The next few weeks could be Ukraine’s last chance to grasp the flower of safety from the nettle of war by negotiating a compromise peace with Russia that would safeguard its future statehood and sovereignty.
Geoff Roberts is Emeritus Professor of History at University College Cork and a member of the Royal Irish Academy
Cross-posted from Pearls and Irritations
The strategic failure of Ukraine’s summer counter-offensive signals it is locked into a losing war of attrition with Russia that can only add to the already immense suffering of its people, will likely result in further territorial losses, and may perhaps imperil the country’s very survival as an independent state.
The counter-offensive’s grandiose aim was to force a Russian strategic retreat from southern Ukraine. After four months of incessant infantry and armoured attacks, Ukraine’s armed forces have achieved little except the liberation of a few villages located in the outer zones of Russia’s belt of defences. The cost to Ukraine has been astronomical: tens of thousands of casualties and hundreds of destroyed tanks and armoured vehicles.
It is widely reported that Ukraine undertook this offensive at the behest of Western armchair generals who, like Hitler when he invaded Russia in 1941, thought all you had to do was to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure would come tumbling down.
The many new brigades raised by Ukraine and trained and equipped by NATO have been butchered by Russia’s formidable air force, artillery, missiles, and minefields.
Increasingly, Western hawks are talking about the need to dig in for a long war with Russia. ‘Ukraine cannot win against Russia now, but victory by 2025 is possible’ was the headline over British General Richie Barrons’s op ed in the Financial Times. But Western hardliners do not like to dwell on the human costs of protracted conflict.
Ukraine’s casualty statistics are a closely-guarded state secret. The latest US figure, reported by the New York Times, is that Ukraine’s military has suffered 70,000 fatalities, but evidence from a multiplicity of sources point to a conservative estimate of 150,000-200,000 Ukrainian dead. Close observers of the war such as Scott Ritter and Colonel Douglas McGregor consider 400,000 a more realistic estimate.
Ukraine’s cemeteries are over-flowing with war dead and the incoming body count has doubled since the counter-offensive began. “One in two people now know somebody who has died in the fighting”, says Ukrainian MP, Dmytro Natalukha. “I’ve lost count of the number of friends I’ve lost.” According to the mobilisation chief of Ukraine’s Poltava district, 80-90% of his recruits from last autumn are dead, wounded or disabled. The Wall Street Journal reports that 20,000-50,000 Ukrainians have lost one or more limbs as result of the war. So short is Kiev of soldiers, it has decreed the mobilisation of partially-fit men. If it could, Kiev would readily repatriate from western states the many thousands of healthy young men who have fled the country to avoid military service.
Russia is bleeding, too. BBC-Mediazona research indicates 40,000-50,000 Russian dead. These are very high losses but Russia’s population size – four times greater than Ukraine’s – make them sustainable. Indeed, in response to Ukrainian military successes last autumn, President Vladimir Putin mobilised several hundred thousand extra troops, most of whom have yet to be committed to battle.
Ukraine’s embattled people are determined to fight on against all odds, but a forever war in Ukraine has little public support in the West, and even less globally. Humanitarian concerns are foremost for those advocating an end to war as soon as possible. But financial factors are important, too, since keeping the war going will require hundreds of billions’ more Western aid – money that would be better spent supporting Ukraine’s postwar reconstruction.
Ukraine’s more sober supporters sense the end may indeed be nigh. “Kyiv is running out of men”, writes Robert Clark in The Telegraph. “If Kyiv cannot break through the Russian lines now, it may never be able to.” Fellow-hawk, Colonel Richard Kemp warns the same paper’s readers that “the West must prepare for humiliation in Ukraine”.
Writing in The Guardian, Frank Ledwidge states “it is clear there will be no sweeping gains from Ukraine’s counteroffensive”, and that the war will likely continue well beyond 2024. “Friends and supporters of Ukraine,” he argues, need to look “coldly at not just where we are but where we are likely to be in two, three or 10 years”.
Ledwidge highlighted an idea floated by a Western military official that Ukraine should trade territory already occupied by Russia in return for Putin’s acceptance of its membership of NATO. While Russia as well as Ukraine scoffed at such a trade-off, it may not be as far-fetched as it seems.
Putin went to war to stop NATO building Ukraine up into an imminently threatening military presence on Russia’s border. It was the military substance of the Western-Ukrainian threat that Putin feared, not the symbolism of Ukraine’s NATO membership.
Moscow had long complained about NATO expansion into Central and Eastern Europe, but Putin himself strove for years to persuade the West to admit Russia into NATO or to incorporate it into a broader, pan-European system of collective security.
Putin would drive a hard bargain to acquiesce to any form of Ukrainian membership of NATO. There is no chance he will agree to a ceasefire or a ‘frozen conflict’ that would enable Ukraine to recover its military strength.
The territorial part of the bargain would entail Russia’s retention of Crimea and the four Ukrainian provinces already incorporated into the Russian Federation – Donets, Kherson, Lugansk and Zaporizhia i.e. about 20% of Ukraine’s prewar territory. A bitter pill indeed for Ukraine to swallow after so much sacrifice.
But, Western hardliners insist you can’t do any peace deal with Putin because he’s hellbent on conquering the whole of Ukraine in pursuit of a Russian empire that will expand evermore westwards. This alarmist and unproven assertion runs contrary to all known evidence about Putin’s intentions, not to mention Russia’s capabilities.
For months before invading Ukraine in February 2022, Putin tried in vain to negotiate a security deal with the West that would avert war. It was Ukraine and the West who aborted the Istanbul peace talks of spring 2022, not Putin. Time and again, Russia has stated its willingness to end the conflict on agreed terms.
If Putin is dissembling, the ruse would be very quickly uncovered by a serious Western diplomatic effort to end the war on terms that satisfy Russia’s territorial and security requirements whilst safeguarding the integrity and sovereignty of the 80% of Ukraine that remains under Kiev’s control.
Benjamin Franklin’s aphorism is more apposite than ever: “There never was a good war nor a bad peace”. The longer the war goes on the less likely is Putin to concede NATO membership or any other Western security guarantee of Ukraine. Instead, he will likely attempt to impose a punitive peace in which a rump, dysfunctional Ukraine – remaining wholly dependent on Western life-support — would bear little resemblance to the free and sovereign Ukrainian state that most people want to see survive and prosper.