The war exposed the mistakes of pseudo-realists: Russia and Ukraine do not fit into the framework of their assessments

There is an intense public debate about when and how to end the Russian aggression against Ukraine. Many proposals for a swift end to the fighting through a ceasefire or a peace agreement implicitly or explicitly assume or suggest territorial concessions from Ukraine. Their proponents either fail to appreciate the interconnections between the Russian annexations of 2014 and 2022, or deliberately ignore them.

The expression of the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in ХІХ century, that “politics is the art of the possible,” could express the creed of many self-proclaimed pragmatists commenting on Russia’s war against Ukraine. Some of them are now calling for immediate negotiations and a ceasefire between Kyiv and Moscow. They indirectly or directly suggest Ukrainian territorial concessions to Russia in order to achieve peace in Eastern Europe.

Such proposals do not necessarily reflect ethical or legal nihilism. Even many seemingly pragmatic proponents of swift negotiations on the end of the Russian-Ukrainian war acknowledge Ukraine’s right to self-defense. Some even speak of the desirability of fully restoring its borders. Nevertheless, they assume Kyiv or the West lack sound political judgment and strategic prudence by continuing an aggressive approach towards Moscow. From this perspective, Western support for Ukraine is motivated by impractical ideals. According to this belief, political pragmatism, rather than lofty idealism, would better serve the cause of peace and ultimately Ukraine’s interests.

Lessons from 2022

As demonstrated in the past year, the assessment of what is realistic or not in the Russian-Ukrainian war can be fluid. Until February 2022, the assumption that Ukraine would quickly fall apart due to the full-scale Russian military attack seemed rational to many. Some commentators even suggested suspending Western arms supplies to the Ukrainians, as it was seen as merely prolonging the inevitable agony of their state in the event of escalation.

Such an approach underestimated Kremlin’s anti-Ukrainian sentiment, facilitated Russian expansionist ambitions by publicly conveying that Ukraine is weak, suggesting that Kyiv would not benefit from significant Western support, and demobilizing mainstream Western sympathy for democratic Ukraine. The patriotic sentiments and military professionalism of Ukrainians were not appreciated. Although these voices did not prevail, they were present, shaping public discourse and influencing policy.

Much of their apparent pragmatism, as later revealed, not only stemmed from misinformation but also exposed simplistic thinking. The simplistic deduction, instead of empirical research, was employed to generate far-reaching geopolitical interpretations and foreign policy advice. These arguments, fueled more by common knowledge than expert and regional knowledge, were the result of strategic short-sightedness.

See also: Just take it and make peace: how Ukrainians are being forced to adopt ‘pacifism’ and ‘objectivity’

As experiences from the previous phase of the war from 2014 to 2021 already suggested, the conflict between Russia and Ukraine has an existential nature — not only for Ukrainians. It also holds significance for the politics, identity, and destiny of the Russian people. Many politicians, intellectuals, and ordinary citizens in Russia understand that the war is not just about territorial and political control of Ukrainian lands by Moscow or Kyiv. They perceive the confrontation as a battle for the fate of their own nation and state.

These and other characteristics of Moscow’s approach towards Ukraine suggested before February 2022 proved that further expansion of Russian power would not only mean the end of freedom for the occupied regions but also the massive violation of human rights of civilian inhabitants in newly seized territories. Russian behavior in Crimea and Donbas is merely a repetition of Moscow’s actions in Ukraine during the Soviet and Tsarist periods.

The impracticality of alleged pragmatism

The omissions present in some seemingly realistic assessments during the transition between 2021 and 2022 regarding Russia’s ultimate intentions and Ukraine’s ability to resist Moscow’s attack may be symptomatic of a larger problem in debates on international relations. It may stem not only from a lack of overall realism in assessing relative power in Eastern Europe but also be linked to specific characteristics of the realist school in international relations.

Some realists are not concerned with the domestic politics and culture of the states whose behavior and the effects of foreign policy they attempt to predict. This kind of realism only utilizes minimal domestic data to assess the human, military, industrial, and technological potential of the actors involved. It is possible that such thinking contributed to the recent flawed assessments of Ukraine’s defense capabilities.

Similar disregard for Ukrainian and Russian internal affairs is once again leading to short-sightedness in assessing the prospects of a Russian-Ukrainian ceasefire or agreement. Once again, a seemingly realistic demand emerges to pursue what is possible rather than what is desirable. Implementing such a strategy is presented as a way to manage the conflict between Kyiv and Moscow. There is an appeal for less idealistic but pragmatic and achievable solutions.

