Peace as war by other means

I remain adamantly in favor of ending the war in Ukraine now. I also adamantly favor Ukraine in the war. Despite apologetics from various quarters, Russia is straightforwardly the aggressor. A just settlement would repel the Russian Federation entirely from Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders, including Crimea. Russia plainly is not going to agree to a peace under which it slinks away from the territories it has just flamboyantly claimed to annex, let alone from Crimea, which it claims to have annexed in 2014. So how can I reconcile my continuing call for peace now with a just outcome for Ukraine (and the world)?

Let’s start with a commonplace. War is a profoundly negative-sum game. It kills and destroys. Whatever might be contested between the parties, if there were a form of adjudication that would yield the same distributional outcome as prosecuting the war, but without all the destruction, that would be strictly better for all parties. Of course, in real life, we never know what the outcome of warfare will be. When we think we know how a war is going to go, we often find ourselves catastrophically surprised. War is unpredictable. It compels an adversarialism so determined, our models are confounded. The contours of rationality itself curve like space at the edge of the event horizon.

We do not have some magic form of single combat guaranteed to yield the same outcome the war would have yielded, except without the mess. Alas. However, what we sometimes do have is a party with an upper hand. When one party in a conflict seems to have the upper hand, an extrapolatory expectation, unreliable and oversimplistic in fact, becomes nevertheless psychologically compelling. Party A has momentum! With determination, grit, time, and attrition, surely, say Party A partisans, we will win completely! Party B, during these times, is demoralized. Party B partisans cannot openly accede to extrapolatory logic. Instead, they must constantly work to persuade their publics, and their soldiers, that a corner is about to be turned. Somehow this darkest hour can portend a brilliant dawn. It’s hard work, for Party B propagandists. It often doesn’t work very well as, day by day, territory and lives are lost, national symbols are desecrated. Party B struggles to resist the gravitational pull of a joint consensus, the die is cast, we will lose, Party A will rout us.

It is during times like these that Party A has an opportunity, not to impose a victory but to propose a new, less terrible, form of conflict. From Party B’s perspective, this is a lifeline. We were losing the war, now here’s an alternative game, maybe this one we can win, at least maybe we will have a better shot. But of course this alternative proposed by Party A must be one Party A believes they are capable of winning. As long as Party A is pretty sure, they lose little in terms of the final outcome by shifting from war to this less destructive form of conflict. But they gain a great deal, because there will be much less destroyed when they eventually do win.

So the opportunity for peace here is not to propose a final settlement, or some precarious armistice that might, like the one that “ended” the Korean War, suppress hostilities cross-fingers indefinitely. The opportunity is to propose a new form of conflict, an alternative to and replacement of the war, by which the same issues can be adjudicated.

At the moment, in the current conflict, it is Ukraine that is Party A. Ukraine is the party that is winning and so can hope that some alternative game they propose will be accepted. So it’s Ukraine that could propose this sort of “peace”. But what would it look like?

I think it could be very simple. First, Ukraine and the West have a for-this-moment redline that Russia should not have gained by force any territory relative to the February 24, 2022 status quo ante. Russia has a for-this-moment redline that Crimea will not be surrendered. So, for this moment, we should revert to the February 24 status quo.

Russia claims that, by virtue of referenda, a merger into the Russian Federation of Crimea, Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk, and Luhansk is legitimate. The first point to make is that even if those referenda were free, fair, and expressive of the “will of the people” (which, whatever that means, they were not), secession is not any people or geography’s unilateral right. Secession, like divorce, implicates long-standing commitments and investments by the broader nation-state, not just the prerogatives of the local population. Referenda may be a part of a secession process, but they are never sufficient to force one. Ultimately reorganization of national borders must be mutually agreed by all of the parties to it. A nation-state’s obligation is to uphold the rights of all of its citizens, in every geography and of every ethnicity. A nation-state has no obligation to accede to secession, although it may choose to agree to part ways with a territory under mutually negotiated terms.

I think that Ukraine, Russia, and these territories should negotiate something like the following terms: For a period of ten years, administration of the contested territories will be according to the February 24 status quo ante. Crimea and the portion of the Donbas then controlled by separatists will be administered by Russia. The rest of the disputed territory will be administered by Ukraine. Citizens of all of the territories shall have the right of dual citizenship. They can obtain Ukrainian passports, Russian passports, or both.

