Russia Holds Half the Territory It's Gained Since Invading Ukraine. And It Wants to Keep It.
A question for those wanting negotiations now.
Following Ukraine's impressive military successes over the past two months in liberating previously occupied territories, prominent members of the commentariat have called for negotiations with Russia to end the war. On November 2, Georgetown professor Charles Kupchan wrote in the New York Times, "The West needs to move Ukraine and Russia from the battlefield to the negotiating table, brokering a diplomatic effort to shut the war down and arrive at a territorial settlement." He called for a settlement going back to the borders before Russia's invasion on February 24. On November 15, The Nation editor and publisher Katrina Vanden Heuvel wrote in the Washington Post, "It might be time to give diplomacy a chance in the Ukraine war." Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley suggested that the winter may provide a "window" for negotiations.
However, any settlement, even temporary, would risk cementing Russia's gains. That would mean the end of the legitimacy of the United Nations -- designed to prevent illegal wars -- and do nothing for the people suffering under Russian occupation. (Liberated areas have revealed evidence of extrajudicial killing and torture.) The question for those calling for negotiations is this: how much territory that Russia has gained since February 24 should Ukraine cede? Such a settlement would produce only a pause in fighting, leading ultimately to more war, not less. (Negotiating a settlement is distinct from diplomacy, which CIA Director Bill Burns did this past week in Ankara, communicating the consequences of using nuclear weapons to the Russian side.)
For Russian leader Vladimir Putin, the war has always been about conquering Ukrainian territory and thus reuniting Ukraine with Russia. Giving up all of its territory gained since February 24 would constitute a failure for Putin -- something that it is implausible he would accept. To wit, this past week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky proposed a 10-point peace plan, which includes restoring the internationally recognized borders of Ukraine, which Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called "unrealistic and inadequate."
On July 12, 2021, the Kremlin published a 5,000 word essay by Putin proclaiming Ukrainians and Russians as "one people." Putin used the word "territory" (or its adjectival form) 20 times in this document. The Russian leader wrote that after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 "those territories [Soviet republics], and, which is more important, people, found themselves abroad overnight, taken away, this time indeed, from their historical motherland." Putin wrote that Ukraine can only exist as a state on Russia's terms: "true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia."
Reuters reported that as the war began, Putin rejected a tentative peace deal hammered out by his chief envoy on Ukraine, Dmitry Kozak, that would have satisfied Russia's demand that it stay out of NATO. While Putin and many Western commentators have asserted that the war was about Ukraine's potential membership in NATO and preventing Western military hardware being placed on Russia's borders, Reuters wrote that Putin made it known that he "had expanded his objectives to include annexing swathes of Ukrainian territory, the sources said."
Putin has been failing at his goal of taking swathes of Ukrainian territory. Russia's army failed to take Kyiv. Russia's army failed to take Kharkiv. And this month, Ukrainians liberated Kherson, which Russia declared a part of its territory "forever" six weeks prior. All in all, Ukraine has liberated about half of the territory that Russia had control over since February 24.
However, Russia still controls about half of the territory it has conquered since February 24, not including the already occupied territories Donetsk, Luhansk, and Crimea. That includes Mariupol, the tenth-largest city in Ukraine prior to the war, with a pre-war population of nearly 500,000. That includes the Zaporizhia Nuclear Power Plant, constituting about 11 percent of Ukraine's pre-war power, as Ukraine faces repeated attacks on its energy infrastructure and blackouts.
Russia shows no signs of wanting to give up territories it has occupied since February 24; on the contrary, it is digging in for the long haul. Russia has elaborate plans to rebuild Mariupol, a city it leveled to the ground, to hide the traces of the war. (There is precedent for this: the Russians razed the Chechen capital of Grozny in two wars and rebuilt it into a glistening metropolis under a Kremlin-friendly strongman, Ramzan Kadyrov.) In the Russian-controlled southern Ukrainian city of Melitopol, Russia appears to be building a massive forward operating base. The city's exiled mayor, Ivan Fedorov, wrote on Telegram on November 13 that columns of Russian troops were arriving, in retreat from Kherson and other regions; fortifications were being built around the perimeter of Melitopol; the military was settling in occupied houses, schools and kindergartens; and civilians were prohibited from approaching the city's airfield. He added that Russian soldiers were going door-to-door looking for men of fighting age, buses of deported children had arrived in the city, and Kadyrov's brutal paramilitary had arrived in a nearby village, hanging flags of their leader everywhere. While a settlement consistent with international law to end the war would be desirable, in practice, Russia is making it clear that it has no interest in letting Ukraine exist.
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