Gilbert Doctorow: How the War Will End

It has been my rule not to join the vast majority of my fellow political commentators at the scrimmage line in sterile debates of the one subject of the day, week, month that has attracted their full attention. Their debates are sterile because they ignore all but a few parameters of reality in Russia, in Ukraine. For them, ignorance is bliss. They do not stir from their armchairs nor do they switch channels to get information from the other side of the barricades, meaning from Russia.

I will violate this overriding rule and just this once join the debate over how Russia’s "special military operation" will end. Nearly all of my peers in Western media and academia give you read-outs based on their shared certainty over Russia’s military and political ambition from the start of the "operation," how Russia failed by underestimating Ukrainian resilience and professionalism, how Putin must now save face by capturing and holding some part of Ukraine. The subject of disagreement is whether at the end of the campaign the borders will revert to the status quo before 24 February in exchange for Ukrainian neutrality or whether the Russians will have to entirely give up claims on Donbas and possibly even on Crimea.

As for commentators in the European Union, there is exaggerated outrage over alleged Russian aggression, over any possible revision of European borders as enshrined in the Helsinki Act of 1975 and subsequent recommitments by all parties to territorial inviolability of the signatory States. There is the stench of hypocrisy from this crowd as they overlook what they wrought in the deconstruction of Yugoslavia and, in particular, the hiving off of Kosovo from the state of Serbia.

I mention all of the foregoing as background to what I see now going on in Russian political life, namely open and lively discussion of whether the country should annex the territories of Ukraine newly "liberated" by forces of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics with decisive assistance of the Russian military. By admission of President Zelensky yesterday, these territories now amount to 20% of the Ukrainian state as it was configured in 2014.

In the past several weeks, when Russia concentrated its men and materiel on the Donbas and began to score decisive victories, most notably following the taking of Mariupol and capitulation of the nationalist fighters in the Azovstal complex, leading public officials in the DPR, the LPR and the Kherson oblast have called for quick accession of their lands to the Russian Federation with or without referendums. In Moscow, politicians, including Duma members, have called for the same, claiming that a fait accompli could be achieved already in July.

However, as I see and hear on political talk shows and even in simple political reportage on mainstream Russian radio like Business FM, a counter argument has raised its head. Those on this side ask whether the populations of the potential new constituent parts of the RF are likely to be loyal to Russia. They ask if there is truly a pro-Russian majority in the population should a referendum be organized.

This is all very interesting. It surely is a continuation of the internal debate in Moscow back in 2014 when the decision was taken to grant Crimea immediate entry into the RF while denying the requests for similar treatment from the political leaders of the Donbas oblasts.

However, there surely are other considerations weighing in on the Kremlin that I have not seen aired so far. They may be likened to the considerations of France following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, when the possible reunification of Germany was the talk of the day. Sharp-witted observers said at the time that President Mitterand liked Germany so much that he wanted to continue to see two of them. Today Vladimir Putin may like Ukraine and its brethren Slavs so much that he wants to see three or four of them.

To be specific, from the very beginning the number one issue for Moscow as it entered upon its military adventure in Ukraine was geopolitical: to ensure that Ukraine will never again be used as a platform to threaten Russian state security, that Ukraine will never become a NATO member. We may safely assume that internationally guaranteed and supervised neutrality of Ukraine will be part of any peace settlement. It would be nicely supported by a new reality on the ground: namely by carving out several Russia-friendly and Russia-dependent mini-states on the former territory of East and South Ukraine. At the same time this solution removes from the international political agenda many of the accusations that have been made against Russia which support the vicious sanctions now being applied to the RF at great cost to Europe and to the world at large: there will be no territorial acquisitions.

If Kiev is compelled to acknowledge the independence of these two, three or more former oblasts as demanded by their populations, that is a situation fully compatible with the United Nations Charter. In a word, a decision by the Kremlin not to annex parts of Ukraine beyond the Crimea, which has long been quietly accepted by many in Europe, would prepare the way for a gradual return of civilized relations within Europe and even, eventually, with the United States.

Gilbert Doctorow is a Brussels-based political analyst. His latest book is Does Russia Have a Future? Reprinted with permission from his blog.

© Gilbert Doctorow, 2022

8 thoughts on “Gilbert Doctorow: How the War Will End”

  1. The big question is where does Odessa fall in this plan? I believe it will be used as the final bargaining chip. Russia will finish clearing the rest of the Donbass area and move towards Odessa, if Ukraine wants to fight on they will possibly lose access to the Sea. If they choose to allow Crimea to return to Russia and the people of Donbass are allowed to rule themselves, then Ukraine will have a port.

    What will the US decide? Nuclear war? They could decide to move “Peacekeeping” troops into Odessa prior to the Russian’s moving in that direction.

    That will lead to a direct nuclear showdown this fall sometime. Should be great for TV ratings and midterm hype. At that point the US could allow a settlement and make the claim that they saved Odessa and backed down the bear. While it’s likely that Russia was always willing to allow Ukraine to have a port, they will need it, if they are not to become a dependent state.

    At one point in time it was clear that Odessa was in fact a “Russian City”. I’m not so sure that this is currently the case, since 2014 a large percentage of the Russian population has either died or been driven out, that process is continuing as we speak. By the time the Russians get to Odessa there might not be much of a Russian population there to “protect”. Although of course the Russians could always move some back in and Odessa is a very diverse city already, it wouldn’t take a ton of Russians to move the city in a pro Russian direction again. And the Russians could level it and simply move in an entirely new population of people, which would certainly solve any issue on where the cities sympathies lie after the war.

    Keep in mind that Russia has Been there and Done that, in Chechnya, and now who is fighting on Russia’s side as their staunchest allies of the war? The idea that new Russian Federations will be created isn’t “new” at all, it worked for Russia in the past. South Ossetia will likely follow.

    1. “What will the US decide? Nuclear war? They could decide to move
      “Peacekeeping” troops into Odessa prior to the Russian’s moving in that
      direction.That will lead to a direct nuclear showdown this fall sometime. Should be great for TV ratings and midterm hype. ” Great, indeed. I can see it now. NBC will carry the speech from President Biden in his private suite at the Cheyenne (DUCC), where he is announcing all is under control.

  2. Everyone has a failure of the imagination on this issue. Everyone is locked in on the random but ambiguous statements of Putin and Lavrov, which are, frankly, smoke and mirrors. The one reality are the two treaty proposals offered by Russia in December, 2021. Those are ground level goals. It is my considered opinion, on which (as Martyanov likes to say) “I am on record” , that Russia intends to secure its security by not leaving any part of Ukraine not under its control. It may not be overt control, and it certainly won’t be “occupation” – but Ukraine’s government will be a compliant and pro-Russian government. Yes, I’ve heard all the counter-arguments – ad nauseum – and I dismiss them.

    And there will be and is no “peace agreement..” Russia has presented surrender terms and Ukraine will either accept them or Russia will produce that event on the ground.

    1. There is always the chance of a political collapse in Kiev and potentially friendly result (or not). But Russia itself ruling northern Ukraine would be a nonstop struggle for them.

  3. We may safely assume that internationally guaranteed and supervised neutrality of Ukraine will be part of any peace settlement.“. Maybe, but the OSCE line-of-control didn’t ultimately hold. Europe & EU took it-for-granted & pushed the conflict to it’s back pages. EU expansion proved it had a limit as Germany is always the giant among supposed equals..
    This has always mimicked the 72 year old Korean conflict that separates a race of people & that has always been “the”problem.

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