The Russian invasion of Ukraine started two months ago. Since then, we have learned a lot. Still, we can only guess how far the invader wants to go. Decisions we face will shape the world for decades, if not centuries. Let us review what we know and what might be next.
What is the most desirable outcome?
Many nations have abstained from joining the West’s harsh response to the Russian aggression. Some worry about impairing their economic ties with Russia. Others are concerned that a Russian defeat would strengthen the United States and NATO, which they might see as undesirable for their political objectives.
Russia is not Cuba or North Korea; it cannot stay outside the global economy for long. Both Russia and Ukraine are major food exporters, which the world needs. The sanctions are to stipulate Russia’s withdrawal from its onslaught in Ukraine. Reintegrating both nations into the global economy as quickly as possible is the intention. Many people do not see it this way.
For example, many Germans ask their government not to ban purchasing oil and natural gas from Russia. Without that $1 billion daily from Germany, the Russian government could lose financial liquidity much faster and be forced to stop the war. Then, new political agreements could prevent Russia from using the fuel trade as a weapon to achieve its political goals. All sanctions could end sooner.
Germans may pay slightly less for heating their houses or filling their cars’ tanks by buying that gas and oil now, but their money allows Russia to conduct the war much longer. The sanctions are a burden to Russia and the nations issuing them, Germany included. The longer the war lasts, the costlier it is for the Germans. I just heard that Germany committed to stopping buying fuel from Russia by the end of 2022. It means they assume that the war would last for at least the next eight months. They cannot imagine a solution to end the war within the next few weeks.
It is Putin’s war
Russia invaded Ukraine even though Russians have no reason to feel threatened by Ukraine. Whatever economic or military alliances Ukraine might make, none of them would be against Russia. No one demands any Russian territory. No one alleges any right to interfere with internal Russian affairs. Suppose Ukraine becomes more prosperous in a closer alliance with the European Union. That wealth will spread to Russia because it still will be Ukraine’s next-door neighbor with endless business interactions.
Russians have nothing to gain from the war with Ukraine. That war is a political endeavor of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, the current Russian president. He has reached dictatorial powers in Russia, making his obsessions the official Russian policy. He controls the country’s media, which indoctrinate Russians with his reasoning for the war. Western politicians and media can deflate his ballooned ani-West propaganda by tirelessly repeating that all restrictive measures would end as soon as Russia stops its hostility against Ukraine.
Putin wants Ukraine
In formal statements, Putin claims that the war is to defend the Russian-speaking minority in Donbas and prevent the expansion of NATO. But in his article, still available on the Kremlin’s website, and his multiple statements, Putin has made it clear that he does not recognize Ukraine’s right to be an independent nation. The best he can accept for Ukraine is as a cropped vassal state. It is a nonstarter for Ukraine. The West will not likely accept it, either. Ergo, there is no room for compromise as long as Putin is the president of Russia.
What is Putin’s biggest miscalculation?
In his elaborate arguments, rich with historical references, Putin claims that Russians and Ukrainians are the same nation, and any divisions result from the malicious propaganda of their enemies. He is right that both nations have the same roots, but they split in medieval times. Before getting independence, Ukrainians had been under Russian domination for about three centuries. The Ukrainian language waned as the lingo of the uneducated. The Ukrainians’ self-awareness as a nation was weakening. In the 1991 referendum, 92.3% of Ukraine’s residents voted for independence. Likely, the “yes” votes were more for rejecting the Soviet past than embracing the Ukrainian identity.
Despite the years of political chaos that followed, the bacillus of freedom proved contagious. The residents of Ukraine turned into proud Ukrainians. Putin worries that now may be the last possible moment to reverse those changes and bring Ukrainians back under the wing of Russian control. It worked in 2014 in Crimea, but losing Crimea and facing an unrest in Donbas crystallized Ukrainians’ national identity. They see their liberties as the vital factor differentiating them from Russians, regardless of whether they speak Ukrainian or Russian at home. Putin arrived too late; today, Ukrainians are much more patriotic than 10 or 20 years ago.
The international law matters
Near the border with Germany, there is the city of Strasbourg in France. Within the past few centuries, that city was alternately under French or German control, depending on who won the last war. After WWII, the French and Germans agreed that peaceful cooperation was more beneficial to both sides than endless wars over that scrap of land.
That approach, when applied to all territorial disputes, is the very concept behind the United Nations charter. Shocked by the scale of killings and massive destruction during WWII, many nations, including Russia (then the Soviet Union), agreed that wars are not the solution to international disagreements. From that perspective, any Russian grievance against Ukraine or NATO does not justify starting a war.