At the end of the ten-year period, the UN will supervise referenda as to the final status of the territories. As part of the settlement, Ukraine and Russia agree upon how that will work for each territory under either result. If Crimea chooses Russia, under what terms does Ukraine supply the peninsula with water?, for example. It might be prudent to merge Crimea and Kherson into a single territory for the purpose of the eventual referendum, in order to foreclose the possibility of a discontiguous Ukrainian Crimea, which would be provocatively vulnerable.

The war over territories and populaces then reverts to a war between the parties for hearts, minds, and bellies over a period of a decade. If Ukraine, with help from the West, is redeveloping into a new Poland or Czech Republic while Russia stagnates, then the territories, including Crimea, will likely choose to be a part of Ukraine. Russia, if it wants to actually win the territories it claims are its own, will have to compete with the quality of its own development, or else make its taunts of cultural superiority to the decadent West extraordinarily compelling to the publics it would rule. The terms of the conflict would now be positive sum. As with the war, eventually some party will win and some party will lose each of the territories. Whatever the outcome, it won’t be fully just from the perspective of parties who have mutually irreconcilable conceptions of justice. But the fight to win the territories will render the territories themselves and the countries that mean to host them better off, rather than catastrophically worse off. The parties will have to compete in their effectiveness at doing good, rather than doing evil, and either side might win.

Security arrangements will have to be negotiated, so that a party losing the fight for hearts and minds is not tempted to reneg in favor of what they perceive to be an easy military workaround. Ukraine will not be demilitarized. Ukraine will require reparations, given the destruction that Russia has wrought on its territories. Fortunately, there are hundreds of billions of dollars of Russian assets already seized by the West, already lost to Russia indefinitely absent a settlement. It should not be too hard to persuade Russia that surrendering these now hypothetical assets to Ukraine as reparations would be in its interest, if that will purchase an end to this war that is bleeding them and help restore tolerable relations with its most important historic trading partners.

The competition for territories between Ukraine and Russia will not have ended. Indeed, it will have just begun. This peace would not be the end of the Ukraine war, but rather its continuation by other, much better, means. It would only be the end of the killing.

Update History:

  • 15-Oct-2022, 2:20 p.m. EDT: “It would only be the end of the killings killing.”

7 Responses to “Peace as war by other means”

  1. Sergej writes:

    Your proposal is favorable to Russia. Why would any Ukrainian agree to it?

  2. Just an Australian writes:

    Usually, you make a lot of sense, but not right now. Why would Putin ever agree to anything like this? That’s not at all his goals. And why would any ever trust Putin to stick to any rules?

  3. Detroit Dan writes:

    I’m glad to see a constructive proposal for settling this peacefully. If Ukraine survives, which is questionable in my opinion, the 2 countries will have to live side by side. Regardless the Russians will have to live with NATO on its borders.

    However, in my view, Russia is winning and Ukraine is losing horribly. Ukraine is a basket case — tens of thousands have been killed and multiples of that wounded, their infrastructure is being destroyed even as I type this, they are totally dependent on the United States just to avoid mass starvation or freezing in the winters, they’ve lost 20% of their country’s land since the start of the war – territory that Russia had agreed to leave in Ukraine if the Minsk Accords had been implemented.

    NATO is also losing. Europe’s economy is suffering inflation and recession, as is that of the U.S. The political leaders of all NATO countries are weak as we see in the U.S., Italy, Germany, UK, and France. Saudi Arabia, India, China, and other formerly non-aligned countries are siding with Russia. The West has been discredited as Russia calls their bluff and defeats them both economically and militarily. The current Russian government under Putin is far more popular than that of any Western nation. The ruble has strengthened, and Western sanctions have proven to be a self-inflicted wound.

    All this is to the good, as the U.S. led West has become the Empire of Lies as Putin put it. The neocons such as Victoria Nuland who have destroyed so many lives along with Western credibility including in Iraq 2003 are calling the shots. They lie habitually as Jeffrey Sachs observed from his insider perch since the fall of the Soviet Union.

