How Ukraine can defeat Russia

Photo: Joint Forces Operation / Facebook 

Hybrid War

With the sixth year of warfare in Donbas, the end of Russia’s war against Ukraine seems nowhere in sight. Russia is playing the long game. The Minsk agreements ostensibly set up to broker a peace agreement are a win-win for Russia and are pleasantly ambiguous for the West, but are bleeding Ukraine. As exhaustion grows, how might Ukraine defeat Russia? An international group of experts brought together by the Lviv Security Forum, including Euromaidan Press editor Alya Shandra, addressed exactly that question.

Split into three groups — the side of Ukraine, Russia, and the third side — they modeled the distribution of forces within their groups and possible future scenarios of conflict development. The results were presented in a report which we summarize below.

The preconditions: a centuries-long war and the players in place

Russia’s current war against Ukraine is no random occurrence. Rather, it should be seen in the prism of Russia’s centuries-long campaign to expand westward, to secure access to the Baltic and Black Seas, and gain crucial resources and infrastructure, says the preface of the report.

A major difference between Ukrainian and Russian actors of the conflict is that in Russia, the institutional state dominated by Vladimir Putin is the sole actor that can be effectual in conflict resolution. It is its desire for world leadership that pushes the Russian political class to war with Ukraine. The Army does not have a separate voice when it comes to conflict resolution.

The Russian general public is mainly indifferent or even critical towards Ukraine, and the democratic opposition lacks resources to influence the situation.

Snapshot from the report

On the contrary, in Ukraine, there are many actors involved. Apart from the institutional state, those are the civil society, the Ukrainian Army, and oligarchic monopolies, which, contrary to the Russian ones, are independent and influence the political system and society to maintain control over the Ukrainian institutions, natural resources and to preserve the existing business rules.

The oligarchic monopolies also have stable economic relations with the Russian Federation, primarily but not exclusively, through retail and transit of Russian energy resources, such as gas, oil, diesel fuel, etc, as well as ties to the Russian institutional state. They profit from the current chaos, but Ukraine’s loss of independence will be an immense danger to the oligarchs as an independent class because Russia will not tolerate their independent influence should it gain full control over Ukraine.

The third party includes Germany and France, which on the one hand have taken the most active part in the resolution of the conflict through the Normandy process and in doing so want to promote their European leadership. On the other hand, they have deep historic and economic ties with Russia, as a result of which business communities wishing to resume business ties with Russia and lift sanctions influence their foreign policy.

“Moreover, there exists certain competition for European leadership between Germany and France, and they view cooperation with Russia as an opportunity to strengthen their influence on the European arena, in particular, through cooperation in the energy sector.”

Germany is seen as the only country that so far has enough financial and other leverages to influence Russia, and, at the same time, independence from Russian influence. 

The USA and NATO are grouped together, as the USA is viewed as the key NATO ally that may have the strongest influence on the position of the alliance. But at the present, neither the USA nor NATO have a strategy for action in the Black Sea, which adversely affects the security situation in the region. Despite all its desire to stand up to Russia in Ukraine, the USA doesn’t have the most important instrument – economic leverages of influence on Russia.

Other key players include the OSCE, for which the resolution of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict is a test for the effectiveness of the organization itself, and the EU, which has more potential to become an impartial mediator in the resolution of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict compared to individual countries, which often have their national agendas at stake.

“The active position of Poland and the Baltic countries in making a proper evaluation of Russian aggression against Ukraine and maintaining sanctions could rejuvenate the negotiation process.”

Persons, institutions, and organized groups used by the Russian institutional state to pursue its geopolitical goals both in Russia, Ukraine, and the West, are distinguished from the actual actors with agency in the resolution of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and may be described as instruments of Russian foreign influence:

Snapshot from the report

An important factor of conflict resolution is building international alliances. They are generated by the issue of support for Ukraine’s sovereignty or compromises on Ukraine’s sovereignty in favor of Russia.

One important alliance is that between the Russian oligarchs (which are dependent on the Russian state) and Ukrainian oligarchs (on which, on the contrary, the Ukrainian state is dependent). But the interests of oligarchic monopolies are concealed; therefore, mapping the interests of these two players may be potentially rewarding.

The strongest allies of Ukraine with the potential for a geopolitical alliance are countries that have historical experience of coexistence with Russia, i.e. the countries of the Baltic-Black Sea region. This direction is, alas, underdeveloped, as there is lacking cooperation and security strategizing between these countries; additionally, Ukraine remains outside European and Euro-Atlantic structures. A geopolitical alliance is one of the most stable.

Alliances of financial dependency include relations of Russia with the extreme left or extreme right in Europe or relations between Russia and German businesses or Russia and its actors of influence within Ukraine; they will last as long as the money lasts.

Value-based alliances are based on the dichotomy of rule of law against rule of force, the rule of law against authoritarianism, and multilateral deterrence against pragmatic bilateral bargaining. They are relatively stable, but value approaches may be compromised over time. International organizations should be considered value-based alliances. Civil society in Ukraine is the only stable value-based ally of the West in Ukraine with a history of successful cooperation.