The United Nations cannot stop this war because Russia has veto power in the United Nations Security Council. In plain language, the U.N. charter lacks the provisions to take action against what just happened, that a permanent Security Council member, statutorily entrusted with protecting the peace, becomes an aggressor. For this reason, using the precedent of the Nuremberg trials seems to be the only workable option to charge individuals responsible for this war. After that, the United Nations needs to restore its credibility by changing its Security Council format to prevent that kind of situation from reoccurring.
The war crimes and the crime of war
The media focus on war crimes as defined by the Geneva Conventions, which is a set of agreements about humanitarian ways of conducting war. It does not address the most obvious objection: that we can avoid war atrocities by not having wars to begin with.
The nation signatories of the Kellogg-Briand Pact from 1928, also called the Pact of Paris, agreed that solutions of all disputes or conflicts shall be sought by pacific means. Most nations signed that agreement; it still remains in effect. There were no executive teeth behind this pact. It was a goodwill declaration that could not prevent WWII from happening. But it provided a legal ground for the Nuremberg trials. And it can do so again today for prosecuting Putin and his enablers.
War is a dirty business, releasing the worst side of human nature. The Geneva Conventions can guide the just side of the war, the attacked party. Knowing that they have already acted immorally by starting the war, aggressors have less consideration to conduct it humanely. That seems to be the case with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Russian leaders should face prosecution for the crime of war. We should charge the Russian soldiers and their commanders with war crimes whenever the evidence proves that.
Will it turn into WWIII?
Politicians and pundits try to guess how far Putin is ready to go. We will know after it is over.
Before the war started, I opted for NATO declaring readiness to deploy its full might in defense of Ukraine. My logic was that if Putin wanted to avoid a conflict with NATO, he would not invade Ukraine. If he attacked Ukraine, we would know that he was ready to start WWIII. Now, we have to guess.
After two months of the war, it is not hard to predict. From what Russians are saying and from mentions in the media by Western intelligence sources in Moscow, we can reasonably assume that, for Putin, conquering Ukraine is a stepping-stone in rearranging the existing world order. It means he is ready to start WWIII, including the use of nuclear weapons.
He cannot win that war. In the West, no one wants to prove that conclusion by winning a war. Knowing the unavoidable loss of life and catastrophic damage, everyone wants to avoid it. The objective is finding a way to stop Putin from starting it.
The preferred scenario
With sanctions, Russia pays a high price for the war.
Russian billionaires gradually realize that their chances of getting back their seized houses, yachts, and banking accounts are diminishing with the war lingering. American taxpayers expect that the seized Russian assets would pay for the military help that the United States provides Ukraine now and to rebuild Ukraine. The longer the war lasts, the more will be taken from the seized assets of Russia and its riches.
The war is not good for Russian generals either. Many more have lost their lives than typically happens. Those still alive know already that they can destroy Ukraine, but they never will be able to run it by intimidation, as Putin demands. Conquering Ukraine as they are taking Mariupol now is not a victory. Governing over smoldering ruins and trying to avoid Ukrainian fighters striking from their hideouts means a defeat.
Ukrainians are documenting war crimes committed by the Russian military. Eventually, the names of all Russian field officers responsible for atrocities will become public. After Russia loses the war, it will be asked to prosecute all instances of war crimes. Officers not killed in action can end up in a Russian prison after the war. The sooner the war is over, the fewer troubles they will face.
Lastly, with his blunt disregard for international law and determination to kill innocent people to fulfill his vision, the Russian president acts as a global gangster. Joe Biden is known for his bloopers but calling Putin a criminal was not one of them. It needed to be said, even though it was undiplomatic.
Russian masses might be confused by Putin’s controlled propaganda. Russian economic, political, and military leaders know that there is no honorable exit for Putin and his accomplices. Putin and his helpers should be detained, put on a plane, and dropped in The Hague. Let The International Court of Justice there handle them, so Russia can focus on starting a new chapter as a peaceful nation.
How to restore a peace that would last
Similarly as on the human level, wrongdoing by a nation needs to be corrected. Russia needs to recognize Ukraine as an independent nation and reject any claim to its territory and any right to influence its internal matters. That means returning to Ukraine both Donbas and Crimea.
Ironically, Crimea has a Russian-speaking majority, and Russia’s claim to it might have some legitimacy. But as a matter of principle, resolving territorial disputes by force cannot be rewarded. After a reasonable cooling-off period of at least 10 years, Russia should have a right to demand an internationally monitored referendum in Crimea about its independence.
Similarly, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, taken by Russia in 2008, need to be returned to Georgia. If needed, the U.N. peacekeeping forces should step in. After a cooling-off period, an internationally monitored plebiscite should decide on any border changes. The same protocol should resolve the status of Transnistria.
Russian nationalists would rightfully perceive that approach as punitive. But it is necessary for the full return of Russia to the global economy with no more sanctions. After the war, both Ukraine and Russia need a modern version of the Marshall Plan. Within a few years under such a plan, most Russians should notice an improvement in their standard of living. That way, Russian public opinion can shift to appreciate their integration into the global economy and not see it as a conspiracy to subdue Russia, as portrayed by Putin now. With that shift, Russia would become a mainstay of peace.