    I certainly hope the West comes to its senses and negotiates an end to the war. More likely, as in Vietnam, Syria, and Afghanistan, the U.S. will spend another year or two fighting a losing battle before finally giving up. THEN WE AMERICANS CAN BE JOYFUL AGAIN — ONCE THE BLIZZARD OF GOVERNMENT LIES LETS UP AND WE ARE AGAIN ALLOWED TO SPEAK THE TRUTH WHEN IT CONFLICTS WITH THE WAR PROPAGANDA AND RELATED POLITICS. It will be like America once Bill Clinton admitted that he did have sex with Monica Lewinsky, or when we admitted that the Iraq War was based on false premises, or when we withdrew from Afghanistan, ending that seemingly endless war, or when we left Vietnam and spent decades coming to terms with ourselves — with our failures.

    The U.S. leads a powerful global empire and acts as the world’s police in enforcing the laws of the empire. We have military bases and active intelligence operations in hundreds of locations around the world. We have largely inherited the attitude of the British Empire and have joined with Britain since World War II in an effort to maintain a world order. But this world order is based upon aggressive principles and practices that do not work. We see a need to get Ukraine in our orbit and we think of this as defensive, but obviously Russia does not see it that way, nor should they. We thought we had won the Cold War when the USSR agreed to eliminate the Warsaw Pact and break up into 15 nations. But here are we again on the brink. Russia is stronger than the USSR was and an even more formidable adversary, in my opinion. We shall see if this is true. In the meantime, MUCH RESPECT TO ALL OF US WHO WANT TO STOP THE WAR AND FIND A BETTER WAY FORWARD, WHETHER IT BE VIA A STRENGTHENED UNITED NATIONS OR SOME OTHER NON-VIOLENT MECHANISM FOR RESOLVING INTERNATIONAL DISPUTES.

    Blessed be, Namaste, Peace on Earth

  4. Kien Choong writes:

    I understand that Russia/Putin did in fact seek to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity on condition that Ukraine remains neutral and not join NATO, and honours the Minsk Agreement which gives the Donbas regions autonomy. But that was undermined by the US (overthrowing the Ukraine government that was committed to neutrality). Do you (1) agree that this fairly describes the historical context, and (2) think this is irrelevant?

    And if your view is that territorial integrity is sacrosanct and Russia needs to return the regions to Ukraine (despite a referendum in the regions indicating the population don’t want to be part of Ukraine), then what about the US annexation of lands belonging to Mexico. Do these lands need to be returned to Mexico? What about all the lands taken from indigenous Americans?

    It seems to me the US has less justification to hold on to Texas and indigenous lands than Russia’s claim to the territorities of Ukraine that were at least historically part of Russia at one stage. Whereas the US never had a legitimate historical claim to the lands that it now claims to be the US.

    Also, how do you justify appropriating Palestinian land to create Israel?

  5. Detroit Dan writes:

    I’d like to build a bit upon Kien Choong’s constructive questions. First, I’d like to refresh our minds that this post by Steve Waldman is about the desirability of negotiations, and provides creative suggestions for how these might proceed. This is Steve’s forte, in my view, and he previously made good suggestions on March 6, 2022 in a post entitled Stop the war

    It is time for the parties, Ukraine and Russia, along with the EU and United States, to negotiate a settlement that nobody loves but everyone can live with.

    My understanding is that Russia has been working to negotiate before the war started, and since the war started in February of this year. Repeatedly, it has been Ukraine and its Western backers that have backed away from negotiated settlements.

