Most national media seem to be ignoring four critical geo-political facts about Ukraine and Russia that will form the framework for an end to the war.
First, Ukraine and Russia share a long border and a long history. The Ukrainian-Russian border stretches over 1,200 miles and if you include the Ukrainian-Belarussian border, they form about ¾ of Ukraine’s neighbors. Their history goes back centuries, with ever-changing domination. Ukraine and Russia are the two largest countries in eastern Europe.
Second, Russia’s long-term goal of being a world power depends on having ports for their navy and civilian maritime fleet. Although Russia has by far the longest ocean border of any nation on earth, they have few accessible ports that are ice-free throughout the year. Their long coastline on the Arctic Ocean is both frozen and inaccessible most of the year.
Their far-east port of Vladivostok is 4,000 miles from Moscow, and because much of the area between is undeveloped, the distance by land travel is over 5,600 miles.
One available port is the St. Petersburg area on the Baltic Sea. However, to gain access to the Atlantic, ships must pass through the Denmark Straits, a narrow passage through a NATO member state. Not great for a navy if a war is imminent.
That leaves the navy base ports at Sevastopol, Crimea. It is the home of the Russian Black Sea fleet even though access to the Atlantic is hindered by the need to traverse the Dardanelles and Bosphorus Straits, controlled by Turkey, another NATO member. Russian leaders have tried to dominate Crimea for centuries to give them access to this port.
Third, for several years before the Russian invasion in 2022, there was a separatist revolt in the Donbas region of Ukraine. While supported by Russia, this civil war was based in some unique demographics of the people in the region. Many are descendants of Russians who moved to the area over centuries, including a large migration in the mid-20th century, encouraged by Stalin’s desire to make it more difficult for Ukraine to leave the Soviet Union. About 95% of the Donbas population speaks Russian as their first language. These are people who have lived there for several generations, call it home, but retain ties and some loyalty to Russia.
Finally, since the fall of the Soviet Union, NATO has expanded to include almost all of the former Warsaw Pact (eastern European) nations and Soviet republics that declared independence at the time. It is not far-fetched for a Russian leader to think that the motherland is threatened by this westward advance of a bloc that began as a military deterrent to Soviet expansion into central and western Europe. Nor is it difficult for a Russian leader to consolidate support from the Russian people by pointing out this threat, whether or not he actually believes it to be true.
With that background, what potential outcome of the war would be acceptable to both the Ukrainians and Russians?
Clearly, the Russians have been unable to succeed militarily. At this point, the war has ground to a stalemate in the Donbas region, with the Russians periodically punishing the rest of Ukraine with missile strikes. With support from NATO, the Ukrainians have driven the Russian army away from Kiev and succeeded in forcing them to focus only on the area with a more pro-Russian population.
However, with a much larger population and economy and with borders that surround Ukraine on 3 sides, the Russians may have the ability to outlast their neighbor in a war of attrition. Ukraine may not be willing to see more of its cities reduced to rubble as the Russians have done to Bakmut and other towns.
As winter turns to spring and summer, if the Ukrainians can continue to degrade the Russian (and Wagner) forces and make some advances toward the Russian border, Putin may be convinced to agree to a peace settlement. Volodymyr Zelensky may be unwilling to continue to endure the war of attrition, death of thousands of civilians, internal refugees, and destruction of its economy.
I suggest some terms that may be acceptable even if both sides will need to make concessions.
First, Russian will have to agree to accept the pre-2014 borders of Ukraine, which includes returning Crimea and all the eastern part of the country to Ukrainian sovereignty. Putin would have to accept that whatever support the Russians had in the Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine before their invasion has dissipated or disappeared because of their scorched earth battle plans in that region. Allowing the Wagner group to take the lead has only exacerbated their problems with the local population. Putin would be more likely to accept this condition when he comes to believe that he would only inherit an ongoing guerilla war even if he can expel the Ukrainian regular army from some portion of their pre-2014 territory.
Second, the Ukrainians would have to agree, in return, to create some kind of special zone that gives the Russians de facto control of the port of Sevastopol and sufficient surrounding area to make it an effective home to the Russian Black Sea naval fleet. While this idea may seem inherently unstable, there are long-lasting precedents in the American occupation of the Panama Canal zone, the British 99-year lease of portions of Hong Kong and the recent Chinese lease of the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka.
Third, the Ukrainians would have to agree to a right of free passage from Russian territory east of the Donbas through eastern Ukraine to their naval port in Sevastopol. Putin would be able to claim victory in legitimizing his control of an ice-free port for his navy.
Fourth, Ukraine would have to agree to refrain from seeking NATO membership for a lengthy period in the range of 5 to 15 years.
The agreement would also have to take into consideration the vast destruction that Russia has inflicted on Ukraine. Ukrainians would be unlikely and unwise to accept a settlement unless it includes provisions for rebuilding.
Russia, while the direct cause of this destruction, likely would not agree to fund the rebuilding and probably does not have the economic resources to do so. There will have to be an international coalition led by NATO and China to invest in rebuilding, at a minimum, the energy infrastructure that Russia has targeted with relentless bombing. The rational for this investment is to ensure that Ukraine can, within a few years, rebuild an economy strong enough to avoid internal disputes likely to arise if Ukraine is left with a peaceful but utterly impoverished economy. Think Germany after World War I. The international community, particularly Europe, has a critical interest in creating a model for lasting peace between these neighbors.
This broad outline of a peace agreement could be the framework for a ceasefire, with the many additional details negotiated between Russia and Ukraine, with the help of international resolution experts. The United States, China and NATO would have to remain in a tangential role in these negotiations. Perhaps diplomats from Africa and Latin America could oversee the negotiations, considering their important interest in ensuring the re-establishment of a stable flow of Ukrainian wheat to their regions.
It is not too early to propose this broad framework for peace. As Yogi Berra (probably) once said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there.”