I hope the brave Ukrainians will soon decide to stop dying. I seems to me they have to. The Russians have demonstrated that their armed forces are too incompetent to conquer Ukraine and to reduce it to a satellite. Their capacity to bomb and pound whole cites into a fields of rubble, however, is not in doubt. Even if the Ukrainians managed to expel all Russian troops from all of their country, the Russians could still destroy most Ukrainian cities from their own territory. It does not take much talent if you don’t mind the expense of throwing the same missiles over and over against the same large targets. And the expense may not matter so much while several NATO countries are still paying their fossil fuel bills to the Kremlin. And, if the Ukrainians succeeded in bringing the war to Russia itself to make the attacks cease, they would immediately face a measure of abandonment by world public opinion, including by NATO countries. In addition, even a slight invasion of Russia would probably trigger a wave of self-righteous Russian patriotism. The reluctant Russian soldiers and sailors we have seen in largely pathetic action thus far might soon be replaced by enthusiasts eager to sacrifice themselves for the motherland.
It seems to me the Ukrainians have established they are able to preserve their independence and their recently earned democracy. Yet, it appears that Pres. Zelenskyy has announced his government’s determination to boot every armed Russian from every square inch of Ukrainian soil. Such a project involves going on the offensive against an entrenched enemy because the Russians have been present in the Dombas eastern region, in some guise or other, since 2014. Attacking an entrenched enemy is always very costly in lives as the Russian military’s own failed attempt to take the Ukrainian capital showed anew. I hear in the mass media military experts of diverse nationalities assert that it takes many tanks, among other equipment, and mastery of the skies. The Ukrainians have few of the first and little hold over the other. So, the Ukrainian president’s inflexibility is a signal that many more Ukrainians will die. I can’t help but wonder why it should be so, or what for, except that Zelenskyy may be making the bet that the Russian invaders will soon fold and retreat from every area that was Ukrainian in 2013. Zelenskyy may know things I don’t know, of course but from where I sit, in the calm, his attitude seems unnecessarily dangerous. Let me explain.
After eight years of war – even if most was low intensity war – a good half of the Donbas region, most of its cities, including the puppet “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk, is probably inhabited almost entirely by Russian speakers who are pro-Russians. The others must have left long ago or been driven out. Making the existing pro-Russia population of Donbas submit would place the current elected Ukrainian government in the same situation as the Russians now are in some other parts of Ukraine: occupiers, hated, unable to reduce the local population’s resistance, liable to commit atrocities out of sheer frustration. The currently virtuous Ukraine Republic could quickly be transformed into the kind of vicious monster it is now facing on the rest of its territory.
The prized Crimean peninsula was annexed outright by Russia in 2014, soon after it was seized, and following a questionable referendum. However, since its annexation there have been few protests there against Russia. I don’t think there is a pro-Ukrainian popular movement in the Crimea. (I believe that if there were, I would have heard of it. Correct me if I have been inattentive.) It’s also good to remember that the ties between Crimea and Ukraine may well be historically shallow. Khrushchev gave it to the Ukraine Soviet Republic in 1954 (yes, 1954) pretty much as a gift. In the 2001 count, the last conducted under Ukrainian rule, only 24% of Crimeans were identified as Ukrainians. It’s notable that in the several years between the Russian annexation and the current invasion of Ukraine, it seems there have been few serious statements by any country, including Ukraine, to the effect that the latter had to be reversed. (Correct me if I am wrong.)
As I write (4/26/22) Ukraine’s military position appears strong but it’s facing an offensive where Russia’s military inferiority may not compensate for Ukraine’s smaller numbers and lack of heavy materiel and airplanes. This is the right time to make peace proposals. It appears that Putin is not the kind of person who will admit defeat or even that his project was ill-thought out and ill-planned. Even if he is not actually insane – which have has been suggested by several credible sources – an oblique approach seems well advised here This might be done, perhaps by asking various Russian oligarchs – who stand to lose even more by continued hostilities – to contact Russian general officers who are probably not eager to be dragged further in a reputational mud hole, or who might want to save what’s left of their army.
I think a peace agreement would grant Russia control of all of the Donbas which again – it had already mostly under its control – and an extension south through devastated Mariupol to form a land bridge between Russia proper and Crimea. Some of the arguments against such a resolution smack of the 19th century. First, President Zelenskyy speaks of the territorial integrity of his country as if it were a sacred concept. Yet, we know of a number of countries that lost territory and subsequently did well in every way. At the end of WWII, for example, Germany was amputated of about ¼ of its territory. Yet, it emerged in insolent health ten years later.
A main objection to Ukraine relinquishing the Donbas is that it’s its most industrialized section. This sounds like more 19th century thinking. The Donbas has a considerable steel industry and a heavy metallurgical industry because it also possesses coal mines (with coal difficult and expensive to mine). This raise the question of whether the country should exchange the lives of many of its young men again an energy source that seems to be on its way out anyway and the kind of associated heavy manufacturing favored by Stalin. The examples of Singapore and of geographically nearer Switzerland come to mind. Both countries maintain a superior standard of living without the benefit of either rich energy sources or of conventional metal-based manufacturing. These examples make it easy to argue that the real riches of a country may be its people rather than so many million tons of coals. One more reason to be stingy with Ukrainians’ lives.
If the Ukrainian government made what it probably now thinks of as the sacrifice to sue for peace immediately or soon, it would gain a big prize. I mean that it would be able to keep the big port city of Odesa which is now almost intact. With Odesa, the Ukraine would retain a single access to the sea which is probably more important economically than any coal mines. Odesa was about 2/3 Ukrainian in the last count with Russians making up less than one third. It does not pose the same kind of retention problems as Donbas.
One last but major consideration. The Ukrainian government is fond of affirming that its country is fighting for all of us, not just for itself, against Russian totalitarianism and aggression. This is an almost necessary argument to prime the military and economic pump from the West. It may even be partially true. Yet, right now, – and paradoxically not a little thanks to Putin’s wake-up call- it’s pretty clear NATO can take care of its own. I mean this, even given the lightly brandished nuclear threat. I am pretty sure the Russian General Staff has in its possession a list of its military installations that would be wiped out in the first round of riposte to a nuclear event, a second list of fossil fuel extraction and transformation sites that would be gone on the second round, and a list of Russian cities that would suffer the fate of Mariupol on the third.
I think NATO has the means to return Russia to the Third World status it ever only barely escaped. I also think the Russian military knows this. So, I am very much against the possibility of the West fighting for its freedom and for its prosperity to the last Ukrainian. That’s so, even if the Ukrainians insist they would like too. I am filled with horror at the thought of being even a smidgen responsible for making even more Ukrainian orphans and widows.
And yes, the peace I envision would be another form of rewarding aggression. However, in this case, there is a good trade-off. Russia would acquire some industrial territory in the old mold at the cost of having demonstrated to the world a surprising degree of military incompetence. We, in the US, should keep supporting the Ukrainian war effort just to say “Thanks” for this demonstration.