However, calls for immediate negotiations and a swift ceasefire fail to take into account the complex situation faced by both Zelenskyy and Putin. The prospects for a positive outcome in negotiations are impossible as long as the current Russian political regime remains intact and the situation on the ground undergoes no fundamental change. The constitutions of both Ukraine and Russia designate the same region as part of their respective territories and prohibit any territorial concessions from any side. The official Russian annexations in 2014 and 2022 have created legal obstacles to a political settlement.

Some observers argue that laws, including constitutions, can be changed, diluted, or easily ignored. This is especially true for authoritarian states like Russia, where power is heavily concentrated and the rule of law is not respected. However, it is not only formal legal obstacles that hinder a Russian-Ukrainian agreement. In both countries, there are increasingly powerful factions adamantly opposed to any territorial concessions to the adversary.

Internal politics of war and peace

The irreconcilable camps in Ukraine and Russia hold vastly different ethical, legal, and political significance. Regardless of their moral and intellectual merits, they carry political weight in both countries. In Ukraine, the “hawkish camp” encompasses a decisive majority of society, all significant political parties, and a substantial portion of civil society. The majority of Ukrainians demand the full restoration of justice, integrity, and sovereignty of Ukraine and would not agree to any territorial concessions to Russia. This stance strengthens with each passing month of the war.

In Russia, the picture is more fluid, but a significant portion of Russian elites and population are convinced of the rightness and non-negotiability of Moscow’s claim to the annexed Ukrainian territories. In 2022, a public opinion survey showed that 75% of Russians supported the new annexations. This was the case despite the fact that Russian territorial claims included areas recognized as part of the Russian Federation in September 2022, but they were never occupied by Russian forces, nor captured and subsequently lost.

See also: Budapest Memorandum, or who betrayed Ukraine

The overall Russian perspective may differ from the Ukrainian one regarding the relative value of the annexed territories. Russian opinion about the recently acquired mainland Ukrainian regions may be evaluated differently compared to the annexation of the Ukrainian Autonomous Republic of Crimea in 2014. In Russian society, there existed and continues to exist a far-reaching “Crimean consensus” that recognizes the annexation of the beautiful Crimean peninsula as fundamentally justified, strategically prudent, and nationally beneficial. The intensity of the imagined Russian historical and cultural connection with the newly annexed Ukrainian regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia is lesser. Many Russians would likely consider the return of the recently acquired territories to Ukraine as less regrettable for their country than the loss of Crimea. This variation in Russian attitudes towards the 2014-annexed peninsula and the 2022-acquired mainland Ukrainian territories underlies many current supposedly pragmatic proposals for a ceasefire and peace agreements.

The assumption of greater legitimacy and significance of the Russian annexation in 2014 compared to the recent land seizure by Moscow is prevalent among many observers. This also leads some to believe that the Russian annexations nine years ago and those from last year can be politically separated. From this perspective, they should be treated differently in the strategic and diplomatic considerations of Kyiv and the West.

However, the current text of the Russian constitution does not make a distinction between the territories annexed in 2014 and 2022. It is unknown whether canceling the more recent Russian territorial acquisitions would be significantly easier for Moscow than the occupation of Crimea. The number of Russian casualties in the war over the southeastern part of mainland Ukraine has been steadily increasing for over a year now. In contrast, the annexation of Crimea in February and March 2014 was entirely bloodless for Russia (but not for Ukraine).

Ukraine’s Crimea and the mainland

There are other reasons why the Russian annexations of 2014 and 2022 cannot be easily separated in hypothetical negotiations. The economic, social, and political sustainability of the Crimean peninsula is closely tied to Russia’s control over the territories annexed in September of last year. The geographic and economic connection between Crimea and the southeastern part of Ukraine was a major driver behind Moscow’s full-scale invasion in 2022. Similar motivations led to the inclusion of Crimea by the Tsarist government into the Taurida Governorate in 1802. This administrative unit of the Romanov Empire encompassed, in addition to the Crimean peninsula, a significant portion of today’s southeastern Ukraine. Meanwhile, none of the territories of the present-day Russian Federation were part of the Taurida Governorate.

In 1954, the close connection between Crimea and the Ukrainian territories to the north became significant once again within the framework of the Soviet Union. The deep ties between different parts of the Ukrainian coast of the Black Sea led to an initially administratively marginal but later highly political change within the Soviet Union. Socio-economic calculations were the main reason why the peninsula was transferred by the Soviet government from the distant Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, to which it belonged as an exclave since 1922, to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

See also: Elimination of the autonomy of Crimea: a provocation or a timely discussion?