    The CIA has been involved in support of far right anti-Russian factions in Ukraine for many decades.
    The West supported a violent coup in 2014 which overturned the 2010 election results. One of the first acts following the coup was to abrogate the 2012 law on official languages that would have given the status of regional language to Russian. Starting in 2014, the Ukrainian state began several secret military programs, working with the U.S. The Minsk 1 (September 2014) and Minsk 2 (February 2015) Agreements, facilitated by France and Germany provided for the autonomy of Donbas within the framework of Ukraine. These were supported by Russia but never implemented by Ukraine. As hysterical and false claims swept the U.S. that Russia hacked the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, anti-Russian rhetoric heated up in the West. Zelendsky was threatened with death, by right wing militants, if he negoitated with Russia. In 2018 and 2019 the U.S unilaterally withdrew from the Open Skies and Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaties. On September 5, 2019, the Rand Corporation organized a meeting in the US House of Representatives to explain its plan: to weaken Russia by forcing it to deploy in Kazakhstan, then in Ukraine and as far as Transnistria. In 2021, Zelensky shut down three pro-Russian opposition TV networks and banned 10 opposition parties. Zelensky asserted that Ukraine would take back Crimea militarily and began stepping up military deployments against both Donbas and Crimea. In 2022, at the final round of Minsk talks, which concluded just two weeks before Russia’s invasion, a “key obstacle,” the Washington Post reported, “was Kyiv’s opposition to negotiating with the pro-Russian separatists.” Russia and Ukraine came to a tentative peace deal at the end of March 2022, but this was scuppered by the West (UK, US). Elon Musk was recently dumped on by Ukraine for daring to suggest that peace should be negotiated. Zelensky recently said that he will never negotiate with Putin.

    Russia cannot be blamed for the failure of negotiations to date. The fault is clearly with the West. As much as I admire the desire to stop the war peacefully, realism is sometimes a more moral alternative to peaceful intentions. The West must stop encouraging Ukraine to continue the war with Russia as a prerequisite to successful negotiations. Call you Congressperson!

  6. Detroit Dan writes:

    I feel bad about my last reply, especially the rather dismissive conclusion, “Call your Congressperson”. Steve focused on a possible solution – via negotation and non-violence – and I certainly believe wholeheartedly in this. So I’ll try again in a separate post later.

    But first, Aaron Mate is up with an excellent post today, which makes the case that the West has been responsible for the failure of negotiations much better than my attempt. His post is concise with plenty of references to mainstream sources: The endless proxy war, by design. Excerpts:

    A recent account in the Washington Post details the White House’s prevailing mindset:

    Privately, U.S. officials say neither Russia nor Ukraine is capable of winning the war outright, but they have ruled out the idea of pushing or even nudging Ukraine to the negotiating table. They say they do not know what the end of the war looks like, or how it might end or when, insisting that is up to Kyiv. [WaPo]

    The stated White House position of treating diplomacy as “a decision for the Ukrainians to make” is also based on a false premise. For one, when Ukraine previously did “choose to go to the diplomatic table,” with Russia and even made significant progress, its Western backers in London and Washington sabotaged it, according to multiple accounts.

    And whether Ukraine wants to negotiate, the US is not obligated to supply the weaponry and intelligence that sustains the fight. The US role as a co-belligerent in the US conflict is a political choice, not a law of nature. And given that US officials privately admit that Ukraine is not “capable of winning the war,” that would seemingly obligate them all the more to use their considerable leverage to bring this un-winnable war to a speedy end.

    Meanwhile, rather than negotiating, the US and its partners are devoted to global arms dealing… Lost in this “painstaking” scramble to find weapons for the Ukraine proxy war is the question of whether there will be any of Ukraine left behind. “[T]he longer the war continues,” Matlock, the former US ambassador to the USSR, writes, “the harder it is going to be to avoid the utter destruction of Ukraine.” A prolonged war also threatens a “winter of de-industrialization” in Europe, along with increased hunger and impoverishment around the globe.

    Despite his experience as a US diplomat who helped negotiate an end to the Cold War, Matlock’s opposition to the current cold war has left him banished from establishment US media outlets. [Aaron Mate]

  7. Detroit Dan writes:

    This post, Peace as war by other means, reminds me of a recent post by Big Serge: Politics By Other Means – Putin and Clausewitz. I highly recommend that post in its entirety. It is a tour de force, in my opinion. Both the Waldman and Big Serge posts zoom out to look at the long term interests for the two sides in the current war. Both recognize that “War is the mere continuation of politics by other means”, as Clausewitz wrote.

    The Waldman post suggests that we move from war back to non-violent politics. Russia and Ukraine have legitimate differences which can’t be papered over. Since war is often lose-lose, it would make sense for the two countries to compete for hearts and minds in the political and economic arenas. May the best country win, but not the expense of tens of thousands of soldiers and innocent civilians.