If the war stops without ending
Seeing that he cannot conquer Ukraine, Putin can stop the war soon where it stands. Russia controls a sizeable chunk of Donbas, and a strip of land between it and the Crimea annexed in 2014. He might say that, as long as Ukraine would not try to get its territory back, Russia would stop all military operations there. What would Ukraine and the rest of the world do then? And what should they do?
Some might be advising not to fuss about that tiny piece of land; peace is more important. So important is reviving the global economy by lifting the sanctions. Regardless of what the official position of the Ukrainian government might be, some Ukrainians would still fight. No one would be rebuilding Mariupol; the whole occupied eastern part of Ukraine would be a dysfunctional wasteland. It would be déjà vu of 2014, but on a bigger scale. The outcome would likely be the same. Putin would rebuild the Russian military and try to retake Ukraine a few years later.
For a lasting peace, Russia must return all the lands occupied during Putin’s presidency, and Putin himself, probably not voluntarily, must make that one-way trip to The Hague. But will the West have the wisdom to reject an illusion of peace today?
If the war escalates
Russians might get some further territorial gains, but they cannot win in a conventional war. The military help Ukraine gets from the West is a factor. In Putin’s eyes, that help is a serious threat to the well-being of Russia and, as such, justifies the use of nuclear weapons. That Putin’s reasoning debunks President Biden’s fear that sending Ukraine those MIGs from Poland might trigger a nuclear war. For Putin, any military help that is effective in stopping Russian aggression is a valid reason to start WWIII.
The longer it takes to depose Putin, the more likely he will press that red button. What might be his primary aim? He already stated that military transports from the West are legitimate targets. There are only several border crossings between Ukraine and the NATO nations. Only a few of them can handle truck and railroad traffic. Tactical nuclear missiles hitting those crossings at a time when significant transports are in transit can eliminate a lot of new hardware and disable those crossings.
Border crossings with Poland could be a target, as a former KGB officer might blame Poland for the collapse of his beloved Soviet Union. Not too many people might be killed, but those crossings would be useless due to radiation. Putin might declare he was in his right because he had warned the West. Then, he might commit not to use any nuclear weapons again as long as NATO stops military transports to Ukraine.
Likely, some might accept that intimidation as a valid peace offer. But if Putin presses that red button, it will be hard to avoid WWIII. We can hope that in response, by destroying a significant part of its nuclear capability, NATO can force Russia into capitulation. This way, we would avoid the worst-case scenario, requiring NATO tanks to take control of Moscow.
The nuclear blackmail
Despite the Russian veto power in the U.N. Security Council, the world could have already stopped the Russian invasion if not for the nuclear blackmail. Good-hearted thinkers tell us that we should not endanger millions of innocent people who could die if Putin starts dropping atomic bombs. That would mean that the whole international security system is good only to protect us from petty criminals, not the most dangerous ones. Putin and his accommodators must end up in front of The International Court of Justice judges in The Hague. It could provide the proof that there is no man and no authority who can escape punishment for the crime of war. Without that, the United Nations and all international agreements are a bunch of jokes.
Ironically, in 1991, Ukraine was in possession, but not operational control, of the world’s third largest arsenal of nuclear weapons. Under international pressure, Ukrainians gave up their chance to become a nuclear power. In exchange, on December 5, 1994, Ukraine, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States signed the Budapest Memorandum, guaranteeing the security of Ukraine. Russia breached that agreement by annexing Crimea in 2014 and again by the current invasion. If, due to its nuclear blackmail, Russia can keep even one square inch of the Ukrainian land, the policy of nonproliferation of nuclear weapons is a hoax. Russia would never have taken Crimea and would not have invaded Ukraine now, if Ukraine had stood up in the early 1990s and become a nuclear power.
If Western politicians accept any concession to Russia to avoid a nuclear confrontation, then Iranians will be laughing at their faces when they meet next time. No sane politician in the world would give up a chance to have nuclear weapons if the existing security provisions cannot protect a non-nuclear nation from a rogue nuclear state.
What would it take to get the most desired outcome?
We need a worldwide consensus that the current Russian administration broke fundamental international law by invading Ukraine. As long as that aggression is in progress and its evils are not corrected, the government of the Russian Federation should be considered a criminal organization in the meaning of international law. All official representatives of the Russian Federation should be disinvited from international meetings, except those intended to correct the current situation.
Many politicians worldwide might be unwilling to take such a drastic approach. But people of goodwill worldwide need to stand against the Russian aggression and build a global consensus demanding the prosecution of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin and his clique. It is not about ideology or politics. Standing against evil is what it is about.