Your one-stop shop for everything related to the Peace of Westphalia

This title, taken from an article at Euractiv, seems appropriate after our last post about ending the Russia-Ukraine war. It is actually more interesting that just another take, however, because it proposes an alternate solution that I hadn’t considered: what if the war just peters out and never has a formal end?

The article points to 20th century wars that ended without a treaty: Korea (1950-1953), Vietnam (1965-1975), and the Soviet-Afghan War (1979-1989). Vietnam is a bit of a fudge, because it ended with the conquest of South Vietnam — there was no ambiguity about the result of the war. The Korean War did end with an armistice. Technically, of course, an armistice only suspends the war rather than ending it, but there is a definite point at which the fighting stops. They just couldn’t agree on permanent terms of peace, but neither did they have the motivation to continue fighting. It has been, in effect, a de facto uti possidetis treaty.

The Soviet war in Afghanistan is the closest parallel to what the article posits as a possible end to the Ukraine war: a simple withdrawal of Russian forces, with no formal agreement and no ceasefire. This seems unlikely, but it is not impossible. Russia never declared war on Ukraine, using the term “special military operation” which parallels to some extent the U.S. “police action” in Korea. Putin could declare his goals achieved and pull Russian forces back into Russia, where he could be fairly certain that Ukraine would not press the attack because of both the chance that it would unite Russians behind the war, and also the danger that Russia might use nuclear weapons in defense (which is not impossible even in the current war, but seems much more likely if Russia itself is under attack).

The difficulty occurs mainly because of the Russian-annexed territories in Donbas, Luhansk, Kolchis, and Zaporizhia. This might not represent too much of an issue in Donbas and Luhansk, where Russians control most of the disputed territory and have been there for years. In Kolchis and Zaporizhia, however, they do not have anything like complete control, so there would not be anywhere for their troops to “withdraw” out of recognized Ukrainian territory. They could stop firing on Ukrainian positions, but it is not clear if Ukraine would stop firing on them. On the other hand, it is entirely possible that fighting here, too, could peter out if Russia does not pursue an aggressive offensive. It is unlikely that NATO countries would provide Ukraine with substantial aid to fight a territorial conflict that did not threaten its existence.

This strategy could work for Russia, because time is on the side of the occupier. Controlling a territory de facto for many years is nearly as good as having a legitimate title to it in many respects; it is difficult to motivate people to fight what would appear to be a new war to recapture the occupied lands, and it is difficult to maintain long-term sanctions over territory that is occupied peacefully (even if it was originally conquered with violence) — consider how Taiwan’s international position has eroded over time as nations increasingly accept China’s existence and legitimacy. Proscription is not the same as legitimate title, of course; the slightest upheaval (for example, a coup in Russia) could result in a rapid reoccupation of the disputed territories if Ukraine had the strength to do it. But it may be better than what Russia could get at the negotiating table, so we can’t rule it out as a possible end game for Putin.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.