There Could Be Hidden Costs to Maintaining Peace in Ukraine
When John F. Kennedy was president, he called Herbert Hoover, who was then 88 years old, on October 28, 1962. Because of the gravity of the situation, Kennedy called all three surviving ex-presidents that day, including Hoover, who had left office 30 years prior. That he had stood firm against the Soviets in demanding that they remove their nuclear missiles from Cuba without the United States offering to remove its own missiles from Turkey in exchange was something he wanted to personally reassure his predecessors about.
We now know that Kennedy lied. He assured Premier Nikita Khrushchev that the United States would remove the missiles in question. What he didn’t want the public to know was that three ex-presidents—Hoover, Harry Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower—had unwittingly become complicit in a massive cover-up. It was Kennedy’s belief, and perhaps not without reason, that the American people would reject any peace agreement that even hinted at appeasement. The agreement was kept under wraps, and nuclear war was prevented.
Kennedy’s compromise with Khrushchev showed not weakness but wisdom on his part. He understood that the United States could only do so much, and he acted accordingly. The inability to recognise these boundaries is frequently the cause of disastrous outcomes. Emotions such as anger and frustration can lead us to demand results that are impossible to achieve. As the United States and its allies try to figure out a strategy to end the conflict in Ukraine, this lesson couldn’t come at a more opportune time.
War makes compromise difficult, especially when lives are at stake. When an adversary destroys cities without provocation, murders civilians, and commits war crimes, the very idea of negotiations becomes intolerable. In regards to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, all of the above is accurate. The continued use of missiles by Russia against Kiev and other Ukrainian cities is a grim reminder of the human toll this conflict is taking. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky has set conditions for peace talks, including a Russian withdrawal from occupied territory, war reparations for the Ukrainians, and the prosecution of Russians accused of war crimes. Russia has pulled out of Kherson, but President Putin of Russia has vowed that any territory it has annexed from Ukraine will forever remain Russian. Crimea has been claimed by both Russia and Ukraine.
The leaders of both sides are doubling down on their demands. Should we expect a nuclear escalation if both sides remain so stubborn? There are four potential ways to achieve peace if maximalist demands are maintained and compromise is rejected. None of them are very interesting.
One Possible Outcome is That the War Spreads After the Ukrainians Win.
Most of us in the West would be delighted if this scenario played out, in which Ukraine regains control of all of its former territory, including the Donbas and Crimea, and returns to its borders from before 2014. However, if Putin is unwilling to accept the loss of Crimea, which contains vital naval bases and could threaten his grip on power, he is likely to escalate through intensive missile attacks on civilian populations in Ukraine, cyberattacks on critical Ukrainian and possibly Western infrastructure, or the use of biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons. As a result, the Ukrainian people would suffer even more if their country were to achieve greatness.
Putin can always try something else. He may opt for a more covert strategy of attacking Western powers, such as by inflaming ethnic tensions in Serbia to divert EU attention to the Balkans, by interfering with EU countries’ already limited access to fuel during the winter, or by assassinating key leaders like Zelensky. Putin has shown that his agents are capable of striking enemies outside of Russia, most notably in London in 2006 with the polonium poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko and in Salisbury in 2014 with the murder of Sergei Skripal and his daughter using a nerve agent. In addition, in 2004, then-President of Ukraine Viktor Yushchenko was poisoned.
One possible last resort for Putin would be to launch conventional missile attacks against NATO countries. Accidentally bombing a Polish grain storage facility has increased concerns that the conflict will spread beyond Ukraine’s borders. If Ukraine keeps winning, however, it risks incurring heavy losses in the long run. With this plan of action, Russia responds to Ukrainian military success on the battlefield by expanding the conflict.
Option Two: Putin Is Ousted From Power
It’s also possible that Putin is toppled as a result of Ukraine’s continued territorial retakes. There is almost no chance of a regime change occurring in Russia from outside the country, as no other power would risk a full-scale nuclear war to replace him unless he takes extremely drastic measures against the West. Putin undoubtedly realises the nuclear threat deterrent his country provides. Without this cutting-edge defence in place, dictators like Napoleon, Hitler, Muammar Gaddafi, and Saddam Hussein were vulnerable to externally-imposed regime change. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un knows full well that while a dog may be a man’s best friend, nuclear weapons are a dictator’s best ally.
Therefore, any change in the regime would have to originate from within, either through a coup d’etat orchestrated by the Kremlin or the military, or through a popular uprising. It’s hard to imagine any of these happening right now, but if Russian casualties (which may have already reached 100,000) become unbearable or if Russian forces continue to be humiliated on the battlefield, Putin’s downfall becomes more likely.
There are three possible strategies for Putin’s removal, and they all end in disaster. One option is a coup within the Kremlin that removes Putin from power. However, the Russian leader has put together a government of yes men. Nobody in his inner or outer circle appears to be a moderate or a dovish ally. In addition, the Russian security service keeps such a close eye out for rumblings of dissent that the chances of an internal coup succeeding are slim to none. Putin benefited greatly from his time spent in the KGB. After overthrowing Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991, the coup leaders severed all lines of communication with the presidency. Russian opposition leader Vladimir Milov claims that unlike Gorbachev, Putin now has direct authority over all forms of communication. In the event of a coup attempt, the conspirators would likely fail.