Certain less rational factors influenced Putin’s decision to launch the large-scale invasion and mass annexation in 2022. These factors included popular irredentism, post-Soviet resentments, imperial hunger, colonial ambitions, hegemonic posture, strategic miscalculation, and fascist tendencies. However, the most pragmatic determinant of Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 was the economic and geopolitical vulnerability of Crimea as a permanent Russian exclave. In light of the ongoing Western sanctions on Crimea since 2014, it was unlikely that the peninsula would ever become self-sufficient. As long as it remained far from Russia and had no land connection with it, it would continue to drain significant subsidies from the central Russian budget.

Some of the same foreign observers who still perceive Putin as a rational actor overlook these practical determinants of the Russian annexation in 2022. They believe that if he is allowed to keep Crimea, he may be persuaded to leave continental Ukraine undisturbed.

Moscow’s control over the newly acquired territories in southeastern Ukraine is significant not only for logistical purposes, enabling the connection between Russia and the peninsula through the addition of a northern land bridge to the southern Kerch Bridge that links Crimea with Russia. The newly annexed Ukrainian territories also contain important natural resources that are relevant to Crimea. This particularly applies to freshwater, which flows from the Dnipro River through the North Crimean Canal to the peninsula.

A partial rollback of Russia’s recent expansion in a new Russian constitutional reform would be somewhat more plausible than Ukraine relinquishing internationally recognized territory. However, it would be more challenging to achieve for Putin’s (or post-Putinist) regime than the initial annexations.

Officially returning currently Russian-held territories could also set a suggestive precedent for other regions within Russia. In the event of a deep socio-economic crisis, similar to the early 1990s, various republics and oblasts of Russia may consider following the example of returning annexed territories to Ukraine and seeking independence from the Federation. The Russian political and intellectual elite are well aware of such risks. Therefore, they will be reluctant to set a precedent for the future separation of Russian regions from the Federation.

Conclusions and recommendations

Many recent calls for a ceasefire or peace negotiations are based on the assumption that Russia, Ukraine, or even both sides may relinquish areas that currently constitute official parts of their respective state territories. Such assumptions are speculative. They do not question the fact that the regions annexed by Moscow in 2014 and 2022 are recognized by both the Ukrainian and Russian constitutions. The presidents of both countries are obligated to uphold their respective constitutional provisions.

Proposals that remain silent on this fundamental issue often also ignore the political obstacles to constitutional changes that would be required for a lasting agreement between both countries. Assurances of pragmatism from various proponents of a Russian-Ukrainian agreement are therefore empty. These commentators promote plans that, under current conditions, are unrealistic. Neither Kyiv nor Moscow can easily go against groups that are strongly opposed to any territorial concessions to an adversary state.

Suggesting that an agreement between Ukraine and the current Russian regime is within reach is misleading. Such comments create false expectations for ongoing diplomatic efforts to de-escalate the armed conflict. They lead to discursively blind alleys in public debates about current and future military support for Ukraine. Repeated calls for negotiations may create an illusion of a political alternative to Ukraine’s ongoing military efforts to liberate its occupied territories. In this way, they delay, restrict, and hinder more decisive Western assistance to Kyiv. While publicly promoting peace, the effects of these pacifists’ interventions paradoxically prolong the current war. They also signify the devaluation of international law and the undermining of the European security order.

In this context, government officials, politicians, journalists, and other commentators should adopt a thoughtful approach to calls for quick negotiations and refrain from pushing the narrative of “peace for land.” Both political decision-makers and opinion-shapers should, in their considerations and actions:

  1. Be aware of the legal challenges, both in Ukraine and Russia, associated with reaching a compromise.
  2. Remember the political constituencies in both countries that hinder the implementation of such a scenario.
  3. Consider the geographical and economic connection of annexed Crimea with other annexed territories.
  4. Finally, recognize the delusion that Russia would only be satisfied with control over Crimea.

Political proposals should be based as much as possible on facts on the ground. Presenting historical, legal, economic, and political details is the best antidote to opponents of further support for Ukraine. This should be sufficient to challenge seemingly pragmatic discourses calling for quick peace.

Originally posted by Nowa Europa Wschodnia. Translated and edited by the UaPosition – Ukrainian news and analytics website

See also: Historian Tetiana Pastushenko: “The modern war in Ukraine should influence the interpretation of the events of the Second World War”

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