(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 p