A Possible Solution for the War in Ukraine

Many foreign policy analysts across the world seem to be resigned to a long, grinding, and painful war in Ukraine, throwing up their hands to declare that neither Ukraine nor Russia has any obvious incentive to reach a settlement ending the war. 

Recently, the Ukrainians have had momentum in South and Northeast Ukraine and are making some progress in the Southeast Donbas region. The party winning a war typically has fewer incentives to come to the peace table, and in this case, the Ukrainians want to try to maintain their momentum during the upcoming winter. Most important, Ukraine wants the Russian-occupied portions of its country back.

On the other hand, the Russians still have the larger force and have assumed formidable defensive positions in certain key battlefield sectors. Furthermore, although Russian dictator Vladimir Putin is currently losing in the conflict, analysts believe that because his legitimacy to rule at home is based on machismo and an ideology that he wants to unite Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine under Russian dominance, he could be toppled if he does not come up with some sort of “victory” in Ukraine. So despite his military’s abysmal performance in the conflict so far, Putin is hoping to hang on through the cold winter when his wanton destruction of Ukraine’s infrastructure might (but unlikely) undermine the Ukrainian people’s will to fight, and the curtailing of Russian energy exports to Europe might (more likely) erode its support for Ukraine’s war effort. Thus, unless one of the two militaries dramatically collapses, the battlefield will probably need to stagnate and both parties will need to become exhausted before a settlement is even a possibility.

While it is true in the short–to medium-term that these key factors may not be trending toward genuine peace negotiations, in the longer term there might be a path to a lasting settlement. After the Russians invaded the Crimean region of Ukraine in late February 2014, they conducted a referendum in this Russian-speaking area to legitimize their illegal invasion. 

Yet this poll was a sham. In early March of that same year, the Russians rushed the Crimean population into a referendum with two choices that were basically the same thing; Crimeans could vote to be annexed into Russia or restore the autonomy of Crimean authorities, who had just been installed by Russia and requested annexation by Russia. According to Yale historian Timothy Snyder, although the official results claimed that about 90 percent of the Crimean population turned out for the poll, with almost all voters selecting direct annexation, internal Kremlin documents showed a participation rate of only 30 percent, with the vote divided between the two options. Snyder also noted that voters had no sources of news independent of the Russian occupiers’ propaganda and no presence of internationally qualified observers to ensure that the vote was free and fair. Even the votes of the meager 30 percent could have been coerced by the invading army.

At the time, Putin accepted the “wishes” of Crimean voters, and against the United Nations charter, international law, and prior treaties and security assurances between Russia and Ukraine, annexed the region.

Despite the 2014 Russian-run referendum during a military invasion and occupation being bogus, however, legitimate free and fair referenda run by the United Nations or other neutral international organizations could be an eventual solution to the current war. Unless the Russian-occupied Donbas, Crimean, and Southern Ukrainian regions are allowed true self-determination, future wars may break out over these regions. Before any referenda could be held, however, all military forces from both combatants would need to be withdrawn from the areas. Then the regions could be given real choices between remaining in Ukraine, being annexed into Russia, or even becoming independent of both countries. In any peace settlement, to give it the best chance to remain permanent, both Russia and Ukraine would need to commit in advance to accept the will of the inhabitants of these regions. An exhausted Russia may need to be resigned that these alleged Russophilic areas may have changed their minds after being brutally invaded; a weary and war-devastated Ukraine may need to concede that it will not get back all its pre-war territory. 

This solution may not be perfect but listening to the voice of the people is likely to provide a more satisfying and stable end state than would two warring governments horse-trading over territory that may contain many unwilling, and therefore unruly, citizens. 

Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace and Liberty at the Independent Institute. His Independent books include War and the Rogue Presidency, Eleven Presidents, The Empire Has No Clothes, Recarving Rushmore, and No War for Oil.
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