An End Game for Ukraine
Russia retreats somewhat east; NATO moves further east
Considerable intellectual energy has been invested in what Russian President Vladimir Putin expected to achieve with his terribly misguided invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. The conventional wisdom, which I agree with, is that he expected to quickly conquer Ukraine; to replace the government of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy with a Russian puppet regime; to end any thought of Ukraine joining either NATO or the European Union; to effectively return Ukraine to Russian subservience; and to take advantage of a western response that was weak, disjointed, incoherent, and fearful.
Of course, it has not turned out that way. The western response, led by US President Joseph Biden, has been strong and unified; the Ukrainian resistance has been spirited and surprisingly effective, and the vaunted Russian military has shown itself to be ineffective and incompetently led.
Given where we are, compared to where Putin expected to be, what could happen now — or what should happen now?
Any outcome should recognize at least two realities. First, Putin is a reckless despot with little concern for international norms or human decency. He now oversees a large military machine that has been shown to be much like North Korea’s — great at staging massive parades but otherwise militarily inept. However, that same military has a large inventory of both strategic and theater nuclear weapons and must still be taken seriously — strategically if not operationally or tactically.
Second, Putin must pay a price for his recklessness, wanton destructiveness, oppression, and strategic gangsterism. So, what should we be willing to accept and simultaneously willing to do?
Before launching his “special operation,” Putin had annexed — although most international authorities would deem it illegally — Crimea. Nonetheless, the Russian control of this former Ukrainian region had been accepted as a reality, an uncomfortable but real “fact on the ground.” In addition, Putin had stimulated and supported resistance to the control of the Ukrainian central government in at least two eastern provinces in the Donbas region: Donetsk and Luhansk. Both provinces have significant Russian populations that provided much of the rationale (not that any rationale was actually required) for Putin’s military invasion.
It has seemed that in the past few weeks the Russian military, possibly by design but more likely by necessity, has decided to consolidate its activities into securing the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk, having decided that gaining control of all of Ukraine was simply unachievable given the strong Ukrainian resistance. However, as the Russians have withdrawn, they have left behind them a shameful path of destruction and even murder.
So, what now? There are two things that will have to be considered by all sides.
First, as distasteful as it would be, it may be that Ukraine and its western supporters will have to signal that, as with Crimea, they will tolerate if not formally accept Russian control of these two regions, areas that Moscow effectively controlled before February 24th anyway. But in exchange for this grudging toleration, Moscow will have to remove all Russian forces from elsewhere in Ukraine and compensate Ukraine for damages inflicted during the conflict. Furthermore, the Zelenskyy government will remain in power in Kyiv.
Second, Ukraine will not become a formal member of NATO for the foreseeable future. In launching his invasion, preventing Ukraine from joining NATO was seemingly a major Putin objective. However, after a Russian withdrawal to the Donbas, NATO membership should remain an aspirational goal of Ukraine as stated in its current constitution. In addition, small — one could even say “token” — NATO forces should be stationed in Ukraine if invited by the Zelenskyy government.
These NATO forces would occupy several bases and take up positions in Ukraine under a status of forces agreement as opposed to any sort of formal treaty arrangement. These forces will primarily be involved with training, security assistance, and the provision of important combat services support such as communications, intelligence and surveillance, and logistics. But they will also serve as a deterrent.
By hosting NATO forces on its soil, the benefits of formal NATO membership will be effectively provided. Would not a future Russian attack on NATO forces be effectively the same as an attack on NATO itself? Moreover, given the quite sloppy (to be generous) performance of the Russian army in Ukraine, one would expect that Russia’s senior military leaders would be very wary of anything resembling an attack on western forces. The Russian high command has certainly concluded that their military is no match for western forces able to operate effectively across all modern military domains.
Vladimir Putin is aware of the dilemma such an outcome would create, which is why Russian negotiators have so far vigorously opposed any such basing arrangement. But that opposition was expressed when the Russian bargaining position was stronger. They were threatening Kyiv and attacking with long-ranged fires even cities in western Ukraine such as Lviv.
Currently, however, things are different. Russian military performance continues to decline, and with the murderous outrages Russian forces have left behind in places such as Bucha, Russian economic, financial, diplomatic, and moral isolation is nearly universal. The Kremlin and its misguided leaders have only one card left to play: the crude threat of nuclear weapons. That threat must be taken seriously, but it must not become a debilitating inhibition to a settlement on terms acceptable — indeed favorable — to Ukraine and the West.
Would these NATO forces include American units? The short answer is no. Such forces would likely be provided by other NATO members from eastern Europe including Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, and Poland — possibly even Hungary. Additional American, French, and British forces might be sent to reinforce the Baltic states of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania, which remain uncomfortable and vulnerable to future Russian adventurism. There has already been some talk of such forces being Italian or Irish, important but lesser NATO powers.
Perhaps it would be useful to have such forces come from Sweden and Finland. The Swedish military has a long history of undertaking peace-keeping roles, as does Finland. Recently, both countries have signaled they are re-considering something they have long avoided: NATO membership. Involving Swedish and Finnish forces in a post-conflict Ukraine, while both countries re-examine their NATO status, would itself be another bargaining chip that Putin would have to take seriously.
Such a framework would accomplish two things. It would allow Putin a degree of face-saving by giving him more formal control over the areas of Ukraine he effectively controlled anyway. However, it would also result in Putin losing something he had hoped to achieve: any further movement of NATO forces eastward placing them in closer proximity to Russia and on the soil of a former, major Soviet Republic. Kyiv would also benefit by essentially having NATO protection without being a formal member of the alliance.
Presently, it appears that Ukraine may become a member of the European Union. A favorable outcome to this Russian engineered outrage seems to be in reach. Russia gets to retain what it had anyway — control of the Donbas and Crimea, but it will lose heavily in every other meaningful way. Ukraine, a country with a culture Putin seemingly hoped to eliminate, will emerge stronger than before. Its western orientation will be more firmly established. Its rejection of Soviet-style authoritarianism will be complete along with its full welcome into the family of democratic nations. And its future existence will be guaranteed.
Putin will claim otherwise and tout his own “alternate facts.” But the actual facts always win. As John Adams famously noted three centuries ago, they are indeed “stubborn things.”