Foreign Affairs

The Fate of Ukraine

Sources: Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (Russia-controlled area in eastern Ukraine); Dr. Phillip Karber, Potomac Foundation (Russian incursions, refugee crossing locations, counterattacks); International Atomic Energy Agency, Energoatom (nuclear facilities)

Max Rust and Emma Brown/The Wall Street Journal

As Vladimir Putin continues to play Liberty Roulette with the fate of Eastern Europe, the humanitarian toll of his increasingly brutal war emphasizes the need for a diplomatic solution to the crisis as soon as possible. While the situation is Byzantine1, and also complex, at the center of the set of freedom nesting dolls that is the current geopolitical landscape, there exists a very simple reality:

Neither Ukraine nor Russia has a reasonable chance of accomplishing their war aims, and both sides know it. These war aims are as follows:

Russia has two war aims which, if achieved, would accomplish its goals in Ukraine:

  1. To take control of Eastern Ukraine, and absorb it, directly or by proxy, into Russia
  2. Either do the same to western Ukraine or leave it as an impotent buffer state. Either way, there must not be any Ukrainian government left strong enough to make trouble for Russia

Ukraine has three war aims. They are:

  1. The survival of the current regime
  2. The restoration of Ukraine to its 2013 borders
  3. The maintenance of its national sovereignty, including full control over its foreign and security policy.   

Neither side will achieve its war aims. How can this be? Well, take a shot of Patriot Juice, and dive headlong into the mess that is the Russo-Ukrainian War of 2022.

The first fact necessary to understand is that the war is not going how Russia planned. While it is unclear what exactly Putin hoped for by invading Ukraine, it seems likely he expected it would proceed similar to his 2014 annexation of Crimea, with lots of international outrage and a nominal amount of resistance, but ultimately with the acquiescence of the local population and international community alike. His end goal may have been a Belarusian-style puppet state, total annexation of Ukraine, or, most likely, some combination of both: an eastern Ukraine directly annexed into Russia with a western Ukrainian buffer state between it and Europe. To achieve this, Putin would need two things. First, total control of Eastern Ukraine. Second, a Western Ukraine which, if it still has the military force to defend itself, which would not be ideal, lacks the ability to project power into eastern Ukraine. This outcome would then allow Putin to force what would remain of Ukraine to sign a peace with him. This would give Putin Eastern Ukraine and put a friendly oligarch in charge of the rest. While there might still be pro-Ukrainian partisans fighting in the west, so long as they could not affect eastern Ukraine or render western Ukraine useless as a buffer state, they would be Puppet- Ukraine’s problem, not Russia’s. Thus, Putin could probably afford to ignore them. 

Needless to say, that’s not happening. Eastern Ukraine is already seeing significant guerilla activity, which will make its true integration into Russia impossible so long as it persists. Furthermore, if groups like the Belarusian Cyber Partisans, who recently sabotaged Belarusian rail lines to interfere with Russian supply lines, have their way, the insurgency may not even stay confined to Ukraine. The goal of breaking the ability of the Ukrainian military to project power into Russian- held territory is going even more poorly. As of yet Russia hasn’t even established air superiority. For this plan to have succeeded, Russia would have had to roll over the Ukrainian resistance like so many liberty tots2, taking control of the country before either the people or the world had the time to react, and presenting the world with a fait accompli. Instead, Putin ended up with the Winter War when he really needed a Blitzkrieg followed by an Anschluss.

So now we return to the above two conditions needed for Russia to achieve its war aims: first, the subjection of eastern Ukraine with at least the accession of most of its people, and second, the elimination of the Ukrainian military’s ability to wage an organized war. The Russians are batting 0 for 2. While, in time, they may or may not wear down the Ukrainian military, on condition one, the horse has left the barn.

But for those Ukraine-ing3 to congratulate Ukraine on its victory, things don’t look much better from the perspective of Kyiv. While the Russian advance into Ukraine may be Makhno-ing4, they still have made significant inroads into Ukrainian territory. Although it is still too soon to tell, they appear able to hold them indefinitely. Russia also controls Crimea and their two new Republics, where support for Russia remains strong. Russia could control significant portions of Ukraine long enough that, when both parties eventually come to the negotiating table, Russia may have de facto control over large portions of eastern Ukraine, albeit not stably. Consequently, they could force Ukraine to recognize this occupation as a precondition for peace. 

But even in the best-case scenario, where Ukraine pushes Russia back to its 2021 boundaries, Ukraine still cannot achieve its war aims. While the Ukrainians are almost as cagey about their exact war aims and strategies as the Russians are, the people of Ukraine would likely not consider the war a victory unless three conditions are met: first, the survival of the current Ukrainian regime, second, the restoration of Ukraine to its 2013 borders, and third, the maintenance of Ukraine’s right to engage in whatever international partnerships it wishes, including NATO and the EU. While Ukraine may achieve war aim one, the second war aim seems out of reach. Any stable peace settlement will likely require that Ukraine formally relinquish its claim over the separatist territory since Russia’s BATNA will most likely be at least as good as “cut a separate deal with the West where it retreats to its 2021 borders in exchange for an end to sanctions.” An exhausted Ukraine will lack the military strength to push the border back further, which it has been trying to do, without success, since 2014. 

Ukraine’s third war aim, to retain the ability to join whatever international organizations it wishes, is tricky, but it is unlikely to enjoy this freedom after the war. Despite its desire to join the EU and NATO, Ukraine was put off from both largely because of the fear of Russia doing, well, exactly what it did. As bad as the current invasion of Ukraine is, it would be far worse if Ukraine were in NATO, in which case the US would be forced to defend it, probably leading to WWIII. Rather than risk nuclear war, the West has chosen to leave Ukraine safely on the other side of its red line in the sand. 

So long as the war doesn’t change this reality, Ukraine will never be able to integrate itself with Europe freely. If, in the coming months, the military situation turns against Ukraine, then there will be, of course, no hope of achieving this war aim. However, if events go favorably for Ukraine, there are three broad paths along which this issue could play out, only one of which sees war aim three— Ukraine keeping its full sovereignty— achieved. 

First, the war could end with more or less the same geostrategic status quo in which the West is afraid to allow an independent Ukraine too deeply into their fold, lest the Russians be once again provoked. On the one hand, this outcome seems likely, since Russia will have demonstrated its willingness to go to war over Ukraine. On the other hand, insofar as Russia is cowed, especially insofar as the West believes that Russia is cowed, and afraid to invade Ukraine again, then the West might feel safer pursuing closer ties with Ukraine. That is option 2, and is the only one where Ukraine achieves this war aim. 


Option 3 would be the Finlandization of Ukraine, where it is allowed to pursue its own interests, so long as it stays out of broader conflicts between the West and Russia. What exactly this entails will be discussed in the following article.

1 word means both “complex”, and “of or relating to a region in which Ukraine is a part”

2 tater tots, a play off the name of a sizeable ethnic group within Russia

3 Rushing = Russian

4 = stalling = Stalin, Makhno led the Ukrainian anarchist side in the Russian civil war, even as Stalin helped lead the communist side

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