WAR WATCH - I am under no illusions that President Vladimir Putin will ever negotiate terms of peace, at least not in good faith.
Nor will he ever admit defeat in Ukraine. I would say he has a spartan view of war (“Come back with your shield or on it”) except that it denigrates the Spartans to compare them to the Russian president. The Spartans did their own fighting, while Putin phones in his kill orders from the safety of a gilded villa.
Neither am I under any illusions that the fighting in Ukraine will constitute another war that will be “over by Christmas”. Yes, there are occasionally short wars (the 1969 Soccer War between Honduras and El Salvador lasted 100 hours), but the war in Vietnam went on for more than thirty years, and the American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan almost twenty.
Wars that evolve into insurgencies, as Ukraine’s must, tend to last as long as ammunition supplies hold out.
Putin can lay waste to Ukraine’s major cities with thermobaric bombs, reduce the formations of the Ukrainian army down to squads, and execute the members of the Zelensky government, and then he will be left battling a country of more than forty million people that, from all indications, is prepared to fight on even if its only weapons are steak knives and piano wire.
War Without End
Like it or not, Ukraine is a fight to the finish, and at this point the battle is a race between the Ukrainian resistance and a similar one in Moscow—both of which find themselves in opposition to Vladimir Putin.
An end-game equation goes like this: Putin’s gamble in continuing to fight—with genocide as his only weapon—is that he can pacify Ukraine before he finds himself under the hammer and sickle of a palace coup (which is the electoral college in Russian presidential elections).
At the moment the Ukraine opposition is all those citizen-soldiers standing around barricades with loaner AK-47s, while the resistance in Moscow is largely unknown, although it will probably morph into an unlikely coalition of professional military officers, street protesters, mothers of dead Russian soldiers, and businessmen (and perhaps that spook Putin humiliated on TV with the entire world watching)—funded and encouraged by a few sanctioned oligarchs.
How Russia Moves On From Its Leaders
If you’re spending a lot of time wondering how Putin could be removed from his tsarist throne, here are some case histories of regime change from Russia’s past.
—In 1881 Tsar Alexander II was attacked with bombs not far from the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. The first bomb stopped his carriage; the second bomb got the tsar.
—Although technically Tsar Nicholas II had abdicated by 1918, when he and his family were shot by the Bolsheviks in an Ekaterinburg basement, his forced removal from the throne in 1917 came toward the end of a long, disastrous war for Russia (World War I).
—The official cause of Lenin’s death in 1924 was natural causes, but there are many theories circulating that Stalin poisoned him on his deathbed—just to make sure he didn’t come back from the dead. (Late in his life Lenin had decided that Stalin was not a worthy successor.)
—For all that he was an advocate of violent death, Stalin himself died in bed, although his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, was removed as First Secretary in 1964 by his “colleagues” on the Politburo, who were angry that Khrushchev had botched the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis
—In 1982, toward the end of his near twenty-year reign as First Secretary, Leonid Brezhnev’s health failed, and ex-KGB head Yuri Andropov took his place, until about a year later, when his health failed too—as did that of his brief successor, Konstantin Chernenko, in 1985. (It was another “Year of the Three Emperors” as happened in Germany in 1888.)
—The last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, actually resigned from his office at the end of 1991 as the Soviet Union collapsed around him, although in the run-up to his abdication Gorbachev was briefly removed from power during a coup d’état.
—Gorbachev’s successor as president of the Russian federation was Boris Yeltsin, who had saved Gorbachev from the plotters when, in August 1991, he was put under house arrest at his Black Sea dacha.
—Yeltsin resigned from the Russian presidency at the end 1999, after eight chaotic years in an economic and political gangland, and Vladimir Putin, then his hand-selected prime minister, was appointed to fill the remainder of his term (probably on the condition that he would not prosecute Yeltsin for crimes committed in office).
