Once the smoke clears, what’s next for Ukraine and Russia?
Russia’s advance in Ukraine appears to have stalled and, in some areas, Ukraine is rolling back some of the progress made by Moscow’s forces. At the end of last week, Moscow appeared to reframe its goals for the war in Ukraine, reportedly shifting its focus to the eastern part of the country as the advance stalls. Yet, this is not the end of the war or even the beginning of the end. In all likelihood, as the Biden administration has noted, the war is likely to drag on for some time.
While it is difficult to anticipate the course of the war or indeed its outcome, it is not premature to begin considering the desired political end-state. Both the ceasefire and the longer-term peace accord depend on multiple variables, all of which remain in flux and unclear. The terms of the agreements that resolve this war will ultimately be between Kyiv and Moscow, but the West is neither without a stake in this conflict’s outcome, nor the ability to affect conditions on the ground.
The Western allies must not underestimate Russia’s willingness to use punitive or escalatory tactics (or its ability to sustain the war effort), or overestimate Ukraine’s ability to sustain its fight against Russia. At the moment, the West and NATO are raising the military cost for Russia in an attempt to drive it towards de-escalation and an eventual end to the conflict. This effort is being carefully calibrated to ensure that Western aid does not cross undefined red lines or provoke an expanded conflict by Moscow.
When looking to the end of the war, the Western allies and Kyiv must be realistic in their appraisal of the art of the possible and recognize that unpalatable offramps may be necessary. Maximalist views of victory, which seem to be increasingly called for — indeed, President Biden recently stated that Putin “cannot remain in power” — will not lead to a cessation of hostilities or an end to the conflict. While the moral outrage is certainly justified given the violence inflicted on Ukraine’s civilians, it is not a foundation on which to build a resolution to this conflict.
This is not about making concessions to Russia or rewarding Moscow for its war of aggression, but creating mutually acceptable conditions for the end of hostilities and the restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity — however that may be ultimately defined. Here it is instructive to better understand how Russia views war and peace, victory and defeat. Andrew Monaghan, a fellow at the Wilson Center, penned an excellent monograph exploring this very subject titled “Victory, Defeat, and Russian Ways in War”. Applying the West’s understanding to Russia is insufficient and logically flawed, and will lead to bad policy.
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Ending this war must include considerations for how Russia will reconnect to the global economy. While this may be unthinkable at the moment, that reconnection is one of the few tools or incentives that the West has to affect Russia’s behavior or potentially ensure its compliance with any bilateral agreements.
The primary diplomatic objective must be ending active hostilities between Russia and Ukraine. A ceasefire and the provision of humanitarian relief will be a good start, but under what conditions can those requirements be met? How will those be enforced? What, if any, consequences will there be for violations by either party? Will an international peacekeeping force be required and if so, whose national forces will constitute that mission? The humanitarian crisis is significant and growing too. Nearly 4 million refugees have fled Ukraine to date.
The scale and scope of this crisis will worsen before it gets better. Providing support and aid to neighboring countries to handle the immediate aspects of the crisis is the first step, but thoughts must be given to what comes next, after the resolution of the conflict. How will refugees be returned to Ukraine? To what will the Ukrainians return?
The post-war reconstruction of Ukraine is particularly important. The full accounting of the destruction wrought by Russia is unknown and will remain so for some time, but Ukraine will almost assuredly require a massive economic support and reconstruction package for several years to come. Without that aid, Ukraine could well emerge from the conflict politically intact, but economically hobbled, which is not in Europe’s interest (although, likely in Russia’s).
It is also critical to consider how to end the conflict in such a way that a temporary peace does not merely delay the resumption of hostilities in the future. What security guarantees will Ukraine need? What guarantees are the West willing to offer? How can those guarantees be enforced? If, as it appears now, NATO membership for Kyiv is not viable, what can NATO and the United States do to ensure the preservation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity? Will the reconstruction of Ukraine’s economy, its admission to the European Union and rearming Ukraine to a sufficient level of deterrence be enough?
If the withdrawal of Russian forces is required, as it could well be, how will that withdrawal be enforced? What if Moscow refuses to comply or leaves rump “separatist” forces behind in its wake? How will either Ukraine or its Western partners contend with those conditions? These are not insignificant considerations.
Ending this war will neither be an easy nor a smooth process. It is, nonetheless, imperative that we begin thinking about the end state and working towards achieving a political conclusion to the conflict. Negotiations during war take time and conditions on the ground will change. Failing to plan or prepare for the end of the war, and thinking through not just the immediate end, but the long-term resolution of the war risks undoing the peace which will have been secured at a very high cost.
Joshua C. Huminski is director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress and a George Mason University National Security Institute fellow. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
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