Mapping the Peace
Why There’s No Alternative to NATO for Ukraine
Оповідь українською, Рассказ на русском, Historia po polsku
Story by H. Brian Mefford
Illustrated by Lora Dudnyk
With the Russian invasion of Ukraine now in its second year, the calls for peace are increasing daily. No one wants peace more than Ukrainians, who have already endured 13 months of genocide, rape, electricity blackouts, and daily air attacks. However, the kind of peace produced from the war matters greatly. As Ronald Reagan said, “There’s no argument over the choice between peace and war, but there’s only one guaranteed way you can have peace — and you can have it in the next second — surrender.” For Ukrainians, surrender simply isn’t an option.
Ukraine will never again be the same country it was prior to the full-scale invasion. After February 24, 2022, Ukrainians spoke of life only in the terms of “before the invasion” and “now.” Following the liberation of Kherson in November 2022, though, they frequently speak about “after the victory” — a sure sign of optimism. Indeed, the largest land war in Europe since World War II would change any country, but Ukraine is managing to maintain hope. And more specifically, the tolerance for Russian hegemony, chauvinism, and corruption is over.
Ukraine gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 but continued living like Russia’s “little brother.” With the Orange Revolution in 2004, Ukraine made a choice to be Ukrainian rather than “little Russian.” During the Euromaidan in 2014, Ukraine made a European civilizational choice over a Eurasian one. Following the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, Ukrainians are making the final break with the Russian world (aka Russkiy Mir).
Although Ukraine is completely breaking with the Russian world, the rest of the world is slow to realize it. For example, former US President Donald Trump made comments in March 2023 that since “there are certain areas [of Ukraine] that are Russian speaking” he “could’ve made a deal” for Russia “to take over something.” Such flippant relativism overlooks the fact that if Mexico made territorial claims for California, Texas, and Florida, because “certain areas are Spanish speaking,” outraged Trump Republicans would be calling for a new Mexican American war. A shared language does not justify the annexation of a country, any more than a shared religious holiday, cultural tradition, or other similarities.
Admittedly, Trump’s statement is calculated to draw a contrast with President Joe Biden’s Ukraine policy and ultimately return the former president to the White House in 2024. It also plays to shrinking public support for Ukraine: a Harris X poll in February 2023 showed 53% of Americans are opposed to giving another $27 billion in aid to Ukraine in 2023 (whereas 47% support continued assistance).
In Europe, the German and French governments continue to be puzzled as to why Ukraine wouldn’t just make peace with Putin. This can be explained by the German attitude towards Russia being still one of fear following the sacking of Berlin by the Red Army in 1945, and the rape and subjugation which followed. As a result, fear of Russia seems to be a part of German DNA, with a recent poll showing 55% of Germans in favor of Ukraine initiating peace talks with Russia. Another component motivating German opinion is the desire to resume business as usual with Russia. Germany’s push for the Nord Stream II pipeline to receive gas from Russia was a key factor in the start of the war since it sent a message trade would be prioritized over the sovereignty of Ukraine. Even with the uncompleted Nord Stream II pipeline and EU sanctions, Germany had $56 billion in trade with Russia in 2022, which is down only slightly versus $65 billion in 2021. France, while not occupied by Russia in the last century, surrendered to Hitler’s Germany after just six weeks in 1940, accepting a partition of the country and the creation of Vichy France as a vassal state of the Reich. Thus, as the Russian invasion enters the second year, it’s unsurprising many French do not understand Ukraine’s will to fight.
While the Biden administration continues to support Ukraine, pressure is growing from a small but vocal segment of Trump Republicans to stop aid under the guise of ending the war. This band of backbenchers organized 57 GOP votes in the House and 11 in the Senate against Ukraine aid in May 2022. These votes came at a time when a Washington Post/ABC News poll showed 76% of Americans supporting more aid to Ukraine. Now with less public support for Ukraine aid and a new Republican majority in the House of Representatives after the 2022 elections, there is likely to be even more Republican members pushing for a peace deal. They often use talking points written indirectly through influencers for the Kremlin without realizing it (with others actually relishing in knowing the source). In fact, Russian media outlets reported spending more than $146 million on foreign influence operations and propaganda in the US since 2016. The talking points written for a Western audience include: the threat of nuclear war, depletion of the American arsenal of weapons, the need to focus on China instead of Russia, accusing Zelensky of corruption, the need to secure the Southern border instead of helping Ukraine, the war is too costly, the money should be spent in the US, Ukrainians are Nazis, et cetera ad nauseum.
