“Never Put Yourself in a Position from Which You Cannot Retreat Without Losing Face and from Which You Cannot Advance Without Grave Risks” – Hans Morgenthau
This is the third in a series of analyses on the historical, geopolitical, and economic underpinnings of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, focusing on potential end points of the crisis. Part I establishes a parallel between Russia and 19th century Germany’s geopolitical constraints. Part II focuses on the economic ramifications of the Ukraine invasion. Part IV will examine the psychological aspect of the conflict, including the role fear plays in geopolitics.
His blitzkrieg has halted: the onslaught of tanks he unleashed against Ukraine last week is running out of fuel, a victim of the endemic corruption of the Russian army. His soldiers, demoralized and confused by massive resistance in what was supposed to be a military exercise, suffer from ration shortages. Many are deserting. By estimates from the Pentagon, the first week of conflict has seen the deaths of over 2000 Russian soldiers. If the Ukrainian forces are to be believed, this number could be as high as 6000, as well as 30 fighter jets.
And while a reversal is to be expected with Russia’s deployment of a massive military convoy heading straight to Kyiv, this is less scary than it may appear. Until Russia attains unquestioned aerial supremacy above Ukraine, this convoy has the potential to be an unbroken string of neatly-aligned targets. The threat of the convoy also remains limited so long as they continue to be stuck in the mud.
Better minds than ours have cautioned against optimism. There is no consensus on the predicted duration of the war, and the conflict in Ukraine is the sort of engagement that Vladimir Putin will have prepared for over the course of several years. What is clear is that there is no longer any hope of a clean victory for Putin. In fact, it is seeming that his war of aggression has caused everything he had hoped to prevent: NATO has closed ranks against him (with the last holdout, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, capitulating earlier this week), Ukraine is filing paperwork to join the European Union, as is Moldova; Finland and Sweden are preparing to join NATO; and even the Russian public is split, with many younger Russians decrying the injustice of the war.
It would follow that, as negotiations between Russia and Ukraine continue, it is necessary to understand why and how this conflict can end.
First, a hypothesis on Vladimir Putin’s desired conclusion for the war, corroborated by evidence.
Russian forces have surrounded Ukraine on three sides, with troops streaming (or lurching, given the supply chain issues) into the country through the eastern border, Belarus in the north, and Crimea in the south. Initial troop progression was fast-paced shock and awe tactics, suggesting an attempt to move through Ukraine at speed, demoralizing the Ukrainian public and finish the war as fast as possible. Historically, this is a sound plan, given the complete success of Russia’s previous engagements under Putin. This did not go to plan, however; on the 26th, an editorial praising Russia’s quick victory in the war was mistakenly released, suggesting that the government had assumed it to be over by then. In addition, transcripts of a phone call between Putin and Xi Jinping on the afternoon of the 25th show that Putin was willing to negotiate at that time. The war started on the morning of the 23rd; by the 26th, with a fast enough approach and the bias of having enjoyed multiple victories in the past few years, Putin could conceivably expect to have pushed the Ukrainians to the negotiation table by then.
Had that happened, we would have been dealing with a radically different situation: a fully occupied and partially subdued Ukraine, Putin victorious, and Xi Jinping (who we now know gave his assent to the war) willing to serve as a negotiator. The first salvo of sanctions would, of course, have been put in place. But a quick victory might have undercut Western resolve to impose some of the more onerous pieces of punishment, most notably SWIFT restrictions. This would have made the economic blowback tough, but manageable. Faced with an easy out and competing interests due to Russian supply of oil and gas, it is entirely possible that a fractured Western response to the war would have collapsed into a negotiated resumption of normal economic activities after a few token months of economic punishment, a slap on the wrist that would nevertheless see Putin in control of Ukraine.
This did not happen. Ukraine isn’t falling and the engagement is set to last much longer than anticipated. Antipathy to Russia has made the aforementioned decapitation strategy unviable. As a result, a puppet regime can’t happen without a full occupation.
Now that the West’s sanctions have been put in place, and now that almost every country has denounced Putin, there is no longer any disincentive to just annexing all of Ukraine regardless of any sanction-related headwinds. SWIFT was already the so-called nuclear option; the worst of the economic punishment is already there. On the other hand there is a disincentive to abandoning the fight: Putin has staked the stability of his regime on the outcome of this conflict. For his concept of Russia, it’s do-or-die.
Given the visible support of the international community and consistent PR successes of the Ukrainian government and militia, there is likewise no incentive for Ukraine to compromise on its own diplomatic desires. This means that negotiations, short of Ukraine surrendering completely, or Russia withdrawing fully, are unlikely to result in anything productive.
In short, as there can be no negotiated peace that satisfies both parties, it’s going to be one or the other. We believe (hope?) NATO is aware of this. Anything short of this would be nothing more than Foch’s 20-year armistice.
