Joshua Treviño, Austin
Could the war in Ukraine have been stopped before it began?
The war news seems to get worse as it gets better. The miracle of Ukrainian survival is accompanied by the reality that survival signifies endurance in suffering. Mariupol, Kharkiv, and countless other communities are reduced to Second World War-level straits. In living memory, there are only a handful of men and women over eighty years old—and not residents of Bosnia-Hercegovina—who remember anything like it in Europe.
There are voices who object to this sort of observation: There are plenty of people who remember quite a lot like it in Africa, in the Middle East, in Southeast Asia, and so on. But there is a qualitative difference. The grand-strategic phenomenon of the past three centuries is the extent to which world history unfolds as a reaction and response to Europe. It is undeniable in the twentieth century as the World Wars and the Cold War gripped the planet. In the nineteenth century, the mechanisms of empires and colonialism etched themselves upon mankind. (The key reads here are probably Jürgen Osterhammels 2014 The Transformation of the World, and Alexander Mikaberidze’s 2020 The Napoleonic Wars.) In the eighteenth century we get back to more meaningful and large-scale non-European agency—the Qianlong Emperor answered to no one—but it was still a time when a small colonial encounter between Europeans powers in the far Alleghenies could plunge the whole world into war.
Europe matters, and matters uniquely, just as its successor states on other continents matter. Kyiv descended into ruin carries with it consequences that Mosul in rubble does not. That is not a statement of differential humanity. We have an obligation to regard the lives of Iraqis as possessing as much value as those of Ukrainians, in deference to the equitable love of God for each. The statement is a recognition of differential cultural, political, and strategic significance. This much should be obvious: no one, after all, discussed the prospects for escalation to nuclear exchange when Mosul fell.
As we watch the suffering in Ukraine unfold, block by block, tragedy upon tragedy, the question arises as to whether all this could have been prevented. Was there a meaningful opportunity for a compromise peace in the run-up to the invasion of February 24th? We should look back now and think this through, not just because this won’t be the last war, but because discerning how this one started gives us keys to how it may end.
Mario Loyola, a scholar (and full disclosure, a former colleague and current friend) at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and Florida International University, has argued persuasively elsewhere that the long-term strategic choice for Ukraine, having inherited the borders of the former Ukrainian SSR, was either full sovereignty or territorial integrity. With tremendous swaths of Ukrainian territory and population being Russian, and moreover historically part of Russia—the Crimea, the Donbas, Novorossiya—it was unlikely that the Ukrainian state would ever fully command the allegiance of those populations, which would in turn be avenues for Russian-state penetration of Ukraine. This was in fact the case prior to 2014, as Ukraine endured political oscillations between pro-Russian and pro-European (the two being understood as incompatible in the Ukrainian context) powerholders. The dubious political allegiance of the Russian Ukrainians came to the fore that year, as the Russian invasion of Crimea and the Donbas met with little to no effective resistance, and even saw violent pro-Russian demonstrations—organic, not orchestrated—in places like Odessa.
Two observations come from this. One is Loyola’s own, which is that, in this framework, for Ukraine to be fully sovereign it was probably well-advised to simply relinquish these territories. It would then exist as a more compact, cohesive, and genuinely Ukrainian state, liberated from the fundamental contention of a population oriented toward Russia, and another population oriented toward Europe. The other observation is that the Russian state managed to completely eradicate this framework, wherein it possessed a friendly local population with prospects for dominance within Ukraine: first through its minor invasion of 2014, and now in its major invasion of 2022. Russia has managed to singlehandedly achieve what Ukrainian nationalism never could, and author a genuinely encompassing Ukrainian nationalism. When local majority-Russian populations in places like Kharkiv and Mariupol are ferociously resisting Russian sieges without meaningful dissent, a new paradigm has emerged.
We therefore can conceive of a pre-2014 option for peace: the cession of the Russian lands in Ukraine, with a genuinely sovereign Ukraine remaining. Set aside the political realism of the idea—no foreign power was advising it, and no Ukrainian politician could have survived suggesting it—and we can conceive of a scenario in which, for Vladimir Putin, this would have been enough. After 2014 and the social and political changes wrought by Russian attacks, this option was no longer available. The 2019 Ukrainian presidential elections tell the tale in miniature. Every prior election saw the country’s returns split, east versus west (which is to say, Russian versus Ukrainian), and the victor garnering a few points over 50 percent (and in one case, under that threshhold). The 2019 vote that brought Volodymyr Zelenskyy to power featured little to no east-west split—and he won with just over 72 percent of the vote. A politically and socially unified country meant that territorial cession was even less an option than it already was.
With territorial cession off the table, and the premises for it badly eroded, what remained was the other option in Loyola’s schema. That was a Ukraine without sovereignty. The traditional avenue for overturning that sovereignty—a population of Russian Ukrainians at political odds with their countrymen—was no longer available thanks to the events of 2014. What remained were therefore the only other real methods of subverting national sovereignty: diplomatic aggression, the creation of a crisis, and ultimately invasion.
