The Alphen Group will soon begin work on the TAG Russia Strategy 2024. In anticipation of that work and as Chairman of TAG, I asked TAGGER Yves Boyer to write a thought-piece about the Russo-Ukraine War and dealing with Russia. Not only is Yves one of France’s leading strategic thinkers he has the courage and integrity to stand against convention, particularly American and British convention. For that reason I have made only the very slightest of edits as I want people to read the piece as Yves intended it.
The Alphen Group
Putting an end to the conflict in Ukraine: towards a stable and lasting peace in Europe
By Yves Boyer
Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has, indeed, unleashed a bloody war the likes of which Europe has not seen since 1945. From both an international law and an ethical point of view, Russia is evidently in the wrong.
Both sides claim to be winning and inflicting massive casualties on the other, but the actual battle lines have not changed much in many months. Except that Ukraine is exhausting its forces and can only survive on the financial and military supplies it receives from NATO member countries. The United States has already approved four rounds of aid to Ukraine since Russia invaded, totaling about $113 billion i.e., more money to Ukraine in one year than during the 12 years of military operations in Afghanistan. This bloody war in the heart of Europe has demonstrated the bankruptcy of the old European security system, which was unable to prevent it. Its implications go beyond its intrinsic stakes and are having a lasting effect on the international scene, reshuffling the cards of power to the detriment of the West. Indeed, it has set in motion dynamics with far-reaching consequences, and its prolongation is likely to be to the detriment of American and European interests.
The War in Ukraine as the prelude to a multipolar world
One of the first major consequences of the war in Ukraine has been to accelerate the emergence of new center of power which are the prelude to a multipolar world in which the West is losing the primacy it once enjoyed.
The war in Ukraine is leading to a tectonic shift in the international landscape, one transformative aspect being the rise of the “Global South” and its growing role in international relations. It was an expectation that the BRICS had been heralding for a long time, and it was the war in Ukraine that set-in motion the process of geopolitical affirmation of the “global south” that we are now seeing materialized. The West expected that most states would rally to the banishment of the Russian Federation, predicting with a certain dose of arrogance the collapse of Russia, the downfall of Vladimir Putin and even that Russia might eventually break apart. None of this happened, the West has failed to “isolate” Rusia. More the Russian economy does not break up. According to the Swiss bank UBS’s “Global wealth Report 2023”, in 2022 “loss of global wealth was heavily concentrated in wealthier regions such as North America and Europe, which together shed USD 10.9 trillion. Asia Pacific recorded losses of USD 2.1 trillion. Heading the list of losses in country terms in 2022 is the United States, followed by Japan, China, Canada and Australia. The largest wealth increases at the other end were recorded for Russia, Mexico, India and Brazil”. None of the BRICS has condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and all refuse to implement international sanctions against Moscow. The ostracism directed at the Kremlin was not either shared by a number of African or Latin American states. These countries are choosing their own path, which is not to choose between the US, Russia or China as shown at the ASEAN summit last July. In the words of Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan ASEAN countries do not want to be “vassal states…or an arena for proxy wars.” Similar positions were also asserted by Latin American and African leaders, notably at last summer’s summit between the EU and representatives of the African Union. Behind the rift created between the West and the rest of the world by the war in Ukraine lies the emergence of a multipolar world in which a number of states, without necessarily opposing the West head-on, are seeking to create their own regulatory and cooperative bodies that are no longer based on institutions or tools dominated by Washington and the EU. The idea of the BRICS (perhaps one day merged with the SCO) evolving into a kind of G7 is taking shape. The five BRICS nations have invited Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to join their grouping. The new members will increase the BRICS share of global gross domestic product from 32 per cent to 37 per cent on a purchasing power parity basis and control a little less than 50% of world oil production (up to 70% after Algeria, Venezuela and Kazakhstan join the group). In demographic terms they are dwarfing the US or the EU as well.
While Western eyes are riveted on the Dnieper, the world is moving at high speed towards uncharted directions at the detriment of the West.
