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How the Ukraine war could end in peace

Mar 12,2023 - Last updated at Mar 12,2023

PRINCETON — After nine years of war, and one year of intensified fighting following Russia’s full-scale invasion, Ukraine’s future remains murky. In the West, the current debate is focused largely on the matter of weapons shipments to Ukraine. Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States have agreed to supply modern tanks that they had previously withheld, but now Ukraine is also asking for longer-range missiles and fighter jets.

There is no consensus. Some fear that supplying jets and other weapons with an offensive capacity could risk escalation or provoke a nuclear response from the Kremlin; others, beholden to former US president Donald Trump’s brand of nativist isolationism, are questioning why Western taxpayers should pay for Ukraine’s defence. As these debates grow more divisive, those who believe the war must be fought will also have to start thinking about how it could and should end.

Will this be another endless war, or might it end in a frozen conflict with a de-militarised zone, or even in a genuine, stable peace?

The probability of each outcome is hard to assess. The endless-war scenario follows from the common assumption that the future is mostly a continuation or extrapolation of the past. But while this is often true of normal life, emergencies and exceptional states tend to be punctuated by abrupt paradigm shifts and tipping points.

Would-be realists favour the frozen-conflict “solution”. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and the Chinese leadership have both proposed versions of a demilitarised zone. But this “pragmatic” option has no political traction, and those pushing for it will conveniently blame ideology when it inevitably fails.

A stable peace is much more likely than many commentators seem to believe. Not only could Russia itself bring an end to the war, but there are steps that Europe and the US can take to make that outcome more likely.

History offers ample evidence, particularly from the Russian experience, of how mismanaged and ill-conducted wars can destroy the political establishment, create instability, compel reforms and ultimately produce regime change. It was Russia’s defeat in the mid-nineteenth century Crimean War that led Czar Alexander II to enact wide-ranging reforms, including the abolition of serfdom.

Similarly, Russia’s defeat by Japan in 1905 led to a revolution and the founding of the Duma (parliament), and World War I was even more consequential, destroying first the czarist monarchy and then the provisional government of Alexander Kerensky. The Soviet Union’s disastrous war in Afghanistan provoked protests from the mothers of dead soldiers and ultimately was a precipitating factor in the country’s disintegration.

In his novel August 1914, the Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn draws a lesson from the czars to castigate the Soviets. “Could the country squander this reserve of spontaneous patriotism?” asks his protagonist, a visionary and dynamic mid-level officer. “It could. From the very first days of the war the generals had begun pouring it down the drain.” Obviously, the same message applies to today’s Putinists.

The peace scenario need not involve anything like what happened in Berlin in 1945 or Baghdad in 2003, when foreign soldiers entered the capital to depose the dictator. Russia’s own episodes of self-transformation have come when ordinary Russians stood up to denounce their rulers’ incompetence, venality and immorality.

But whether a sustainable peace can be achieved depends not only on the way the war ends but also on what happens immediately afterwards. With Russian forces having deliberately targeted Ukrainian civilians and infrastructure, there will be demands for reparations to help pay for reconstruction.

Many prominent officials, including EU leaders, have called for Russia’s frozen central-bank assets to be used for this purpose, and others would like to go after the assets of oligarchs who have aided, or failed to resist, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war machine. These ideas all merit consideration. It may indeed be appropriate to penalise individual Russians, provided that they are held accountable through a properly constituted judicial inquiry, such as an international court or, preferably, a Russian one.

But it would be unjust and counterproductive to lasting peace if the victors seized Russian state assets unilaterally. Those resources are technically the property of the Russian people, and they will be needed to build a new Russia that is no longer dependent on Putinomics’ mix of hydrocarbon exports and militarism.

Post-1919 Germany offers a well-known example of what to avoid. The Weimar Republic’s fate was sealed the second that it signed a peace treaty committing it to pay ruinous financial reparations. In practice, this meant that the new Germany was atoning for the sins of the old Germany; democrats were paying for the damage caused by Kaiser Wilhelm. Russian democrats today should not have to pay Putin’s bill. Down that road lies a repeat of the 1990s militarism and conspiracy theories about Russia’s betrayal and humiliation (talk that had eerie parallels to Germany in the 1920s).

Reconstruction debates also must account for the highly polarised global response to Russia’s war. China, India, South Africa and 29 other countries abstained in the latest United Nations General Assembly vote to condemn Russia’s invasion. Among their principal objections to offering unconditional support for Ukraine is that many other victims of war and injustice around the world have been neglected or forgotten.

What is needed, then, is a more general framework for rebuilding societies devastated by conflict. This should resemble the post-World War II approach, which established the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration in November 1943, well before the Allied victory. If the end of the war in Ukraine is seen as part of a broader global project to provide support for all victims of aggression, invasion, and violence, it is more likely to win the world’s support. Russians, too, would come to see that there are much better alternatives to Putinism.


Harold James, professor of History and International Affairs at Princeton University, is the author of “The War of Words: A Glossary of Globalisation” (Yale University Press, 2021). Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023.

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