December 31, 2023

Institute for the Study of War:  Russia sticks to its maximalist goals in Ukraine

Institute for the Study of War

A Ukraine strong enough to deter and defeat any future Russian aggression with an economy strong enough to prosper without large amounts of foreign aid is the only outcome of Russia’s war that the United States and the West should accept. Trusting Russian promises of good behavior would be foolish. Leaving Ukraine’s economy badly damaged would create a long-term and large drain on Western finances. Discussions about pressing Ukraine to trade land the Russians now occupy for a ceasefire or armistice have garnered attention recently, based on rumors of Kremlin interest in negotiations of some sort. These discussions have thus far largely focused on the supposed intransigence of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky who, it is argued, must be pressed to accept that Ukraine must cede some of its territory. That argument ignores the question that should be central to any such discussion: what are the concrete military, economic, and financial consequences that these territorial sacrifices would have for Ukraine’s long-term security and economic viability or for the future financial burden they would impose on the supporters of an independent Ukraine? The serious evaluation of this question shows that there are real military and economic reasons for Ukraine to try to liberate all of the territory Russia now occupies and that, in any event, the current lines cannot be the basis for any settlement remotely acceptable to Ukraine or the West.

Russia Will Not Abandon Its Maximalist Aims Now or in the Future

Russian President Vladimir Putin and many Kremlin officials have driven deep into the Russian political consciousness the ideas that Ukraine has no independent identity and no basis to continue to exist as an independent state; that any Ukrainian government not totally subservient to Moscow is a pawn of the West and a threat to Russia; that Ukrainian opponents of Russian rule are Nazis intent on conducting genocide against Russians in Ukraine; and that Russia has a legal, moral, and religious obligation to extirpate these supposed threats and restore Ukraine to its rightful place as a historically Russian land. Putin has made these arguments part of his 2024 presidential election platform. Russian administrators are inserting them in curricula throughout Russia and occupied Ukraine. Kremlin mouthpieces speak to the Russian domestic audience with one voice along these lines. Putin is training Russians to commit themselves to the task of subjugating Ukraine, and that training will neither stop nor vanish following some negotiated ceasefire. It will, in fact, shape the thoughts and likely policies of Putin’s successors for years or decades.

The task facing Ukraine and the West, therefore, is to be prepared after the end of this conflict to confront a Russia still determined to achieve its original aims, likely fortified in that determination by a desire to avenge its failures in the course of this war. The damage that the current war is doing to Russia’s military helps to reduce the risks of Russia renewing war quickly, but that effect is temporary and its duration depends in large part on how committed Putin is to rebuilding Russia’s military capabilities rapidly. The Russia-Ukraine frontier will thus be a frontier of potentially imminent conflict for the indefinite future, unfortunately. Peace can only be sustained at an acceptable price if that frontier is defensible by the kinds of forces Ukraine can sustain over the long term.

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