Discussions / War Against Ukraine

Tuesday, March 08, 2022

What Can Force the Kremlin to Stop Its War?

When Russia illegally annexed Crimea and fueled the armed conflict in Donbas approximately eight years ago, Vladimir Putin experienced being punished by relatively mild sanctions that did not alter his behavior. Since February 24, 2022, Russia and Putin himself are under severe and increasing pressure from the Ukrainian military who defend the country and from international institutions and foreign governments. It is an absolutely different experience for him, and this can force the Kremlin to change its course of action. But who / what can guarantee that he would commit to any promises he might articulate during the negotiation process, after Russia’s leadership has already broken so many?

On February 24, 2022, Putin openly invaded Ukraine. The extent of the Kremlin’s violations of international laws and United Nations statutes had been so severe that Ukraine had already filed its evidence-based application to institute proceedings against Russia in the International Court of Justice-the judicial organ of the UN.

Before February 24, it was clear that Russia’s declared objectives for full-fledged military invasion in Ukraine were flawed. There was no evidence that Ukraine was about to join NATO. The Kremlin had already been a de facto patron of the self-declared DNR & LNR, whom it had officially recognized as independent states on the eve of the full invasion of Ukraine. Those territories had not been under Ukrainian government control since April-May 2014.

The chosen military tools are irrelevant for fulfilling Russia’s declared political objective-to change Ukraine’s foreign and internal policy priorities. Ukraine’s policy priorities usually change as a result of elections. There were numerous instances when that happened for the benefit of Russia’s foreign policy: the victory of the Orange revolution in 2004 was followed by the victory of a pro-Russian opposition in the 2006 parliamentary elections, and its leader briefly served as a prime minister, then as a president (February 2010-February 2014). Because Russia violated Ukraine’s territorial integrity in 2014, voters in the annexed Crimea and the non-government controlled territories of Donbas did not cast their ballot at the subsequent elections in Ukraine, and other voters’ pro-Russian preferences heavily declined.

Because both the (declared) objectives and the military tools were flawed, Russia’s threats to invade Ukraine have been often interpreted as Putin’s blackmailing/bargaining. Since  February 24, blackmailing keeps increasing (the scope of civilian casualties due to missile strikes and bombing of cities; Putin’s order to place  deterrence forces, including nuclear weapons, on “a special mode of combat duty”).

Since February 24, the military forces of Ukraine have been performing their duty beyond anyone’s expectations. The imposed international sanctions have quickly hit Russia’s economy. Russia’s key policymakers, Russia’s central bank, and Russia’s export of natural resources are under sanctions imposed by those who used to be Russia’s long term partners in the international arena.

The imposed economic sanctions have quickly made life pricy for the civilian people in Russia, and public consent is cracking. The number of public protests and the number of those who join them have been rapidly growing. The domestic military and security services block them and punish participants, but new ones burst out throughout the country.

There is evidence that the consolidation of Russia’s domestic elites is being undermined. Local deputies quickly signed their open statement of disapproval of the war against Ukraine even before the sanctions were imposed. One of the major Russian oligarchs, Alfa-Group’s Mikhail Fridman, stated he was against the war soon after the sanctions were introduced. Still, there are fewer soft-liners than hard-liners among domestic elites.

The bilateral negotiations between the aggressor and the defender started on February 28, 2022, nearly simultaneously with the emergency special session of the UN General Assembly on Ukraine. The negotiation process goes on simultaneously with the ongoing war against Ukraine and the evidence-based investigation in the International Court of Justice. The expected outcome is to force the Kremlin to stop the war, pay the price, and prevent this from happening again. If we use the terms of rationalist theories, one of the major issues seems to be the commitment problem. Previous experience has proven that promises given by the Kremlin can be easily broken. First and foremost, this is proved by its violation of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum’s Security Assurances, and it does not really matter that the document was vague or poorly designed. Most recently, the Kremlin’s officials have promised the whole international community that it would not invade Ukraine.

What can be reliable proof that the Kremlin would credibly commit to fulfilling any (potential) promises to Ukraine, to the rest of the world that is paying a very high price, when imposing sanctions and restructuring international trade and cooperation? Any results of bilateral negotiations between the aggressor and the defender would not have the desired outcome unless there are means to hold the Kremlin’s leadership accountable for what they promise to do versus what they do in practice. At the moment, this is the priority issue for the UN, and the credibility of any potential solution depends on the contribution of each country that signed the UN Charter.

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