(This article first appeared in the American Spectator: https://spectator.org/ukraine-outcomes-promise-and-peril/)
By: John C. Wohlstetter, Senior Fellow
Recently, scholar Mark Galeotti published Peace, Partition or Stalemate, assessing prospective scenarios for how the war started by Vladimir Putin might end. The peace outcome will almost certainly entail that Russia keep some of its gains in the east, and possibly the southeast as well. Partition would give Russia formal sovereignty over those areas under its sway. A stalemate would translate into a protracted low-intensity counterinsurgency locked in a long, twilight struggle, either alongside the current Ukraine government, or its successor. Conversely, if Russia extends its gains to Kyiv, the insurgents would fight allied with a Ukrainian government-in-exile (based in western Ukraine or Poland) against a pro-Russian government puppet installed in Kyiv by its Moscow masters.
The War: Geographic and Cultural Factors. At this writing much hangs in the balance: Russia has been unable to consolidate gains in the central and western regions of what is the largest country whose borders lie completely within Europe. It is mostly flatland, average elevation a mere 574 feet, which notable mountains only in the southwest corner, the Carpathians, the highest peak inside Ukraine reaching 6,762 feet; it is bisected from north to south by the Dnieper River, at 1,420 miles the fourth longest in Europe. Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, sits on the west bank of the Dnieper at its northern end; its primary open-sea port, Odessa, sits by the western terminus of the river, which empties into the Black Sea. Its principal products are agricultural—the “breadbasket of Europe” and mineral.
Russia is the largest country in the world, with 23 percent of its land area and 77 percent of its population (some 100 million) considered part of the European landmass. Its European area is 6-1/2 times and its European population 2-1/2 times greater than Ukraine’s. Eyeballing a map, Russia now appears to control some one-quarter of Ukraine, concentrated in the east and southeast sections. Ukraine’s official language is part of a complex historical and cultural tapestry. Ukrainian, which evolved from Old East Slavonic, the original language of Kievan Rus, is the official language today. But in 2012 Ukraine’s unicameral parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, passed a law allowing regions that have more than 10 percent non-Ukrainian populations to adopt a local official language; per this, the Russian-occupied regions in eastern and southeastern regions made Russian their official language. Overall (rounded figures), Ukrainian is spoken by 67 percent and Russian by 30 percent. Western Ukraine speaks mostly Ukrainian; central Ukraine equally speaks both languages; but notably, in Kyiv, the majority, like eastern Ukraine, speaks Russian.
The War: Current Status. While there are conflicting reports of how Russia is doing, and events could suddenly break decisively one way or another, it seems clear that Russia has gotten bogged down, and is trying to use reinforcements to change the war’s course. Hopes on the part of Putin and his military leadership for a quick Russian win and complete subjugation of the country under a puppet government have been shattered. Much credit goes to the NATO countries, but even more goes to the bravura performance of Ukrainians. Their leader has emerged as the closest thing the 21st century has seen to British World War II prime minister, Winston Churchill. Their military is fighting to a standstill a heavily-armed force with thousands of tanks and other armored vehicles, and a larger air force and navy. Their civilian population arose with courage for the ages; it fights with far less weaponry, but far greater tenacity, in defending their homeland against an invader who sent in mostly conscripts.
Yet victory for Ukraine, while possible, seems elusive, and likely will require greater influx of sophisticated weapons and logistical supplies—to say nothing for food and medical care, if Ukraine is to emerge a victor on the battlefield. Already, Moscow has achieved one of its prime objectives: inducing Ukraine’s leaders to proclaim that they are willing to forego the possibility of becoming a member of NATO, as it is a sovereign country, newly recognized as such upon the end-1991 break-up of the former Soviet Union, and thus is legally entitled to apply for membership.
