Commentary. A return to the status quo ante does not guarantee that Russia will not try a new invasion again after some time. Military deterrence alone may not be sufficient for peace.

Problems with the ‘total victory’ narrative

What makes peace between Kyiv and Moscow difficult to achieve? The myth of “total victory” over the enemy that can be seen in the propaganda of both the Russian aggressor and the aggrieved Ukrainian side. But the war cannot be won by military means alone, warned U.S. Chief of Staff Mark Milley a few weeks ago, suggesting the path of peace negotiations. In a recent article in Foreign Affairs, Russian historian Vladislav Zubok, who teaches at the London School of Economics (LSE) in London, points out that, unfortunately, Milley’s “controversial” view has found few supporters so far.

But what would total victory look like for the Ukrainians and their allies? This is what Milley wondered about, and so does Zubok. Total victory might require an even longer and bloodier war. Those who wish for total victory expect Putin to get out of the picture; but “despite significant setbacks, Russian forces have regrouped and have not collapsed.”

The way out desired by Kyiv is to return to the borders of February 24, 2022, on the eve of the invasion. But even a return to the status quo ante does not guarantee that Russia will not try a new invasion again after some time. Military deterrence alone may not be sufficient for peace.

There is no coherent plan to ensure Ukraine’s security even if Putin remains in power. Zubok’s ultimate point is that it is necessary both for Russia to accept defeat and for Ukraine to accept the possibility that total victory is not possible.

To arrive at real negotiations, according to the Russian historian – author of important works on the USSR (including Collapse: The fall of the Soviet Union, Yale University Press, 2021) – it is necessary for the West not to relegate Russia to the status of a pariah state, on one hand considering the possibility of its “return to Europe,” and on the other hand offering Kyiv credible guarantees for its security.

Those who consider this path unviable trust that Moscow will collapse. But its economy is not collapsing: there has been a decline, but far less than expected (according to the OECD, its GDP for 2022 will mark a drop of 3-4%), and despite Moscow being cut off from the West, it boasts a large current account surplus from hydrocarbon sales ($85 billion of which came from Europe, let us not forget).

After all, sanctions during the Cold War didn’t manage to force Moscow to withdraw from Eastern Europe, and they are unlikely to do so today. Putin has delegated the economy to those who understand it: the central bank headed by Elvira Nabiullina is full of overqualified nerds who intervened promptly to prevent an economic collapse, even though the ruble has lost a quarter of its value against the dollar.

Moreover, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, this is the fifth economic crisis the country has faced in 25 years, and people have learned to adapt rather than panic or rebel. As for Putin, the aggressor, he is well aware of the consequences of defeat, but although he has a distorted view of Ukraine’s origins and history, he is not in the situation of Czar Nicholas II when he abdicated in 1917, or in that of Gorbachev when he was abandoned by the security apparatus in ‘91 and lost control of the capital.

Putin still holds the army and security services in his grip, while most Russians support the government and are not ready to accept total defeat. Crimea is still worth a war to them and Putin remains the guarantor of stability. The prospect of defeat and his downfall would be a political nightmare both for the elites and at the popular level, recalling the anarchy and economic disasters of the early 1990s.

Of course, Putin is wallowing in the murky narrative that Russia is fighting an existential battle in Ukraine against the West. It will be difficult, Zubok notes, to change Russians’ minds, even if a growing number don’t trust the government and the official media, as they don’t trust the West too much either. The fact that the West continues to insist that Russia must be punished for the massacres in Ukraine is consolidating among the Russian population the idea that they should still support the nation and nationalism.

Of course, the situation could change if there are more and more defeats and military mobilization becomes pervasive, with the public beginning to blame Putin for his mistakes, as happened to the Czar and Gorbachev.

But before things get to that point – if they get there – the West should prepare to offer Russia a “map” outlining a road out of isolation. In case Russia continues the war, “Russia’s future, the plan must gently explain, will be one of economic degradation; it risks becoming a weakened dependent of China.”

These arguments could work. This is shown by Moscow’s mention of reopening the Yamal pipeline with Europe: thanks to sanctions, U.S. energy companies have recorded extra profits of $200 billion between April and September 2022 (Financial Times, November 5) while U.S. LNG carriers are sailing close to European shores to unload when prices rise again.

What are the points of the roadmap that Zubok suggests? 1) Emphasizing the benefits of peace for Moscow; 2) giving assurances that Russia’s sovereignty and integrity will be respected; 3) an agreement with NATO that secures Moscow’s place in the architecture for security in Europe; 4) recognition of Russian leadership if it commits to comply with the U.N. Charter and international law; and 5) a timetable for the return of frozen assets and the removal of sanctions, tied to Russia’s compliance with an agreed withdrawal from the occupied territories.

There is no point in hiding the fact that Crimea remains a major problem, one of the biggest obstacles to the negotiations, as Zubov points out. Perhaps it would be better, he argues, to shelve that particular chapter and postpone it to the future. That is not a solution, of course, but perhaps finding one will take more imagination than seems to be going around today.

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