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Ukraine’s future: Finland or Cyprus?

Written by James C. Bennett

Putin’s original plan for Ukraine has failed. His response is escalation. The outcome is unclear. But the range of options is not unlimited, and history suggests the likely possibilities based on the way Russian statecraft and war operate. What is the best available outcome out of a range of imperfect ones?

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Following the failure of Putin’s attempted coup de main in Kyiv, he faced the dilemma of whether to follow the Finnish precedent or the Chechen.  The former model refers to the 1944 termination of the Second Soviet-Finnish War, also known as the Continuation War, the second to the outcome of the 2010 Second Chechen War and the destruction of Grozny, the Chechen capital.  These are poles of outcomes both of which represent cold-blooded and realistic thinking on the part of the Russian state.  Neither model fits the current Ukrainian situation perfectly; however, both illustrate the working of the Russian theory of statecraft and war.

At the time of this writing, it is not yet clear what the outcome will be.  His first strategy having failed, he is experimenting with escalation of force, using more artillery and larger numbers of troops, but still not going for the full-scale destruction of urban areas with carpet bombing such as that used in Grozny and more recently in Aleppo during his Syrian intervention.  Casualties would be much higher if that were the case.  It is also the case that the “Finnish model” that ultimately emerged was only resorted to after an extended period of conventional warfare against Finnish forces, one that gradually pushed the Finnish back, but at a very high cost.  The Finnish model was not a first choice for Stalin, but it was an acceptable one.  If it was acceptable for Stalin, it is not unreasonable that it might be acceptable for his spiritual protégé, if it came to that.

The Chechen model basically writes off any expectation of willing cooperation from the conquered population, and relies on sheer terror to maintain control of the area. Putin is still acting in hopes that the bulk of the Ukrainian population can be convinced to at least accept the rule of a Moscow-appointed puppet regime, while gradually coming to accept that state of affairs as the new normal for Ukraine.  After all, the Ukrainians had accepted Soviet rule with at least the same degree of compliance between 1920 and 1990, and the Belarusians accept essentially the same outcome for themselves today, so this hope does not seem entirely unreasonable to Putin.  Let us call such an outcome the Belarusian model.  However, it seems likely that outcomes will fall short of anything resembling a Belarusian outcome.  Even a total subjugation of Ukraine would likely just produce a puppet state with an unwilling population ready to engage in any sort of rebellion and sabotage as the opportunity came.  Economic productivity would be minimal, a new version of the old Brezhnevite stagnation.  Given the costs of occupation the whole adventure would be an ongoing net economic loss.

In the case of Finland, although the Soviets suffered greatly disproportionate losses compared to the Finns, Stalin had an essentially limitless supply of soldiers to keep throwing at them in the First War.  However, the cost to the USSR was high enough that Stalin cut his losses and made a compromise peace with Finland.  His original aim had been to create a puppet state in the whole of Finland.  He had created a puppet administration, the Finnish Democratic Republic, ready to settle in Helsinki and take over the government.   After that failed, Stalin settled for annexing approximately a tenth of Finland’s land area, including its fourth-largest city, Vyborg.

When Germany launched its surprise attack on the USSR in 1941, the Finns used the opportunity to try to take back the territory ceded to the Soviets in 1940, launching what became known as the Continuation War.  Although they did recapture the ceded territory at first, the Soviets gradually pushed them back to their previous 1940 positions.  However, as in the first war, the Finns fought well on their home territory, and the Soviets experienced much higher losses than them.  After a particularly costly defeat at Ilomantsi in 1944, and facing the need to make as many troops as possible available for the final push to Berlin, Stalin abruptly ordered his diplomats to terminate the war on the best terms available.  They offered basically the status quo ante, which the Finns promptly accepted.  The Soviets thereafter adhered to the letter of the peace agreement.

Thus it is not unknown for the Russians, when their original maximal goals are proven unobtainable to make a pragmatic decision, terminate an untenable position, and cut losses, while still trying to obtain the best available outcome.