Although the war itself shows no signs of a slowdown, a lack of ammunition and supplies via a Congressional cutoff would force Ukraine to negotiate in the best case scenario and capitulate in the worst. Fortunately, there is no real risk of the US cutting military aid to Ukraine at this time. First, the Biden administration strongly supports Ukraine and has corralled almost all Democratic votes in Congress behind future aid. Secondly, while backbench Trump Republicans oppose aid, the GOP leadership is strongly pro-Ukraine. Reagan Republicans like Senator Roger Wicker — the Ranking Member on the Armed Services Committee, Representative Mike McCaul — the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and of course Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, are not only pro-Ukrainian but have criticized the Biden administration for slow walking weapons to Ukraine. In other words, the more senior the senator or congressman, the more likely they are to realize deadlier weapons delivered faster to the frontlines help Ukraine win the war faster. Thirdly, Ukrainian aid was authorized and approved in the budget vote last year and is set through the end of September 2023. This gives Ukraine time to recapture territory during the summer of 2023 prior to the next vote on aid. The liberation of most of the Kharkiv region in early September 2022 made the inclusion of an additional $12 billion in aid the same month an easy decision for Congress. Subsequently, any substantive Ukrainian gains prior to September 30, 2023, will help quell dissent and silence the skeptics before the 2024 budget vote. “Substantive” in this case is primarily defined as cutting off the land bridge to the Crimean Peninsula and secondarily routing the Russians in Ukraine’s Donbas region.
The Roads to Peace
At some point though, serious cease fire talks and peace negotiations will begin. Currently there are six major scenarios of potential peace deals. From the worst to the best, they are:
Scenario I “Russia Victory”: Russia overwhelms Ukrainian armed forces with massive troop advantages to push to the Dnipro River and again make a run at Kyiv. The recent Chinese proposed peace plan is implemented partitioning eastern Ukraine into a demilitarized Russian vassal state and the Crimean Peninsula and Ukraine’s Donbas region are permanently awarded to Russia.
Scenario II “Land for Peace”: Ukraine cedes the occupied territories to Russia in exchange for a ceasefire and possibly monetary compensation. Vague guarantees about protection of Ukraine’s remaining territory are provided by the Western powers much like the Budapest Memorandum. Both Ukraine and Russia rapidly rearm to prepare for the next round which always comes earlier than expected.
Scenario III “Minsk III”: A battlefield stalemate leads to a negotiated ceasefire. Ukraine’s Donbas region and the Crimean Peninsula remain under Russian occupation. The OSCE monitoring mission is re-established to try to lessen tensions. Russia resupplies and reloads for a couple years before resuming a full-scale invasion to complete their coveted conquests of Kyiv and Odesa.
Scenario IV “Frozen Conflict”: A battlefield stalemate leads to a negotiated cease fire and the introduction of an outside peacekeeping force, possibly under the United Nations. This in turn results in an indefinitely frozen conflict for decades, but with the potential of Russian resumption of the invasion at any time.
Scenario V “NATO Now”: Ukraine liberates some but not all of its land in 2023 with its counteroffensive and high casualties combined with domestic turmoil force the Russians into peace talks. The border lines are changed to where they are at the time of the peace talk finalizations, but Ukraine is fast tracked into NATO to prevent a future Russian re-invasion.
Scenario VI “Ukraine Victory”: Ukraine liberates all its territory either on the battlefield or through peace negotiations involving the international community. Ukraine joins NATO and the EU and Russia experiences regime change internally, likely leading to a dissolution of the current Russian Federation into a dozen or more autonomous republics.
Scenario I: A Russian Victory
In this nightmare scenario, Russia would rally its population and commandeer its industrial production up to World War II levels to overwhelm the Ukrainian army with sheer numbers of troops and supplies. Proponents of this scenario argue Russia always fights poorly in the first year of war (true) and once the Russian military machine is at full strength, it is unstoppable. The massive number of troops would push west towards the Dnipro River capturing most of the Left Bank and again besieging Kyiv, reinforced by Russian forces descending from Belarus in the north. Peace negotiations would ensue with China playing a key brokering role whereby it would implement its recent “Position on the Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis.” Under this plan, Ukraine’s Donbas region and the Crimean Peninsula would permanently become part of Russia, and the territory east of the Dnipro River would be a demilitarized zone and de facto a Russian vassal state (aka Vichy Ukraine). Worse yet, the Left Bank of Kyiv would become the new “East Berlin” under Russian control, with the Right Bank being free as was West Berlin during the Cold War. Russia and China will have broken the so-called American unipolar world order and a violent new global power struggle will commence.
This scenario is flawed and unlikely for several reasons. First, while it’s true Russia always fights poorly the first year of a war but later rallies its strength to win, it only applies to situations when Russia has defended itself from foreign aggressors (i.e., Hitler’s Germany, France’s Napoleon, etc.). This has never been the case when Russia invaded. Instead, when attacking others, Russia has always embarrassed itself dating back to World War I. More recently, the ten-year Afghanistan war ended with a Russian withdrawal after the embarrassing loss of 15,000 dead soldiers. In comparison, today’s invasion of Ukraine has resulted in an astonishing 160,000 dead Russian soldiers in just 13 months. When you keep in mind the loss of soldiers in Afghanistan had contributed greatly to the fall of the Soviet Union, you can see the trajectory for today’s Russian government.
