A Ceasefire in Ukraine? (The “Korean Model”)


By Wayne Allensworth

The March retirement of Victoria Nuland from her post as State Department undersecretary for political affairs sparked discussions in Moscow over whether the vociferously anti-Russian American official’s leaving might mean that Washington was growing weary of the war in Ukraine, or at least might be interested in a ceasefire. And, if so, what would Washington hope to accomplish by a ceasefire? Nuland, whose career is indicative of the merger of neo-conservatives with neo-liberals in a globalist coalition—she was an advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney, then worked for the Obama administration—was also notoriously a key player in Washington’s backing of the 2014 Maidan revolution that overthrew a Russia friendly administration in Ukraine and set the wheels turning toward Washington’s proxy war with Russia.

The question of a possible ceasefire, even of a Ukraine peace agreement, has been kicked around for a while. Recently, a respected Russian foreign policy commentator—or Putin propagandist, if you prefer—Dmitriy Trenin, took up the question of a ceasefire in the Russian language publication Profil.

Trenin began by pointing to a “peace plan” floated by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that proposed, among other things, freezing the conflict along the current front lines as a prelude to talks on a long-term peace agreement. Trenin noted that the question of a ceasefire along the current frontlines was subsequently taken up by other “well informed experts” in Europe and the United States. He pointed out that thus far, Ukraine’s official position on a settlement has not changed: As stated by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine rejects negotiating with Russia, has pledged to take back Russian controlled territories, and has called for a return to its 1991 borders. For his part, Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly stated that Russia is ready to talk, so long as those talks take Russian security interests into account, interests that include acknowledging the “reality on the ground” in the war zone; that is, acknowledging Russia’s annexation of territories in Eastern Ukraine. Putin, however, has also repeatedly noted that Zelensky’s position officially rules out peace talks. Trenin emphasized that as far as Moscow is concerned, it is not Ukraine but instead the United States that Russia would conclude a peace deal with, as Ukraine is under the American thumb and could not make a deal on its own.

Trenin described Washington’s official position as “contradictory.” The Americans officially support “Zelensky’s formula,” but unofficially the Biden administration acknowledges that his position is “unrealistic.” The failure of Ukraine’s offensive last year, Trenin wrote, which Washington was counting on to improve Ukraine’s potential negotiating position, has shifted the American frame of reference. The Americans have been forced to “correct” their near-term goals. In Trenin’s view, the American aim is now simply preventing a Russian victory, not defeating Russia strategically.

As far as this year’s US presidential election campaign, Trenin believes that no matter who wins in November, Ukraine’s and Europe’s significance in American policy is declining. Washington is being distracted, in Trenin’s view, by tensions with China and the crisis around Israel in the Middle East. Trenin wrote that American foreign policy priorities are changing, and the United States is regrouping strategically, and therefore shifting some of the burden for dealing with the Ukraine conflict to its NATO allies, even as the Americans remain in charge. Meanwhile, the administration hopes to strengthen its military alliances in Asia and reestablish its influence in the Middle East.

In that context, Trenin believes, a ceasefire along the current front lines makes political and strategic sense for the US. That version of a ceasefire is sometimes called “the Korean model.” A cessation of the war, but without a political settlement. That could maintain the status quo in Ukraine for a long time, as it has in Korea. Under the conditions of a “Korean model” for the Ukraine war, wrote Trenin, Europe would be forced to expand its own military efforts, while the US would retain direct leadership of the Western alliance. Ukraine would get a breather, enabling it to re-establish its military forces and its military-industrial capacity. Ukrainian political dependence on the US would be solidified for the long term, while Europe would take on the burden of financial support of Ukraine. The Americans could then redirect a portion of their resources for a struggle with China in Asia. In tactical political terms, the administration could present Joe Biden as a peace maker, as well as the savior of democracy in Europe and Ukraine, depriving his opponent Donald Trump of his arguments for ending the Ukraine crisis through a direct dialogue with Russia.

Trenin, however, does not believe that such a scenario makes any strategic sense for Russia. Even engaging in talks about such a ceasefire would seriously undermine the Kremlin’s authority. The segment of the Russian population that is most supportive of Putin’s policies would be sorely disappointed, as Russian forces are winning the war of attrition, and are steadily, if slowly, advancing in Ukraine. A discussion would likely begin: “Is this treason or stupidity?” The army, especially the officer corps, would be demoralized. Meanwhile, that segment of society that wishes for peace at any price, since the war has had an impact on its financial interests, would be energized, and there would be a substantial risk of a split in Russian society.

In any case, Trenin believes that the Biden administration is not in a mood for a serious dialogue with the Kremlin. The American plan would be to put Russia in a position in which it could only reach agreement on a ceasefire via direct talks with the Ukrainian administration, which remains under US control and which Russia has repeatedly denounced as a Nazi and terrorist regime. And consider this: Washington is well aware that Zelensky’s present presidential term officially ends in May, after which his legitimacy would be questionable. Zelenskiy’s declaration of martial law delayed a  presidential election originally set for March of this year.