As noted previously, the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine by Russian Federation forces appears to have been intended as a sudden coup, in which limited forces would capture the capital and the Ukrainian government, force a surrender by its President or other authority in the event of the President’s death or disappearance, at which point the Ukrainian armed forces were expected to cease resistance, if they resisted at all.  These expectations were based on the experience of the previous invasions of Crimea and the Donbas border areas.

In Crimea, in 2014, Russian forces executed a successful and minimally bloodless coup, and the Ukrainian forces present then mostly surrendered without resistance.  Putin made two miscalculations; the first, thinking that the degree of capability and will to resist of Ukrainian forces had not improved since then; the second, that what worked in the limited area of Crimea, with a base already under their control, could successfully be replicated in a far larger area of the whole of Ukraine.  Disastrously for him, both assumptions were false.  Additionally, Western reaction to the Crimean coup was weak and essentially harmless to Putin. This time that also was not the case.

Although Putin’s initial reaction to the failure of the coup was clearly an escalation, as Russian forces begin to use artillery and rockets on residential areas in major Ukrainian cities, he has not resorted to the full menu of high-intensity shelling, carpet-bombing from the air, and chemical weapons, as was used variously in Chechnya and Syria, although urban shelling and dumb iron bomb attacks on civilian targets have intensified.  His forces were withdrawn from Kyiv and re-oriented to the Donbas, where those forces had the best prospects for success.

Without entirely abandoning his previous stated goal of “denazifying” Ukraine (which decodes as eradicating any advocacy of Ukraine as a valid nationality with any right to a nation-state), Russian forces have subsequently concentrated on a classic combined arms assault on the Donbas provinces with the apparent intent of integrating them into the Russian federation, certainly de facto and aspiringly, de jure.

At various time during the past hundred days, he has offered to end the war and withdraw on the condition that he retain Crimea and the Donbas, and rule out NATO and European Union membership for Ukraine.  Presumably this means Ukraine and the international community would formally recognize the status of Crimea and the Donbas areas, either as part of the Russian Federation, or as formally independent countries presumably tied to Russia via mechanisms such as the Eurasian Union or the State Union that currently formally exists between Russia and Belarus.  (He has not mentioned this willingness lately, and Zelensky has stiffened his resistance to concessions in Donbas, although that may just be an attempt to shore up his internal political position.)

In other words, Putin is recognizing the undesirability (or impracticality) of a full conquest of Ukraine, or even all Ukraine east of the Dnepro and the entire Black Sea coast, including Odessa.  Instead, he would be working toward a negotiated option based on partition.  This is almost certainly the best available outcome out of a range of imperfect ones.  If that is the case, his escalation of attacks on civilian areas is designed primarily to put pressure on Ukraine to agree to relatively undesirable terms, and to push lines of control as far as possible in order to create facts on the ground as a claim toward expanding the eventual area of partition to his side.

It is not out of the question, of course, that he still hopes for a collapse on the Ukrainian side, or cold feet among the Western allies whose munitions and financing have become indispensable to Ukrainian resistance.  In which case, he would certainly try for push to Odessa and a linkup with his exclave in Dnistria.  But that surely has dwindled as an expectation.

Turning to the realities of partition, within the general category of partition there is a range of outcomes with various pluses and minuses for each side.  The term “Finnish” solution is actually more accurately assignable to one set, namely, partition in accordance with a finalized and signed peace treaty, preferably guaranteed by one or more outside powers.  This would have recognized governments on all sides and defined borders, and would be viewed as being as permanent as any other national border in the world.  The alternative outcome might be termed a “Cyprus” solution; one with a cease-fire agreement with no final treaty, with a cease-fire line that basically freezes into place the final disposition of the opposed armed forces.  One of more governing entities might exercise authority but not be recognized internationally, in the manner of the government of Northern Cyprus.