Next, critical supplies for the Soviets in WWII were provided by the United States via the Lend Lease program. This program supplied the weapons and humanitarian aid to prop up the Soviets against the German attack. Today, Lend Lease from the US is still in place, but in effect for Ukraine and not Russia. Instead, Russia is struggling to replace supplies of weapons as it feels the increased effect of Western financial sanctions. Meanwhile, with its new pariah status, Russia has found only the rogue states of North Korea and Iran willing to sell. The only potential game changer in terms of weapons and supplies would be if China decides to sell to Russia. While the two countries have mutually declared a “no limits friendship,” China has so far avoided angering the United States due to fears of American sanctions on its trade and financial system.
While the “Russian Victory” scenario would delight the Kremlin in the short term, the long-term goal remains to occupy Kyiv and Odesa, two cities essential to modern Russian mythology. The “Russian Victory” scenario would not only earn Vladimir Putin a glass mausoleum on Red Square for the next century, it would also mean the end of the post-WWII international order in which each state has exclusive sovereignty over its territory (per Article 2 of the United Nations Charter). Worse yet, the failure of the United States to prevent the partition of Ukraine would be worse than the bungled Afghanistan withdrawal in 2020 and would lead to the Chinese invasion of Taiwan and the eventual dissolution of NATO. In other words, those who now fret about the possibility of American soldiers fighting in Ukraine would ultimately find their sons and daughters fighting world wars in both Taiwan and Europe.
Scenario II: Land for Peace
In the 1967 “Six Day War,” Israel defeated a coalition of five Arab countries to capture the West Bank, Sinai, and Gaza Strip. After the victory, the Israeli government offered to give up some of the land in exchange for peace. The Arab States responded with the “Three No’s”: “no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it…”. A quarter century later, the Palestinian Authority would finally take up the offer and establish autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza. The goal of the Israeli withdrawal and ceding land to the Palestinian Authority was to secure peace and allow citizens to live without the daily fear of war and terrorism. In this scenario, Ukraine would offer land (presumably the Crimean Peninsula and Ukraine’s Donbas region) in exchange for peace and perhaps even some monetary compensation (either from Russia or as an incentive from the European Union). Just as American financial aid to Israel and Egypt ($3 billion and $2 billion a year respectively) helped to bring peace and a return of the Sinai Peninsula to the Egyptians, subsidies from the Europeans would lessen the tensions between Russia and Ukraine. Russia might even chip in for some of the bill and turn over some of the wor
Many Westerners see such a “land for peace” solution as a means to appease Russia’s imperial ambitions. In fact, the US Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, William Burns, offered the Russians a “land in exchange for peace” deal in January 2022, a month before the full-scale invasion. Just like the Arab States’ response to Israel, such an offer was roundly rejected by the Russians as they replied with their own “Three No’s:” that is, they are not interested in peace, do not recognize Ukraine’s right to exist, and are not interested in real negotiations. Could this change over time? Perhaps, if the West agreed to lift its sanctions to subsidize Russia as well as Ukraine in the process. In doing so, though, they would be acknowledging Ukraine’s territory as Russian, and breaking with the post-WWII consensus stating countries are sovereign, and borders cannot be changed by force. In effect, this would be a tacit endorsement of Russian aggression as a legitimate method of gaining land and recognition. That alone should be a non-starter for any policy official, and while the Biden administration has publicly since shied away from it since the start of the war, some Trump Republicans in Congress have openly embraced it.
“Land for peace” and “off ramps” are not new in war. In the summer of 1918 as the tide had turned toward the Allies in World War I, many in the US and United Kingdom were calling for an immediate armistice which included territorial concessions as a way to incentivize Germany to end the war faster. In other words, an off ramp for the Kaiser. However, Churchill argued there could be no “honorable peace” by making land concessions because “to do so will be to defraud and defile the destiny of man.”
Aside from the endorsement of aggression as a means to an end (in this case seizing land), and the humiliation of the Western powers by lifting sanctions on Russia, would a “land for peace” deal actually bring peace? The question itself reminds one of the sarcastic quip, “but other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?” After the discovery of mass graves in Bucha, Lyman, and Izyum, the rapes of women and children in Kyiv oblast, the attacks on heating and electricity infrastructure in winter, the murder of unarmed civilians, abduction of children, and the deaths of tens of thousands of Ukrainians — all at the hands of the Russian army — “land for peace” would be a denigration of the dead, an embrace of ethnic cleansing, and vassalage of the worst kind.
