Albrecht Rothacher argues that an end to hostilities in Ukraine in the context of a peace plan is not unforeseeable. It is in the interest of all sides. He identifies the steps that need to be taken, and the people likely to be involved
Winter is upon us, and after ten months of war in Eastern Ukraine, no decisive victory is in sight. A slow Russian retreat has been happening. Using poorly trained, under-equipped and badly-led draftees and mercenaries, including former prisoners, Russia has experienced rising battlefield losses. There is growing resort to random destruction of Ukrainian civilian infrastructure and housing through Iranian drones and Russian missiles.
Russia's butchery of villages and towns is reminiscent of the Battle of the Somme – but with more civilian than military deaths
None of this makes any military sense. It amounts to butchery of villages and towns reminiscent of the Battle of the Somme in 1916. The only difference is that there are more civilian than military deaths in Ukraine today. Victory is out of sight for either side in this conflict.
At the same we are witnessing a growing ‘solidarity fatigue’ in the West, whose massive financial, moral and logistical support so far has helped to sustain the Ukrainians’ heroic resistance and successful counterattacks. In Europe there is an upsurge of energy prices, and retail price inflation. There are fears about scarcities of oil, coal and gas, partly sanctions-related and partly not. There is also the need to take care of hundreds of thousands of displaced Ukrainians, while helping to finance the Ukrainian war budget.
The US taxpayer is shouldering the costs of a war which risks driving Russia into the loving embrace of Beijing
The US has thus far has been benefitting from increased volumes and prices for its oil and fracking gas exports. But even there, the bipartisan mood is turning sceptical regarding the budgetary costs for the military hardware and ammunition of this unending proxy war. After all, the US taxpayer, during an economic downturn, is having to shoulder the costs of a war which, in strategic terms, risks driving Russia into the loving embrace of Beijing and other non-US friends like Iran and North Korea.
A future Russia as a weakened satellite, low-cost raw material supplier to China, and a UN sanctions buster to boot, is probably the option the White House least desires. China and the survival of Taiwan are more important strategically to the US than are Russia and Ukraine.
On the Kremlin’s side the picture is just as muddled. The Kremlin’s apparatus spreads open lies and targeted disinformation. But, after 22 years of autocratic rule, it also harbours self-delusions and unmistakable signs of Caesarian madness. Economic and human costs are no longer limited to outlying regions and minority soldiers like Chechens, Kalmyks, Buryats and Dagestanis. They are reaching the urban middle classes, notably with the threat of continued military call-ups. The signs of brutal power struggle are unmistakable. We have seen a purge of the senior military ranks, along with defenestrations, family 'suicide' and open murders at the top of the all-important energy sector.
A warlord who runs out of luck, historically, has two options. Either he survives his ruthless adventure or he does not. The second scenario is more likely. A Russian leader can always lay his hands on Novichok and Polonium in the Kremlin pharmacy. A more civilised option might be despatch to a faraway sanatorium, to rest in a place of no return.
In any event, Putin’s entourage of Kremlin oligarchs will have an overriding interest in saving their skins, their positions and their ill-gotten spoils. This includes trying to get their confiscated yachts and châteaux back. Traditionally the Soviet-Russian model for unforeseen successions is one of collective leadership until, after a high-risk power struggle, a leader emerges as an autocratic power.
So Putin and his cronies have a manifest rational interest in a peaceful face-saving outcome before it is too late. Selling almost any result to the Russian public as a glorious victory and a defeat of international fascism will not be difficult for their well-oiled propaganda apparatus. There can be victory parades and decorated veterans. The Kremlin will portray Putin as saviour of Mother Russia, war hero and peacemaker against the evil West.
Securing a peace deal where there is no clear winner after a war of attrition is not rocket science. It has been tried and tested.
First, there is need for a ceasefire and a retreat of combatants behind pre-agreed lines. In this case they have to move out of the four contested oblasts and Crimea.
Immediate replacement by UN and OSCE peacekeeping troops would follow, and civilian refugees and displaced persons would then return.
Once the situation has calmed down, an internationally supervised referendum can take place on national adherence, with decisions effective district by district. This was done more or less successfully in contested areas after the First World War, as in Upper Silesia, South Eastern Prussia, Northern Slesvig, Carinthia and German-speaking West Hungary during 1920/21.
During such tumultuous days, to avoid further mayhem, it is essential that an effective peacekeeping force is still in place
During such tumultuous days, to avoid further mayhem, it is essential that an effective peacekeeping force is still in place.
When negotiating a peace plan, compensation and reparations for Russian war damages need to be agreed. One obvious source for the payments is the Russian National Bank, currently under confiscation. This, however, is unlikely to be sufficient.
At the same time, the West should lift all sanctions (except for arms) and agree a return to economic normality once a workable ceasefire is effective.
And who should be the mediator of this peace plan? It needs to be a person who carries the confidence of the Americans (and, by extension, President Zelenskiy), of sufficient high standing to flatter Putin’s narcissist ego, and to have access to sufficient diplomatic and military resources of their own. I have four suitable candidates on my shortlist: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (who, however, always has an agenda of his own), Viktor Orbán, António Guterres and Emanuel Macron.
Whoever it may be, it is high time for them to start moving.