Given the damage, disruption, and costs being incurred by the current conflict, including the sanctions costs being imposed on Russia, a general cease-fire should be an attractive option to both parties, and a permanent partition is likely to become an acceptable price.  However, given the acceptance of a partition in theory, a large number of divisive issues immediately present themselves to negotiators. The minimal acceptable outcomes for Ukraine would have to include an absolute cessation of fighting, and the withdrawal of Russian forces of all description from all areas expect those areas potentially designated for partition.  Defining such territories in the southeast of Ukraine would likely be a long-drawn-out process, but a withdrawal of forces elsewhere would almost certainly be a basic Ukrainian demand.

Assuming for the purposes of this discussion a proper “Finnish” solution, with a state treaty, recognized borders, and international recognition, the following issues arise:

Minimal or maximal definition of areas to be ceded:  Ukraine would probably propose no more than the lines established in the Minsk agreements; Russia would probably demand the entire provincial boundaries, which would be three times more extensive than the Minsk agreement areas.  Russia would also be highly motivated to ensure that their area include a land corridor to connect Crimea with the Donbas regions and Russia proper. (Current lines of control as of this writing would achieve that Russian goal.)  The actual cease-fire line would be the easiest compromise to land on, although likely the hardest to actually implement administratively.

Customs frontiers and trade relations.  These would be a rich source of dispute.  In fact, rather than Putin’s general determination to restore the Czarist empire, the immediate grievance in the Donbas area — that which had some actual purchase in the local population — was the prospect of EU membership for Ukraine.  This would effectively have placed the strict and intrusive EU customs frontier through the middle of the Don Basin, which was an integrated industrial area in Soviet times and which has managed to retain a fair amount of cross-border economic activity since 1991.

The prospect of the further economic disruption of EU protectionism, which would be alleviated in Ukraine by EU economic transfers, but fall entirely on the workforce on the Russian side, was the genuine grievance on which Putin’s agitation and propaganda was able to expand. The EU frontier is an irritation wherever it falls, but its introduction into a region where it would aggravate existing inter-communal strife is particularly problematic, as has also been the case in Northern Ireland.

It would therefore be a sensible give on the part of Ukraine to forego for the foreseeable future full EU membership.  A milder and less disruptive form of trade relationship, perhaps membership in the European Free Trade Area, or a bespoke trade relationship, which would allow for a liberal free trade relationship between Ukraine and Russia, would be a better solution.

Here the option of recognizing the Donbas statelets as full-fledged states might be preferable to giving them some kind of autonomous status inside the current Ukrainian republic.  Once out, they would cease having any voice or vote in Kyiv, which might actually make Ukraine more stable.  Some other features of the Belfast Agreement might also be useful for the statelets — for instance, allowing resident to choose Russian or Ukrainian citizenship, or both, as well as citizenship in their statelet.  As independent states, they would be able to sign bespoke free trade agreements with both Ukraine and Russia, which might each be more liberal that what Ukraine and Russia might be willing to sign with each other.  The peace agreement might provide that the statelets could not merge with either Ukraine or Russia for some period of time, perhaps twenty or thirty years.  The would be free to join any of the international agreements that Russia has been creating, such as the Eurasian Union.

Neutrality and Security.  The neutrality issue is likely to prove more problematic.  Putin’s maximum demands are that Ukraine forego any alliance or foreign basing agreement, particularly foregoing NATO membership.  Additionally he has been demanding that Ukraine substantially disarm itself and in particular forego possession of offensive weaponry.  Ukraine has already begun to give way on the alliance issue, recognizing that membership in NATO is not on offer and would likely not be for the foreseeable future.