15 years after their first summit in Yekaterinburg, BRICS countries announced their intention to move towards abandoning the US$ for bilateral trade settlement, including for oil purpose, a market now dominated by the BRICS. The de-dollarization of their trade is not a decision to phase out the use of the greenback in its entirety. Rather, it is a diversification away from the dollar, to guard against risks associated with dollar dependence in a period of time where the United States has weaponized their currency, one tool of American preponderance, for US national interest purposes.
In a way, it is Washington that has pushed the agenda in this area by internationalizing the stakes of the conflict in Ukraine, with the denunciation of Russian aggression. Adam B. Schiff (former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee) asserted that the funding of the war was also a means to send a strong message to China “a world in which democracies do not defend each other, China would be emboldened to impose its will on the democratic peoples of Taiwan. Azerbaijan may take further action to invade and occupy Armenia and Artsakh. Turkey, Iran and other nations will also take a fresh look at their territorial ambitions in a new global order in which there are no rules except might makes right“. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer for his part, mentioning strong bipartisan support for the supplemental funding for Ukraine requested by the Biden administration in the summer of 2023, declared that the US commitment to Ukraine “should send a clear signal to Vladimir Putin, the Chinese government, and others of America’s resolve when it comes to defending democracy around the world“. It’s doubtful what effect this statement will have in Zhongnanhai where it won’t necessarily be listened to as carefully as Washington would like.
How could China be impressed by such statements at a time when American support for Kiev is slow to yield effect in Ukraine’s favor, and when US public opinion is waning in its support for Kiev? The summer counteroffensive announced with much fanfare – a first in the art of warfare, where the adversary is warned in advance of when and where it will be launched – is stalling, with frightening human and material losses on the Ukrainian side, which has been reduced to stepping up its public relations operations to make people believe in the success of its weapons and the imminent arrival of weapons reputed to change the course of events, such as President Zelensky PR show when sitting in an F-16 in tandem with Denmark’s Prime Minister. Even though these planes won’t be joining the Ukrainian Air Force until next spring at the earliest.
Russian-Chinese rapprochement accelerates
In reaction to Washington attitude, China and Russia are very close to forming an effective military alliance, should circumstances lead them to do so. The intensity of their rapprochement will depend heavily on the United States. It is probably premature to speak of a formal alliance, but not of a functional one. It’s in the interests of both partners. China’s technological and financial capabilities offer the prospect of joint access to cutting-edge military and defense technologies that Russia’s potential alone would not allow. For its part, China sees a number of major benefits in deepening its military collaboration with Russia, not least of which is the imperative need to upgrade its command structures using Russian know-how particularly during joint maritime exercises, where mixed Chinese-Russian naval groups venture off the coast of Japan and even Alaska.
This military proximity exposes Chinese officers to rules and ways of thinking and planning for war that they imperatively need, having no recent experience of major military engagements. A huge problem that worries the authorities in Beijing. There are frequent references to “peacetime diseases” and “peacetime habits” affecting the quality of China’s armed forces, much as was the case with the Red Army in 1937-40 or the Chinese army versus Vietnam in 1979. Whatever the difficulties encountered by the Russian army, its operational know-how and the quality of part of the Russian officer corps, though disparaged in many Western circles, its level of competence remains a model for the Chinese Military Commission, which deplores the frequent lack of rigor in the operational preparation of its forces (biased reporting of exercises so as not to displease the higher echelons, and so as not to lose face, etc.), should the international context deteriorate further.
The war in Ukraine has indeed contributed to the exacerbation of tensions and increased denunciation of Russia and China, bringing Russia and China closer together than would otherwise have been desirable. One, an economic, technological and demographic giant, the other the only nuclear power capable of controlling escalation and annihilate the United States. As a symbol, of the increased proximity between the two capitals, when arriving in Moscow in March 2023, Xi Jinping was greeted, with the most famous military march of the Chinese army, and at the end of his visit Xi declared to V. Putin, “Together, we should push forward these changes that have not happened for 100 years. we are driving the change together“.
