Dhe Ukraine has defended itself against Russia so successfully that it is time to think about peace. What he might look like is unclear, but there are possibilities. Some experts believe that Russia’s invading power is disintegrating. If that’s true, the war could end no later than when she’s expelled from the last Ukrainian village. However, it is also possible that the Ukrainian advance will get bogged down in the mud of the coming autumn and the Russian army will recover before the whole country is liberated.
Which scenario occurs will depend on both sides’ willingness to take risks and make sacrifices. For the Russians, it will depend on whether Putin increases his nuclear threats or whether credible counter-threats from America deter him. The Ukrainians, on the other hand, will have to make a terrible calculation: How many people do we want to sacrifice to liberate more areas? And if the sacrifices are not to be limitless, how many citizens would we have to surrender to Putin’s tyranny if we stopped before the whole country is liberated? All of these questions will determine when both sides are ready for a ceasefire and where the line of contact will be. How Ukraine wants to answer them is their sovereign decision. Nobody is allowed to interfere with her. Either way, the decision is terrible.
But one thing is foreseeable: the peace will not be stable on its own. Putin has repeatedly made it clear that his goal is not just any ceasefire or limited territorial gains. He wants Ukraine gone. Whole and forever. Russia will thus remain a revisionist and treaty-breaching power as long as Putin is in power, and perhaps even afterwards. Its elite have learned since the first attack on Ukraine eight years ago that a ceasefire is most useful when it is breached at a convenient opportunity.
“Boots on the Ground”
Anyone who thinks about a future peace must therefore also ask themselves how it should last. It has already been shown twice how wrong it can be: in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, when Ukraine gave up its post-Soviet nuclear weapons in exchange for security promises from London, Moscow and Washington, and in the 2015 Minsk Accords. Putin broke these agreements because he thought he could do it with impunity. Therefore, a future peace requires robust protection – what the Anglo-Saxons call “boots on the ground”: Western troops to guarantee its existence. That would be the only means of preventing Putin from rekindling the war once he has repaired his battered army. Experts such as the German three-star general Heinrich Brauss or Christoph Heusgen, the chairman of the Munich Security Conference, therefore consider Western troops in Ukraine to be part of a medium-term ceasefire agreement.
Such a protection force will probably not be sent by NATO. This would require unanimity, and that is not in sight. At most, NATO and the EU could support a “coalition of the willing”. America should be at the top, the only power that Putin takes seriously. But because America actually wants to focus on China, the nuclear powers France and Great Britain as well as Germany should also be there. Chancellor Scholz has repeatedly promised Ukraine security guarantees.
The protection force should not be too weak and not too strong. In order to be able to withstand nuclear threats, it would have to be big enough for Putin to understand: Whoever attacks here is dealing with the nuclear power of the West. On the other hand, it should be so moderate that Russia does not have to interpret it as an attacker. A limited number with strong infrastructure for quick reinforcements could be the way. NATO’s “Enhanced Forward Presence” in the Baltic shows how this works.
But why should Putin agree to this? The first answer is: maybe he doesn’t. Then you have to think about other ways. But the second is: maybe he will. Either (and that would be painful) if after a truce he could keep enough loot to feign victory. Or if a continuation of this fatal war would threaten his rule. Powerful supporters like mercenary leaders Prigozhin and Kadyrov might turn away to avoid going down with him. Then he would have to stop, even if he didn’t want to. That’s not for sure. But the West, Germany, should now consider what to do next. And have soldiers ready.