The West: Strategic or Moral Stake? Myriad articles and commentary—from both the political right and left— convey the view that America has no geostrategic interests in getting involved in the Russo-Ukraine War. Why, then, risk World War III to save Ukraine from Russian conquest or, short of actual takeover, dominance? Russia, were are told, has legitimate historical fears that go back to its very beginning, when in the late 9th century Kievan Rus was formed, marking the emergence of Slavic peoples from antiquity; historians date the formation of a Russian state to 988 AD, when Prince Vladimir of Novgorod converted to Orthodox Christianity—albeit what we now know as the modern nation-state awaited the 16th century. Kievan Rus extended only to the Ural Mountains, some 800 miles from Moscow. That range runs north to south, and divides European Russia from Asian Russia—mainly Siberia in the north, and mostly south of Siberia, the five Islamic states that were part of the former Soviet Union.
So, the narrative points to serial great invasions of Russia—the Tatar Yoke (after 1237 invasion), 1240-1480; that same year, the Swedes; the Swedes again in the 18th century; Napoleon’s France in 1812; and Hitler’s Germany, on June 22, 1941. In all, these great invasions spanned nearly a millennium. But what is rarely noted, is that all these great invasions came from distant powers, who were not neighbors of Russia. The Russia historian Richard Pipes once counted all wars Russia was involved in, over a period from the 16th though late 20th centuries. Of 230 wars, he counted 200 started by Mother Russia (no link available, but this is a number one does not forget). Many of these were, to be fair, smaller conflicts. But the point to be made is that Mother Russia’s neighbors have far more to fear from Russia than vice-versa. Further, given that the great invasions came from afar, logic would dictate that Russia would benefit from having strong buffer states surrounding it.
Let’s take the argument one step further. Does the United States today fear invasion from the United Kingdom? In the War of 1812 we fought the British Commonwealth, during which in 1814 the British burned down the original White House. Our national anthem’s lyrics celebrate the American heroes who survived cannon bombardment by the Royal Navy. Now it is the case that Ukraine, and the former satellites of the former Soviet Union, hate the Russians. But no one anywhere—let alone in Moscow—believes that any of these countries would start a war with a nuclear-armed Russia; nor in any plausibly imaginable future would such an event come to pass.
And what picture should we have of Russia? During the thousand years since its 988 AD inception, the Motherland has had a total of eight years—1992-1999, under Boris Yeltsin—when there was an effort at privatizing the economy and establishing some semblance of democratic governance. Consider the portrait of Tsarist Russia drawn by the 19th century nobleman, the Marquis de Custine, in his classic account of his visit to Russia, Empire of the Czar, published in 1839:
The Kremlin, on a hill, gives me the idea of a city of princes, built in the midst of a city of people. This tyrannical castle, this proud heap of stones, looks down scornfully upon the bodes of common men; and, contrary to what is the case of structures of ordinary dimensions, the nearer we approach the indestructible mass, the more our wonder increases. Like the bones of certain gigantic animals, the Kremlin proves to us the history of a world of which we might doubt until after seeing the remains. In this prodigious creation strength takes the place of beauty, caprice of elegance; it is like the dream of a tyrant, fearful but full of power; it has something about it that disowns the age; means of defence which are adapted to a system of war that exists no longer; an architecture that has no connection with the wants of modern civilization; a heritage of the fabulous ages, a gaol, a palace, a sanctuary, a bulwark against the nation’s foes, a bastille against the nation, a prop of tyrants, a prison of people,—such is the Kremlin. Kind of northern Acropolis, a Pantheon of barbarism, this national fabric may be called the Alcazar of the Slavonians.
Such, then, was the chosen abode of the old Muscovite princes; and yet these formidable walls were not sufficient shelter for the terror of Ivan IV.
The fear of a man possessing absolute power is the most dreadful thing upon earth; and with all the imagery of this fear visible within the Kremlin; it is still impossible to approach the fabric without a shudder.
Towers of every form, round, square, and with pointed roofs, belfries, donjons, turrets, spires, sentry boxes upon minarets, steeples of every height, style and colour, palaces, domes, towers, walls, embattlemented and pierced with loopholes, ramparts, fortifications of every species, whimsical inventions, incomprehensible devices, chiosks by the side of cathedrals—every thing announces violation and disorder, every thing betrays the continual surveillance necessary to the security of the singular beings who were condemned to live in this supernatural world. Yet these innumerable monuments of pride, caprice, voluptuousness, glory, and piety, notwithstanding their apparent variety, express one single idea which reigns here everywhere—wear maintained by fear. The Kremlin is the work of a superhuman being, but that being is malevolent. Glory in slavery—such is the allegory figured by this satanic monument, as extraordinary in architecture as the visions of St. John are in poetry. It is a habitation which would suit some of the personages of the Apocalypse.
