I attended a meeting of investors on Sunday and the main subject discussed was the war in Ukraine. Most attendees clearly had a gloomy prognosis for the outcome mainly because of a belief that Vladimir Putin was a lunatic who desired to restore the USSR, i.e. he would not stop at Ukraine but would thereafter move into Moldova, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania et al. This view is very much reflected in the Western media with concerns that the war could very rapidly develop into a nuclear one.
President Zelensky is clearly a masterful politician. He came from nowhere to win the election for President when historically he was simply a comedian who pretended to be President. There are few more unusual biographies. He also became a master of social media and has won the hearts and minds not just of Ukrainians but of most of the western world – the British do of course love underdogs. Meanwhile Putin has failed in terms of public relations by not putting his case well and has even publicly suggested that Ukraine should not be considered an independent country.
I take a somewhat different view to the popular consensus although I would not want this to be seen as an apology for the acts of the Russian military. As in any war it is unfortunately the civilians who are suffering the most. A peaceful solution needs to be found because if the war is escalated, with more sanctions being imposed on Russia, then the economic damage will be severe and widespread on both Russia and many European countries.
I think when looking at political conflicts which lead to war then it is best to look at the conflict from the point of view of the enemy when pursuing a solution.
Ukraine has historically been closely linked to Russia after being dominated by Poland. To quote from Wikipedia by the Treaty of Perpetual Peace [surely a wonderful name for a peace treaty], signed in 1686, the eastern portion of Ukraine (east of the Dnieper River) came under Russian rule. As a result a large proportion of the population (about 30%) speak Russian, particularly in the Eastern region and the Crimea. In fact President Zelensky was brought up in a Russian speaking family. In other words there are strong cultural ties with Russia. Ukraine was also a founding member of the USSR until that was dissolved in 1991.
Russia is clearly concerned about the encroachment of NATO and the EU eastwards that could both militarily and economically threaten Russia. Only Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine are not in the EU but Zelensky has indicated his desire to join. There is also the problem of the insurgency in the Donbas region which was long-standing before the latest events plus the takeover of the Crimea by Russia which Ukraine wants back. The longer the war goes on, the more difficult it will be to reach an amicable solution as attitudes harden on both sides and people look for revenge. As has been pointed out, Russia might be able to achieve a complete occupation of Ukraine but that might be followed by many years of constant insurrections and guerrilla warfare against them.
Russia has now offered to cease fighting on the following conditions: Ukraine changes its constitution to enshrine neutrality, acknowledges Crimea as Russian territory and recognises the rebel-held areas of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent territories.
This appears to be a reasonable basis for a settlement that would halt the damaging fighting and cease the escalation. If all military forces were withdrawn by Russia from the rest of Ukraine and Ukraine itself committed to the above (including no applications to join the EU and NATO), then a modus vivendi could be achieved.
Many people suggest that Putin might be removed as sanctions bite and his economy collapses or the war goes against Russia. But that seems very unlikely to me. Opposition to Putin in Russia is quite small and exaggerated by western media. Putin re-established Russia politically and economically after the collapse of the USSR so many people respect him for that. The war in Ukraine will not undermine the regime in Russia unless it broadens into a much wider conflict with bigger military losses which seems unlikely to me. NATO is not likely to get involved and quite rightly because to do so would simply damage western European countries even worse as Russia retaliated by halting exports of gas and oil. Sanctions on Russia will not halt the fighting alone and will take too long to have an impact – they can only encourage Putin to reach some kind of settlement.
A settlement that gives time for countries like Germany and Italy to wean themselves off Russian gas is a better solution. There are many worse options.
Here’s a good quotation from the book by Barton Biggs I mentioned in a previous blog post:
“ Disregard the ranting and raving of the self-proclaimed elite thinkers and alleged experts on wars, economies, politics, and, above all, the stock market” and “History doesn’t evolve in a slow and orderly way; often it leaps forward in disorderly, chaotic jumps. People with wealth should assume that somewhere in the near or far future there will be another time of cholera when the Four Horsemen will ride again and the barbarians expectedly will be at their gate”.
So far as Ukrainians are concerned, those circumstances have already arrived.
Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson )
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