The Russian invasion of Ukraine is almost three months old and, although the intensity of the bombing has decreased (in some areas), a peace agreement does not seem close. Both parties recognize that there is no ongoing dialogue and that they would not accept the claims that are launched from the other side of the table. How can the conflict end?
The hopes of facilitating an exit for Russia are not supported if what is aimed at is having a lasting agreement that provides stability. That is what the American researcher explains Anne Applebaumauthor of the book The Twilight of Democracy: The Seduction of Authoritarianism (2020) and an expert on Eastern European issues.
in a column for AtlanticApplebaum pointed out that hope in the possibility of an agreement is based on three wrong assumptions.
The first is that Russia wants to get out of Ukraine before suffering a defeat. While the campaign has suffered numerous setbacks, thousands of casualties, and shows signs of incompetence, the rally in southeastern Ukraine maintains an upper hand over its rivals, continuing to wear them down. In parallel, in the face of the cataract of sanctions, the recession is less serious than the one suffered by kyiv. And with public opinion on his side, plus the propaganda apparatus, Vladimir Putin would not care about the human casualties and the prolongation of the atrocities as long as the Ukrainian army is exhausted.
The second assumption crossed out by Applebaum is that a treaty or agreement would be respected by Russia. “Brazen dishonesty is now a normal part of Russian foreign policy, as well as internal propaganda,” said the author, who recalled how the Kremlin denied at the beginning of the year that it is preparing a war, and in the same way, not any promises on the negotiating table should be believed. Thus, any territory that could be ceded to the Russian Federation in exchange for the withdrawal of troops would be a focus of crimes. As she analyzed it, the populations in areas surrendered against their will would be victims of arrests and violations on an unprecedented scale, while other non-annexed areas would continue to be a target of conquest.
Finally, the third assumption indicates that Ukraine could reach an agreement with concessions and with the support of the population, which would give a message that Russia can invade, kidnap, kill and profit. “What Ukrainian president or prime minister can accept such a deal and expect to stay in office?” Applebaum wondered, suggesting that any leader who agrees to such a deal would be removed or forced to resign. In addition, the possible areas handed over would constantly be sources of violence and insurgency, as they did not accept the new authorities. “Ceding up territory now for an agreement will only cause another conflict later on. The end of one type of violence will lead to another type of violence,” he stressed.
What, then, could be the way forward?
For Applebaum, the Western coalition should not aim to offer Putin a way out, but seek a humiliating defeat of the Russian president. It would not be enough for him to withdraw the troops. “He has to conclude that the war was a terrible mistake, one that can never be repeated. Moreover, the people around him – the leaders of the military, the security services, the business community – have to conclude exactly the same. Russian public opinion must also come to that conclusion,” he maintained.
This defeat would have to be mainly military, with an increase in aid from Washington that allows the occupied territory to be recovered. But also economic, with an embargo that leaves Russia without income. The sanctions, moreover, would have to be not only for a handful of oligarchs, but for the entire political class. In this sense, Applebaum suggested using the list of 6,000 “bribes and warmongers” (politicians and bureaucrats) drawn up by the opposition group Alexei Navalny.
It is not a simple or peaceful path. The Russian defeat would be achieved at the loss of thousands more lives. But for Applebaum, it’s the only way. “Any ceasefire that allows Putin to experience any kind of victory will be inherently unstable, because it will encourage him to try again. The victory in Crimea did not satisfy the Kremlin. Victory in Kherson will not satisfy the Kremlin either,” he warned.
But a military humiliation would not only alter the future of Ukraine, but also that of Russia. “It could create a real opening for national self-examination or major change, as has happened so many times in Russia’s past. Only failure can persuade Russians themselves to question the meaning and purpose of a colonial ideology that has repeatedly impoverished and ruined their own economy and society, as well as those of their neighbors, for decades.
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