When we think back to whether or not the war could have been averted, we must understand that this was almost certainly the same framework in which the Russian leadership was operating—and the same conclusions it was drawing. Vladimir Putin receives accolades from his admirers, at home and abroad, for his strategic acumen, but the truth is he is a poor strategist. His strengths are somewhat in the operational spheres, and especially in the tactical arena: think of Lavrov baiting Truss into refusing British recognition of Russian sovereignty over (real) Russian territory, and you have a characteristic Putin move. When the 2014 events unfolded, he conceived the Crimean and Donbas seizures as punishment operations, without dreaming that they would have follow-on effects undoing the mechanisms of Ukrainian civil society that had hitherto served Russian interests well.
Those follow-on effects—and that consequent conclusion, that only an invasion would yield the desired outcome of a subordinated Ukraine—are fully explanatory of how events actually unfolded in the second half of 2021 and the opening weeks of 2022.
On July 12th, 2021, the Russian Presidency published a very curious essay, purportedly by Putin himself. On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians is not, as it happens, simply a deranged dictator’s tract along the lines of a Mein Kampf. It is a serious attempt at recasting modern Russian and Ukrainian history along revisionist lines, undergirded by copious reference to historical events and advancing a consistent thesis of Russia’s humiliation at the hands of (alternately) Bolsheviks, foreign powers, and “intelligentsia” who at various stages conspired to create Ukrainian nationhood, and then a Ukrainian state. Putin also references the strategic effect of 2014, in depriving Russia of its leverage over Ukraine: “I am becoming more and more convinced of this,” he writes, “Kiev simply does not need Donbas.” He further posits the concept of “a single large nation, a triune nation … [of] Russians, Ukrainians, or Belarusians.” Finally, he writes, the Ukrainian state now is inimical to Russia:
[T]he situation in Ukraine today is completely different because it involves a forced change of identity. And the most despicable thing is that the Russians in Ukraine are being forced not only to deny their roots, generations of their ancestors but also to believe that Russia is their enemy. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the path of forced assimilation, the formation of an ethnically pure Ukrainian state, aggressive towards Russia, is comparable in its consequences to the use of weapons of mass destruction against us. As a result of such a harsh and artificial division of Russians and Ukrainians, the Russian people in all may decrease by hundreds of thousands or even millions.
We can say a few things about this. One thing we can say—irrelevant to the main point, but it bears notice—is that On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians is an extended argument that essentially does not exist in the West now. It is impossible to imagine any American President (or British Prime Minister) of the past thirty years writing, or claiming to write, anything like it. We therefore cannot expect that leadership to understand its significance, or contend with its propositions.
The other thing we can say, more directly relevant, is that the argument at hand—that Ukraine should not exist, but if it does it is the creation of hostile forces and an enemy to Russia—is a totalizing one that restricts options for response. This is a propaganda document, and there is a tendency to dismiss propaganda as irrelevant to truth. The reality is that propaganda is frequently an expression of the propagandist’s own understanding of the truth. In this case, the propagandist, Putin himself, is signaling explicitly that Ukraine as it exists, as a whole, is illegitimate and intolerable.
A second document commends itself in this vein. It is the Russian President’s address of February 21st, which we now know was his war speech, setting forth the causes and justifications for the invasion to come. It is mostly a recapitulation of On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians, expanding a bit on some of its themes, the foremost of which is, again, the illegitimacy of modern Ukraine:
[M]odern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia or, to be more precise, by Bolshevik, Communist Russia. This process started practically right after the 1917 revolution, and Lenin and his associates did it in a way that was extremely harsh on Russia—by separating, severing what is historically Russian land. Nobody asked the millions of people living there what they thought.
This is the core of the thing, but there are also interesting and illuminating bits, for example Putin’s shorthand analysis for the breakup of the Soviet Union. It reads as if it were lifted directly from the theses advanced by Serhii Plokhy—a Ukrainian historian at Harvard, as it happens—in highlighting the role of controlling elites versus popular sentiment:
In the mid-1980s, the [USSR’s] increasing socioeconomic problems and the apparent crisis of the planned economy aggravated the ethnic issue, which essentially was not based on any expectations or unfulfilled dreams of the Soviet peoples but primarily the growing appetites of the local elites … Moreover, in the course of power struggle within the Communist Party itself, each of the opposing sides, in a bid to expand its support base, started to thoughtlessly incite and encourage nationalist sentiments, manipulating them and promising their potential supporters whatever they wished. Against the backdrop of the superficial and populist rhetoric about democracy and a bright future based either on a market or a planned economy, but amid a true impoverishment of people and widespread shortages, no one among the powers that be was thinking about the inevitable tragic consequences for the country.
Putin then issues a sharp condemnation of the modern Ukrainian state’s failures across the past three decades. He means for it to illustrate the extent to its conceptual illegitimacy yields its material shortcomings, but it stands alone and is not at all inaccurate:
What happened? Why is this all happening? The answer is obvious. [The Ukrainian state] spent and embezzled the legacy inherited not only from the Soviet era, but also from the Russian Empire. They lost tens, hundreds of thousands of jobs which enabled people to earn a reliable income and generate tax revenue, among other things thanks to close cooperation with Russia. Sectors including machine building, instrument engineering, electronics, ship and aircraft building have been undermined or destroyed altogether. There was a time, however, when not only Ukraine, but the entire Soviet Union took pride in these companies.
