Negotiation, Defeat, or Collapse

Pau Marí-Klose

7 mins - 23 de Febrero de 2023, 22:09

Wars end with negotiation. It is a mantra you hear a lot lately. It is not entirely true. Some end with the crushing and collapse of the enemy: the terms of peace are then dictated by the victorious contender, who pursues the leaders of the defeated combatant, and if possible, punishes them. One does not have to rack one’s brains or go very far back historically to find examples.

But it is true that some wars end when the two contenders sit down to negotiate. Some think that this happens when diplomatic efforts to get the sides to listen to offers and be open to mutually satisfactory arrangements succeed. Conflicts are, from this point of view, fundamentally seen as communication problems. Once the reluctance to talk is overcome, the solution emerges. The reality is usually a bit starker. The sides sit down to negotiate when, after costly confrontations, they find no more reason to continue fighting: the expected benefits are low and the probability of achieving them is blurred.

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If peace is wanted, Russia must be dragged into that scenario, and quickly. Russia remains in control of a larger portion of Ukrainian territory than it controlled before the war, but its military horizon is uncertain if military, logistical, and humanitarian aid to Ukraine is consistent. And in this chapter the news is flattering. Having cleared up a number of uncertainties regarding energy dependency and the economic horizon, the unity of the international coalition supporting Ukraine seems increasingly robust and the commitment, irrevocable. In such a context, if the Ukrainian army manages to inflict new defeats on its rival on the battlefield, we will be on the verge of a correlation of forces and strength similar to the ones that existed before the invasion of 24 February 2022.

The Ukrainians aspire to more, as it cannot be otherwise, and it seems inconceivable at this point that they would accept a peace proposal for territories. Sovereignty and territorial integrity are sacrosanct principles of the international order which Ukraine has every right to claim and which it is unlikely to renounce, except in the unimaginable scenario in which it is forced to abandon it to its fate. Europe cannot afford it. It would immediately lose all its pedigree in the international concert, which would delegitimise its commitment to the defence of universal principles, the protection of human rights, and the dignity of the weak. The blow to Europe’s reputation would have serious implications. The loss of confidence of third countries would severely damage the multilateral cooperation spearheaded by Europe on key issues for the world, such as the fight against the climate crisis and its consequences or the management of pandemics.

With international support, it is difficult to envision an acceptable scenario for Ukraine that would not represent a defeat for Russia in the eyes of its public opinion (even if it does not mean the achievement of its ultimate goals). Volodymir Zelensky would hardly be forgiven if he were to sit down to negotiate without having expelled Russian troops from the annexed territory after the invasion of February 2022. For all these reasons, the best hope for peace, perhaps the only hope, is a rapid Ukrainian military advance in the coming months.

Can Vladimir Putin accept what in the eyes of external public opinion looks like a defeat? As Tymothy Snyder points out, in a regime such as Putin’s it is possible to shift the focus away from the situation in Ukraine and divert the focus and attention to other issues. The absolute control exercised by the regime over the transmission of information makes it possible to reach situations that in a democracy would have a high cost for the government. As George Orwell warned us, in a totalitarian state – and many scholars of the Russian regime agree that it indeed is moving rapidly towards totalitarianism – it is perfectly possible for Eurasia to be at war with East Asia today, and tomorrow both will become allies in a confrontation with Oceania, without anyone batting an eyelash.

Numerous are the wars in which significantly more powerful armies have been defeated by weaker enemies. Conflicts in Algeria, Vietnam, Lebanon, or Afghanistan offer illustrative examples of world powers forced to retreat despite their military superiority. We are talking about democracies that had to admit their inability to maintain control of countries in which they claimed to have a monopoly of force or to assist the supported governments. Their 'defeats' wore down their governments, but they were assumed as inevitable and metabolised.

If democracies subjected to the scrutiny of public opinion were able to do so, there is little reason to think that autocratic governments cannot metabolise defeats without major consequences. Autocrats who have survived military defeats are numerous and noteworthy. Nasser overcame defeat by Israel in 1967. Saddam Hussein was not overthrown after his defeat by the United States after invading Kuwait in 1991. The United States only succeeded in ousting him from power 12 years later following a full-scale invasion. Without going very far, Franco’s regime abandoned Ifni, after years of Moroccan harassment, with little public opinion in the metropolis echoing the loss of a Spanish province, in what some called Franco’s 'hidden war'.

Contemporary Russian history also offers examples of autocrats who retained power after experiencing severe military defeats. Tsar Nicholas II suffered a terrible downfall against Japan in 1905, Stalin was severely defeated in the war with Finland in 1939, Yeltsin failed in the first Chechen war in 1996 and was nevertheless re-elected, and Mikhail Gorbachev withdrew troops from Afghanistan in 1988, without any sort of domestic opposition.

The most likely path to peace is through a Russian defeat that would force it to withdraw the occupying troops. Much more doubtful is the third scenario that some chancellery and parliamentary segments in Europe are considering: the collapse and fall of Putin and the possible disintegration of the Russian Federation. And in expressing doubts, I do not intend to make a normative judgement. Putin has committed horrendous crimes that deserve punishment. But the transition to this horizon is fraught with uncertainties and resembles more an expression of ‘wishful thinking’ than a considered assessment of the existing evidence. In light of the information available on Putin’s regime, implosion is improbable (not impossible) and may lead to undesirable scenarios, in which internal wars within the Russian elite to fill the vacuum left by Putin or territorial tensions between the centre and the peripheral republics may lead to chaos. It is clear to all that convulsions such as these in terms of a nuclear power entail considerable risks. 

We stand at a crucial, historical moment, when Europe must confront security and stability challenges that may jeopardise its exceptional model of economic development, liberal democracy and commitment to human rights, social solidarity, and the protection of the weakest. Some speak of the end of innocence. A Europe that gains geopolitical awareness must begin to question mantras and recognise that what is desired is not necessarily equivalent to what is probable nor desirable, and thus, continue to be Europe. A stronger Europe to continue to aspire to all that makes it unique.

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