Custine’s work has often been compared to that of another French nobleman, Alexis de Tocqueville, whose Democracy in America presented a celebrated 1835 portrait of the U.S.
Tsar Vlad the Bad fits neatly into Custine’s chilling portrait of the dark tyranny that was Tsarist Russia. From this historical list, in the 16th century, there was Ivan IV “the Terrible” (1547-1584), who created the first Russian secret police, the Oprichnina. The 17th century brought Peter the Great (1689-1725) to the throne. Known in the West for his opening Russia to European influence, he was brutally repressive at home. The 18th century saw Catherine the Great (1762-1796) seek a warm water port in parts of the Ottoman Empire. And the 19th century featured two repressive tsars. Nicholas I, 1825-1855, nicknamed “the Cudgel” by his unfortunate subjects, began his reign by crushing the democratic Decembrist revolt; halfway through his rule, he established the Pale of Settlement to confine the Jews; and ended his three decades by starting the Crimean War, in pursuit of Catherine’s dream of a warm water port. Alexander III (1881-1894) established the Okhrana, a restructured secret police, and actively persecuted the Jews. In all fitting pedigree for Vlad.
The moral calculus, beyond traditional humanitarian concerns that often motivate Western powers to act, stems from events that, per a recent WSJ article, sealed Ukraine’s Fate. The intense pressure actually began in 1992. James Baker, Bush 41’s secretary of state, feared that all 14 Warsaw Pact nations would then wish to join NATO (which ultimately proved true). In what a contemporary observer called a “blistering” phone call, Baker blasted Ukraine’s president, Leonid Kravchuk, for signing but not ratifying the 1992 Lisbon Protocol, which sought to disarm three newly-minted, former Soviet republics—Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine—of their nuclear arsenals, by having them ship their weapons to the Russian Federation. President Kravchuk resisted such a transfer, fearing that Russia would conquer Ukraine; he sought but could not get agreement to join NATO, where if bereft of his own nukes he could take shelter under NATO’s extended deterrence nuclear umbrella. Per the accord, Ukraine surrendered its 1,900 strategic and 2,275 tactical nuclear warheads—then the world’s third largest nuclear arsenal. One central limitation, however, on Ukraine’s freedom of action, was that although their nuclear arsenal (which included ICBMs), was located physically on Ukrainian sovereign soil, Moscow retained control over authorization, arming and and release codes. Without control over these the arsenal could not be used—albeit reportedly it may have been possible for Ukraine to bypass them.
Enter one William Jefferson Clinton, on Jan. 20, 1993, the new Oval Office occupant. Within six days of taking the reins, Clinton demanded that Ukraine give up its nuclear weapons—not even waiting for the results of a couple reviews of the situation that were underway. Clinton’s minions, with rare exceptions, were adamant about disarming Ukraine—and not so insistent with Russia. They ignored a prescient warning from Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, an expert on Russia and the Soviet bloc countries. “Zbig” said: “Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire. But with Ukraine, suborned and then subordinated, Russia automatically becomes an empire.”
The ultimate result was the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, ostensibly guaranteeing Ukraine’s territorial integrity, signed by the U.S., UK and Russia; but the latter made no new commitments, beyond those continued in earlier East-West accords. In effect, the U.S. has no legal obligation, as it does with its fellow NATO members, per Art. 5 of the 1949 NATO Treaty. As for the Budapest Memorandum it may be said, per Samuel Goldwyn’s famed malapropism, “An oral contract is not worth the paper it is written on.” In fact, Clinton’s overarching Eurosecurity goal was embodied in his 1993 “Partnership for Peace” program—an all-encompassing East-West mutual security initiative, envisioning even Russia as a member—conjoined to NATO. In the event, for Ukraine to join NATO, per the 1996 Constitution of Ukraine, would require an amendment to said Constitution.
