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Ukraine war ceasefire may require accepting a partition

Ukraine war ceasefire may require accepting a partition

Kyiv would likely see significant economic and political benefits — and move closer to the West — from a cessation of hostilities

Analysis | Europe

To settle the Russo-Ukraine war diplomatically, a number of analysts have suggested that the apparent military stalemate be accepted in a ceasefire agreement in which Ukraine would be partitioned along the current battle lines.

One possibility would be to include in such an agreement a formal legal acceptance of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and of the areas it now controls in southeast Ukraine. Another, more plausible possibility would be to leave the issue of formal acceptance open to further negotiation after armed hostilities have ended. That was the path accepted for the division of Korea after the war there ended in 1953. (Seventy years later, a formal settlement of the war has yet to be worked out.) And a third alternative would be to formally accept Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea while leaving the territorial acquisitions in its 2022 invasion up for later negotiation.

All three ceasefire proposals assume that Ukraine would give up about 18 percent of its pre-2014 territory at least for the time being.

Beyond halting the ongoing mayhem and destruction, Ukraine would gain two advantages from these ceasefire possibilities.

First, Ukraine is, economically speaking, better off without the areas captured by the Russians. Crimea and the Donbas area were a drain on Kyiv before the Russian incursions, and the situation in Crimea is probably even worse now as it no longer has appeal to well-heeled tourists from Europe. And much of the rest of the captured territory, from which over half the population has fled, is something of a rubble heap which the Russians would have to pay to reconstruct. Indeed, estimates are that they already are shelling out some $11 billion per year in the occupied territories. Even after ceasefire and partition, they would likely have to police their occupation against insurgents.

Second, a lasting ceasefire would give the bulk of Ukraine a chance (and a spur) to quietly work on its problems of corruption and economic stagnation that currently hamper its efforts to join the West. Dealing with these pathologies is likely as well to be helpful and perhaps necessary to persuade many of those who have fled their homeland to return.

There’s a lot to do. Ukraine enjoys many advantages: a rich history, a well-educated workforce, and abundant natural resources, including some of the best farmland on the planet. Nevertheless, among the 25 post-Communist countries, it came dead last in economic growth over the last three decades. In 1991, its GDP per capita was about the same as that of Poland, but, by 2015, it was only a quarter or a third of Poland’s. By 2019 (before COVID-19 and before the Russian invasion), Ukraine had managed to become the poorest country in Europe.

Maybe northwest Ukraine, with the debilitating war halted, could eventually figure out how to emulate South Korea which was in much worse shape when partition and ceasefire were declared on its peninsula in 1953. And if there are decades of peace, it seems possible that Ukraine and Russia, even as they continue, however uneasily, to negotiate the partition issue, could gradually establish a comfortable co-existence resembling the ones embraced by the U.S. and Canada or by Germany and Austria — examples Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin, put forward as models a few months before the war.

Although Putin has often expressed of late a willingness to negotiate, there is considerable and understandable concern that he cannot be trusted to abide by a ceasefire in part because he may actually harbor broader goals, perhaps including plans to attack the rest of Ukraine or other countries in the neighborhood, such as Poland.

Any agreement on partition would constitute a substantial gamble that Putin does not entertain such ambitions. It is true that he once said, “Whoever does not miss the Soviet Union has no heart.” But he followed it up with “whoever wants it back has no brain.”

And, given the military problems that followed his invasion of Ukraine, it seems unlikely that he will mount similar ventures elsewhere where defenders would be better prepared or assured of intervention by more powerful allies in their defense. His pre-war boast that his soldiers “could be in Kyiv in two days” has, to say the least, proved hollow. In addition, it seems clear that in Russian eyes, as Putin biographer Philip Short strongly stresses, Ukraine is much more nearly a special case than a stepping stone to wider adventures — Russia scarcely needs more land.

Putin, then, may not have designs on territory he does not currently control and he may be willing to accept, and abide by, a Korea-like partition. Getting the costly mess of a war out of the way with some semblance of dignity would likely have great appeal to him and it certainly would to the Russian people. To make the pill less poisonous, Ukraine could drop the (mindless) laws that have sought to demote the Russian language, such as the one that requires shopkeepers to greet all customers in Ukrainian. The underproductive sanctions on Russia could also be reduced or dropped.

Overall, Putin’s war will likely go down in history as a fiasco. Ukraine will continue to move out of his orbit and toward the West, Ukrainian nationalism and hostility to Russia have been greatly enhanced, the use of the Russian language there continues to decline, the NATO alliance has been expanded and strengthened, and the huge Western market for Russian oil has largely been obliterated.

Even before the war, economists were finding that prospects for substantial Russian economic growth over the next decade in Putin’s economically-declining kleptocracy to be “dim.” And his war is likely to have alienated prospective buyers and investors for a long time. Moreover, even if Ukraine does not formally join NATO (which several members have opposed anyway due to the country’s corruption and other ills), the alliance can still supply something of a security guarantee by pledging arms and other assistance to Ukraine should Putin seek to expand his hold.

Nonetheless, Putin will surely try to spin a partition agreement as a victory. For example, he would be able to claim that he now controls a land bridge to beleaguered Russians in Crimea, though that was not one of his demands when he started his war.

More importantly, he will claim success because, as he fantasized when launching the war, it undercut a military buildup in Ukraine by NATO that would eventually lead the alliance to invade Russia in the way Germany had in 1941. In his recent interview with Putin, Tucker Carlson suggested that notion was “paranoid,” launching Putin into a deeply flawed “historical background” monologue that ran for some 20 minutes.

Nonetheless, Putin still stresses that he requires some sort of guarantee that his nightmare fantasy will not become a reality, and that perspective seems to have sold well in Russia. (As usual, people believe what they want to believe.) It must be possible for the West to offer such a guarantee — to effectively forgo doing what it had no intention to do anyway.

A woman takes a picture as she stands next to a building destroyed by Russian shelling, Orikhiv, Zaporizhzhia region, southeastern Ukraine, March 20, 2024. Photo by Dmytro Smolienko/Ukrinform/ABACAPRESS.COM via Reuters

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