Is there a path to a diplomatic solution for the Ukrainian conflict?
Undoubtedly, and fortunately. Numerous attempts for peace talks have already been put forward by Ukraine, Russia, China, African countries, Saudi Arabia, etc. Secret meetings were reported between former top US national security officials with the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, and other Russians on potential discussions to end the Ukraine war. If this were to be the case, a certain number of prerequisites would have to be met.
Any negotiation with Russia – because that’s what it will be necessary to put an end to the war in Ukraine – presupposes a minimum of consideration for the enemy. Any negotiation is made with an adversary whose codes of conduct and values are not shared. These moral considerations must not get in the way of the negotiation process. The Europeans experienced a similar dilemma during the Thirty Years’ War, which ravaged part of the Old Continent in the XVIIth century. Considering that there was no point in continuing to kill each other in vain, they succeeded in concluding the Treaty of Westphalia, inspired by the adage “Cujus regio, ejus religio“. Each country has the leaders it has chosen or that it deserves, and the proselytizer of the idea of trying to change things for the other from the outside in the name of “values” is a very bad recipe, as shown by the various attempts in the last decade made by the West in the Arab world or in Afghanistan. It ended in disaster and failure for the West. After all, negotiating is about finding compromise, it is not about moral principles.
Taking into account Russian motivations and demands for “security for all in Europe”. How can be rebuild the conditions for security for all in Europe?
1) Putting an end to stereotyped judgements
When it comes to international relations, as Prince de Talleyrand architect of the Treaty of Vienna which put an end to the wars of the Revolution and the Empire, once remarked, “In politics, what is believed becomes more important than what is true”. A formula which may be turned around for peace in Ukraine “what is true should become more important than what is believed”. What is currently believed is that Russia is to be reviled. However, as former French President Nicolas Sarkozy put it, “Putin was wrong, what he did was serious and resulted in failure, but once we’ve said that, we have to move on and find a way out. Russia is one of Europe’s neighbors and will remain so….” Without compromise, nothing will be possible, and things may be getting out of hand at any moment as mentioned by Chancellor Scholtz “the West does not want the conflict to develop into a war between NATO and Russia by escalating the proxy war“.
A compromise implies moving away from a punitive vision of international relations which should be based on so-called values (in fact norms) highlighting the practice of a values-based foreign policy. Reaching an agreement is about achieving a mutually acceptable solution for both sides, it is not about unilaterally dictating one own will, it is not about condemning, sanctioning, ostracizing or banishing. In these circumstances, one need to take a more sober view of who the Russians are, and of the nature of their leaders, whose degree of corruption is not necessarily far away from that prevails in many other West’s allies and friends, starting with Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
There’s a long way to move into that direction, so much hubris dominates certain American circles who by dint of turning in on themselves, inviting into their cenacles the same advocates of the Ukrainian cause, performing in the same circles of thought, come to become group thinker’s unable of listening to any voice other than their own, convinced as they are of the justness of their cause. They tend to make believe that contemporary reality is comparable to the interwar period or the 1950s. When Russia is mentioned in Congress, it’s by reference to the way Adolf Hitler would have been countered in the 1930s. This excess of language leads ipso facto to the discrediting of Russian desiderata. These assessments are often tinged with contempt, as in the case of J. Borell, who echoed what Senator John McCain once said scornfully: “Russia is an economic dwarf, it is like a gas station whose owner has an atomic bomb“. Senator Linsey Graham once described Russia as an “evil enemy” (reminiscent of Ronald Reagan’s term for the Soviet Union, the “Evil Empire”) to be fought in the same way as “the Nazis and the Japanese in World War II“. In March 2014, Hillary Clinton compared Vladimir Putin’s actions in Crimea to Adolf Hitler’s aggression in the 1930s. These analogies with the Nazi regime are not new. They were rightly criticized by Raymond Aron, the great French liberal philosopher, who wrote in Démocratie et Totalitarisme that, while communism may have seduced good people with its project of emancipation, Nazism was explicitly and intrinsically an ignominy preaching an abject racist ideology leading to the abomination that was the Shoah. This is not at all the position or even less the ideology of the Russian leadership.
