Is a durable peace between Ukraine and Russia possible?
Now that the Kremlin’s offensive has stalled and the Ukrainian armed forces appear poised to defeat Russia, various authoritative Western voices — from French President Emmanuel Macron to Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio to the New York Times — have begun calling for a negotiated end to the war.
Their intent may be laudable; their chances of success are nil. The reason is simple. Ukraine wants to survive as a nation and as a state and has no claims on Russian territory. Russia wants to destroy Ukraine as a nation and as a state and wants to seize all of Ukraine’s territory. Ukraine is playing a positive-sum game in which both sides can win. Russia is playing a zero-sum game in which Russia wins everything and Ukraine loses everything.
Unless Russian President Vladimir Putin changes Russia’s game, there is no compromise possible and, hence, no durable peace. Both sides could take a breather to regroup their forces, but a stable, long-lasting peace is possible only if Russia accepts Ukraine’s existence as both a nation and a state.
Thus far, there is no evidence of such a change of heart. Quite the contrary, Russian rhetoric and policy have become increasingly dismissive of Ukraine’s right to exist. Claims that Ukraine does not and should not exist abound; the genocidal killing of Ukrainian civilians and the destruction of Ukraine’s cultural legacy continue unabated.
Seen in this light, Italy’s recently announced four-point peace plan appears unrealistic. Although its elements are perfectly reasonable, as far as most reasonable people are concerned, the plan assumes that Putin’s Russia also could be reasonable. Russia could agree to a ceasefire and Ukraine’s neutrality (points 1 and 2 of the plan) as temporary adjustments to its strategic goal of destroying Ukraine, but it never would agree to Ukraine’s sovereignty over Crimea and the Donbas and a withdrawal of Russian troops from all of Ukraine (points 3 and 4). Ukraine, in contrast, could easily agree to all four points, at least as starting points for further negotiations.
How, then, could Russia be brought around to accepting Ukraine’s existence? There are three formidable obstacles to such a metamorphosis.
First, Putin has explicitly adopted genocide as the core of his approach to Ukraine. Given that Ukraine’s destruction is the central desideratum of Putin’s Ukraine’s policy, Russia will remain intransigent in its zero-sum approach as long as Putin remains president. To put the matter less diplomatically, Putin will have to leave office, whether by force or not, for anything to change in Russia’s Ukraine policy. Rome would do well to shelve its peace plan until that day.
To be sure, Putin’s successor also could be a hardliner. But even if he is, his line is almost certain to be softer than Putin’s, both because he will have invested less personal capital in genocide and because he may be looking for a convenient issue to enhance his own authority and distance himself from Putin’s catastrophic war. And, of course, it’s not inconceivable that, if a post-Putin power struggle were to break out, quasi-democrats might even be able to seize the government.
Second, Russia is a fascist state that needs an enemy and war to legitimize itself and retain its popularity with the population. Putin’s departure would remove the linchpin of the fascist regime and thereby fatally weaken it, but the only thing that would guarantee a withdrawal from zero-sum thinking would be regime change. Russia need not become democratic; run-of-the-mill authoritarianism would suffice to make a significant difference. Naturally, there is no hope of any kind of regime change as long as Putin remains in charge.
Finally, Russian political culture is explicitly hostile to Ukraine and Ukrainians and has been so for several centuries. The popular mindset doesn’t determine policy, but it does place constraints on what may and may not be undertaken by policymakers. Political cultures, like cultures, take time to change, and they change radically only if they experience serious traumas.
What, then, could overcome all three obstacles? Not peace plans, not vain stabs at negotiation, not concessions by Ukraine, and not ceasefires doomed to breakdown. The only thing that could change Russia quickly would be a serious defeat in the war with Ukraine. At the least, Ukraine would have to drive out Russian forces from the territories they occupied after Feb. 24. Ideally, Russia also would be driven out of Crimea and the Donbas.
If that were to happen, Putin in all likelihood would fall, the regime would collapse, and Russian political culture would begin to change from Russian supremacism toward some form of peaceful coexistence with its neighbors.
The lesson for the West is painfully obvious. If it wants real peace in Ukraine, it should keep doing everything possible not to save Putin’s face but to hand him a serious defeat.
Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, as well as “Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires” and “Why Empires Reemerge: Imperial Collapse and Imperial Revival in Comparative Perspective.”
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