ukraine that is demanding more arms and more western involvement, and it’s the Ukrainians, in Lutsevych’s words, whose “confidence, which seemed like lunacy at the start of the war, has been vindicated by combat success and the total mobilisation of Ukrainian society.”

And pushing Russia back to its 24 February start lines is not going to be enough. “Restoration of Ukrainian territorial integrity” will have to involve full control of Donetsk and Luhansk provinces (which Putin evidently plans to annex); Ukrainian national sentiment, heightened and consolidated by wartime experience, will accept no less.

The Ukrainian government, however, has avoided committing itself to the full recovery of Crimea: Lutsevych suggests only “a settlement over the future of Crimea.” Which brings us to the first piece, in which Oleinikova & Skrypka report on a qualitative survey that indicates that public opinion in Crimea, initially favorable to the 2014 Russian takeover, has turned against Russia and Putin.

That doesn’t mean, however, that its people have suddenly become Ukrainian patriots who are eager to escape from the Russian embrace. (Recall that Crimea was never historically Ukrainian, having been incorporated only in 1954.) And even if they have, it’s hard to imagine how anything short of complete Russian collapse would induce Russia to give it up.

So at some point, it’s possible that Ukraine may need to be discouraged from pushing its demands too high. So far, however, its approach seems eminently reasonable – and much more realistic than the “realists” who say that it should be willing to leave Russia in occupation of its eastern provinces and poised ready for another attempt at its destruction.


3 thoughts on “Peace or victory?

  1. Broadly agree, but I suspect Zelensky would settle for a ceasefire with withdrawal to Feb 24 lines, in the hope that a weakened Russia would eventually settle on the terms suggested – gaining Crimea in return for giving up Donetsk and Luhansk,


    1. Thanks John – yes, that’s a possibility. But it looks like being a long time before Russia will be brought to agree to that, and it’s not clear that Putin would survive the loss of face.


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