The Russo-Ukrainian War has been the most striking development in the year 2022. As the biggest armed conflict since the Syrian War and previously the Iraq War, the ongoing conflict in Ukraine has not only geopolitical but also economic consequences for some related actors. In the second half of 2022, the two sides seem to have fallen into a stalemate. Since Russia apparently pursues specific goals and Ukraine has been able to prevent Russia from reaching them so far, the situation is not promising in the sense that a quick resolution can be expected. In conflict situations where the attacking party is not able to quickly reach its goals, usually, a resource-intensive stagnation is setting in. Until one of the parties starts to make concessions or the goals adapt to the newly emerging situation, valuable resources, manpower and economic opportunity costs are foregone. So, what does Russia need to do, in order for this conflict to end?
In principle, whenever the intentions and goals of policy actions are discussed, we can never rely solely on the statements and arguments of involved actors. As the international state community is characterised by a horizontal alignment of legal statuses of the respective states and their natural task is to advance their societies in the light of genuine knowledge production, we must always view their policy actions from this perspective – as we already know from Devlet. The problem is that, today, no state is structured around devletist principles, which is why we need to view state behaviour of non-devletist states from the two inferior premises: power and/or wealth. This is not to say that the focus on genuine knowledge production is unuseful – after all, it prescribes a more efficient and effective state behaviour. But when we want to make sense of state actions in a descriptive context, where there is no such awareness by the involved actors about the centrality of genuine knowledge production, power and wealth are more than sufficient to derive meaning from state actions. In this particular situation, we can also look at the first three stages of the devletist framework of international relations, as the Russo-Ukrainian War is transnational state conduct.
Applying the above to this conflict, we have two potential options to assess the Russian decision to invade Ukraine. First, we can assume that in the previously generally harmless relationship between the two parties to the war, there must have been developments that destroyed this balance. These can be defence considerations born out of survival concerns, such as the armament of the regions by the NATO. While temporary intimidating military actions can, in most cases, be accepted, the structural deployment of weaponry close to opposing camps is, especially in the long run, a major threat to any nation’s survival. As one of the core duties of the state is to protect its society, the size and nature of such armaments can reasonably lead to military responses. Further, ethnic cleansing and other large-scale atrocities against minorities would warrant a military invasion of another country, given the ethnic or religious connection between the harmed and the invader is visibly strong enough. Economic reasons seldom warrant wars and are often waged by nations with little to no distinct culture, as they lack the normative frameworks to view economic ends as subordinate to physical and normative dangers.
Secondly, Russia’s actions in Ukraine might well be the result of chauvinistic ideals on the side of its leader. It is not uncommon for leaders who have enjoyed relatively unchecked power for more than a decade to suffer from a lack of assessment capacity, ideational imbalances, leniency towards imagined heroism and imbalanced relationship with material aspects of life. This is because getting used to such wide-ranging powers tends to bore the mind at some point, ultimately longing for new stimulation. Such a situation is not possible within devletist states, even if they are monarchic. However, in contemporary political systems, which are grounded in the ideas of power and/or wealth, autocratic leaders are exposed to the dangers explained above. It could well be that President Vladimir Putin was subject to such a development and saw his heroic ego aspirations unfolding within the scenario of the captured nation of Ukraine. Nonetheless, even in this case, he would need to make a justifiable claim domestically, as his country is the last one that would desperately need territorial expansion. If no feasible justification is given, troop mobilisation is either impossible or impossible to uphold.
Again, there is never perfect clarity around intentions. But as we have seen above, even if the actions are purely emotionally motivated, there need to be justifiable causes, which, in turn, need to be somehow empirically backed up. In the case of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there are two main arguments that play into forming a useable war cause: severe security threats through the armament of Ukraine and the strengthening of anti-Russian political elites as well as protection of Russian minorities. We have seen countless examples where one of these situations served as bases for war declarations. The invasion of Cuba in 1961 by the USA and Israels’s invasion of Egypt in 1967 were both motivated by perceived security threats in the neighbouring countries. On the other side, the European states led numerous war campaigns against the Ottoman Empire, in order to negotiate extended jurisdictional freedoms for Christian minorities within the Empire. Such negotiations led to the infamous capitulation treaties that granted far-reaching legal immunities to those minorities. Putting those two aspects together, Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine is not to be assessed as fully unwarranted.