In 2021, the Black Sea Shipyard in Nikolayev went out of business. Its first docks date back to Catherine the Great. Antonov, the famous manufacturer, has not made a single commercial aircraft since 2016, while Yuzhmash, a factory specialising in missile and space equipment, is nearly bankrupt. The Kremenchug Steel Plant is in a similar situation. This sad list goes on and on …
This situation begs the question: poverty, lack of opportunity, and lost industrial and technological potential – is this the pro-Western civilisational choice they have been using for many years to fool millions of people with promises of heavenly pastures?
Again, we see the same core theme: Ukraine as it exists, as a whole, is illegitimate and intolerable. And, adds Putin, it doesn’t work. We may dismiss this as cynicism, and much of it is—“There is no independent judiciary in Ukraine,” he complains, on a topic he obviously cares nothing about—but the point is to look at the policy space created by the propaganda. Once more the options for response are restricted. The Ukrainian state must be ended.
The final document to which we may refer is the accidentally published Russian “victory” opinion essay at RIA Novosti on February 28th, four days after the war’s start. Russian planning assumed that Ukraine would have been fully defeated by this point, and so this essay was probably in the automatic-publish queue at various outlets. You should read it, because it is the single clearest exposition of Russian war aims we have. The linked text above is in Russian, and there is a long de facto translation available on Twitter at this thread:
Note that this essay culminates and concludes the narrative set forth first in On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians, and then in the Russian President’s war speech. Notable passages to that end:
Russia is restoring its historical fullness, gathering the Russian world, the Russian people together—in its entirety of Great Russians, Belarusians and Little Russians. If we had abandoned this, if we had allowed the temporary division to take hold for centuries, then we would not only betray the memory of our ancestors, but would also be cursed by our descendants for allowing the disintegration of the Russian land …
Now this problem is gone—Ukraine has returned to Russia. This does not mean that its statehood will be liquidated, but it will be reorganized, re-established and returned to its natural state of part of the Russian world. Within what boundaries, in what form will the alliance with Russia be consolidated (through the CSTO and the Eurasian Union or the Union State of Russia and Belarus)? This will be decided after the end is put in the history of Ukraine as anti-Russia. In any case, the period of the split of the Russian people is coming to an end.
This is as explicit as it gets: the modern Ukrainian state is ended, and Ukraine and the Ukrainians are subordinated to “the Russian world.” Following the extended argument from July 12th, 2021, to February 28th, 2022, we see the overt delegitimization of Ukraine as such, and the declaration of its end. Whatever statehood Ukraine retained—and recall that on March 6th, aggrieved by Ukrainian resistance, Putin announced that this statehood was called “into question”—would be inevitably ended, or reduced to irrelevance on the Belarusian model.
We can understand one big thing from this exploration, which is that this war was probably unavoidable—which is to say it would have been impossible to deter a Russian invasion short of a credible Western security to Ukraine that was never coming. This explains the farcical nature of the diplomacy that unfolded in December, January, and February, mostly characterized by bizarre and extreme Russian demands, not upon Ukraine but upon the United States and the Western alliance. It might have been a sincere undertaking on the Western side, but it never was on the Russian. Even in the unthinkable circumstance that the Americans and NATO acceded to the maximal Russian demands—essentially the rollback of NATO by a quarter-century, and a Russian veto on future NATO membership—the invasion was still coming.
(As an aside, this analysis strongly suggests that Taiwan ought to receive explicit and public security guarantees from the United States and Japan, now.)
So, to the original question—was there a meaningful opportunity for a compromise peace in the run-up to the invasion of February 24th?—the overwhelming probability is that there was not. The Russian attack on Ukraine in 2022 is a straightforward war of aggression as much as the German attack on Poland in 1939, following much the same historical pattern in its justification and run-up.
We can understand a couple of other items from this analysis. One is the nature of the intermittent negotiations between Ukraine and Russia across the past several days. With the grasp of Russian intentions in hand, we can see the publicized Russian demands as essentially attempts to win through negotiation what they have not yet on the battlefield. A Russian-enforced neutralization of Ukraine—their core demand—is functionally indistinguishable from the “reorganized, re-established and returned to its natural state of part of the Russian world” subjugated Ukraine of the RIA Novosti essay. The Ukrainians understand it very well, and that’s why they reject it. Incredible as it may seem, what gets illuminated here is the reality that the Russians are sticking to their original war aims—despite everything. Ukrainian resistance has taken a toll, but the dictator is singularly focused.
The other thing we must understand is that both parties believe this fight is, on some level, existential. The war has become something neither side expected, nor wanted. Neither side therefore believes they can give it up. The worst is yet to come.
Joshua Treviño is the Chief of Intelligence and Research at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. He writes at Armas about culture, events, and strategy, with a particular focus on Texas, Mexico, and China.