So from this list, the leading causes of political change in Russia would appear to be illness, forced resignations, intrigue, and bombs, conditions arising from ill-fated wars (of which there have been no shortage in Russia’s past).
Why Donald Trump is Also Fighting in Ukraine
To what extent are the fates of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin comrades-in-arms in the current fighting? More than you might think is my answer.
Putin might well have timed his attacks on Ukraine with the former American president in mind, in the sense of wanting a victory over Kyiv to cause maximum embarrassment to the Biden administration and strengthen the hands of Congressional Republicans in the run-up to the 2022 mid-term elections.
Putin is a heavy consumer of American electoral politics—to the extent that he realizes that he’s Trump’s daddy—and he realizes that a second Trump presidency would fracture NATO and pave the way for Russian Lebensraum in Eastern Europe.
It might well be a parlor game to imagine how a President Trump would have reacted to the Russian invasion (“This is genius…”) but it’s a safe bet to assume that Trump in office would have denied aid to the Ukrainians, especially as he has done so before.
Trump and Putin Declare War on Democracy
Another way to look at the Putin-Trump alliance is to represent their symbiosis over the Ukraine invasion as a direct assault on the democratic world order, at least as it has existed in Western Europe and North America.
Putin’s dream is to push Russia’s borders and spheres of influence into the former Soviet satellites of Eastern Europe, while Trump’s dream is to become the American Putin, with unlimited political power, $200 billion in tax-free trusts, and carte blancheto imprison his enemies (“Lock her up…”).
The presence of Trump and so many Republicans in the amen chorus to Putin’s Ukrainian genocide, however, highlights the extent to which the GOP-Q has come to resemble some MAGA Bund, a crazy mix of fellow travellers in the pay or sway of the Russians.
Whatever the outcome in Ukraine—a bloody civil war, a Russian Anschluss of eastern Ukraine up to the Dnieper River, or a victory for the Ukrainian resistance—the end game will come with more proof of the former president’s collusion with the invaders.
I am sure that in Trump’s vengeful mind the initial Russian attack on Ukraine looked like payback for President Zelensky’s failure to deliver the mud on Hunter and/or Joe Biden’s shady business deals, but those feel-good moments must have receded once Trump’s main man Putin went after Ukrainian cities with vacuum bombs.
There’s also the possibility (far fetched, I know, but still worth airing) of some arrested Russian official on trial in the Hague giving testimony on Trump’s accommodations with Russian expansion.
Finally, might one of the sanctioned oligarchs who sign on all of Putin’s Irish trusts or Delaware LLCs give direct testimony on how the money flowed from the Russian oligarchy into the Trump Organization to keep that ship of state/fools afloat?
By the way, the reason Trump can deny the presence of so much Russian money in his businesses is this: normally at the top of a Russian oligarch’s financial structure is an anonymous Delaware LLC (“Hey, Joe Biden, this Bud’s for you…”), which means that money could be laundered directly into Trump condos without a detour through a now-sanctioned Russian bank.
Winning the War, Losing the Peace
One of the ironies of any war is that the winners on the battlefields do not always win the peace. A corollary to this truism is that most peace treaties plant seeds for the next war (something it would be nice to avoid when sorting through the debris in Ukraine).
Since I have harped on it in earlier essays, let’s have another look at the 1904-5 Russo-Japanese War that saw Japan victorious in all theaters of the fighting. Japan not only destroyed the Russian fleets at Port Arthur and Tsushima, but it captured Korea and marched its forces well in Manchuria, where it defeated the Russians outside Mukden, now Shenyang.
The United States and its president, Theodore Roosevelt, played host to the peace conference in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and in theory, as the victor, Japan should have been awarded most of the spoils.
But the Russians sent as the head of its delegation one Count Sergius Witte, a brilliant financial minister in the tsar’s government (he had opposed the war as folly), and Witte managed to secure for Russia at least some of the terms that it had failed to win on the battlefield.
