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Ukrainian Peace Deal? Not While Each Side Thinks It’s Winning

Ukrainian Peace Deal? Not While Each Side Thinks It’s Winning

Tuesday, 29 March, 2022 - 04:45
Hal Brands
Hal Brands is the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. His latest book is "American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump."

All wars end with political settlements. As the war in Ukraine drags on, some analysts argue that the country agreeing to political neutrality would serve as the basis for a peace pact with Russia.

Yet the devil of any settlement is in the details, and in this case, those details are devilish indeed. Neutralization along lines tolerable to Ukraine would be — so far — abhorrent to Russian President Vladimir Putin, while a neutrality settlement along lines tolerable to Putin would be a death sentence for independent Ukraine.

Neutralization has long had appeal as a way of resolving disputes over small, strategically located nations. The neutrality of the fledgling state of Belgium was guaranteed by the multilateral Treaty of London in 1839 (but eventually violated by Germany in 1914).

After World War II, Finland accepted curbs on its foreign policy to avoid full-scale incorporation into the Soviet bloc. In the 1950s, Austria was neutralized through a Cold War bargain. Both Austria and Finland subsequently leaned (sometimes quietly) more to the west than to the east, but neither side joined one of the alliance blocs that split Europe in two.

In theory, neutralization might make sense for Ukraine. Putin complained (disingenuously) that eastward encroachment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was one of his core grievances against the Kyiv government. In reality, Ukraine had little prospect of being admitted to the alliance, a fact President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has now acknowledged. So perhaps there could be a deal in which Putin ends the war in exchange for the formal neutrality of Ukraine, along with Kyiv’s recognition of Russian sovereignty over Crimea and Donbas.

Ceding land Russia controlled before the current fighting started might be doable: Zelenskiy presumably knows that he won’t get Crimea or Donbas back anytime soon. Diplomats can craft creative language that acknowledges Russian control over these areas without forcing Ukraine to formally recognize Moscow’s sovereignty.

The real problem has to do with conflicting visions of neutrality.

When Putin talks about neutralization, he isn’t talking solely about Ukraine’s alliance status. He envisions a Ukraine so weakened and disarmed that it cannot defend itself. Russian negotiators have proposed limiting the Ukrainian military to 50,000 troops, a fraction of its strength today.

Such concessions would probably lead to the destruction rather than the preservation of an independent Ukraine. A disarmed, perpetually vulnerable country would constantly fear that Putin — who set out to conquer all of Ukraine in this war — would simply try again when the timing was right. Indeed, the circumstances under which Zelenskiy might take such a deal would be so dire for Ukraine that Putin would feel little need to negotiate.

What would it take to make a neutral Ukraine viable? One of two things — either of which Putin would hate.

First, Ukraine could defend its own neutrality if it were armed to the teeth, so that it could do to any invading army what it is doing to Putin’s forces now. This would imply either the building of a far more advanced Ukrainian military-industrial complex, or the provision of lots of advanced weapons — antitank rockets, ammunition, air-defense systems and so on — as well as lots of financing and training by the West.

Alternatively, Ukrainian neutrality could be secured through great-power guarantees. Any promise Putin makes is meaningless, so promises to defend Ukraine if its neutrality is compromised would have to come from Washington, London and other Western powers. If you think that this sounds a lot like NATO membership, you are correct.

Neither option will appeal to Putin, because a Ukraine that can defend its neutrality, or ask Western powers to do so, is one he cannot easily control. Complicating matters further is another problem: Both sides think that time is on their side.

Wars end when combatants converge in their expectations about the future; for example, when country A and country B both realize that their conflict is hopelessly stalemated. Yet even if Russia’s offensives in Ukraine have mostly ground to a halt, there is no such convergence today.

Putin seems to think he can break Ukraine’s will through brutal siege tactics and threats of escalation, perhaps involving chemical or radiological weapons. He is using artillery and air attacks to try to destroy Ukraine’s economy and defense-industrial capabilities, as his forces reposition to press the offensive in the east. He still has powerful non-kinetic weapons, such as cyberattacks, that he can use against the West, and may hope that cascading economic turmoil will weaken his enemies’ enthusiasm for sanctions over time.

Ukraine has a different calculus. Its leaders believe the Russian invaders are overextended and vulnerable. Ukrainian forces are mounting counter-encirclement campaigns against the Russian units besieging Kyiv. Zelenskiy hopes, moreover, that sanctions will wreak increasing havoc on the Russian economy and defense industry. Ukrainian forces can keep fighting so long as they have that vital lifeline of arms and money from the West.

Zelenskiy and Putin both believe that they can get a better deal in the future than they can get today, whether that deal involves neutralization or not. They can’t both be right, of course. But until one is proven wrong, the war will continue — which means that things in Ukraine are likely to get much worse.


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