The regime is without doubt authoritarian and moving towards dictatorship, but no more or less repressive than that of NATO ‘s Turkey or Saudi Arabia. However, In the current Western ideological context no credit should be given to the Russians relegated to the margins of Europe. As the head of Ukraine’s National Defense and Security Committee Oleksiy Danilov put it, with a hint of racism, “Russians are Asians“, adding that, in his opinion, “the main difference between an Asian and a Ukrainian citizen is that they have a completely different culture, a completely different vision. Our main difference with them is humanity“.
In such a context, the search for diplomatic solutions by which Russia will have, because of its aggression, to bear the burden of reconstruction of Ukraine after having destroyed so many cities and industrial plants, is impossible if one of the starting points for talks is to change the Russian regime by ousting V. Putin. An argument that has been frequently used for over a decade. And since then, it has been used to justify support for Kiev since at least since 2013, “Ukraine’s choice to join Europe will accelerate the demise of the ideology of Russian imperialism that Putin represents” wrote Carl Gershman, then, chairman of the US National Endowment for Democracy, in the Washington Post on September 2013.
Ukrainians leaders strongly support the idea that regime change in Moscow is a prerequisite for peace talks. Mykhailo Podolyak adviser to the head of Office of the President of Ukraine declared after the declaration by Stoltenberg’s chief of staff, of exchanging territory for NATO membership “If Russian president Vladimir Putin does not suffer a crushing defeat, if the political regime in Russia does not change and war criminal are not punished, the war will definitely return with Russia’s appetite for more“. According to president Zelensky, “the only road to a lasting peace is a complete Russian defeat“. it’s a long way from the cup to the lips given the current balance of power on the battlefield and Ukraine’s considerable weakening, it’s hard to see how such a result could be achieved.
In the same way, it’s difficult to follow in the path of Europe’s leaders, who, like Annalena Baerbock said that nations in the west were “fighting a war against Russia” Which formulation former French president Nicolas Sarkozy responded that it was strange, if not burlesque, ” to fight to without fighting”. Which is indisputable, as stated by Chancelor Scholz last August “the West does not want the conflict to develop into a war between NATO and Russia by escalating the proxy war“.
And this is where Crimea comes in with its complex identities made of successive heritages, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Tatar and Russian. Whether Crimea is Russian or not, is a debate to be left to historians. Perceived as “Oriental”, it became part of the imaginary landscape of a Russian cultural identity under construction.
Alexander Pushkin’s poem The Fountain of Bakhchisaray remains still today a monument of Russian literature that continues to thrill in Russia. But these are considerations about culture and identity that many unfamiliar of Russian history blithely ignore. Today, after the ukases signed by V. Putin on March 18, 2023, Crimea and the city of Sevastopol were becoming respectively the 84th and 85th regions of the Russian Federation. As such, they are covered, whether one admits or not, by the protection that nuclear weapons provide to a nuclear state territory.
Which European leader would then come before his public opinion to argue that Crimea should be taken back from the Russians even if it meant a nuclear confrontation? A short memory is needed not to forgot the storm that shook Western Europe at the time of the Euromissile crisis.
2) Western opinion running out of steam
In both the USA and Europe, voices are beginning to be raised calling for a review of the conditions for aid to Ukraine, which would be akin to the Danaids’ barrel. In the US, Andy Harris (HR representative for Maryland) co-chair of the Congressional Ukraine Caucus who has remained committed in his support for President Volodymyr Zelensky through the early months of the war told recently his constituents that it’s about time to wind down direct U.S. aid to Ukraine ” If there are humanitarian monies, nonmilitary monies, or military monies without an inspector general, I’m not supporting it”. Warning about the possibility of starting “World War III” by bringing Ukraine into NATO he recently joined the chorus of some GOP parliamentarians on Capitol Hill who are pushing for a negotiated end to the war. “I think the time has come to realistically call for peace talks. I know President Zelensky doesn’t want it. But President Zelenskyy, without our help, would lose the war. And with our help, he’s not winning. It’s a stalemate now. ” Indeed, on the American side, if support to Kiev remains intact, it is however eroding month by month according to the latest polls. In a telling sign, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy refused to travel to Kiev at Zelensky’s invitation, an attitude that was unthinkable until recently.
