When the War Ends, What will Ukraine Resemble?
We’re nearly a year into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and there is no indication that the war is about to end. The war at times resembles the bloody battlefields of the First and Second World Wars than a conflict involving modern 21st-century militaries. There is also no indication that either side is prepared to negotiate. The potential is there for a long protracted, slogged-out fight where at various times, both Russia and Ukraine achieve some short-term advantages but nothing permanent. It is like round 12 of 15 in a prize fight where the two protagonists are strong enough to fight on but not able to seal the knockout punch.
Where or what is the end game for the war? While some argue that a divided Korea is a possible outcome for Ukraine, a partitioned Germany is equally likely.
A divided Korea is a permanent fixture of a war that technically never ended. The Korean War may have been the first major Cold War conflict. The fighting between the North and South was a proxy fight for China, the USSR, and the United States. The military advantage shifted back and forth from 1950 to 1953. Eventually, all sides wearied from the fight, culminating in an armistice that simply declared a temporary end to the fighting, leaving a nation divided and no resolution of the various claims. Nearly 70 years later, the two Koreas persist as one of the last Cold War flashpoints, with the possibility of hostilities resuming always on the horizon. It is a state of drizzled peace and war, similar to many days of weather many often experience.
This could be the fate of Ukraine. Unlike Korea, there is no legal principle supporting Russia. Its 2014 annexation of Crimea, Donbas, and Luhansk was illegal under international law. The 2022 Russian invasion and annexation of four of the latter’s regions is similarly illegal under international law that dictates that states renounce the use of force to resolve grievances including over border sovereignty. International law makes Russia’s actions clearly illegal, compelling that Ukraine is entitled to all of its lost territory returned. Yet right is often not might, and there is no indication Russia and Vladimir Putin will willingly retreat and respect Ukraine’s sovereignty.
Neither Ukraine nor Russia has an interest or incentive to end the war. For Russia and Putin, it is about maintaining a zone of influence. It is about national pride. It is the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’ with a Russian accent. The war is going badly and no Russian elite, including Putin, wants to admit defeat. He has made victory in Ukraine a test of personal will and his ruling legitimacy may now be tied to the war. Instead, pump more money, arms, and dead soldiers into it. Inflict more damage on Ukrainians in the hope of breaking their will, beating them into submission, or simply exhausting their will to fight. Perhaps at some point, Russia as a supposed superpower can outlast a weaker opponent.
Moreover, others such as China do not want to see Russia lose. With Ukraine supported by the U.S., NATO, and the European Union, it is a test of West versus East, or democracy versus authoritarianism. If Russia were to lose, what of China’s claims to Taiwan?
For Ukraine, the U.S., and the West, it is in part a war of principle to uphold the post-WWII international order. For Ukraine, it is a battle of survival, of national identity, and the right of self-determination to join Europe. Additionally, the U.S. sees this as an opportunity to weaken Russia, with the incentive for the war to go on as long as possible to hasten what is seen as the latter’s inevitable long-term decline.
There is no game plan for peace. No game plan for victory. No incentive to end the hostilities. The fight could go on for years, but probably will not. At some point, the bell for round 15 will sound and the active fighting will end. But how? Yes, one can see one side or another achieving a military victory, but the odds are against it.
In September, I was at a conference in Lithuania in part to promote my new book, Europe Alone: Small State Security without the United States. The book looks at the role the U.S. has traditionally played since WWII in European security needs. Among the several contributors were faculty at the Lithuanian Military Academy. One of them said back then that the fighting will go on until the two sides agree to not fight anymore. They will not agree to peace, they will not agree to resolve their grievances, and they will not agree to legitimate and permanent territorial boundaries. Moscow and Kyiv will fight to get as much land as possible before declaring a truce.
This may be Ukraine’s fate. Whether by that point it has recaptured Crimea, Donbas, and the other annexed regions is not clear. But the lines drawn then will be the basis of a divide between Ukraine and Russia, Ukraine and East Ukraine, or the Republic of Ukraine and the People’s Republic of Ukraine, what the names will be is not clear, but Ukraine may be a divided state.
The answer may be a divided Ukraine similar to what we see on the Korean peninsula where territorial claims are never solved and the threat of war breaking out at any moment is always present. Welcome to the new hot peace or cold war.
The other answer is a divided West and East Ukraine. The former will be an EU member state, and possibly a NATO member. It will prosper like South Korea while watching the remainder of Russian-occupied Ukraine go the fate of East Germany. One nation, two states, temporarily divided on a permanent basis. Russia will not have to declare defeat, but it will be vastly weakened. Ukraine wrongly loses territory but gets stronger and prospers as a result. Eventually with a weakened Russia unable to support its client states much like the USSR was unable to do, the client state of Ukraine gets absorbed by its stronger neighbor.
The question thus becomes, is the end of the war similar to Korea or Germany and how long will it take to get to the answer?