One year on, how can the war on Ukraine end?

No sane participant or observer of this war wants it prolonged unnecessarily. But now is not the time to be advocating an urgent ‘solution’.

Expert comment Published 20 February 2023 Updated 22 February 2023 4 minute READ

As Russia’s war on Ukraine moves into a second year, there has been an upsurge in argument – some of it impeccably well-intentioned – for urgent action to find a solution to the conflict.

The impulse to find ways of stopping the war is understandable. It deserves respect. But it can produce ideas that could – either soon or over time – prolong or renew the conflict rather than solve it.

‘There is a need to find compromises’

It is uncomfortable to come out against such an ostensibly reasonable proposition. But in the case of the present war, which part of Vladimir Putin’s mission to crush Ukraine’s sovereignty, independence, and identity has reasonable grounds for compromise?

Russia’s war on Ukraine is not ‘just’ a territorial dispute. Putin’s strategy – since 2014 at the latest, and in concept probably since well before – has been to make Ukraine a failed state, which is undesirable and indigestible to both NATO and/or the European Union (EU).

Putin sees Ukraine not as an independent actor, but as comprehensively subsumed within, and subservient to, his own system of extractive rent-seeking, cronyism and exploitation

The resilience and dynamism of Ukraine’s people and institutions and their determination to build new strengths and successes, have sustained buoyancy and credibility in a vision of a Ukraine as an achieving, capable, and constructive actor on the global and regional stage.

Putin’s vision of Ukraine is completely different. His published musings on Ukraine show scant, if any, recognition that Ukraine is at all distinct from Russia. Putin sees Ukraine not as an independent actor, but as comprehensively subsumed within, and subservient to, his own system of extractive rent-seeking, cronyism and exploitation.

There is nowhere in this world view where a wise or defensible compromise can be found. A ‘solution’ which leaves alive any part of Putin’s sense of entitlement to own Ukraine would be no solution at all.

‘Ukraine will (eventually) need to be ready to relinquish territory’

This proposition anticipates the demands a Russian delegation might bring to a negotiation starting tomorrow or next week. It is the kind of demand that states that are winning wars might make. But Russia is losing its war on Ukraine.

Rather than hinting at the prospect that a negotiation might deliver something Putin’s Russia can construe as a success, countries supporting Ukraine need, like Ukraine itself, to stay focused on sustaining an inexorable rise in the costs to Russia of continuing to wage this war of aggression.

Progress in convincing Russia to turn back may be hard and slow. But there remains much more that Ukraine’s international co-defenders can do: reaching further into secondary sanctions and asset seizures; turning the screw on the still copiously dripping taps in the banking and hydrocarbon sectors; better advocacy to turn the substantial UNGA majorities condemning Russia’s aggression into practical, impact-making initiatives cut Russia off from cooperation with the world.

‘Let’s reheat the Minsk agreements’

Let’s not. Negotiated in haste, full of ambiguities (some intended, some not) and under extreme pressure of events on the battlefield, these 2014 and 2015 agreements were essentially quick-fix temporary ceasefires. They also included well-intentioned, but flimsily drafted, attempts to apply an already existing concept of ‘decentralization’ of the government to the conflicts which Russia had incited from 2014 onwards in the Donbas region.

Simon Smith explains why there is still much to do before a peace deal to end the war on Ukraine can be negotiated

Video: Simon Smith explains why there is still much to do before a peace deal can be considered to end the war on Ukraine.

Russia saw the decentralization provisions as an opportunity to enshrine the ‘special status’ within Ukraine of its own spurious ‘separatist entity’ creations in the Donbas, and to cement in place the role of these entities as a lasting, veto-wielding obstacle to Ukraine’s future choices in its relationships with NATO, the EU, and the wider world.

If, and when, the time does come to define ceasefire arrangements for the current war, the Minsk agreements’ measures offer no unique or valuable transferable methodology. And their provisions on decentralization have lost even what tenuous relevance they had to Ukraine’s situation in 2014/15.

Although the history of their negotiation does offer some ‘how not to’ lessons worth remembering, their content can be safely disregarded.

The ‘Korea-style’ armistice

2023 sees the 70th anniversary of the Armistice Agreement that – de facto – ended the 1950-53 Korean War. It is no surprise that this model has appealed to those who argue that neither Ukraine nor Russia can realistically be either defeated or reach a compromise – so it is better to find a temporary solution even if temporary may mean long-term.

It is also not hard to see why there is attraction in the argument that 70 years of ceasefire have allowed South Korea to develop as a successful, independent, and democratic country. And that all this was unlikely to have happened if it had been hobbled by the need to fight an endless war with its northern neighbour.

It sounds hopeful. But can it work for Ukraine? First, a Korean-style armistice would be likely to postpone indefinitely any serious effort to hold Russia accountable for the crimes and the damage its war has inflicted on Ukraine.

No resolution of the conflict is likely to be satisfactory or successful unless it comes with a credible practical answer to the question of what guarantees Ukraine’s security and sovereignty in the future

Some argue that an outcome which fails to deliver justice in this way is simply unacceptable. Others will regretfully counter that it’s not realistic to hold out for the ideal solution, and that a compromise needs to be found between a desire for justice and a hard-reality view which concedes many perpetrators may evade it. The armistice variant can in practice defer justice for a long time.

Second, the Korean model stopped the conflict more or less at the points where the combatants stood on the day the armistice was signed, thus defining the territorial disposition indefinitely. It is inconceivable Ukraine would consider this satisfactory.

Security guarantees: the fundamental question

But the Korean lesson which needs addressing, if it is argued that an armistice might yet be a ‘least bad’ way forward, is that South Korea’s astounding progress through the latter half of the 20th century was enabled by a colossal and credible post-war security guarantee.

Millions of US troops, and vast deployments of military equipment, technology, and know-how underpinned South Korea’s transformation. A post-war security guarantee for Ukraine will not look identical to the US/Korea model.

One year on, how can the war on Ukraine end? 2nd part

One difference will be that a substantial European commitment looks necessary and, to judge from the supportive postures adopted towards Ukraine by many European states, could be achievable. But the fundamental point here is that no resolution of the conflict is likely to be satisfactory or successful unless it comes with a credible practical answer to the question of what guarantees Ukraine’s security and sovereignty in the future.

The first anniversary of Russia’s launching of its most recent invasion of Ukraine is a timely stimulus to think ahead. But among those countries actively supporting Ukraine’s defence against Russian aggression, an essential and substantial part of that thinking needs to focus on how to contribute to an effective and lasting containment and deterrence of Russia.

We need fully convincing answers to the question: ‘What post-war arrangements will ensure that Russia will not attack Ukraine’s territory again and cease to pursue its preposterous claims on Ukraine’s sovereignty and independence?’