In Europe, many political forces are hoping now for a negotiated solution to the conflict. They represent a significant proportion of the electorate, as is the case in France with the NUPES and the Rassemblement National, and in Germany where the AFD has become one of the main parties on the political scene.
3) Renouncing the myth of superweapons as game changer leading to a favorable military outcome for Ukraine
The initial operations clearly demonstrated huge flaws in the Russian army’s preparation and shortcomings in both joint and combined combat and logistics. The Ukrainians, on the other hand, have shown unfailing determination, ingenuity and courage. Since the start of hostilities, lies and truths have alternated constantly on both sides. The understanding of events is more obscured by “communication” than it is made intelligible. Information on military operations also gives both sides the opportunity to truncate events and give a highly selective, partial or biased view of them.
The scarcity of Russian communication is matched by very well-calibrated communication on the Ukrainian and Western sides. All too often, however, subjectivity takes precedence over the simple statement of facts. Image, i.e., emotion, takes precedence over reasoning. How could it be otherwise, given that in Ukraine, beyond the struggle for the liberation of an aggressed country, the battle is that of the law, that against the “evil empire”, that, according to one observer of the conflict, of “the marriage of war and virtue“.
By mid-September, Ukraine had gained the upper hand over the Russians. The Russians seemed to be in disarray. The situation was to change significantly from October onwards. To regain the upper hand, the Russians rethought their command structure. On January 11, 2023, further upheavals took place with the appointment of General Gerasimov, then Chief of Staff, as head of the “special military operation”. They also make a greater use of drones and cruise missile encapsulated in their now efficient “complex of reconnaissance and strike”.
The negative appraisal of Russian aggression also leads to a devaluation of the adversary, underestimating its military capabilities and that of the Russian officer corps, which is as competent, if not better, as its Western counterparts. An error of assessment that is often the source of setbacks, as military history too often shows. This has led to conflicting forecasts on the outcome of the fighting. General Mark Milley, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at the start of 2023: “From a military point of view, I maintain that this year, it would be very, very difficult to eject Russian forces militarily from every inch of Ukraine“. Yet in some Western circles, the idea that the Ukrainians will win remains. On June 6, the second day of the Ukrainian offensive, former CIA Director and retired four-star general David Petraeus told Germany’s Deutsche Welle, “I think the (Ukrainian) offensive will be much more successful than many of the more pessimistic analysts have been offering. The reason for his optimism? First, because the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) will be equipped with large amounts of NATO gear and training”, and second, Petraeus thinks “the Russians are not well trained, they’re not well equipped, and they’re not well led.”
In fact, at the beginning of autumn 2023, as mentioned by an editorialist of The Daily Telegraph “The war in Ukraine became one of attrition, fought on terms that increasingly favor Moscow. Kyiv has dealt admirably with shortages of Western equipment so far, but a shortage of manpower – which it is already having to confront – may prove fatal. For Vladimir Putin, victory may at last be in sight as Western support begins to waver. If Kyiv cannot break through the Russian lines now, it may never be able to. If it runs out of willing men to recruit, the West cannot help”. A few months ago, it was “Ukraine is running out of ammo”, which has now become “Ukraine is running out of men.” Let’s put an end to this technologist vision of war, according to which technical instruments can bring a conflict to a favorable conclusion. After all, the Taliban used simple Kalashnikovs and RPGs to oust the major Western military powers equipped with the most sophisticated technology. Since the beginning of the conflict, the delivery of sophisticated weapons was going with the announcement that they were going to change the course of the war. Javelin ATGW, Himars, modern western artillery system, SAM, cruise missile such as SCALP/Storm Shadow, Striker, Marder, Leopard, Challenger tanks, etc.; and now, in the indeterminate future, F-16 fighters are presented as new game changers! Each time disillusionment was the outcome. Whatever the result of the conflict, there is a moral obligation to bring it to a swift conclusion in order to put an end to the human tragedies it entails. To finish it off so that it doesn’t degenerate into a nuclear confrontation with Russia, a prospect that some in the West have light-heartedly brushed aside, John Bolton calling it, Moscow’s bluff.
