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A way out of the war in Ukraine?

Responding to the Ukrainian offensive that has liberated Kharkiv and thousands of square miles of territory previously occupied by Russia, Vladimir Putin has taken steps recently that, to many observers, reek of desperation. While his actions may indeed be desperate, it is likely a mistake to see them as an effort to reverse Russia’s sagging fortunes on the battlefield. Instead, Putin’s recent moves may be a signal to Ukraine—and the rest of the world—of a potential end to the conflict.

In the last few days, Putin has ordered the mobilization of 300,000 Russian reservists and voting has begun in the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaprizhzhia regions of Ukraine on whether these places should be annexed and brought under Russian sovereignty. These are dramatic moves but it remains unclear what Putin hopes to accomplish.

Hundreds of thousands of poorly trained, ill-motivated recruits are unlikely to make a difference on the battlefield, particularly when even the currently deployed forces lack top-of-the-line equipment. While annexing Ukrainian territory might bolster domestic support for the operation, it won’t materially affect Ukrainian military operations. So what is Putin up to?

The newly press-ganged soldiers will not help Russia go back on the offensive, but their presence on the front lines will undoubtedly raise the costs for Ukraine of liberating the Donbas. Impending annexation also threatens to escalate the costs of war for Ukraine, as it increases the likelihood that Russia will fight to the last soldier to protect what would then be Russian soil. It also makes it more likely that Putin will authorize the use of tactical nuclear weapons in defense of newly Russian lands.

The question for Ukraine then becomes whether it can liberate these territories at an acceptable cost, one that includes not just Ukrainian soldiers but also Ukrainian and European citizens who will spend the winter freezing and possibly dying for lack of Russian natural gas.

If Ukraine calculates that the answer is no, then it must determine on what terms it is willing to end the war.

The impending Russian annexation—for there is no doubt about the outcome of the “vote”—provides a way out of war. Donetsk and Luhansk have been under Russian control, to greater or lesser degrees, since 2014. By contrast, since the early days of the war, Kherson and Zaprizhzhia have been only partially occupied by Russia. Furthermore, Kherson and Zaprizhzhia have significantly smaller ethnic Russian populations of about 20 percent each, compared to roughly 40 percent in Donetsk and Luhansk.

While the prospect of ceding territory is undoubtedly unappealing, all wars end in either total victory or compromise, and if Ukraine does not believe it can defeat Russia at an acceptable price, then it must compromise. The most logical compromise, suggested by the situation on the ground, would have Ukraine accepting Russian annexation of Donetsk and Luhansk in exchange for Russian withdrawal from Kherson and Zaprizhzhia and an end to the conflict.

Such a compromise would not guarantee that Russia would refrain from launching another “special operation” in five or 10 years, but that problem could be solved by a side agreement between Russia and the western allies allowing Ukraine to join NATO and the EU (Ukraine has already been accepted by the European Council as a candidate for accession, although formal negotiations over Ukrainian membership have not started).

Would either side accept such a compromise? For the Ukrainians, it entirely depends on whether they think they can forcibly eject the Russians from occupied Ukrainian territory. It might be altogether impossible without new infusions of armor, such as American M1 Abrams or German Leopard tanks, which Western states have so far refused to supply. Such a deal requires Ukraine to accept the loss of a significant amount of territory. But Russian annexation would essentially legitimate only the situation on the ground as it has existed since 2014—a reality that Ukraine has already demonstrated itself to be incapable of undoing.

Would Russia agree? Most analysts believe that Putin will not end the conflict in a way that he cannot portray as a victory. Annexing Donetsk and Luhansk to Russia accomplishes this by allowing Putin to claim that he has successfully defended and liberated tens of thousands of ethnic Russians. Accepting Ukrainian accession into NATO and the EU would be an especially bitter pill to swallow, but it may be an acceptable price for ending the conflict for control of the Donbas. Russian aggression has already succeeded in increasing NATO’s unity and its scope and capabilities through the impending additions of Sweden and Finland; adding Ukraine hardly changes Russia’s strategic situation.

The odds of such an agreement ending the current conflict are low indeed. But unless Ukraine thinks it can crush the bulk of the Russian Army, it is not clear on what other grounds the war will end any time soon. It is, at the very least, worth a shot for American and Western diplomats to reach out to the leaders of both countries to find out whether some form of compromise is within reach. The alternative is months or years of grinding war—and, in the end, quite possibly, the identical outcome.

Seth Weinberger is Professor of Politics & Government at the University of Puget Sound, where he researches and teaches international security, and an Academic Affiliate of the International Center for Law and Economics. 

Tags Russia-Ukraine war Russian annexation Vladimir Putin

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