Keep in mind too, Russia’s appetite for land is never satisfied. Already the largest country in the world by its land mass stretching from Europe to almost Alaska, any land concessions would only whet the palate for more. While the Crimean Peninsula and Ukraine’s Donbas region are short term objectives, Putin’s overall goal is to take control of Odesa and Kyiv. Odesa is a key conquest objective because it invokes the imperial age of Russia under Catherine the Great in the late 18th century. The cosmopolitan city hosted everyone from writers like Alexander Pushkin to scientists such as Dmitri Mendeleev. Most importantly, though, Odesa would give Russia its long desired major warm water port for trade and military purposes. Kyiv is crucial because it’s the capital of the Kyivan Rus’ empire which Moscow, erroneously, claims as its own. Additionally, possession of Kyiv’s Perchersk Lavra Monastery, Saint Sophia Cathedral, Saint Michael’s Vydubytskiy Monastery, and other historic landmarks would help to legitimize Russia’s belief it is the successor to Constantinople and the Third Rome. Rome wouldn’t be Rome without its myths, and Russia can’t be a Third Rome without romanticizing its own mythology for the masses through the conquest of Kyiv and Odesa. In George Orwell’s book Animal Farm (1945), the pigs rewrite the seven farm commandments because it was essential to change history to fit the narrative of the leaders. Russia’s mythology about being a Third Rome is ironically not much different than Germany’s mythology about being the Third Reich.
To answer the original question, though, “land for peace” has not brought peace to Israel. The terrorist organization Hamas controls the Gaza Strip and continues regular rocket attacks against Israel. Palestinian armed groups continue terrorist attacks in the West Bank and Iranian backed Hezbollah still proclaims “Death to Israel.” Ceasefires are merely opportunities to replenish supplies and restock weapons. If the Israeli army which is ranked tenth in the world cannot achieve peace with its neighbors by giving “land for peace,” what chance does Ukraine have against the Russians which are (were) considered the second ranked army in the world? Land concessions are not a realistic solution for a durable peace in Ukraine, any more than they have been durable in Israel. Simply put, successful quid pro quo deals require both parties not to renege on the letter and spirit of the trade.
Scenario III: Minsk III
The scenario envisions a new Minsk agreement to negotiate a ceasefire on the battlefront. The original Minsk agreement was signed in September 2014 followed by Minsk II five months later in February 2015. Minsk I called for the withdrawal of heavy weapons, decentralization and local elections in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts following the 2014 war, tasked Ukraine with improving the humanitarian and economic situation in the region, gave amnesty to combatants in the war, and involved the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) to monitor the cease fire using unarmed civilian observers. Not surprisingly, the agreement was not successful in ending the war in Ukraine’s Donbas region as battles still continued, most memorably during the Ukrainian “Cyborg” defense of the Donetsk airport. Minsk II followed five months later as an attempt to essentially reiterate the original Minsk plan but in more detail. Although this time the agreement was signed after Russia had captured more territory and was seizing the crossroads of Debaltseve. Minsk II continued as the framework managing the Russian-Ukrainian war up until the launch of the full-scale Russian invasion in February 2022, but in reality, accomplished little. Importantly, both agreements were essentially ceasefire agreements without concrete resolutions. Little wonder the OSCE mission tasked with monitoring the agreements was sometimes dubbed as the “Organization for Sitting in Cafes in Europe.”
Nonetheless, those advocating “a bad peace is better than a good war” now push for a cease fire to defuse the fighting, but again without a concrete resolution in mind. In this Minsk III scenario, the battlefield casualties result in a stalemate in which neither side can move the current frontlines significantly. International pressure would lead to a ceasefire on the front and de-escalation measures (such as removal of heavy artillery). In this case, the Crimean Peninsula and Ukraine’s Donbas region would remain occupied by Russia, as well as the southern part of Kherson and most of Zaporizhzhia. Major combat operations would cease or abate, at least in the short term. The OSCE monitoring mission would resume work to try to defuse potential conflicts along the contact line, much as they did since 2014. An uneasy peace would settle in as further negotiations took place.
Minsk III may become the next step in the war but is hardly a good option for Ukraine for several reasons. First, the previous OSCE monitoring mission included Russian observers and presumably, any new mission would also include Russian monitors. How can Russian monitors independently evaluate their own soldiers’ actions, and would the monitors be able to perform their duties impartially? This is highly doubtful if the prior OSCE Monitoring Mission is any indication. OSCE monitors consistently complained about sabotage and subversion by the Russian monitors in the mission. Even if the mission could be created without Russian monitors, the other glaring weakness is OSCE monitors are not allowed weapons for self-defense. Serving as an unarmed monitor of the contact line between Ukraine and Russia following a war in which at least 200,000 people are dead is purely suicidal and without precedent.
Any variation of the Minsk III scenario would basically allow Russia to restock and resupply weapons while skirting sanctions on the international market to acquire new arms. One of the factors working in Ukraine’s favor now is Russia’s supplies of ammunition, rockets, and other weapons are being depleted. Battles are won by many factors such as firepower, terrain, leadership, bravery, timing, luck, etc. However, wars are won with supply chains and logistics. With economic and technology sanctions in place, Russia’s current ability to resupply itself in a timely manner to impact the war is limited. Time and supplies are running out for Russia. But a cease fire would allow Russia to rapidly replenish its weapons stocks to reopen a new offensive in a couple of years (or sooner). The fact Russia is again invading Ukrainian territory it invaded in 2014 is testimony to the futile nature of a new ceasefire. A Minsk III agreement might win some brief applause and a Nobel Prize for a foreign leader(s) who negotiates it, but it’s merely kicking the can of war down the road rather than actually resolving matters in a just and durable fashion. Indeed, for the tens of thousands of Ukrainians who lost loved ones, it would provide nothing to make amends or to redress the war crimes committed by the Russians.
