One Year in Retrospect: Defining Ukrainian War Goals

On February 24 of 2022, one year ago, Russian troops poured over the Russo-Ukrainian border expecting a swift, easy victory. This expectation has since been quashed. The Russo-Ukrainian war instead has been a grueling conflict for both sides that has devolved into extensive trench and urban warfare with elements of both traditional combined arms tactics and more modern drone warfare. However, Ukraine now holds the upper hand in training, equipment, some sectors, manpower, and certainly in regard to morale. With the Ukrainian military continually growing stronger and slowly reclaiming their lands, I see defining peace terms as an imminent necessity. At the very minimum, I suggest the immediate restoration of Ukrainian territorial sovereignty, including the southern province of Crimea, as well as war reparations levied upon both the Russian state and oligarchy so as to rebuild Ukrainian industry, infrastructure, and housing.

I would like to start by making clear that any call for “negotiation” is abominable if it means the surrender of Ukrainian lands to the occupying Russian force or simply a restoration of the status quo ante bellum (state prior to the war). If we acknowledge Russia as the aggressor in this war, and if we acknowledge that Russia is on the back foot both politically and militarily, then there is no reason to compromise with the Russian state. The only possible justification would be if there were a significant number of lives to be saved through stopping the war at this moment, but territorial concessions to Russia now will not save Ukrainian lives in the long run, and to opine for them is not only naïve but unfair to the Ukrainian state and people. Any concession to Russia sets the international precedent that successes can reward aggression, even if not at the scale initially hoped for. Further, a halt to the war in the present only delays it to a later time. Russia will maintain its aggressive attitude regardless of the outcome of this war, so conceding now will only lead to the future Ukrainian state being more ill-prepared when the war inevitably returns, whether obviously or covertly. Most importantly, any territorial concession places Ukrainian citizens under Russian rule, and the Russian government has a clear and storied history of displacing and oppressing Ukrainians who come under their heel. Aggressive expansion must be punished aggressively. If we were to return to the status quo ante bellum, what of the 15 million who were displaced by the war? What of the tens of billions of dollars that Ukraine, an already relatively poor nation, has lost? Are the people expected to simply bear with the economic wreckage? Ukraine deserves reparations; they have been too ravished by the war for there to be any rational whispers of offering concessions. 

Ukraine should be restored to its pre-2014 borders, and that means the reintegration of the Donbas. The Donetsk and Luhansk republics, which are located in the Donbas, are essentially Russian puppet states, and they need to be dismantled. These are “states” that exist purely because the Russian government has enabled them to exist. Russians are an ethnic minority in both Donetsk and Luhansk and, though still notable in their makeup, do not have any right to invoke the right to self-determination. Even if there was a fair, internationally-verified referendum that stated that the majority of people in both regions would prefer to be a part of Russia or to be independent rather than remain a part of Ukraine, it is my firm belief that, in this instance, the right to territorial sovereignty supersedes that of the right to self-determination. The Donbas is historically Ukrainian, it is ethnically Ukrainian, and it is legally Ukrainian. The Donbas should remain Ukrainian. 

Regarding Crimea, many in the West are averse to a restoration of Crimea to Ukraine rule. Crimea has a long history intertwined with both Ukrainian and Russian history, and it is ethnically Russian. To an extent, I understand and sympathize with their sentiment. But Russia, through its aggressive expansion, has lost its right to Crimea. More egregious is that Russia has forcefully deported an untold number of pro-Ukrainian citizens from Crimea and has encouraged Russian migration to the region. Thus, once more, I would argue that Ukraine’s right to territorial sovereignty supersedes any right to self-determination in the region. If the land is legally Ukrainian and the only other claimant is an aggressive, rogue state that has attempted to scrub the region of its Ukrainian and Tatar populaces, I see there is a strong case for Crimea being returned to Ukraine. 

Yet, war-torn land is worth nothing. Ukraine cannot rebuild without funding. Any hope of returning to levels of pre-war prosperity would cost hundreds of billions of dollars, money that Ukraine simply does not have and should not be responsible for securing. Russia is directly responsible for the ruin of Ukraine, and it only stands to reason that they should therefore be responsible for fixing what they broke. Russia needs to provide capital to Ukraine in order to clear areas of unexploded munitions, rebuild housing, establish infrastructure, and create industry. Ukraine should not be left destitute and alone in the aftermath of this war, and Russia must ensure that Ukraine has a chance to restore itself. As for individuals, any Russian oligarchs who had direct connections to the war and the support of Putin’s regime should have their assets handed over to the Ukrainian government so as to be later sold to fund Ukrainian development. Russia and its kleptocracy must be held accountable for their actions, and war reparations are more than in order for a war of this scale and impact. 

As Russia gets more and more desperate, they will be forced to the negotiating table. The demands I have listed herein are not only reasonable, but arguably too little. All that I have called for here is a restoration of Ukrainian sovereignty and for Russia to compensate Ukraine for the severe damage it has inflicted. Victory must be the end goal, rather than trying to sate what is an insatiable regime. Appeasement has never worked against great powers, and it never will. While unconditional victory is not ever going to be on the table in this scenario, we must at least allow Ukraine to push for a victory rather than just a bruised stalemate.