So if this can’t end in compromise, where can it go? And, even more importantly, how can this situation be durably resolved?
There are three theoretical frameworks for understanding that question, each resulting in a different solution: Russian territorial consolidation up to its defensible borders; Russian economic and security integration with broader Europe; Russian breakup. Concerning a Russian breakup: this is what we did to Germany.
The Impossibility of Compromise
“The objectives of foreign policy must be defined in terms of the national interest and must be supported with adequate power (..) Nations must be willing to compromise on all issues that are not vital to them.” – Hans Morgenthau
Putin’s decisions do not leave much room for interpretation: By invading Ukraine, he demonstrated his belief that an increasingly liberalizing neighbor was such a threat to Russian security that there was no other way to act. Speaking in the language of war and destruction, Putin has said in no uncertain terms: This (stopping the spread of the liberal order, Making Russia Great Again) is what is vital (to me and) to Russia.
This is unlikely to change, but it comes as no surprise to anyone: if there was a possibility that diplomacy could achieve the same foreign policy goals, Putin would not have invaded (provided Putin is a rational actor, albeit evil, and not, as some have claimed, an autocrat gone mad). He made his agenda for negotiations clear in a phone call with Macron: Recognition of Crimea as Russian territory, “denazification” of Ukraine, as well as its demilitarization. Should he encounter no resistance from the West, the blow dealt to the liberal, rules-based order, and to the credibility of the US, NATO, and the EU, will be difficult to recover from, if not outright impossible.
Ukraine, from what we have seen thus far, will not yield until completely beaten, and probably not even then. Can NATO, the EU, and their partners let that happen? The foreign policy objective, so to speak, of the rules-based liberal world order experiment, is, after all, Peace. The “adequate power” chosen by the West to support peace, more often than not, has been soft power. One could imagine the West so unwilling to jeopardize the greater peace of the world that it would accede to Putin’s demands. Sanctions are certainly an alternative to military engagement.
However, the support given to Ukraine has been more than just putting a financial strain on Russia. Nearly all NATO allies have decided to send military aid (read: weapons) to Ukraine. This is especially important, as doing so shifts the objective from maintaining peace to maintaining Ukrainian sovereignty. This is now what is vital to Russia’s adversaries.
We Have to Return Some Soviet States
How does the above contribute to understanding the potential resolutions to this conflict? Given the intransigence of all sides, there are three outcomes that result in (comparatively) stable situations.
The first outcome is a return to the Great Power politics of the pre-World Wars era: a balance sustained by multiple great powers holding one another in check through competition. We stay the present course and after a long, bloody occupation, Russia wins. With the military strength at its disposal, this is already the likely (some say inevitable) course.
It won’t stop there, though. Russia’s strategic demands won’t be fully met until they integrate additional territories. After the fall of Ukraine, with other territories on the line, the West is faced with two choices: fight Russia outright, or don’t. The balance of power approach would argue that, given Russia’s leverage in threatening nuclear annihilation as well as comparative strategic unimportance of Eastern Europe, we don’t, and we give Russia what it wants, essentially restoring its borders to those of the former Soviet Union. A realist would argue that the US needn’t risk millions of mainland deaths for the least developed regions in Europe.
This is by far the easiest resolution; all it requires is Western Europe and the United States to turn their backs on Eastern Europe. Cowardice would, through these means, buy us peace at the expense of several sovereign states.
For the historically minded, this is unthinkable. This peace would be nothing more than the silence of the terrified as we enter a new Cold War, a real one this time, complete with balance of terror and Mutually Assured Destruction.
Russia would achieve geopolitical security by threatening the entire world; thus the whole world would become a geostrategic threat to Russia. So while this is the easiest solution, it would also result in the collapse of NATO. If any Western power is to preserve its credibility, this means being willing to do the unthinkable and start a conventional war with the expansionist autocracy at the gates. In other words, if we can’t give Russia what it wants, then we’ll have to fight them.
Security Through Unity
Assuming a successful fight with Russia (that is to say, one that results in neither a Russian victory – in which case, see above – nor nuclear armageddon), new diplomatic approaches would have to be designed in order to preserve the peace. The option most in line with the current modus operandi is to apply the Globalization Solution, and integrate post-war Russia more substantially into the economic and diplomatic nets that tie powers together in the modern era.
There has, in fact, already been a substantial amount of scholarly exploration of this particular question over the past thirty years. Many blame the current instability between Russia and the US on the West’s failure to properly integrate the entirety of the post-Soviet states into the greater global community. In this view, the repeated attacks against the liberal world by Putin are, and have been, contingent on Russia’s perception of itself as an isolated power increasingly likely to be surrounded by political adversaries. Putin himself corroborated (or lied about) this by implying that early in his career he approached the US to discuss joining NATO.