The second scenario is that a popular uprising deposes Putin and his cronies in the Kremlin and ushers in a more democratically minded leader, like the currently imprisoned opposition leader Aleksei Navalny. There have been uprisings in Russia before, most notably in 1905, 1917, and 1991. It’s hard to imagine how such a revolution could happen, though. This seems extremely unlikely in today’s Russia, where the security apparatus is highly advanced and constantly monitoring citizens.
The third scenario is that Russian nationalists stage an uprising and overthrow the current leadership, only to instal someone even more anti-Western than Putin. We can’t rule out the possibility that an uprising won’t lead to a thriving, pro-Western democracy. It’s also possible that it’ll produce a new generation of nationalists who are younger, more globally aware, and just as committed to restoring Russia’s preeminence. New, potentially undemocratic policies could be instituted under such leadership. And if that happens, the situation for Ukraine and the West could worsen once more.
Russia makes a comeback in the third scenario.
In this dystopian future, Ukraine’s military is defeated and Russia retakes all of the territory it had previously lost. It could use any of the aforementioned strategies, but launching missiles at populated areas repeatedly is the most likely. It may seem like Russian attacks on Ukraine would only strengthen the country’s resolve, but as wars drag on and populations suffer increasing hardships, countries like Ukraine are more likely to lower their demands or even become resigned to defeat.
Fourth Case: Impasse with Compromise
The third and final possibility is that neither side can use force to achieve a decisive outcome. Russia’s grip on Crimea and the Donbass is strengthened. Ukraine makes some more progress but is still unable to drive Russian troops out of the majority of the territory they currently hold. Soldiers on both sides continue to die, and civilian casualties compound the attrition that is reducing both sides. This is the point where compromise becomes serious and extreme demands are dropped.
Most of us who support Ukraine are not looking for a middle ground. We will not accept anything but fairness. It’s a common desire among many people to exact vengeance. Our morals require that the aggressor be completely vanquished and that the victimised side emerge victorious. There is nothing inappropriate about seeking redress. The only problems with maximalist demands are that they might not lead to a stable peace and that they might be impossible to achieve without starting a nuclear war.
Though the Group of Seven, made up of the world’s strongest democracies, recently pledged unambiguously to help Kyiv “uphold its sovereignty and territorial integrity,” small fissures are appearing in the West’s wall of support. Lloyd Austin, the defence secretary, and Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, have both urged Kyiv to keep the door open to talks. They want Ukraine to negotiate now while it has the upper hand in case talks reach a stalemate in the future, which they may fear. Perhaps they were too politically correct to admit that the war is a huge financial drain on the United States.
Ukraine’s requests for ever more aid may become a burden beyond what taxpayers can bear in this era of global inflation and in the wake of massive government spending during the pandemic. Even though members of the far left and far right of the Democratic and Republican parties have spoken out about their desire to reduce funding, the Biden administration has thus far succeeded in silencing them. Although they seem like an unlikely pair, they may soon find common ground in the House of Representatives, where they can exert pressure on their parties’ establishments to limit their support for Kyiv. Putin, who knows this would be a tragic mistake, is hoping for it nonetheless.
Many in the West hope that Putin will be overthrown and replaced by a democratic hero who will reform Russian institutions, bring the country into the Western military alliance and the European Union, and usher in an era of prosperity and peace for the country. It’s worthwhile to rekindle our hopes, but we also need to be prepared for disappointment. The West must keep supporting Ukraine’s total victory by providing it with all of the military and intelligence resources it needs. However, the Ukrainians and the West will be forced to face the unappealing prospect of negotiation and compromise if complete victory cannot be achieved at an acceptable cost.
Various routes can be taken to reach an agreement, but none of them are ideal. Although it is premature to begin formal negotiations, it is not premature to begin sketching out the broad strokes of a peace agreement in the event that complete victory proves elusive. A partial solution to Russian concerns about Western power on its most sensitive border could be enhanced Western security guarantees to Ukraine short of NATO membership. To get this deal, Russia would have to give up all of the territory it has illegally annexed, including Crimea.
Russia should be made to pay for the damage it has caused, and war criminals should be brought to justice, but there may be room for negotiation over Crimea. The ports of Sevastopol and Mariupol were used by both the Russian and Ukrainian navies prior to 2014. Hopefully, we’ll be able to get back to that arrangement soon. Some of Crimea, where neither Ukraine nor Russia would have authority, could be placed under international control due to the critical nature of grain shipments to the world from Crimea’s other ports. Even though we don’t have a clear picture of what a compromise would entail, we need to start thinking about options in case Ukraine is unable to realise its full set of goals.
It is up to the Ukrainian people to decide what they are willing to accept, but the United States can help facilitate negotiations in the same way it did to bring an end to the Balkan Wars with the Dayton Accords. Ukraine needs to keep up the pressure on the battlefield until winter passes, and the West as a whole needs to do what it can to help. We must also hope that public opinion will back the establishment of a stable, if imperfect, peace if and when the time comes for both sides to be ready to talk.