The disarmament demand, on the other hand, is likely to prove unacceptable in any circumstance.  Russian claims that it would not invade Ukraine again, following on the complete betrayal of previous such promises, simply have no credibility.  It would be better for Ukraine to just continue fighting now, while it still has forces and weapons, than to disarm and be occupied a year later after they had given up those weapons.  After all, their previous concession of giving up their nuclear weapons brought them nothing but the current invasion, which assuredly would not have happened if they still had 1900 nuclear warheads.  The best Russia could hope for in that regard would likely be Swiss or Swedish type neutrality, in which a neutral state is well-armed but entirely with defensive weaponry.  Another son of Odessa, also a Vladimir, wrote that Israel, once founded, would have to be defended by a wall of steel for two centuries; his words probably apply to the land of his birth as well.

A structured and internationally recognized solution — a “Finnish” outcome — would have some advantages in terms of stability and would require fewer clumsy workarounds.  However it is far from certain that such an outcome could be achieved, short of a major change in the military, economic, or international political calculus that has been emerging.  A Cyprus style frozen conflict, probably punctuated by further outbreaks of fighting, is probably the more likely outcome.  This would have the advantage of neither side abandoning their maximal demands, which might prove to be   the only feasible outcome given the political needs of both governments.

Among the victims of this war so far, along with the dead, wounded, and displaced, is truth itself, and particularly historical truth.  Both the near-term history of the USSR’s breakup and its consequences, and the deeper history of Eastern Europe have been weaponized by and to the benefit of the Putin camp.  On the former topic, the myth that Russia would have been perfectly happy had only the West not invited the former Warsaw Pact and Baltic states into NATO does not bear analysis.  These states had valid historical and current reasons to fear Russian revisionism and an attempt to reintegrate them back into its control.  Poland, particularly, made a credible case that without NATO membership, it would have no choice but to develop its own nuclear deterrent.

In any event, the NATO issue, although a useful propaganda tool for the FSB’s controlled assets in the West to work with, is essentially a red herring issue.  NATO has had a direct border with the USSR, and Russia in particular, since the alliance’s founding in 1948.  It has been under NATO nuclear missile threat since the mid-1950s.  These have never been any kind of problem, expect for deterring any Russian or Soviet ambition to invade NATO or neutral territory.

The real problem lies in the latter, deeper history. Ukraine presents a unique challenge to his narrative of a united “Russian world”, including the Russian Federation, Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan, as the citadel of Russian Orthodox civilization.  The biggest threat to this narrative is the existence of a competing narrative, an alternate model of Slavdom. This is the Western Slav world, the Latin, Catholic oriented civilizations of Poland, Czechia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia — and western Ukraine.

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was in its height in the 17th Century the great power of the East in Europe, and included at that time Ukraine.  For most of Western history, under the Commonwealth and later under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Western Slavdom outshone Russia in wealth, power, learning, culture, and sophistication.

In Austro-Hungarian times, the circuit of cities from Vienna through Prague, Krakow and Budapest to Lemburg (now Lviv) was the path along which culture, trade, technology, and learning spread from Western Europe to the East.  Ukrainian language, learning, theater, journalism, and education were all permitted — even encouraged — under Austro-Hungarian rule, and the region — listed under the Austrian Emperor’s titles as the Kingdom of Lodomeria and Volhynia — had self-rule in the form of an autonomous parliament.   In contrast, eastern Ukraine, then under the rule of the Czarist empire outlawed Ukrainian language and culture as the regime tried to Russify them.

Ukraine as an independent and sovereign state is heir to not just Czarist “Little Russia”, as the Muscovites liked to call it, but also the Ukrainian experience within the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its independent Ukrainian culture.  Both strands make up today’s Ukraine, and help give it a distinct nature.  Its sociology is also different; its culture has been characterized as more individualistic, with stronger property rights in land.  That was one of the reasons that Ukraine was more resistant to Stalin’s collective farm drive, and that resistance was part of what led him to order the Holomodor.

Independent, sovereign Ukraine has also been a magnet for Russians who fled the increasingly authoritarian drift of Putin’s Russia. With their publications and especially their websites and social media freely communicating with their countrymen back in Russia, they have been another annoying thorn in Putin’s side.  A subservient, Belarus-style Ukrainian puppet regime would undoubtedly shut them down and probably send them back.