What is Next?
Based on the assumption that the abovementioned factors motivated, or at least were used as pretexts for, the invasion, we can start filtering out its possible goals and what needs to be done to reach them. Beginning with the aspect of perceived security threats, Russia would want to get a hold of enemy weaponry or at least destroy it. The same holds true for infrastructures that would enable holding this weaponry. Simultaneously, deterrence plays a central part in preventing future arms build-ups in the region. However, a more far-reaching problem is to sustainably affect the antagonistic political elites. As Russia opted to invade Ukraine, it is thinkable that they also target key people within that elite who they perceive as a long-term threat. Combining those two possible policy goals, capturing the capital of Ukraine, Kyiv, would serve them equally well, which is why renewed attacks on Kyiv should not be ruled out until a peace treaty is signed. Regarding the other regions, Russia must acknowledge that the Western region of Ukraine is not posing feasible targets as their supply lines are stronger, due to European support. Because of that full disarmament of those regions is more difficult and in the later course easily reversible. Hence, the goals of this invasion are unlikely to move past Kyiv on the horizontal axis.
This leads to the second potential policy goal: minority protection. Since much of the Russian population of Ukraine is concentrated in the Eastern region of the country, we cannot really expect further expansion to the West in that regard anyway. Violating this assumption will hint that there are underlying motives that go beyond the two outlined factors of security threats and minority protection. Summarising, we can say that, with the available information, Russia’s policy goals regarding the invasion centre around the perceived dangers of military security threats and the violence against its own ethnic minority in Ukraine. To achieve this, territorial control of much of Eastern Ukraine and especially Kyiv, as the centre of political power, have been selected as a policy course.
Now, there are two ways to end this conflict, assuming that we rule out that Russia alters its goals while persisting in reaching the presumed goals above. Also, these options describe what Russia could do. The first option is the most obvious and straightforward one: a decisive military victory over Ukraine. Such an approach would, at least, require the capture of Kyiv or, if that is not possible, a territorial gain of around 40% of Ukraine’s landmass in the East. At the time of writing, Russian troops mostly remain outside of the Northern region and display a higher concentration on the offensive in the East, suggesting that they are aiming for a victory through territorial gains. However, due to the length of the conflict, it has assumed the characteristics of a siege. In these cases, the focus might fade at other points in the defence of the defending nation. It might well be that renewed attempts to reach Kyiv might start soon, as Russia might currently just try to pull the focus away from other targets. Regardless of the actual war development, the first path to end the conflict is a quite dominant display of control in Ukraine, giving Russia not only territorial advantages but also a stronger position to negotiate peace terms.
Finally, there is a second, less forceful, way to end this conflict with Russia reaching their goals and establishing a situation that is sustainable for them as well as Ukraine. To use diplomatic means to end the war, Ukraine and its allies must perceive the Russian power as so overwhelming that it would make the continuation of the conflict from their side an irrational endeavour. Currently, there is apparently no such perception on the Ukrainian side, meaning that Russia must seek a way to change this. It might well try to increase military presence at various border regions, while also seeking binding support from considerably strong allies, such as China, which has been reluctant so far to fully support the Russian campaign. This second option does not actually aim at using the added force but using it as a means of deterrence to achieve a stronger negotiating position. By reaching such a position, it can be used to bring forward claims that could include the annexation of some territories, while others are returned to Ukraine. In order to show commitment to long-term peace in the region, Russia should also demilitarise some border regions on its soil and commit to the reconstruction of Ukraine. Further, it is important that Ukraine commits to diplomatic neutrality under a UN framework, including a waiver of NATO membership. Finally, a population exchange could be arranged to eliminate future ethnic minority conflicts, though with such a measure the justification to hold onto the captured Ukrainian provinces would be neutralised.
Within this framework, mutual interests are mostly respected, though it is clearly a situation in favour of Russia and its goals. But this is how policy analysis works. If the overarching question had been what Ukraine can do to end this conflict, the answer would have been completely different. The most important aspect of analysis in this military context is to filter out the goals of the actor that is focused on, which was done above. From this, we can derive potential courses of policy action and make an assessment of the potential options. In most cases, deviation from the tentative assumptions mostly stems from either insufficient information on the circumstances or different underlying motives.
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