    Big Serge, on the other hand, sees that Russia has the laid the groundwork for victory in an existential battle with the West. Russia has been losing politically for years or decades, and Russian leadership came to the conclusion that its very existence as an independent culture was at stake given the political trends and the positioning of the Western military. The Russian leadership therefore consciously chose to go to war in Ukraine in order to turn the political tide. The current war will be win-lose, and Russia will win in that their political objective of stopping Western encroachment will be achieved.

    If Big Serge is right, and I think he is, then Russia would be foolish to enter into a negotiated ceasefire at the present time, as long as Ukraine remains militarized by NATO. Better to press the military advantage and drive NATO out of Ukraine. Politically, this will be an obvious loss for the West. The West will have to recognize Russian sovereignty and respect its hegemonic influence in neighboring countries.

    So, in my opinion, Waldman’s proposal would be good for the West but not for Russia. Yet, there seems to be little chance that the West will negotiate in the near future (as documented extensively in my previous replies above). The West is unable and/or unwillingly to see that negotiations such as Waldman proposes would be in its own best interests. This points to deeper problems in Western societies.

    War is indeed politics by other (violent) means. The West is engaged in a proxy war. Russia is engaged in an existential war. As Big Serge puts it:

    Putin and those around him conceived of the Russo-Ukrainian War in existential terms from the very beginning. It is unlikely, however, that most Russians understood this. Instead, they likely viewed the war the same way Americans viewed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – as justified military enterprises that were nevertheless merely a technocratic task for the professional military; hardly a matter of life and death for the nation…

    What has happened in the months since February 24 is rather remarkable. The existential war for the Russian nation has been incarnated and made real for Russian citizens. Sanctions and anti-Russian propaganda – demonizing the entire nation as “orcs” – has rallied even initially skeptical Russians behind the war, and Putin’s approval rating has soared. A core western assumption, that Russians would turn on the government, has reversed. Videos showing the torture of Russian POWs by frothing Ukrainians, of Ukrainian soldiers calling Russian mothers to mockingly tell them their sons are dead, of Russian children killed by shelling in Donetsk, have served to validate Putin’s implicit claim that Ukraine is a demon possessed state that must be exorcised with high explosives. Amidst all of this – helpfully, from the perspective of Alexander Dugin and his neophytes – American pseudo-intellectual “Blue Checks” have publicly drooled over the prospect of “decolonizing and demilitarizing” Russia, which plainly entails the dismemberment of the Russian state and the partitioning of its territory. The government of Ukraine (in now deleted tweets) publicly claimed that Russians are prone to barbarism because they are a mongrel race with Asiatic blood mixing.

    Simultaneously, Putin has moved towards – and ultimately achieved – his project of formal annexation of Ukraine’s old eastern rim. This has also legally transformed the war into an existential struggle. Further Ukrainian advances in the east are now, in the eyes of the Russian state, an assault on sovereign Russian territory and an attempt to destroy the integrity of the Russian state. Recent polling shows that a supermajority of Russians support defending these new territories at any cost.

    All domains now align. Putin and company conceived of this war from the beginning as an existential struggle for Russia, to eject an anti-Russian puppet state from its doorstep and defeat a hostile incursion into Russian civilizational space. Public opinion is now increasingly in agreement with this (surveys show that Russian distrust of NATO and “western values” have skyrocketed), and the legal framework post-annexation recognizes this as well. The ideological, political, and legal domains are now united in the view that Russia is fighting for its very existence in Ukraine…

    A political consensus for higher mobilization and greater intensity has been achieved. Now all that remains is the implementation of this consensus in the material world of fist and boot, bullet and shell, blood and iron.

    The deeper problem in Western society is that we do not understand what we are up against and why. We have been blinded by propaganda and even valiant attempts to light the way such as this by Steve Waldman may be seen as outrageous (although there are many disclaimers here blaming Russia as being solely at fault). We the people of the West need to expand our horizons, in my opinion. The future for our children’s children’s children depends on us coming to terms with political reality. We need to end the hot war in Ukraine and the new Cold War by recognizing the limits to the projection of our military power, and by embraciing and strengthening international institutions with the potential to solve conflicts peacefullly and limit arms races.