Japan only got half of Sakhalin Island (not the whole of it), Korea, and south Manchuria, including Port Arthur, but Russia escaped having to pay reparations to the Japanese and kept much of the Chinese Eastern Railway (its strategic link to the Pacific at the end of the Trans-Siberian Railway).
For his role in the negotiations (fairly negligible, if you ask me, as he never went to Portsmouth), Theodore Roosevelt was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace, although Witte was the winner.
Turning Peace into War
As only became apparent over time, most of the countries at the peace conference left Portsmouth burning with resentment, notably the Chinese (not represented in what it called the Portsmouth Share Booty Treaty that concerned the disposition of their land) and the Japanese (who felt that the western powers had cheated them out of their victories on the battlefield).
Footnote: when the Japanese navy attacked the American fleet at Pearl Harbor in 1941, its warships flew pennants from battleships that had seen action against the Russians at Port Arthur.
Thanks to Witte, Russia escaped from Portsmouth with its monarchy still intact, despite the 1905 revolution that was surrounding the Winter Palace. Maybe if it had fallen in 1905, not 1917, the world might have been spared Bolshevism (and now Vladimir Putin).
Ukraine Briefly Emerges from World War I
Since it concerned both Ukraine and Russia, it’s worth noting that the 1918 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk that ended the World War I fighting on the Eastern Front was another diplomatic victory for the Russians after horrendous defeats on the battlefield.
A few years ago, when I went to Brest (now in Belarus) to study the treaty, I bought a map of the final settlement.
On paper, the Russians lost everything at Brest-Litovsk. It lost Finland, Poland, the Baltic states and Courland, and all that is now Ukraine, even the Donbas. Russia only managed to hang on to White Russia (Belarus).
But the Russians succeeded in dragging out the negotiations literally for months, which in the interim allowed the Bolsheviks to establish power before the grand capitulation that ended WWI. It also permitted the Allies (furious at Russia’s betrayal of the Allied cause) time to deploy American troops on the Western Front, sowing the seeds of victory.
Immediately after the treaty was signed, Ukraine proclaimed its independence and the German army marched into Kiev. Six months later, however, after the Allied victory over Germany in the West, both independent Ukraine and the German occupation were over, and Ukraine was divided between Poland and Russia (who then fought another war in 1919-21 for control of Galicia and western Ukraine).
My point here is that the victors on the ground often lose everything at the conference tables.
Scenarios at the End of the Current War
Before considering terms that might settle the end of the Ukraine war, let’s look at a few scenarios for the resolution of the current fighting and assign to each some probabilities:
—Russia captures all the major Ukrainian cities in the east, and then turns its armies on western Ukraine, vanquishing the entire country. Probability: low.
I can see the Russians forming a land bridge between the Donbas and Crimea but I cannot believe that the Russian army, in its current state of mutiny, is capable of the urban warfare that would be required to pacify Kyiv or Kharkiv.
—The war evolves into a stalemate, something closer to Lebanon’s or Yugoslavia’s civil wars, provoking civil unrest and a change of government in Russia. Probability: high
The problem with the Russian invasion plans is that at some point unmotivated Russian infantry soldiers will have to fight on the ground against the dug-in Ukrainian resistance, and those battles will not go well for the Russians, any more than they went well for the Americans in Iraq or Afghanistan.
—Ukraine manages to repel the Russian invaders from its soil. Probability: low.
The only way that the Russians will withdraw from Ukraine is if there is a change in government in Moscow, and the new government agrees to hold peace talks with the Ukraine government.
But Russia might someday withdraw its forces if a puppet government, no matter how vindictive, is unable to sell the Moscow line and enforce order against a population that had been vacuum bombed.
—Ukraine is partitioned along the Dnieper River. Probability: high
Again, it’s easy to imagine Russian armor making the link between its northern forces (that bogged-down column) and those from the south, and on that basis Russia might well claim to have “liberated” eastern Ukraine.
