April 07, 2022

Is This the Plan?

Is This the Plan?
The wreckage of Russian military vehicles in Ukraine, March 2022. Ministry of the Interior of Ukraine.

The fighting in Ukraine seems to have reached a lull; the offensive action quixotically deemed a "defensive special operation" has stalled. Russian forces have pulled back from the outskirts of Kyiv and have begun to redeploy, consolidating their hold on territory they've already gained. Some say that Russia is preparing for a new offensive, one with renewed vigor and discipline. But for now, things are quiet, save for aimless missile strikes and bombing runs that continue to cause civilian casualties. Maybe the tide has turned. Has Russia been humiliated, and is now too prideful to turn back? Was it foiled in the face of a heroic defense?

Putin says no.

In fact, according to him, things are going exactly to plan. And this despite the heavily-publicized images, like the one above, of charred tank skeletons, mangled remains of helicopters, and captured state-of-the-art, top-secret command centers. In spite of all this, he says, the plan is in motion and moving forward just as intended.

While we should take Putin's assertions with a grain of salt (remember when the massing of Russian troops was just for "exercises"?), what if he's telling the truth? One possibility, one which hasn't been much discussed, is that Putin is aiming for what some call a "frozen conflict."

Frozen conflicts occur when one nation invades another, but not all the way. The aggressor sets up shop in part of the defender's country, calls for peace talks, and gets a ceasefire implemented. The territory the aggressor has already taken remains theirs, de facto. The defender has now lost a portion of their territory, and their internal security is almost completely compromised. Skirmishes will likely break out along the cease-fire line as the invasion is held in international bureaucratic limbo.

And Russia's got a history of doing this in the post-Soviet era. In fact, it could be said that Russia is the undisputed king of the frozen conflict.

In 2008, when Russia invaded Georgia (on remarkably similar grounds to its 2022 invasion of Ukraine), it quickly occupied the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, both in Georgia's north. After two weeks, a ceasefire was called, and Russia held on to South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which have declared independence and have been recognized as sovereign states by Russia. Georgia was effectively forced out. A textbook frozen conflict.

It's happened on Ukrainian soil, too: After 2014–15, when Russia occupied the Luhansk and Donetsk People's Republics and the Crimean peninsula following Ukraine's Maidan Revolution, it graciously agreed to a ceasefire with Ukraine. But it didn't withdraw; instead, Luhansk, Donetsk, and Crimea all served as jumping-off points for Russian troops for this year's invasion. Russia essentially gained a handful of allies and strategic sites at the expense of Ukraine for little more than a slap on the wrist, or even accolades in the international community for its benevolent acts of mercy.

These precedents, among others (dating all the way back to the Russia-supported Transnistria ambiguity in the 1990s), beg the question: could something like this happen in Ukraine? And if so, what would it look like?

Let's say for the sake of argument that the next military offensive gains some ground before floundering. At that point, Russia sues for peace, which Ukraine eagerly accepts in an attempt to stop the atrocities happening on their soil. More of Ukraine's territory is brought under Russian occupation.

There's at least one good reason to think that Putin might be opting for a frozen conflict in this case, besides the fact that he's done it before (so many times that all these frozen-conflict countries have their own little international club). Any frozen conflict on Ukrainian soil would almost guarantee that Ukraine would be excluded from the EU, NATO, Schengen, and other international diplomatic schemes that it's been trying to enter for decades.

When countries try to enter into these kinds of association agreements, they're required to undergo a process called "accession." Essentially, officials from the organization give the country that wants to join a list of metrics the country must meet before it will be accepted. For the Balkans, a region with a handful of countries, like Ukraine, that have recently been applying for membership and greater cooperation, this has been things like increased inclusion of women and ethnic minorities in government structures, a higher prevalence of educational opportunities, a drop in levels of corruption, or electricity and water access to the majority of the population.

If Russia creates a frozen conflict in Ukraine's territory, it would be almost guaranteed that resolving that conflict would be a precondition to accession to any international organization. Ukraine would be charged with trying to fix the conflict. And with Russia playing hardball, they wouldn't let that happen.

Of course, only time will tell. But if the past is any guide, Putin's long game may be surprising for us observers far from the front lines.

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