Scenario IV: Frozen Conflict
Frozen conflict is a term generally applied to the wars for land and international recognition, often involving ethnicities in the former Soviet Union, which simply are never resolved. The active war phase is generally brief but without international recognition of any new governments and new land boundaries. At this point, the conflict is simply frozen. The list of frozen conflicts in the region includes Nagorno-Karabakh (now called Artsakh in Azerbaijan), South Ossetia, Abkhazia (both in Georgia), and Transnistria (in Moldova). In all the frozen conflict cases mentioned, they have continued for more than 30 years, and Russia has either peacekeepers or military forces on the ground in all of them. Frozen conflicts play to Russia’s argument that the current world order is broken and must be replaced. For Russia, the invasion of Ukraine is about changing the current world order of sovereign states and redrawing boundaries. By illegally annexing the Crimean Peninsula in March 2014, Russia escalated its challenge to the current order, using proxy forces and puppet rulers in breakaway regions (i.e., frozen conflicts) to modify existing internationally recognized boundaries. This was the first step in returning the world to the pre-WWII order in which Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, or Hirohito’s Japan could invade and annex countries with impunity because borders were not internationally recognized. In other words, the law of the jungle.
In the frozen conflict scenario, a stalemate would set in after Russia is unable to push Ukraine’s army completely out of Ukraine’s Donbas region and Ukraine’s planned counteroffensive fails to regain territory. As the equivalent of trench warfare yields high casualties for little purpose or gain, internationally backed negotiations would bring about a ceasefire. Such a ceasefire might even result in a United Nations peacekeeping force which would de-escalate the situation. In such a scenario, a large UN peacekeeping mission would ensure stability and enforce a demilitarized zone along the current frontlines. The largest peacekeeping mission in Europe was the 1992–1995 United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) in the Balkans. This mission included almost 39,000 soldiers from 42 countries (including the US, Ukraine, United Kingdom, France, and Russia) which worked to de-escalate the Croatian and Bosnian Wars and ensure stability for peace talks. When UNPROFOR needed offensive capabilities, they turned to NATO under UN authorization (under the UN Charter, Chapter VII, Articles 52 and 53 invoking regional arrangements) to provide air strikes against aggressors (in this case the Serbs). Following an intensive three-week bombing campaign in September 1995, serious peace negotiations led to the Dayton Accords in November 1995.
Unfortunately, a UN peacekeeping force for Ukraine is highly unlikely, because of the rules under which the United Nations was created and by which it operates. First, under the UN Charter, any one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) can veto an agreement, and Russia is one of the five. Clearly, Russia will not do anything to its own detriment. China is also a UNSC member and could pressure Russia to agree to a resolution, but historically China has been judicious in using its position within the UN.
Assuming for the sake of argument Russia and China agreed to a peacekeeping mission in Ukraine, the next consideration would be: who would keep the peace? It’s unlikely any of the five permanent members of the UNSC would contribute peacekeepers. The United States (as one of the five) has always been reluctant to put its soldiers under UN command, and with vocal criticism of current US aid to Ukraine already, there is no chance of the US contributing to such a peacekeeping mission. The United Kingdom has been highly supportive of Ukraine, and this would remove them as an impartial party when it came to peacekeeping. Perhaps only the French, as the final member of the UNSC five, might be acceptable to all sides to contribute peacekeepers. That being said, it’s not clear if there is political will in France for such a decision which would place French soldiers in mortal danger. However, even if the French agreed, they cannot do the entire mission on their own. So, from where would the other peacekeepers come? Looking at the United Nations summary of countries contributing the most peacekeepers to missions through 2018, the top five include Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Rwanda, India, and Pakistan. Putting aside any questions on the professional qualifications and experience of peacekeepers from those nations, it should be noted four of the five nations on the list abstained from calling for an end to the war as recently as February 23, 2023. This, despite the fact the motion passed the United Nations General Assembly by a vote of 141 in favor, with seven against (including Russia) and 32 abstentions (including China). Among the 10 non-permanent members of the UNSC (elected for two-year terms), Gabon and Mozambique also abstained from calling for an end to the war in Ukraine. With this in mind, would there even be enough peacekeepers who were impartial to enforce a ceasefire?