Such a strategy – welcoming Russia further into the fold – is supported by decades of successful post-war policy: post-World War II Germany, the European Economic Area, and Japan; as well as the reunification of Germany and the integration of the former Soviet Republics. Between economic integration through trade deals and reduced tariffs, military partnerships and alliances such as NATO, and through schemes like the Marshall Plan and the broader post-war reconstruction (read: throwing money at autocracies until they like you so much they collapse), the United States took a bevy of squabbling nationalist competing powers (and post-communist states) and turned them into functional democratic republics.
This mode of thinking, which until roughly 2019 continued to hold great sway in the Western foreign policy establishment, was founded on the idea that (economic) liberalization begets (political) liberalization. This was the impetus for continued sponsorship of countries like South Korea. This was the idea behind Nixon’s opening to China in the 70s.
Not to say that it would be a walk in the park: A glance at European construction in the post-1991 decades shows the struggle that integration of former Soviet satellites has been – think of Hungary’s, or of Poland’s recent illiberal stints; creating a coherent, stable whole out of many parts is no small feat. One of the main hurdles is, and has historically been, making community out of radical difference.
The failings of the League of Nations, and the United Nations after it, can be ascribed to this difficult task: they sought to create a community of states whose shared values would prevent future conflict, and whose eventual tensions could be resolved peacefully in sober council. To Russia’s point, there has been no such sharing across the board. To Vladimir Putin, the objective is national prosperity, not international prosperity.
While Pax Americana set foreign policy objectives increasingly detached from Realpolitik, Vladimir Putin kept playing by the old rules, operating in terms of national interests and balance of power strategies which the US hegemony, globalization, and a liberal world order, naturally threatened. Equilibrium had to be found, in other words Russia needed to get back to being a counterbalance.
In the broader Wilsonian tradition, America’s implicit view of the world was that great powers were ultimately responsible stakeholders of global peace. If we believe in the Golden Arches theory, turmoil would only ever be at the periphery, at the economic and developmental fringes of the planet. In those circumstances there was no need for massive military forces to prepare to combat one another.
Thence the “braindeath” of NATO. What is the point of a military alliance if what we really need is regional policemen? Russia’s aggression for territorial gain, which puts it at odds with other world powers and responsible stakeholders, opened Western eyes to the renewed possibility of great power competition. Once again, we understand the nuance between army and law enforcement.
A prerequisite to Russian integration into the broader community of nations, therefore, is that it stop playing the old game, which it hasn’t. So long as Russia remains an authoritarian state, integration is out of the question. Russia needs to undergo a deep transformation, starting with its choice of leaders.
That would require a massive effort to uncorrupt the country, overhaul its politics and society to a degree not seen in recent memory. Examples of such transitions being successful are telling: Germany, despite not expanding, as its national interests for the past three centuries would have required, is now one of the foremost democracies of the world. Japan, despite its less than liberal start as a world power, is now a lynchpin of regional security (if still a bit of an ethnostate). Both are truly, profoundly integrated in the Western liberal order.
The Empire’s New Graveyard
There is no going back. If or when Putin’s advance is broken, Russian expansion will have to become an impossibility. In our first analysis, we laid out the dichotomy faced by dwindling powers, and so going back to it inevitably leads to this conclusion: if Russia can’t expand, it must die, and that can happen one of two ways.
We’ve already alluded to one: A more figurative death as an autocracy, and a complete transformation into a democracy that the West will, ineluctably, have to oversee. The other way is the literal end of Russia as a country, a breaking up of it into independent regions. Assuming the end of the war, this would mean the occupation and partition of Russia by Western powers.
While such a solution has the benefit of resolving the matter of Russia in the national sense once and for all, it nevertheless poses all sorts of issues. The most apparent one is how to divide it, a question that has haunted the West’s collective colonial past and continues to define some of the world’s tensest standoffs. Another problem is collective defense: a bunch of smaller Russias would remain vulnerable to attack by major neighboring powers, in particular China, and so would require entirely new layers of diplomatic and military infrastructure just to survive.
Given the circumstances, the partition of Russia may be one of the best choices available to the West at present. Putin’s desire to restore the Tsarist borders of Russia and indicating that other powers have not suffered the same kind of geographical truncation is erroneous. Russia’s expansion was roughly analogous to the French, British, and broader European acquisitions of colonial territories. All of these empires were massively reduced over the past seventy years. With a reduced need to police global or massive territorial holdings comes a natural reduction in potential for global conflict. Due to the inherent instability of a large Russian empire, this sort of reduction may be sorely needed.
Could something go wrong with this? Certainly! Think of Yugoslavia. There’s a reason that we call a descent into sectarian clashes and irrelevance “balkanization”.
This is a massive statement, one that could require years of careful analysis. However, it is reasonably likely that we will face this choice within the next five years, if not sooner. When that time comes, NATO must be prepared to step up, or step away from its purported values altogether. Either way, the world equilibrium that we have known for the past thirty years ends now.
Shane McLorrain and Noé Sainderichin