The problem with this scenario is that Kyiv is on the western side of the river, and thus would fall beyond the boundary. At the same time, I cannot believe that Russia can take Kyiv with barrel bombs and tanks, neither of which is going to win many hearts and minds in an urban battle.
—Sanctions force Russia to end its offensive. Probability: zero.
Economic sanctions are the equivalent of saying to some Salvation Army Santa Claus, “I gave at the office.” Those with billion dollar net worths can usually figure out how to pay their bills from cash in their wall safes or gold bars in their briefcases, and the sad fact remains that very often there are work-arounds in the international financial system. In this case, the anonymous trade in crypto-currencies could well make it child’s play to access the international financial system when SWIFT is down.
—Vladimir Putin and his entourage are indicted for genocide and crimes against humanity. Probability: very high.
The issue for the Russian army is this: its orders, directly from Putin, are to “take” Ukraine, but clearly the soldiers in the front lines have little will to fight a people against whom they hold no grudge or enmity. Hence the number of Russian soldiers—we don’t know how many—who have spiked their weapons and surrendered to the Ukrainian forces. This leaves Putin’s legions no choice, if they wants to press on with the attacks, but to launch waves of cruise missiles into crowded Ukrainian cities and hope a remnant army can “secure” the rubble.
As a strategy, this approach has little chance of success, as the Ukrainians will learn to survive the carpet bombings, which will turn Ukraine’s cities into vast sniper alleys (as happened in Stalingrad). In the meantime Putin will give the watching world endless reasons to indict him for war crimes. In Chechnya he could turn off the cameras, which is not the case in online Kyiv.
A Draft Peace Treaty That Will Please No One
At this point the best outcome for Ukraine and the West is to fight until Putin’s government collapses. There’s little point in imagining that a person who can launch cruise missiles into Kharkiv apartment blocks is open to compromise and dialogue.
At the same time I realize that this asks a lot of Ukraine’s citizens, who might prefer some kind of compromise so that they can return to their lives and homes. In which case, here is a draft settlement that might offend all sides in the conflict; and thus be acceptable as the basis for peace:
—Eastern Donbas, up to the line of conflict, is ceded to Russia, but it is declared a non-militarized zone and patrolled by United Nations peacekeepers. Citizens on either side of the line are given the right of free settlement as they choose.
—The rest of Russia’s forces in Ukraine are withdrawn immediately.
—Going forward, the freely elected government in Ukraine agrees to remain neutral, which means that it will not join either a Russian- or NATO-led alliance. A team of Swiss legislators can work out the details of this neutrality.
—It is further agreed that Ukraine shall not have the right to join NATO unless at the same time Russia is joining the alliance.
—Russia and the West jointly pledge to aid Ukraine so that it can rebuild its society.
—Ukraine is given fast-track status to join the European Union.
—Russia is invited back into the G7 group of nations, subject to a positive annual review by the Human Rights Council of the United Nations for the first five years.
—Sweden, if it so chooses, is granted NATO membership, but Finland agrees not to join NATO and to remain neutral, provided Russia does not menace or otherwise encroach on countries on its borders. Should Russia take any action deemed to be hostile to its neighbors, Finland is free to negotiate whatever alliances it chooses.
—NATO missiles in eastern Poland shall be withdrawn to a suitable position in western Poland.
—Germany agrees to re-start the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and the West agrees to lift its economic sanctions, provided that neither Vladimir Putin nor any of his immediate circle maintains influence over the Russian government.
—In lieu of extraditing Russian government officials to stand trial in front of the International Criminal Court in the Hague, it is agreed that Russia will hold any such trials in Moscow under the rules and procedures of international law.
I grant that this is a flawed treaty—perhaps as compromised as Brest-Litovsk or Portsmouth—but as Benjamin Franklin liked to say: “There never was a good war, or a bad peace.”
(Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, and The Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent book, about traveling in France and the Franco-Prussian wars, is entitled Biking with Bismarck. This story was featured in CounterPunch.)