The next issue with a UN peacekeeping force is would they have Chapter VII authorization to allow them the use of force if needed? Following the UN peacekeeping failures leading to genocide in Rwanda in 1994 as well as in Srebrenica, Bosnia in July 1995 (where UNPROFOR forces surrendered to Serbian backed forces rather than defend the civilian population), the mission would almost certainly have to have Chapter VII authorization, since a mere self-defense authorization (Chapter VI) would be insufficient given Russia’s historic disregard for international treaties and conventions. Yet, the right to use force is not without consequences, even by UN peacekeepers. For example, what would happen if a French peacekeeper was threatened and then proceeded to shoot and kill a Russian soldier? Would Russia cancel the whole peacekeeping mission in the UNSC? Would Russian troops fire back on the French peacekeepers? Alternatively, what would be Ukraine’s recourse if Indian, Chinese, or even Serbian peacekeepers shot and killed Ukrainian soldiers or civilians, or stood idly by while Russian fired missiles at Ukrainian civilian targets? Thus, a UN peacekeeping mission would require exceptional patience, judgement, and a lot of luck to enforce effectively.
The challenge for UN peacekeepers even with Chapter VII authorization for the use of force is that sometimes their presence is inadequate to stop aggression. In the Bosnian and Croatian wars of the early 1990s, the UN made a regional arrangement with NATO to enforce air strikes on the aggressors (i.e. against the Serbs). This was because UNPROFOR lacked sufficient offensive capability as a peacekeeping mission. Since Russia claims it invaded Ukraine to prevent NATO expansion, having NATO as an enforcer of a peacekeeping mission is not a viable option as Russia would clearly object. Without NATO to enforce peace, what other options are available? Even if the European Union was able to suddenly create its much talked about European Defense Union, it is not clear if it would be a sufficient deterrent to Russian aggression because it lacks an air force, and it’s unlikely the Russians would agree to it under UN rules since most EU countries have sanctioned Russia. With no enforcer of a UN peacekeeping mission to punish aggressors, the mission itself would not be safe or effective. To quote former US Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, “There are sometimes problems for which there is no immediate solution, and there are sometimes problems for which there is no solution.” Thus, in the event of a stalemate and frozen conflict, a UN peacekeeping mission is simply no solution.
Scenario V: NATO Now
Clearly the Russians are putting enormous resources into capturing Ukraine’s Donbas region. Conversely, Ukraine is preparing a counter offensive with its new Leopard tanks, likely in early summer of 2023. At some point though, both sides will evaluate the battle lines and compare the costs versus the gains. Russian military deaths are greater than 160,000 persons, and while Ukraine’s casualties are classified, defenders historically lose one-third of their soldiers compared to the attackers, so Ukraine has roughly 53,000 dead soldiers (not counting civilians). Even if the ratio is 6:1, it would still mean a loss of almost 27,000 Ukrainians. In short, given modern weaponry, the casualties are mounting on both sides which might force a ceasefire.
But a mere ceasefire is insufficient to keep the peace long term because Russia will use the time to resupply its weapons and resume the war later from a stronger position. How then do you resolve the territorial integrity issue, since Russia still occupies most of Ukraine’s Donbas region and the Crimean Peninsula?
The answer is the express entry of Ukraine into NATO. This could only work if Ukraine ceded territory currently under occupation by Russia, because NATO membership is only possible for countries without territorial disputes. In other words, Ukraine would have to give up its ownership claims on the Crimean Peninsula and its Donbas region. In exchange, Ukraine would get express entry into NATO. Once in NATO, Ukraine would be safe from Russian aggression, because an attack on one member is an attack on all members of the alliance. Given Russia’s mediocre performance against the Desert Storm era weaponry supplied by the US to Ukraine, it would stand zero chance on the battlefield against NATO’s modern arsenal of sophisticated killing machines. Hence, Ukraine gets membership in NATO and the protection guarantees it hoped to get from the Budapest Memorandum, this time with an actual enforcement mechanism.
The “NATO Now” scenario is controversial because any surrender of land is certain to cause anger among the Ukrainian population. On the other hand, the security of NATO and opportunity to live unmolested by Russia are concrete enticements. NATO is a military alliance but it’s also a political one. Ukraine has proven on the battlefield since the first day of the invasion it is ready militarily for NATO. In fact, Ukraine’s military now has more modern war experience than many NATO member countries. From the political will side, the decision Ukraine would one day join the alliance was already made at the 2008 Bucharest NATO Summit. At that time, US President George W. Bush pushed hard for Ukraine’s Membership Action Plan, but was ultimately blocked by Germany, France, and Italy. Today, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni is decidedly pro-Ukrainian which leaves just Germany’s Olaf Scholz and France’s Emmanuel Macron as the major barriers. Turkey and Hungary will likely attempt to negotiate concessions in exchange for support, but these are manageable and minor irritants.
How to persuade France and Germany to get Ukraine into NATO? On February 28, 2023, in Washington, DC, at the Center for US Ukrainian Relations annual security dialog, US General Wesley Clark said it best: “If France and Germany want to end the war, let Ukraine into NATO.” The wisdom of the statement underlies what Winston Churchill alluded to in his famous Iron Curtain speech in 1946: “There is nothing [the Russians] admire so much as strength, and there is nothing for which they have less respect than weakness, especially military weakness.” Ultimately, Ukraine’s express entry into NATO is the best way to end the war.
