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  • Max Mihailovici

Navigating Diplomacy and Compromise in the Ukraine Conflict: Understanding Russia’s uncompromising demands.

Max Mihailovici is a final-year History student at UCL, specializing in European and American political history and relations.

A T-72B3 tank destroyed in Ukraine, the most numerous modern MBT in Russia’s arsenal, likely hit from the side (left-hand side) by an ATGM. Russia has lost 1200 T-72 variants at the time of writing (David Axe, Forbes, 2023)

When Khrushchev, then General-Secretary of the USSR, transferred over Crimea from the Russian SFSR to the Ukrainian SSR in 1954, few would have imagined the breakdown of Russo-Ukrainian relations to the lows of today. Although ethnically Russian, Khrushchev had been very close to both countries, and had attempted to rebuild their relationship within the USSR post the horrors of the 1930s and 1940s. Of course, Khrushchev’s view is but a rose-tainted version of the complex and oppressive ethno-political relations between the domineering Russian SFSR, and the other subordinate republics, which still plagues the ex-Soviet sphere to this day.


The Russo-Ukrainian war stretches back to February 2014, after Russia’s illegitimate takeover of the Crimean Peninsula, and military intervention in the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics”. For the sake of brevity, in a topic so vast and complex, this article chiefly focuses on Russia’s position vis-à-vis Ukraine after its invasion on February 24th 2022. The invasion completely shattered the previous European security environment built on collaboration, often called “the Kekkonen Era”; in its void came a renewed chilling breeze of distrust and pre-emption reminiscent of the Cold War. This article will examine Russia’s three key demands concerning Ukraine’s alignment, Crimea, and Donbass, using historical context to understand why they form a red-line for Russia, and why Russia continues to wage war, despite catastrophic consequences. Ultimately, this article argues that Russia’s current demands for a peace settlement effectively create a zero-sum game, where negotiations are not possible.


Perhaps the only thing Russia and Ukraine can agree on today is that peace negotiations are dead in the water. Kremlin Spokesperson Peskov declared that the goals of the “special military operation” could only be achieved militarily, effectively formalizing what had been clear for a while: Russia will not settle for anything less than a net gain, for all the military and financial setbacks it has faced. Putin, much like the KGB whose training he so thoroughly received, calculated the invasion fully intending to come out of it in a stronger position, both in his own political standing amongst the Russian elites, but also in terms of Russia’s strength. Despite gravely miscalculating both Ukrainian resistance[1], and unaware of the derelict and abysmal state of his own military (Jack Watling, The Guardian, 2022), his thought process remains much the same, in that Russia will only cease hostilities when it comes out with a net benefit. As the war dragged on, so too did it become harder for Russia to equalize the scale of its losses on the win-loss scale. At the time of writing this, $300 billion of Russia’s foreign-held assets remain frozen (Jacopo Barigazzi, et al, POLITICO, 2023), Russian (including Wagner, LPR, DPR) forces have suffered over 200,000 casualties (Alexander Smith, NBC, 2023), and Putin is facing opposition, both from his inner circle (i.e., Prigozhin, and oligarchs the likes of Abramovich, Deripaska, Fridman, and to an extent Tinkov), and population like never before. Despite these tangible problems, they have not proven anywhere near enough in altering the course of the war, or Russia’s negotiating position.


This is because Putin has shifted his strategy towards the long-term, planning to wear Ukraine down through attrition, a tactic commonplace with the Russian Army, through which it defeated the likes of Hitler and Napoleon. In fact, Russian military doctrine itself has been based around the notion that quantity is a quality in and of itself in modern conflicts of huge destruction for decades (Mary C. Fitzgerald, US Naval War College, 1993). From the time of mass-produced T-54/55s, to today’s less-than-ideal half-baked modernization attempts[2], Russia’s strategy, from its economy, to the mobilization of people through fear and propaganda, is to outlast its enemies.


In a war of attrition of Putin’s Soviet-esque thinking, he believes Russia will be able to outlast Ukraine through sheer numbers. Military losses therefore are nowhere near critical enough to where they significantly hamper the war effort. Similarly, the belief in both the power of the Russian people to alter the course of the war, or their interest therein to begin with, is misplaced at best. A wide collection of surveys indicate most Russians to be unsure about the invasion, with only a small fraction actively against it (Natalia Savelyeva, OpenDemocracy, 2022). In an illiberal regime like Russia, those who do not voice any opinion are of no concern to the regime, and therefore indirectly pose no obstacle to the waging of war, or the propagation of Russian half-truths and disinformation. Even those who resist said propaganda wield little power in pressuring the government: protests, while certainly having happened, are promptly and brutally squandered; those found in any way to diverge from the Kremlin’s narrative can be fined, prosecuted, and even jailed. These dissidents live in perpetual fear: it is hard to even obtain a Western immigrant visa, as many Western embassies have shut down, let alone to never visit family and friends in Russia again. Those who do not stand much to lose, and commit acts of sabotage against the Russian military are too few in number to pose any real threat, despite their impressive feats. Therefore, long-term military confrontation with Ukraine remains viable for Putin, insofar as the greater feat is achieved: securing dominance in the region.


Russia’s interests in Ukraine are complex, but key components remain: Ukraine’s sovereignty and ability to choose alliances as it pleases, Crimea, and the Donbass. Russia has taken an uncompromising position on all three, and to understand why, their benefits must be analyzed. The topic of NATO has always been sensitive to both the Russian public, and far more importantly, to Russian elites, and policymakers. While in itself a defensive alliance, NATO carries with it an unequivocal sense of the triumphalism of the liberal world order after the Cold War, which for Putin, who declared the breakup of the USSR in 1991 to have been the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”, does not sit well, ideologically, and practically. Even during its brief spat at liberal democracy in the 90s and early 2000s, Russia chose to slowly drift away from NATO, for the simple reason that it could no longer wield the influence therein which it wielded as a superpower in the Warsaw Pact, the moribund communist alternative made up of the USSR and its satellites.


