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Stephen Kotkin on Ukraine, Russia, China and the World

June 06, 2024
Kate Davidson

BOOK REVIEW 

“Ukraine, Russia, China, and the WorldWar in Ukraine ed. Hal Brands
By Stephen Kotkin, in “War in Ukraine,” ed. Hal Brands
JHU Press, April 2024

As the reality of 18 months of an immobile front line in Ukraine sinks in, commentators have begun asking what next, trying to look beyond the next offensive push by either side. Stephen Kotkin, a renowned historian and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, surveys what happened, where we stand now and what the United States should do next in his contribution to a collection of essays covering the Russia-Ukraine war edited by Hal Brands of John Hopkins University. Kotkin’s essay, which is entitled “Ukraine, Russia, China and the World,” stands out for putting the current state of the war in recent and global context, as well as proposing a specific policy solution to end the conflict.1

Kotkin begins his chapter by cataloguing the successes of Kyiv and its allies in the war that are often eclipsed by Ukraine’s current problems with ammunition and manpower but which provide key context. Four major victories marked 2022: “Ukrainian sovereignty, Western unity, Russian humiliation and Chinese self-discrediting,” according to Kotkin. Most important and unexpected was that “Ukraine successfully defended its sovereignty and independence, preventing Russian forces from seizing its capital or overturning its elected government.” Kotkin notes that any strategist would want to “take them [the victories] off the table” now instead of risking them for the possibility of more gains. However, Ukrainian sovereignty is not a binary outcome. In my view, Kotkin overlooks the risk that the deal, which he believes Russia is willing to sign now, leaves Ukrainian sovereignty more constrained and at greater future risk, as frequently cited by  analysts such as Frederick Kagan at the Institute for the Study of War, although this risk is likely less insurmountable than claimed.

As Ukrainians are the ones fighting to defend their territory, these are “fundamentally their victories,” and whether to risk them is their decision, according to Kotkin. However, Ukrainians have set their goals higher: “regaining all Ukrainian territory recognized under international law, extracting reparations for all the terrible destruction, and imposing war crimes tribunals.” While Ukraine’s current vision of a “just peace” is understandable, it is also unfeasible. Thus “a just but elusive peace has been allowed to eclipse an unsatisfying but attainable one.” Kotkin is correct that Ukraine is unlikely to achieve its lofty goals given its limited resources and Biden’s consistent insistence that the United States will not send troops to fight in Ukraine. MIT’s Barry Posen’s op-ed in Foreign Policy focuses on the same issue, arguing that Ukraine’s goals are “far more daunting than the public understands.”

It should be noted that Russia and Ukraine held peace negotiations in spring 2022, but those fell apart, and there have been no public peace negotiations since. The Biden administration has repeatedly said the decision of when to negotiate is up to Ukraine, which currently refuses to negotiate with Russia. Kotkin argues that “every day the war continues is a bad day for Ukraine and, for the most part, a good one for Putin.” This is consistent with a view among analysts such as Stephen Biddle of Columbia University, who argues that the war of attrition likely favors Russia, which is more committed than the West and larger than Ukraine. In addition, according to Kotkin, the war is being fought almost exclusively inside Ukraine, so every day that it continues, the war denies “a peaceful, prosperous Ukraine to Ukrainians.”

In his chapter, Kotkin offers an explanation of why the war of attrition favors Russia. He also correctly diagnoses a key challenge for U.S. policy in Ukraine: Russian resilience. Wars of attrition are governed by two variables, “the capacity to fight and the will to fight,” and “on the Russian side, neither variable is sufficiently in play,” he explains. Given Russia’s sheltered, growing defense industry and long trade borders, “Ukraine can destroy vast quantities of Russian weaponry—which they have been doing—and still make little to no progress.” Meanwhile, Russia has sustainably managed mobilization, so its will to fight “is ultimately a question not solely of contract fighters and prisoners but of its leader, who shows few signs of feeling under pressure.” While Russia’s will and capacity to fight do appear more stable than Ukraine’s, analysts at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) have highlighted the possibility of Russian resource challenges in 2025. In particular, RUSI highlighted tank supplies, of which about 80% are refurbished, claiming that Russia “will begin to find that vehicles require deeper refurbishment through 2025, and by 2026 it will have exhausted most of the available stocks.” But given Russia’s new production and revenue, these issues alone are unlikely to stop it from fighting.

In contrast to Russia’s capabilities, Kotkin sees both Ukraine’s will and capacity to fight as at risk. Ukraine’s capacity to fight is under “massive pressure” because “so much of it still comes from outside the country.” While the United States and Europe have been sending Ukraine arms from their stockpiles, their production has been slow to increase, and stocks are beginning to deplete. Ukraine’s will to fight remains strong, but Kotkin warns that Ukraine’s “open society and partially democratic system” makes it more sensitive to casualties than Russia. Ukraine also relies on the will of its allies, for which he proposes a simple equation: “Ukrainian valor/ingenuity + Russian atrocities = Western unity and resolve.” Kotkin estimates support was relatively stable until the mismanaged retreat from Bakhmut and failed summer 2023 counteroffensive, which “struck a deep blow to Ukraine’s fighting image and thereby softened Western unity and resolve.”

Kotkin returns to his touchstone for Ukraine: “The key to any war is to win the peace.” He warns of U.S. failures in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Vietnam, where the U.S. squandered battlefield victories and failed to win the peace. He argues the three key components of winning the peace in Ukraine are “armistice and an end to the fighting as soon as possible, an obtainable security guarantee and European Union accession.” Ukraine and Russia will continue to share a border regardless of how the war ends, so any deal should make sure Russia is “deterred from repeating its aggression or, better still, incentivized not to.”