There will be those who argue Ukraine is still far from the European Union, so how can they even think about NATO? This argument is a canard because Turkey, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Albania are all NATO members without being members of the European Union. Does anyone seriously argue Ukraine’s army is less powerful now than Montenegro’s or Albania’s? If there is political will, then Ukraine can be fast tracked into NATO, even before the country joins the European Union.
In the “NATO Now” scenario, it’s important for Ukraine’s counteroffensive to succeed and regain as much territory as possible. Not only is it the only way to force the Russians to negotiate seriously, but it will strengthen the arguments in favor of Ukraine’s express entry into NATO. The most persuasive gains would primarily be cutting off the Crimean land bridge from Russia by liberating Melitopol (through which 90% of all trains to the Crimean Peninsula transit) and the destruction of the Kerch bridge to prevent resupply over the Azov Sea. Without military pressure on the Crimean Peninsula, Putin has little motivation to negotiate. Since it’s unlikely the Ukrainian counteroffensive will be able to liberate all of Ukraine’s territory in 2023, holding the olive branch of a burned-out Ukrainian Donbas region and largely intact Crimean Peninsula may be enough to allow the Russians to claim victory for domestic audiences. It’s nonsense of course and a mere Pyrrhic victory at best, but likely a sufficient success for the Russian populace which can then scapegoat NATO for stealing away the rest of Ukraine.
Scenario VI: Ukrainian Victory
The best-case scenario is the “Ukraine Victory” scenario in which Ukraine would liberate all of its territory from Russia (including the Crimean Peninsula), Russia would be held accountable for war crimes and reparations, and Putin would be removed from power leading to the dissolution and Balkanization of the Russian Federation. This requires continued Ukrainian resilience, continued Western unity, abundant NATO weapons, and a bit of luck, too. In such a case, joining NATO would not be a necessity for Ukraine since Russia would no longer be a major threat, but in all likelihood, Ukraine would still join the alliance. The last thousand years of history have taught Ukrainians just because Russia isn’t a threat one day doesn’t mean they won’t be a threat again later. Meanwhile, Ukraine will join the European Union with relative speed assuming anti-corruption, judicial independence, and other historic stumbling blocks are overcome. The reparations from Russia would fund the reconstruction of Ukraine and modernization of the entire country and create a European standard of living for all. Russian generals and politicians would be put on trial in The Hague and a mechanism similar to the International Criminal Tribunal of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (ICTY) would be created (perhaps, the International Criminal Tribunal of the Russian Federation or ICTR). Like former Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic and Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic (known as the “Butcher of Bosnia”) who faced trial (and conviction in case of the latter) in the ICTY, Russian leaders would be brought to justice. As the first step in this direction, the European Commission announced the creation of the International Centre for the Prosecution of the Crimes of Aggression in The Hague in March 2023. Without a strongman to keep the Russian Federation together, the country would Balkanize into a dozen or more independent republics, particularly in the Caucasus and Central Asia. While that may seem fantastic and even unimaginable, keep in mind until the breakup of the Soviet Union, no one could predict the country dissolving into 15 independent republics.
The challenge of this scenario is for Ukraine to have enough weapons and manpower to liberate all of its territory. The liberation of Kharkiv and Kherson last year demonstrated with the proper weapons, Ukraine can go on the offensive effectively. The coming counteroffensive will be watched closely by the West to decide if Ukraine should be given even more advanced weapons systems in the future, including F16 aircraft which already has bipartisan congressional support but is pending White House approval. Everyone likes investing in a perceived winner, but if the counteroffensive fails to regain much territory, there will be a growing chorus of calls for a ceasefire (likely leading to scenarios III, IV, or V). Again, much depends on Ukraine retaking territory later this year.
Reparations are also tricky. It’s one thing to get a UN General Assembly (UNGA) vote in favor of reparations like Ukraine did on November 14, 2022; it’s another thing to actually receive the money. The most memorable case of war reparations was after World War I when Germany repaid 200 billion gold marks over many decades. More recently, after the 1990 invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein which resulted in the US led Operation Desert Storm to liberate Kuwaiti territory and restore its sovereignty, Iraq was forced to pay Kuwait $52 billion in reparations. Prior to much of the energy infrastructure attacks in the autumn and following the UNGA vote in favor of reparations, Ukraine had laid claim to $350 billion in Russian assets. The use of Russian assets in the West to pay for reparations will be key, especially with reconstruction costs already estimated as high as one trillion USD. Such assets in the West would need to be seized, because Russia will not make reparations on its own.