Situational alliances are based on temporary benefits and convergence of interests. Actors involved in situational alliances are part of the process not because of any abstract considerations but because of a specific situation, from which they may derive benefits. Ukraine has to step up its efforts in building situational alliances with the West. There is a growing competition between Ukraine and Russia around building situational alliances.

Snapshot from the report

The main lines of conflict that emerged from the exercise are as follows:

As a result of Russian aggression, Ukraine has found itself at the very center of a global conflict between NATO and the Russian Federation over control of the Baltic-Black Sea region.

A hidden conflict line between Ukraine and the EU is that the EU is interested in ending the war near its eastern border as soon as possible and resuming good trade relations with Russia, while Ukraine is interested in preserving its sovereignty and is not eager to give it up to resolve the conflict at any cost. This has implications for the Minsk process, as its implementation would mean a loss of Ukrainian sovereignty

Within Ukraine, there is also a major internal conflict between the interests of civil society and oligarchic monopolies. The latter wish to retain the status quo and weakness of state institutions, which enable them to control state power and resources.

How Ukraine can defeat Russia

As the nature of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict is geopolitical, stemming from the Russian Federation’s aspirations for world leadership, including dominance in the Baltic-Black Sea region, and control over Ukraine is crucial for Russia to achieve this goal, preserving Ukraine’s independence and sovereignty is of utmost importance for the security of the region.

However, any expectations to resolve the Russian-Ukrainian conflict within Ukraine or solely through Ukraine’s effort are non-realistic. This is why the Minsk agreements, which place full responsibility for conflict resolution on Ukraine, lack the potential to resolve the conflict, and, thus, promote Russian aggression further west. This is why other measures are needed.

Deterrence of Russia

Ukraine and its Western allies should, first of all, recognize Russia as a party to the conflict and impose international obligations on it to end hostilities in Ukraine.

Ukraine should purposefully and systematically collect evidence of Russian armed aggression against Ukraine, file lawsuits in international courts, and establish cooperation on Russian war crimes and crimes against humanity with other countries.

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Ukraine also needs to work to strengthen its international alliances, in particular, through strengthening institutional cooperation in the Baltic-Black Sea region, which, in their own part, should develop closer integration ties within integration with the EU and NATO.

In order to counter Russia’s occupation of the Black Sea, Ukraine should significantly strengthen cooperation with Turkey.

As the Black Sea region is crucial to Russia’s plans, Ukraine has to develop its own strategic vision for the development of the Ukrainian Navy and strategy for the protection of the coastline and the North Crimean Canal.

Economic sanctions remain the most effective tool in deterring Russian aggression, so they must not only be preserved but also strengthened. In particular, the EU countries should close access to its ports to any ships that left the occupied Crimea. Ukraine, in turn, should gradually reduce trade with Russia in order to increase the price of occupation and make its own contribution to weakening the aggressor country.

Strong Ukrainian state

Ukraine should step up penalties and implement clearer mechanisms to prosecute political parties, media, businesses, and other agents of influence for supporting Russia’s aggressive policies towards Ukraine.

Therefore, Ukraine should clearly outline its state interests in international politics and strengthen its diplomatic service. Ukraine should make every effort to shed light on Russia’s role in the Russian-Ukrainian war at the international level and make the negotiation process associated with the Russian-Ukrainian conflict as public as possible.

Ukraine also needs to strengthen the country’s strategic intelligence capabilities, decentralize power in Ukraine, and introduce civilian control over the defense sector.

Access to resources and benefits

To protect itself from Russian influence, Ukraine is interested in ensuring fair access to resources and benefits through the destruction of existing oligarchic monopolies, which are Russia’s main allies in Ukraine. Western actors should stop servicing the money of these oligarchs in their financial systems. More Western investments guarantee more Western involvement in solving the conflict. Likewise, an inflow of Ukrainian non-oligarchic business into the south-east will contribute to the development of a resilient society and sustainable development of these regions.

Social resilience

Concepts matter. The lack of a clear official definition of the concepts of war, occupation, Russian aggression, in particular in the legislative field and public space, dulls the vigilance of society towards such threats; this must be changed.

As Russia has historically used divisive topics to undermine Ukraine’s cohesiveness, Ukraine should cultivate critical thinking on manipulative topics, as well as a stable Ukrainian identity, empathy, and mutual understanding in society on the basis of education.

Any official status for the Russian language will lay the groundwork for further Russian aggression. Ukrainian citizens who have taken up Russian citizenship in occupied Donbas must be restricted in their political rights in order to ensure the political stability of society; likewise, a general amnesty of the mercenaries of the Russian occupation forces is unacceptable.

Ukraine needs to develop a strategy for the reintegration of the occupied territories after their liberation, as well as the restoration of ties with the occupied territories during the occupation. In particular, Ukraine must ensure a permanent media presence in the occupied territories and frontline territories controlled by Ukraine, as well as establish state-funded programs for cooperation with young people under occupation.

As we can see, there is no quick and easy solution for Ukraine to defeat Russia in the current war. Rather, it is a complex of daily steps that bolster Ukraine’s resilience, build its alliances, and grow its internal cohesiveness. There are many possibilities for the West to participate in the process if it is interested in genuinely improving the security situation and not promoting Russian aggression further west.

Read the full report here. 

Further reading:

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