Nowadays, few things are as hazardous to one’s reputational health as suggesting that Ukraine should make territorial concessions to Russia. The vehemence with which mainstream commentators reject such suggestions is awesome to behold.
Yet if we truly care about the Ukrainian people, we should at least be able to have a civil conversation about territorial concessions. In the quest to end this calamitous war – which has cost so many lives and could cost many, many more – no stone should be left unturned.
Phony advocates for negotiation
Before we venture onto this treacherous ground, let’s dispense, once and for all, with the phony advocates for peace. I’m referring here to those commentators who call for negotiations with Russia while categorically ruling out territorial concessions by Ukraine.
Whatever one’s view may be as to the propriety of such concessions, we should all be able to grasp that any offer of peace which requires Russia to surrender all of the territory it currently controls stands no realistic chance of being accepted.
This is especially true with respect to Crimea. As U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently acknowledged, attempts by Ukraine to retake Crimea would constitute a “red line” for Russia’s government and could provoke a severe escalation.
The reasons for which Crimea constitutes a “red line” for Russia are well known.
As the Center for Strategic and International Studies explained in 2014, control of Crimea ensures Russia’s access to a natural, warm-water port having extensive infrastructure (Sevastopol) and “provides Russia with important strategic defence capabilities.”
In addition, Crimea was part of Russia from 1783 until 1954. In 1954, the Soviet government, led by Nikita Khrushchev, transferred Crimea from the Russian Soviet Federation of Socialist Republics (RSFSR) to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (UkrSSR). At the time, about 75% of Crimea’s population was ethnically Russian, while only 25% was ethnically Ukrainian.
Historians have struggled to understand why Khrushchev’s government effected the transfer. According to the Wilson Center, Khrushchev believed that adding Crimea’s ethnically Russian population to the UkrSSR would strengthen the Soviet government’s control over Ukraine.
As of 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea, approximately 68% of Crimea’s population was ethnically Russian, while only 16% was ethnically Ukrainian. In a referendum held that year, 97% of voters supported Crimea’s reunification with Russia. The turnout for the vote was reportedly 83%.
Western and other governments dispute the legality of Crimea’s reunification with Russia. Whatever one’s view as to its legality may be, the reality is that Russia’s government (and undoubtedly a large proportion of Russians) regard Crimea as Russian. Accordingly, there is no realistic prospect of Russia agreeing to cede Crimea back to Ukraine.
Therefore, it is at best naïve, and at worst disingenuous, to advocate for negotiations between Ukraine and Russia while categorically rejecting any territorial concessions by Ukraine. Commentators who take both of those positions either do not understand the importance of Crimea to Russia, or they are trying to be all things to all people: doves and hawks at the same time. Either way, these commentators do not advance the cause of peace.
The Crown Prince of fake diplomacy is none other than Ukraine’s ‘Churchillian’ President: Volodymyr Zelensky not only rejects territorial concessions out of hand, but he insists that Russia withdraw all of its troops from Ukrainian territory (which he defines to include Crimea) before negotiations even begin.
Unless Zelensky resides in an alternate universe (a possibility we ought not to exclude), he must know that Russia will never agree to any such precondition. Indeed, one can easily imagine that Russia’s people would overthrow any President who was weak or stupid enough to surrender territories Russia acquired at the cost of tens of thousands of Russian lives, even before a peace deal has been struck.
Russia’s greatest source of leverage in any negotiation with Ukraine’s government will be its control of those territories. By surrendering those territories prior to negotiations, Russia’s government would weaken its negotiating position immeasurably.
All of this can only mean that Zelensky’s offer to negotiate is not sincere. So why has Zelensky made this phony ‘offer to negotiate’? Perhaps he believes that leaders of the Global South, most of whom have shown no interest in sanctioning Russia, are gullible enough to think that Russia just might accede to such a precondition, that Zelensky is truly interested in negotiating, and that they therefore should support Zelensky’s government.
I, for one, very much doubt that the leaders of the Global South are that gullible.
Ruling out territorial concessions is a recipe for disaster
Until recently, Zelensky and his Western sponsors have defined ‘victory’ as the recovery of all territory Kyiv controlled prior to 2014, when Ukraine’s democratically elected President, Viktor Yanukovych, was overthrown.
If we are truly concerned with the well-being of Ukraine and its people, then we must first ask whether that objective is realistically achievable. If ‘victory’, so defined, is unlikely to be achieved, then Ukraine’s refusal to make territorial concessions is likely to result in far greater death and destruction than Ukraine has endured thus far.
Moreover, Ukraine’s futile pursuit of total victory could result in an even greater loss of territory for Ukraine.
In that regard, it’s vital to understand that, although Ukraine has lost access to the Sea of Azov, it retains access to the Black Sea via the port of Odessa. Odessa has considerable historical significance for the Russian people. Not only does Russia have historical connections to Odessa, but the Russian government is deeply concerned about ethnic Russians living in Transnistria, who are now faced by an accumulation of Ukrainian forces in southwestern Ukraine. Establishing a land bridge from the Kherson region to Transnistria (through Odessa) would greatly enhance Russia’s ability to protect the inhabitants of Transnistria. Thus, if this war drags on and escalates, it is entirely possible that Russia will attempt to seize Odessa and to establish such a land-bridge. If that were to happen, Ukraine would be deprived entirely of access to the Black Sea.
The loss of Odessa and the limited strip of Black Sea coastline remaining to Ukraine would be a strategic disaster for Ukraine, as it would transform the country into a land-locked state. Among other things, the loss of Black Sea access would mean that Ukraine could not transport goods or persons out of or into the country without the cooperation of a foreign government. Also, Ukraine’s loss of access to the Black Sea could complicate enormously Ukraine’s export of grain and other agricultural products – which are its most important exports – to non-European markets. Already, an influx of Ukrainian grain into Poland has generated fierce opposition from Polish farmers. Forcing Ukraine’s agricultural industry to rely almost exclusively on European markets could cause severe, long-term damage to Ukraine’s economy.