“Even if Western support at sufficient scale were to continue without interruption,” Kotkin claims that continuing the war is inadvisable for two reasons: demographics and nuclear weapons. He notes that while Ukraine has a large population for Eastern Europe, the problem is “vital younger age groups,” of whom “more than half of Ukrainians aged 10 and under are in school abroad.” Young people returning from abroad will be vital to Ukraine’s precarious economic future. In addition, it is not feasible to inflict Ukraine’s desired “clean, comprehensive, once-and-for-all defeat” on Russia because of the latter’s nuclear deterrent.

Kotkin identifies the goal as an “enduring armistice that abjures recognition of Russian annexations or compromises on its sovereign right to join” the European Union or NATO. However, he characterizes Putin’s current offer as a “negotiation” where Ukraine must give up territory and will be prohibited from joining international organizations at will. In the face of Putin’s intractability, Kotkin advocates opening “a more decisive political front.” A political front would target the vulnerability that Kotkin sees in Putin’s authoritarian system. He describes authoritarian regimes as “all-powerful and brittle at the same time,” but “they can survive as long as they excel at one thing: suppressing political alternatives.” Therefore, U.S. policy should promote “political alternatives by overt and covert means” to get Putin’s attention and bring him to the negotiating table. While discussions of political pressure among Western analysts “have been ruled out as excessively escalatory,” Kotkin argues that the West should be willing to escalate politically since the West has been escalating militarily. 

Kotkin proposes “some form of a Russian government in exile” staffed by “Russian military and security officials, men in uniform” as opposed to the pro-Western opposition like recently deceased Alexei Navalny, to promote the Russian nationalist message that the war is damaging to Russia. Key to this proposal is the claim that “Putin will choose his personal regime over the war every time,” as evinced by Putin’s firing of the effective but less-loyal Gen. Sergey Surovikin, former commander of Russia’s forces in Ukraine, after a coup by Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner mercenary group.

Kotkin presents Prigozhin’s summer 2023 coup as an “unwitting referendum” about the war that “exposed the regime’s hollowness.” He claims that “all coups fail, until they succeed,” noting that the bandwagon effect can create sudden waves of support and arguing that the Russian regime has a faction of nationalists concerned about the war’s costs. Importantly, “top-level defectors should not call for Russia’s defeat … but an end to the fighting” to avoid alienating most Russians. A May Levada center poll found that 79% of Russians support the Russian military’s actions in Ukraine, and 74% of Russians consider returning the Donetsk and Luhansk regions to Ukraine unacceptable conditions for a peace agreement, and 73% felt similarly about the return of the Zaporizhzhia and Kharkiv regions. Kotkin proposes offering a “platform and protection” to defectors and an unconditional “package of sanctions relief and investment for Russia” if an armistice lasts. He qualifies this proposal stating that it “does not need regime change to succeed” but rather “the credible threat of regime change.”

Kotkin concludes by putting the Russia-Ukraine war in the context of U.S. global strategy. The war is just one of “three areas of territorial vulnerability” in the “current U.S.-led international order”—the other two being Taiwan and Israel. While Ukraine is important, “avoiding either a global war or capitulation in East Asia must be the top U.S. strategic priority.” Kotkin rejects the modern domino theory that some commentators apply to Ukraine, arguing U.S. support is “not about U.S. credibility” as Ukraine is not a treaty ally. Kotkin is correct that the United States has no treaty obligation to Ukraine, but U.S. fatigue in popular support and thin U.S. weapons stocks may increase Chinese confidence about its sphere of influence in East Asia to some degree. Kotkin concludes that the real lesson from Ukraine and U.S. history is that the U.S. Army is ill-suited for large-scale land wars, and in essence the United States is currently “renting the Ukrainian land army to degrade Russia’s land army.” The takeaway is sobering, because, while East Asia is mostly water, land warfare is a possibility, and “there is no obvious option, as it were, to rent” a regional army to fight land battles in East Asia

In response to skeptics about his proposal to open a political front, Kotkin asks, “what is the better plan?” He alleges the existing U.S. approach “lacks a clear articulation of an attainable victory,” which will result in “softening of [allies’] political will.” While Kotkin’s proposal is innovative and addresses an important, unresolved problem in U.S. policy, it has certain risks, in my view. Kotkin argues his strategy is designed to force Putin to choose between his personal regime and the war, as he will always prioritize his regime. However, Putin could pursue other options before he is forced to choose between his regime or his war—he could choose to try to assassinate leaders of the government in exile, sabotage their movement or, as Kotkin himself notes, escalate on the battlefield to deter the U.S. Notwithstanding these risks, I believe that political pressure remains worth evaluating given the unresolved problem of Russia’s advantage in a war of attrition, but as one option among others, including attempting to open negotiations, continuing to support Ukraine defensively and lobbying China to pressure Russia to compromise.

Footnotes

  1. The book also contains several other valuable chapters contributed by experts on the conflict, including a detailed dive into the military phases of the war and an inside view of U.S. government contingency planning in 2021 for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Author

Kate Davidson

Kate Davidson is a researcher with the Avoiding Great Power War Project at the Belfer Center, focusing on politics and security in Russia and Europe. She compiles the Russia-Ukraine War Report Card, which tracks Russian nuclear threats, foreign support for Ukraine, territorial control and other key statistics.

Opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author. Photo by National Police of Ukraine shared under a Creative Commons 4.0 Attribution license.