Currently there are almost 70,000 war crimes investigations underway connected to the Russian invasion. This staggering figure suggests many will never be brought to justice even with a Ukrainian victory. Nonetheless, it is a step in the right direction and the movement has strong international support in the West. The same Harris X poll which showed a slip in support for new Ukraine aid from the US, simultaneously showed 79% of Americans believe Russia has committed war crimes, and 72% favor a Nuremberg or International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia kind of trial to hold decision makers accountable. However, accusations of war crimes are one matter, but convicting officials of war crimes is much more difficult. The other critical issue is “how does one get convicted of a war crime?” The answer is: to lose a war. War crimes convictions are definitively more abundant in countries which have lost wars. Countries that win wars don’t need to turn over officials to international bodies for prosecution. Thus, unless Russia loses the war, there is no real opportunity for conviction of war criminals and/or reparations.
How does Russia lose the war? Ukraine’s liberation of its territory would be an enormous victory, but it doesn’t necessarily guarantee any changes internally in Russia. As long as Putin is president, Russia will continue its aggression against Ukraine and threats against Europe. Of course, the embarrassment of Russia being forced to withdraw from Ukraine would make Putin look weak to his peers and possibly result in a coup d’état (similar to the August 1991 hardliner coup against Gorbachev). The economic effects of Western sanctions could lead the oligarchs to conspire against Putin as well. Although, the dilemma with replacing Russian leaders is always “who comes next?” For example, if Russia’s spy chief Nikolai Patrushev were to succeed Putin, it might result in a more aggressive war against Ukraine and NATO itself. While some put hopes on opposition figure Aleksey Navalny, he holds Russian nationalist views on the Crimean Peninsula (“Crimea will remain part of Russia and will never become part of Ukraine again in the foreseeable future”) and opposes Ukraine’s entry into NATO. And so, Putin’s successor may be like the ending of the book Animal Farm when the animals realize they are still underfed and overworked but now ruled by pigs rather than humans. In other words, nothing has changed except the pigs now walk on two feet instead of four.
All six scenarios and variations thereof are possible depending on what happens with the war. Nonetheless, there are a few conclusions we can draw:
First, there is no scenario where Russia backs down and negotiates in good faith, except in the cases of regime change (Putin is removed) and/or humiliating defeat on the battlefield. Had Russia wanted mere land for peace, they could have had it before the war. Their goal is not merely land, but the subjugation of Ukraine, the Russification of the Ukrainian people, and control over Central and Eastern Europe. As Vladimir Putin said in his February 21, 2022 speech to the Russian Duma, “Ukraine never had a tradition of genuine statehood…Modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia.” Russia simply doesn’t view Ukraine as a legitimate country, but instead as a vassal state or appendage of itself.
Second, any peace agreement must provide justice for Ukraine. Ukraine is the victim of Russian aggression. Reparations and the conviction of war criminals are key elements to the delivery of justice. Money and a court ruling will never replace a husband, wife, mother, father, friend, or child. The only other outlet is vengeance, but Ukrainians’ ability to enact such on Russian territory is currently limited even in the most favorable of conditions. The only consolations possible are internationally recognized justice and the payment of reparations. Without such resolution, the international order will deteriorate rapidly, and Ukraine may seek radical retribution instead. Providing Ukrainians with justice is key to the resolution of the war and doing so promptly is critical. As 19th century British Prime Minister William Gladstone said, “Justice delayed is justice denied.” Every day the war continues, more Ukrainian lives are lost forever, more families are torn asunder, more children are traumatized, and people’s futures irretrievably robbed. Even if the war ended today, Ukraine will be burdened with the legacy of the war for decades to come. The swift delivery of justice is necessary to end the war and preserve peace.
Finally, there is no scenario where Russian aggression is restrained long term without NATO membership for Ukraine. Talk of “major non-NATO ally” (MNNA) status from the United States is now nonsense because it would require the US to enter the war with troops on the ground. Afghanistan also had such a status, but it didn’t prevent the Taliban from returning to power and ousting the democratically elected president. More importantly, despite Washington’s support for Ukraine, MNNA would be a deal breaker with the American public. Ukraine doesn’t need another worthless Budapest Memorandum, but real security guarantees which are backed by credible force. The only force credible to back up such an agreement is the collective security umbrella of NATO with the Europeans paying their fair share for the defense of the continent. There is no other scenario where a ceasefire turns out to be anything other than an interlude before the next phase of the war. Thus, NATO is key to Ukraine’s future, territorial integrity, and independence and the only way for the West to stop Putin’s Russia.
Other stories written by H. Brian Mefford
Other stories illustrated by Lora Dudnyk
H. Brian Mefford is the Director and Founder of Wooden Horse Strategies LLC, a boutique governmental relations and strategic communications firm based in Kyiv, Ukraine. Named by the Kyiv Post Newspaper as one of the 20 “Most Influential Expats in Ukraine,” Mefford has lived and worked in Eastern Europe continuously for more than 24 years. Нe is also a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center think tank. Since the Russian invasion he has also managed Help Ukraine Operation Palyanytsya which provides humanitarian and medical relief to Ukrainians.
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