These important considerations are almost entirely absent from Western, mainstream discussions about territorial concessions. Mainstream commentators routinely assume that the continuation of the war will result in Ukraine’s recovery of lost territory. That outcome, however, is by no means assured. The much more likely outcome, as the past four months have demonstrated, is that Kyiv will lose even more territory.
After Russian forces withdrew from the city of Kherson and the western bank of the Dnieper River in early November, the frontline stabilized. Russian forces then began to recover territory they had lost during Ukraine’s autumn offensive, and to gain territory that Russian forces had not previously controlled. All the while, Russian forces inflicted massive casualties on Ukrainian forces.
Since November, Russian forces have captured and continue to hold numerous towns and villages in the Donbas, including Andriivka, Berkhivka, Klishchivka, Krasna Hora, Kurdiumivka, Opytne, Pavlivka, Paraskoviivka, Pidhorodne and Soledar. (This is by no means an exhaustive list of Russian gains since last November.) By contrast, I am not aware of a single town or village that Ukrainian forces have captured during that period and continue to hold.
The situation in the key city of Bakhmut, the site of the war’s most intense and deadly battles, has become critical for Ukrainian forces. Recently, a former U.S. marine fighting alongside Ukrainian forces in Bakhmut reported that the average lifespan of a Ukrainian soldier on the frontline in Bakhmut is about four hours. Ukraine’s military has lost so many men in Bakhmut that U.S. officials have recommended that the Ukrainian military withdraw from the city.
Ukrainian forces have exhibited extraordinary tenacity and valour, but no amount of courage can overcome the formidable disadvantages they face.
In this war, Ukraine confronts a sophisticated opponent possessing one of the world’s largest and most advanced arsenals. Above all, Russia enjoys a huge advantage in artillery (the ‘God of War’, as Stalin called it), and the vast majority of casualties in this war of attrition result from artillery.
To replenish its losses, Russia also enjoys the advantage of being able to draw upon a far larger population than Ukraine’s.
Russia has vast reserves of oil, without which an army cannot sustain large-scale, mechanized, manoeuvre warfare. Ukraine’s oil reserves are negligible relative to those of Russia. Moreover, Russian forces have inflicted massive damage on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, whereas the damage inflicted by Ukrainian forces on Russia’s energy infrastructure is insignificant.
The frontline of this war is a short distance from Russia’s industrial heartland, whereas the main source of Ukraine’s weaponry, the United States, is an ocean and continent away from Ukraine. Ukraine’s military therefore confronts logistical obstacles that are more challenging than those confronting Russian forces.
Finally, whatever we Westerners may think of the threat posed to Russia by NATO expansion into Ukraine, all indications are that Russia’s government and military genuinely regard Ukraine’s admission into NATO as an existential threat. Moreover, this war is happening less than 800 kilometres from Moscow. Russian forces therefore have considerable motivation to fight, despite Western claims to the contrary.
Given the enormous hurdles Ukraine’s military confronts, it is remarkable it has survived thus far. Eventually, however, those hurdles are likely to lead to a strategic defeat.
I readily acknowledge that I’m no military expert, but when it comes to the military challenges confronting Ukraine, you need not rely upon my analysis of the situation. Western officials themselves have begun to acknowledge that Ukraine is in serious trouble.
In January, the German news magazine Der Spiegel reported that the BND, Germany’s foreign intelligence service, is alarmed by losses the Ukrainian army is suffering in Bakhmut. According to Spiegel, in a secret meeting, the BND told a group of Bundestag lawmakers that the Ukrainian army is losing a three-digit number of soldiers every day. The BND warned that the capture of Bakhmut by Russian forces would have significant consequences, as it would allow Russia to make further advances.
According to Politico, four senior U.S. Defense Department officials told House Armed Services Committee lawmakers in a classified briefing earlier this year that Ukrainian forces are unlikely to be able to recapture Crimea from Russian troops ‘in the near future’.
On February 24 of this year, the Wall Street Journal reported that “Kyiv’s Western partners have growing doubts over its ability to reconquer all its territory.” According to the WSJ:
…the public rhetoric [of Western governments] masks deepening private doubts among politicians in the U.K., France and Germany that Ukraine will be able to expel the Russians from eastern Ukraine and Crimea, which Russia has controlled since 2014, and a belief that the West can only help sustain the war effort for so long, especially if the conflict settles into a stalemate, officials from the three countries say.
“We keep repeating that Russia mustn’t win, but what does that mean? If the war goes on for long enough with this intensity, Ukraine’s losses will become unbearable,” a senior French official said. “And no one believes they will be able to retrieve Crimea.”
At the Munich Security Conference last month, Gen. Petr Pavel, the Czech Republic’s president-elect and a former NATO commander, admitted that “we may end up in a situation where liberating some parts of Ukrainian territory will cost such losses that will be unbearable for Ukrainian society.”
On the final day of the Conference, comments by the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, sounded even more dire: Borrell warned that the Ukraine war will be ‘over’ unless the EU finds a way to speed up the provision of ammunition to Ukraine.
That, however, is more easily said than done: Western arsenals are almost empty.
The hard reality today is that Ukraine will not recover all of the territory it has lost since 2014. At some stage, Ukraine will be forced to cede at least some territory to Russia. Moreover, if this war continues, Ukraine may well lose even more territory. Worst of all, vast numbers of Ukrainians will die, much of the Ukrainian infrastructure that remains intact will be destroyed, and the already heightened risk of nuclear war will increase even further.
Borders are not sacred, human lives are. The time has come to trade land for peace.