The violence of the combats and the extent of human and material losses is such that it is difficult to imagine that the war could continue at that pace for an extended period. A sort of stalemate can of course occur: the war would go on, but at a reduced level of violence, because of the exhaustion of both adversaries. It would be reminiscent of the time after 2014. This outcome, which would not be a long-term solution, is not probable, because of the importance of the stakes on both sides. What we now observe looks more like escalation as stalemate. That Russia or Putin’s regime would suddenly fold does not appear at all likely for the time being.
The possibility for a Ukrainian’s military and social breakdown in the month ahead in winter time can’t be dismissed out of hand. To prevent the dramatic consequences, it may have, a diplomatic solution must be sought, as David Ignatius put it bluntly in a recent Washinton Post article on should move looking, “for a quick diplomatic exit ramp”.
A first possibility would be a ceasefire, brokered by outsiders, on the Korean model. It would stop the slaughter but it would not be evidently a permanent solution.
It could be more akin to the Geneva agreements about Indochina in 1954, providing for elections after a certain time lapse (it is evident that those elections could not be held just after the end of hostilities; a time for deconfliction would be needed). The precedent is not encouraging. But at some point, anyway, elections will be necessary.
Whether the elections would concern Ukraine as a whole, or the different parts of the country individually, or only the contested regions (Crimea and Donetsk, etc.) remain to be seen. Anyway, the elections would need to be verified (and policed) by non-involved countries.
A second possibility would be a full peace treaty, addressing the territorial problems eventually ratified by popular vote. Under international supervision, evidently. In this more traditional kind of peace settlement, it would be necessary to gauge the limits of possible concessions on both sides.
To achieve that (and it applies also for the ceasefire solution) a mixture of pressures and enticements is necessary. For Russia, the pressure would be the risk of ever better armaments provided to Ukraine, the enticement would be an internationally recognized end state. In any cases, there will be the definition of financial compensation paid by Russia for Ukrainian civilian victims, and contribution for the reconstruction of destroyed Ukrainian towns and industrial entities.
For Ukraine, the pressure would be the very real battle fatigue in the West and a possible defeat. And the enticements would be a Western help for reconstruction; an inclusion in European and Western organizations (at what pace and till what extent would have to be seen: as of now, the Ukraine is unable to join the EU, and the EU is unable to admit her. It can only come after a long process.
It has to be stressed that, if the United States is the only one country in a position to impose such outcome on Kiev, it cannot be the only one to dictate the conditions for peace. If the USA is in a position to participate in and help rebuild Ukraine, it cannot realistically offer rapid access to the Union which is primarily a matter for the member states of the European Union. To claim otherwise is misleading, and fails to take into account the political balances that could result from the forthcoming elections to the European Parliament, leading to a Commission that is less Atlanticist than the one headed by Mrs. Von der Leyen. And more inclined to seek peace instead of war.
Last but not least, innovative thinking on the future of international security should also be worked out. Making peace only makes sense if a broader vision of security in Europe is discussed and developed. This presupposes a radical overhaul of the current security order, in such a way as to include Russia as a stakeholder and guarantee of a stable and lasting peace. This, after all, was achieved at the Congress of Vienna, where France as hated then as Russia is today, the former adversary so was a participating party in a treaty that ensured several decades of peace in Europe.