True, noted Trenin, Russian army casualties would sharply decline. However, he further noted that judging from the experience of the 2014-2022 Donbas war between the Ukrainian military and the self-proclaimed Donbas republics, a ceasefire would not mean that Ukrainian sabotage, artillery bombardment of cities in the region and in Russian border areas, as well as Ukrainian drone and missile strikes and terrorist attacks would halt. And any retaliation would occasion further Western “punishment” of Russia. Russia should not expect the removal of sanctions, apart from perhaps those instituted against some specific persons, in the event of a ceasefire. Anti-Russian sanctions would remain in place for decades.

Thus, in Trenin’s judgement, Russian acceptance of a Western “peace proposal” would amount to capitulation. Talks on a ceasefire along the present front lines would play into the hands of Russia’s enemies. Nevertheless, those enemies’ activities on the diplomatic front will force Russia to state its own peace formula, not as a negotiating position, but in the form of basic principles for security in the region. The audience would be countries that are, or are potentially, Russia’s partners.

What are Russia’s war aims? Trenin outlined them, repeating some security demands that Moscow has made since before the war in Ukraine: the “denazification” and “demilitarization” of Ukraine, acknowledging the “new geopolitical reality” of Russia’s annexation of territories in Eastern Ukraine, and the protection of the rights of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in Ukraine.

“Denazification” would mean regime change in Ukraine, including the current state and security apparatus, as well as its “propaganda and ideological” mechanisms. Trenin acknowledged that would take some time. “Demilitarization” would entail the exclusion of any potential threats to Russian security in Ukraine. That includes no NATO expansion beyond the borders of Poland, Slovakia, Romania, and Hungary (implying that new members Finland and Sweden should leave the alliance), no Western military bases or troops on Ukrainian territory, the dismantling of military industry, and Ukrainian neutrality. Regarding Ukrainian territories adjacent to Russia, Trenin proposed the creation of a security zone in which the presence of troops or armaments would be banned. Trenin left open the possibility that other Ukrainian territories — “historically Russian lands,” meaning Odessa, Nikolayev, Kharkov, and Dnepropetrovsk — could join Russia via referendum. For territories that remain in Ukraine, the rights of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers, including protections for the Russian language and freedom of religion, would be guaranteed. Trenin does not envision Russia’s incorporating the whole of present-day Ukraine, which would not be desirable. Attempting to forcibly incorporate even parts of Eastern Ukraine, such as Poltava, or Central and Western Ukraine would be problematic and yield no benefits to Russia. The best situation for Russia would be a new Ukrainian state based in the central and some portion of the eastern part of the country to act as a neutral buffer between Russia and NATO, one that could potentially join the Russia-Belarus union. As for Western Ukraine, it would be in the Western sphere of influence, and it could be that Poland, Romania, and Hungary might eventually absorb that region.

Trenin ended by stating that a war that ends without victory would be fatal for Russia.

Some brief thoughts on Trenin’s article:

It’s probably representative of a certain segment of opinion in Moscow, particularly among security and foreign policy elites. From the beginning of this war, opinions among Russian pundits, commentators, and experts have ranged from demands that Ukraine must be incorporated fully into Russia (the “war party”), to talk of absorbing the Donbas and setting up a security zone as a buffer with the West, to hope for a ceasefire and a settlement (the “peace party”), with a number of variations. 

A settlement appeared within reach in April of 2022, had not the “collective West” — in the person of then British PM Boris Johnson — pressured Zelensky to end negotiations with the Russians going on in Istanbul. That, and the assassination of Ukrainian peace delegate Denis Kireyev by hardliners, who saw him as either too inclined to make peace with Moscow, or possibly even a Russian spy, seemed to suggest that the chance for a ceasefire and a settlement that would have been much more favorable to Ukraine than anything now was at least on the table. 

We will never know whether such a peace agreement could have been concluded. Moscow’s position hardened, as did Putin’s personal position. Considering the stakes for Russia, he very cautiously launched the invasion of Ukraine, sending a relatively small and lightly armed contingent on a swift drive toward the Ukrainian capital, hoping that Zelensky, who had run for the presidency as a peace candidate, would be willing to talk. What’s more, the Russians will be skeptical of any proposals on a ceasefire, likely seeing it as a ploy to buy time, as Trenin noted. Russian suspicions were boosted by former German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s 2022 revelation that the Ukrainians, with Western support, signed the 2014-2015 Minsk agreements on a Donbas ceasefire and settlement merely to gain time to prepare for war. I believe that Trenin’s position is probably close to the Kremlin’s view at this point, including the view that partitioning Ukraine is the only long-term security solution. 

Both sides are war weary, but I believe Putin sees his historic role as that of ensuring Russia’s long-term security, and that would mean no more NATO expansion, a buffer zone, “demilitarization,” and “denazification,” that is, banning the Stepan Bandera cult in Ukraine and purging the Ukrainian apparatus of “Banderaites,” a goal easier said than done at this point in a very bloody and bitter conflict. Russian military strategy is predicated on fighting a war of attrition, destroying the enemy’s infrastructure, and wearing down a foe that would be forced to negotiate a settlement on Russian terms. 

Chronicles contributor Wayne Allensworth is the author of  The Russian Question: Nationalism, Modernization, and Post-Communist Russia, and a novel, Field of Blood

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Wayne Allensworth

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