President Volodymyr Zelensky’s 10-step plan for peace showed the main goals and path to victory for Ukraine. The main points of it are the liberation of all Ukrainian lands, fair punishment for all Russian war criminals, and security guarantees for Ukraine. The “lands” point met a tepid response. Many western stakeholders and politicians believe in the Kremlin’s dismissive myth that Russia can’t possibly give up the occupied lands. But actually, there is no other option for long-lasting peace but for Russia to get away from all occupied territories, Mark Savchuk wrote.
The reason why some people in the West are perceiving Russian territorial claims as somewhat legitimate is іn a false idea about Crimea and Donbas as not-particularly-Ukrainian and historically contested. Those are a solid part of the Russian propaganda narrative, and it is factually incorrect. Crimea and the Donbas do have a complicated history and an ethnically mixed population, as do all post-colonial regions. And the legacy of any empire of Russian Empire was a controversial question here. But what wasn’t controversial is territorial integrity.
In the 1991 Ukrainian Independence Referendum, 83% of the residents of Donetsk and Luhansk regions, as well as 54% of Crimeans, voted in favour of Ukraine’s independence from the USSR. As of November 2013, only 9% of Ukrainians believed Ukraine and Russia should unite into one state. And that was a minority view that not even pro-Russian hardliners like ex-President Yanukovych, who was from the Donbas, spoke out about.
Before 2014, Russia had regularly positioned itself as “just a partner for Ukraine” with no territorial claims. It was underlined by Boris Yeltsin in 1991, and by Putin, who clearly stated that Crimea is not a disputed territory in 2008. Moscow itself created “The Crimea issue” and “separatism in the Donbas” narratives in 2014 as a reaction to the fall of the Yanukovych regime. Putin just wanted to create a Belarus-like puppet state in Ukraine.
It brings us to a reasonable question: If there hadn’t been any serious debate about Crimea and the Donbas in the past, why did Russia want them in 2014? Surprisingly, the answer is: It doesn’t. The actual Kremlin plan was fully expressed in Putin’s interviews, televised speeches, and ahistorical essays. So now, we can clearly say that the strategy was to prevent Ukraine from escaping Russia’s orbit. Underneath the cuckoo claims of fighting Nazis, Satanists, and bio-lab mosquitoes is a good old-fashioned imperial war.
Let’s say it again: Russia is an empire. in the most classic way. Among whole history, it is getting bigger at the expense of conquering, subjugating, and genocides (as it was with Crimean Tatars). The only two differences from other colonial empires such as Spain or Portugal are that Russian colonies weren’t outside the ocean, and Moscow never had an honest look at its colonial past. According to historian Michael Khodarkovsky, Russia is a colonial empire that has “persistently denied its colonial nature.” With Putin’s coming to power, denial transformed into revisionism.
Putin has said in public that the fall of the USSR was “the greatest tragedy of the 21st century” and that he thinks it was unfair that “historic Russian lands” were taken away. His attitude toward Ukraine was colourfully demonstrated during the course of the infamous conversation with President Bush Jr, where Putin reportedly said, “Ukraine is not even a country.” And in June of 2022, he likened himself to Peter the Great, the tsar who moulded the Grand Duchy of Muscovy into the Russian Empire:
“You might think he was fighting with Sweden, seizing their lands,” Putin said. “But he seized nothing; he reclaimed it! It seems it has fallen to us, too, to reclaim and strengthen.”
So how can a former colony like Ukraine defend itself from the reincarnation of the old empire with Peter the Create vol.2? There are three options. The first is allying with larger military powers — but NATO membership is a distant promise. The second is developing nuclear weapons — which Ukraine has vowed not to do. So Kyiv chose the last option, which was to use force to defeat the empire and then get stronger to stop any more attacks.
This is the point where a peace treaty forcing Ukraine to cede land becomes a ticking time bomb.
Whatever blunt and self-confident Russia may be, it is evolving. Freezing the conflict will give Moscow time to rebuild its army and high-tech industry and, as a result, launch another invasion in another 8 years. For Ukraine, it will be a period of endless economic and social crises. Ukraine will have no chance of successfully preparing for the subsequent Russian invasion if it loses control of the Azov Sea, all Azov and several Black Sea ports, 40% of its steel industry, and thousands of hectares of agricultural land. So any peace that doesn’t involve the return of occupied territories to Ukraine will be a huge mistake.
Some people in the West might wonder why those state budgets and standards of living might suffer for the sake of saving Ukraine. But that is a myopic view of the situation.
The war in Ukraine isn’t just about Ukraine. The win of Russia will open the pandora box of world security instability. All states with territorial claims will get the green light to realise it. China will get the reason for invading Taiwan in any way it wants, with terror and deportation. And Russia also will be motivated to continue incursion into Europe. First of all, to Poland or the Baltic states that Russian state TV routinely threatens. In other words, if the democratic world fails to respond to this war of conquest in 2022, there’ll be more wars of conquest for decades to come.
It may seem that after several massive defeats, Putin’s regime is finally ready for negotiations. All in all, Putin himself gives that message in public. But the truth is the opposite. The Russian budget for this year is the most military budget ever. More than 50% of it is allocated to the power apparatus and the army. According to Ukraine’s Brigadier General Oleksiy Gromov, the Russian Federation continues training new troops in Belarus and has moved its military aircraft there. Russian and Belarusian defense ministers had recently signed a protocol that amends the 1997 security agreement between the two countries. The protocol may involve a transfer of Belarusian-Chinese MLRS to Russia.
This is not a country preparing for peace talks. This is a country gearing up for prolonged war.
The good news is that the leaders of Western democracies understand it. The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Rsishi Sunak, stated that London will intensify its assistance to Ukraine. That decision was made after analysing the possible course of a war if the conflict would last. According to the result of the analysis, prolonging of war may help Russia. The USA chose the same strategy. It explains all the new large military assistance packages with long-distance rockets and offensive techniques.
Putin has put to the civilized world a choice: finish the forced de-imperialization of Russia and finally have a Europe free from sabre-rattling — or give Putin an inch and hope that it would be enough for him.
He is not the world’s first autocrat with illusions of grandeur invading a smaller, weaker neighbour. But, in bizarre denial of all previous experiences, some people think that it will end in a new way. Peace agreements will be kept, empires will stop growing, and dictators will retire and grow carrots. I beg of you: think again. Because abandoning millions under Russian occupation to torture, deportations, and mass executions is a moral choice. But not deterring an autocrat from his imperial ambitions is a historic mistake.
An autocrat with illusions of grandeur invading a smaller, weaker neighbour is not a new story. But, in bizarre denial of all previous experiences, humanity thinks that it will end in a new way. Peace agreements will be kept, empires will stop growing, and dictators will retire and grow carrots. I beg of you: think again. Because abandoning millions under Russian occupation to torture, deportations, and mass executions is a moral choice. But not deterring an autocrat from his imperial ambitions is a historic mistake.
By Mark Savchuk
Coordinator at UA PR Army, an expert in GR, energy sector, political blogger, Head of the Oversight Committee of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine
London School of Business and Finance postgraduate