The purpose of Putin’s attempted coup was primarily to shut down this alternative outpost of the competing model of Slavdom, one that shows that Western values are perfectly consistent with the creativity of Slavic culture.  It is precisely its mixture of Russian and Western culture that makes it so dangerous.  A Russian is less likely to think that Russia might be more like Poland or Hungary; it is much easier to think that they might be more like Ukraine.  Yet it is the very values that made it so dangerous which have made it so hard to subjugate.  Ukrainians combine the Western resistance to authority with the Russian capacity to endure hardship — a very dangerous mixture for an occupier.

A compromise peace along any of the lines explored above would seem feasible, and would be sufficiently preferable to a long, dragged-out and expensive fight, with every step it escalates further sowing seeds of bitterness in the Russo-Ukrainian relationship.  If Putin undertook this invasion with the idea of buttressing Russia’s international presence by adding 45 million more citizens, it makes little sense to add 45 million embittered and unwilling subjects, who can hardly be counted on to support his schemes, except by constant exercise of force.  However, what we might be seeing is merely a playing for time on the part of Putin to give his troops the opportunity to expand his enclaves in the east to strengthen his hand in the bargaining process now begun.

Although unquestionably, Putin’s ambition to reconstitute a new Czarist empire has been the spark and engine of the Ukraine war, it is probably a vain hope that some internal or external process to remove Putin from office would magically end the conflict.  Although the atrocities alone committed since February 24th ought to merit a war crimes conviction for him, that is unlikely to happen. It is more likely that he would be replaced for the crime of bad judgement and reckless gambling, risking too much for too little gain. His replacement would likely not apologize for the invasion, but quietly seek to terminate it without overtly admitting defeat. In other words, a cautious Brezhnev replacing the reckless Khrushchev.

Talk of total victory for Ukraine is vain without a demonstrated will on the part of Western powers to supply more, and more capable, weaponry to Ukraine.  Otherwise Ukraine will remain a killing field in which Russia can pour in missiles and artillery shells without fear of interdiction or retaliation on its own soil.  Such Western determination has not yet been demonstrated.

I will just add that fifteen years ago, in writing a work speculating on the shape of the world in the 2020s, I had depicted a Ukraine partitioned into two quite different states, one in the Russian-speaking east, closely allied economically and politically with Russia, and another in the Ukrainian-speaking west, more prosperous and affiliated with European institutions.  This sort of partition seemed to be on the cards well into the teens.  However, in the wake of the Crimean invasion and the establishment of the separatist enclaves in the Donbas, there was a surprising upswing in Ukrainian identity and national feeling in the Russophone Eastern Ukraine, to the point where now any partition would really only peel off the fringe on the far east.

After all, if Putin’s justification for including Ukraine in his “Russian World” on the basis of common imperial past, intermixture of people, and linguistic commonality validates  an invasion and annexation, why would not the same factors justify the forcible inclusion of all Ireland in a “British World”?  I doubt many of those who justify Putin now would buy that argument for the British Isles.

Nations are not just static facts.  They can be made and unmade by processes and events.  What we seem to have witnessed over the past few weeks has been the sudden crystallization of a Ukrainian nation of a scope and nature not previously suspected.  Carbon under pressure turns to diamond.  A population under pressure may sometimes crystallize into a nation.

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About the author

James C. Bennett

James C. Bennett is a entrepreneur who has been active in commercial space transportation and other technology ventures in the USA and UK. He has written extensively on technology, policy, and society, and is the author of The Anglosphere Challenge (2004, Rowman & Littlefield), America 3.0 (With Michael Lotus, 2013, Encounter Books) and numerous articles and papers. He has been a consultant to NASA and has served on several governmental advisory bodies including the US Secretary of Transportation's Advisory Committee and the UK Spaceplane Regulatory Workshop.