What Should Ukraine Seek? Ukraine has already conceded that it is willing to forego NATO membership—albeit, President Biden has extended NATO-level Cold War-era nuclear deterrence to include Ukraine. Ukraine is also willing to pledge neutrality. Thus, the keys for Ukraine/NATO are that:
(a) Ukraine be formally recognized by Russia as an independent country;
(b) any territory occupied by Russia be formally recognized as autonomous regions--NOT legally part of Russia;
(c) Ukraine be guaranteed unfettered access to the sea via Odessa and other ports;
(d) Sevastopol (the naval base on the island of Crimea) remain jointly accessible to Ukraine and Russia;
(e) Ukraine receive from NATO concrete security guarantees, in light of the Budapest Memorandum fail--buttressed by massive rearmament by NATO and domestic forces near the border--albeit, likely with a demilitarized zone.
(f) Sanctions relief must include commitments by Russia re energy supply and agricultural trade.
Anything less gives Russia a win, unacceptable after the massive destruction inflicted on Ukraine—which can never accept a formal partition.
Hence if peace talks fail, a long low-intensity war will most likely result. A special nightmare scenario for NATO is if the Russians occupy the Suwalki Gap, a 104 km. (65-mile) strip of land that runs southward from the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad from the Baltic Sea, along Poland’s border with Lithuania; thus, it cuts off the three Baltic states from the rest of NATO.
The “X” Factor: Mismatched Leaders. President Biden’s stupefyingly incoherent bluster and retreats—best summed up as an inversion of Teddy Roosevelt’s “speak softly and carry a big stick—during his stay in Europe, and frantic serial efforts by the White House to clean up his improvised sallies, left everyone confused on both sides of the Atlantic. No one outside the administration senior staff knows who is running the show, and how far the president’s mental state has declined.
Making matters worse is that Biden’s threat to use chemical or biological weapons runs afoul of the U.S. having in 1997 signed the International Chemical Weapons Convention Treaty, committing to eliminate all such agents by 2007, a date later extended to 2012. And the U.S. is a party to the 1972 Biological Warfare Convention, which went into effect in 1975.
The mess was starkly illustrated by the sharp reactions of French president Macron and voices in Moscow. Macron tartly said: “I would not use those words.” He added that “everything must be done to stop the situation from escalating.” Moscow reactions included one source describing Biden as “weak, indecisive and sick”; and the head of the State Duma (Russian parliament) calling for Biden to “undergo a medical examination.”
Paradoxically, whereas normally a feeble, feckless leader spells disaster, in this instance Moscow’s choosing to dismiss Biden’s rhetorical wanderings suggests that Moscow is cutting him slack, by not taking Old Joe seriously. Else they could have used his unhinged open call for regime change as a pretext for escalation. This further suggests that Russia still holds out hope of gaining additional ground without a WMD escalation.
Bottom Line. While many developments look promising for Ukraine, there is increasing peril due to: (a) the unreliability of the shifting, often contradictory U.S. responses; and (b) the volatility of Vladimir Putin, who shows no sign of looking for an off-ramp. Add to this the ultimate extraneous wild card: Team Biden has engaged Putin, whom they (accurately but imprudently, in the midst of a crisis) call a war criminal, to represent U.S. interests in negotiating a new nuclear deal with Iran. Put another way, Team Biden is trusting a war criminal to faithfully represent America’s interests in talks with our mortal terror-state enemy; the administration seems to assume that Putin’s interests are congruent with ours. They are not. Putin does not fear a nuclear strike by Iran on the Russian homeland, as Putin’s certain nuclear response would extinguish Iran. Iran’s threat is to Israel and the U.S. Especially in light of our aid to Ukraine, Putin is happy to give us more vexing security issues to deal with.
It would, it seems, take Putin declaring that his off-ramp is the annexation of Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach “Little Odessa”, to bring the administration to its senses.
John Wohlstetter, a senior fellow at the Gold Institute for International Strategy is author of Sleepwalking with the Bomb (Discovery Institute Press, 2d. ed. 2014).