To understand Russia’s opposition to NATO is to understand that its elites believe that Russia’s interests lie in manifesting its own destiny as a “Great Power”, which they see as incompatible with those of the liberal-democratic West led by the United States. They also see the United States’ interests as colliding with Russia’s, and any alliance with the US as one where Russia’s interests would come second. This doctrine is known as the Primakov Doctrine, whose namesake, much like Putin and his close circle of elites, was a key functionary within the KGB, heavily influenced by its hardline and often uncompromising positions[3]. Ukraine’s admittance into NATO would therefore spill political disaster for the Kremlin’s “multipolar world” doctrine, and for any hope to force regime change upon Ukraine. Losing a sympathetic and friendly Ukraine, which after Russia’s aggression, would only come about through force of arms, means having to cover a border of 2300km (1430mi) in the largely indefensible East European Steppe. This also threatens the Caucasus, and Black Sea, and therefore minimizes Russia’s power-projection capabilities.


Pictured: The Caucasus Gap, short, and difficult to defend for Russia.

Crimea is another red-line for Russia, very much due to its geopolitical significance. When Catherine the Great captured Crimea from the Ottomans, it allowed Russia’s influence to expand not just into the Black Sea, but into the Danube, and Balkans. After the USSR broke up, Russia obtained a lease for the Sevastopol Naval base from Ukraine; this would expire in 2013. Pro-Western Ukrainian president Yushchenko refused to renew the lease, prompting Russia to take advantage of the political chaos during Euromaidan in 2014 to annex it militarily. Not only was this a huge propaganda win which Putin could sell to the masses and his elite, but it allowed Russia to expand its influence into Syria, helping the Assad regime, and the Mediterranean. Crimea is just as symbolically relevant for the Kremlin too; following decades of the deportation of native Crimean Tatars, ethnic Russian settlers would constitute around 80% of the population (Ukrainian census, 2001), which like other Russian minorities in the Baltics, Caucasus, and the Moldovan Republic proved difficult to accommodate, and integrate into new post-Soviet states. Such was Crimea’s symbolic significance that under Russia, the region saw a massive $20 billion influx of capital compared to its tenure under Ukraine (Gerard Toal et al, Washington Post, 2020); Russia even spent $4 billion on building the Kerch bridge (Andrew Roth, The Guardian, 2018), thus connecting Crimea to mainland Russia.


Above: Putin Opening the Kerch Bridge, connecting Krasnodar Krai to newly-annexed Crimea

The Donbass faces a similar story of ethnically-motivated intervention by Russia, but unlike Crimea, in itself it does not levy huge strategical relevance. What strategic relevance it does have comes in the form of linking up with Zaporizhzhia and Kherson Oblasts to ensure a continuous water supply to Crimea, which has faced a serious water crisis for years, heavily affecting agriculture, and tourism, its 2 big revenue drivers. Reliable ethnic composition is hard to come by, as it has shifted significantly since Ukraine’s census conducted more than two decades ago, but what can be ascertained is that popular support does exist from the locals. Unlike Kharkiv, where the Russian-backed uprising failed in 2014, Donetsk and Luhansk managed to properly mobilize its populace against the Kyiv government, and it has traditionally voted for the “Party of Regions”, Russia’s mouthpiece in Ukraine (Mansur Mirovalev, Al Jazeera, 2022). However, as William Spaniel, assistant professor of Political Sciences at Pittsburgh University points out, the Donbass serves the Kremlin more in propaganda, and justifying its actions, then in actual strategic value (William Spaniel, 2023).


To conclude, this article has illustrated Russia’s current position within the framework of peace negotiations, and why in its current standing it is unwilling to compromise on its key three demands. It has also covered the significance of each of its three demands, drawing upon the Primakov Doctrine, and the lingering influence of Soviet thinking in Russia’s outlook on NATO, the geopolitical importance for Crimea as a power-projection base, and the spiritual and logistical necessity of securing the Donbass, and Kherson and Zaporizhzhia Oblasts. In so doing, it mainly argues that Russia is the main factor impeding the reaching of any lasting peace settlement in the region, which would ensure Ukrainian independence, and its post-1991 borders, as recognized by Russia in the Belovezha Accords, and Budapest memorandums, and the international community.


BIBLIOGRAPHY

Alexander Smith, NBC, 2023

Andrew Roth, The Guardian, 2018

David Axe, Forbes, 2023

Natalia Savelyeva, OpenDemocracy, 2022

William Spaniel, 2023


[1] Military plans captured by the ZSU indicated Russia expected to reach Kyiv within “days”, which would explain their limited rations, and munition; propaganda claimed Ukrainians would welcome Russian troops as “liberators”.

[2] As seen in the AK-12 platform, a conservative modernization over the Soviet AK-74, the half-baked BTR-82, and the incremental upgrades of Soviet T-72, T-80 and T-90 MBTs. Modern weapon systems that emphasize quality, like the T-14 Armata, T-90MS, or Su-57 remain procured in extremely limited numbers.

[3] Some of the USSR’s greatest hawks, from Ivan Konev, head of the KGB, and “butcher of Budapest”, to Yuri Andropov, who nearly saw tensions explode into war with NATO in 1983, came from within the KGB.

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