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How to end the war in Ukraine

University of Rochester expert on war termination applies possible scenarios to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Hein Goemans, a professor of political science at the University of Rochester, is an expert on international conflicts—on how they begin and end. Ultimately, he says, whether the war in Ukraine lasts weeks, months, or years, depends on individual actions that run the gamut from those of world leaders, to ordinary citizens and soldiers.

Take for example the Russian commander who apologized to the Ukrainian people for invading, telling them he had been duped by his own country’s misinformation. According to Goemans, it’s those single actions that can cause large-scale domino effects.

“Remember, the soldiers are the ones doing the fighting and the dying. They have to agree to the terms of this war, because if they don’t agree, with guns in hand, they have options: they can continue fighting against the enemy, join the enemy, desert, or attempt regime change at home.”

Soldiers are most likely to disobey orders when they recognize that a war will not achieve its objectives, or that they are fighting for their leaders’ survival and against their own interests, says Goemans, author of War and Punishment: The Causes of War Termination and the First World War (Princeton University Press, 2000) and coauthor of Leaders and International Conflict (Cambridge University Press, 2011).

Hein Goemans draws a direct parallel to the Russian soldiers in March 1917 who refused to fight any longer in World War I for a cause and the Tsarist regime they no longer believed in.

“Those were a series of individual decisions, which cascaded into a mass surrender and defection. Individual actions really matter, not just for leaders,” he says.

Often, going to war is not just a calculation of a state’s national interest but also takes into account a leader’s predilections, beliefs, and preferences. In order to end a war, a leader’s chances of political and physical survival must be taken into calculation, says Goemans, who argues that an outright defeat in Ukraine may actually translate into a death sentence for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Q&A with Hein Goemans

One or both sides must change their demands as a precursor to ending the war. What’s likely to happen in the current scenario?

  • Putin made a big mistake by committing himself to total victory in Ukraine.

Goemans: It depends on the performance on the battlefield, and a country’s expectations of outside help. Russia should have become more pessimistic in the last few days because Ukraine has shown its ability to inflict far greater costs on Russia than the Kremlin had anticipated. One would expect Russia therefore to lower its demands but we’ve seen very little evidence of that so far—only the demand of denazification seems to have been dropped.

Overall, Putin still maintains that everything is going according to plan. If this continues, Ukrainian sovereignty may be at stake, which is dangerous and perhaps even stupid of Putin, who seems to be committing himself to total victory. If he can’t get it, he’ll be responsible and that makes a coup against him more likely.

How has the situation changed for Ukraine and its demands for ending the war?

  • Ukraine right now is not likely to accept anything less than full independence as a nation.

Goemans: Ukraine must have gotten a lot more optimistic in recent days. Not just because its army has been doing reasonably well but because of the demonstrated incompetence of the Russian army. Yes, the Russians are still much stronger and much bigger, but there are problems with morale in the Russian army, and you see the remarkable level of Ukrainian support from the West. Ukrainians are still fighting for independence of their homeland and may maintain their claims to Luhansk and Donetsk in the Donbas region in southeastern Ukraine. I don’t know whether they’d willing to give up Crimea at this point. One avenue worth exploring in peace negotiations might be true plebiscites, overseen by international observers.

Can Putin credibly commit not to go beyond the invasion of Ukraine?

  • In his February 21 speech, he expressed his aim to reconstitute the Russian Empire.

Goemans: No, he cannot. Nobody would believe him if he said he’d stop at Ukraine. People are pointing to the failed attempt to appease Hitler with the Munich Agreement in 1938. So that’s a non-starter, especially with Putin’s February 21st speech in which he said he wants to reconstitute greater Russia or the Russian Empire. Western nations can no longer say, ‘Oh, he doesn’t mean that. We can still do business there and we can have gas if we give him just a little bit, maybe two Ukrainian towns or so.’ He made that impossible. Yes, the analogy is overused, but it really is like Hitler in 1938. People heard the speech and the appeasement alarm bells went off.

A deciding factor in this war is going to happen in the next couple of weeks. Can you explain the role of Russian conscripts in this context?

  • The question is how many new conscripts will actually show up because it’ll determine the strength of the Russian army on the ground in Ukraine.

Goemans: There are two things to keep in mind: First, the new Russian conscription class is going to be drafted in April. It’ll be very informative to see how many people do not show up.

Secondly, are the Russians really going to bomb Kyiv, a so-called “hero city of the Soviet Union,” into rubble like they did with Chechnya’s capital Grosny? Are they willing to kill tens of thousands of people? Those two benchmarks will happen in the next few weeks.

How precarious is the situation for Putin’s own survival?

  • He may keep fighting, even if he knows he’s losing, because the alternative may mean signing his own death warrant.

Goemans: Putin may count on the fact that Ukrainians will give in if Kyiv is bombed. But if they don’t, that should make him more pessimistic. One would think that he’d have to lower his demands, and that at that point, some kind of deal would be possible. But Putin must come home with some kind of victory because otherwise he’s literally dead. That means he may keep fighting, even if he knows he’s losing, because the alternative is signing his own death warrant. That’s what happened in the First World War. Germany kept fighting for years, even though the leadership knew that they were losing within the first weeks of the war.

You’re not hyperbolic when you say Putin is signing his own death warrant with a defeat?

  • History has plenty of examples here.

Goemans: No, I’m not. In a regime like Russia—which is clearly not a democracy, but also not quite a dictatorship—if you win a war, you’re the great hero; if you lose a war, you have shown your incompetence and you’ll be removed, which I have explored in my own research. You’ll be held as what’s known as a “culpable leader”—culpable for the fact that the gains of the war do not outweigh the losses. Historically such leaders have been removed from office, and they either have gone into exile, or have been jailed or killed. A recent example is the former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. What’s frightening, and there are already signs of this, is that Putin is moving towards a dictatorship because only full repression will prevent a coup against him. In that case, both the Russian and the Ukrainian people will suffer horribly.

What do you think would happen with the war if Putin’s regime were to be overthrown?

  • “Most likely, Ukraine would strengthen its demands and now want Crimea back.”

Goemans: It’s possible that the entire Russian superstructure would be wiped out—not just Putin, but all his cronies, his security advisers, the oligarchs. That whole top layer could be removed. So the question is, if there’s a coup against Putin, what would the new Russian government insist on? They’re not necessarily all going to say, “Okay, sorry Ukraine, we made a mistake. Please excuse us.” And Ukrainians would not necessarily accept that anyway. Most likely, Ukraine would strengthen its demands and want Crimea back.

Putin has said he wants to effect regime change in Ukraine—would a new government even have any credibility with Ukrainians?

  • Ukrainians have become unified against Russia.

Goemans: I don’t think so. There’s a new serious form of unity among the Ukrainian people and Ukrainian identity, and it’s in direct opposition to the Russians. It would be very dangerous for any Ukrainian government to be seen as colluding with Russia. Any such attempt would likely result in the formation of independent fighting units that would keep going to get the Russians out of Ukraine.

What are the minimum terms the West can accept?

  • The West cannot accept Putin’s winning in Ukraine, but they might be willing to accept concessions on the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, if Ukraine is willing to entertain that.

Goemans: That’s an important question. The West—that is Western Democracies—cannot, in my opinion, accept a victorious Putin. The West is genuinely and correctly afraid of “salami tactics”—if he takes Ukraine, he will next take Georgia, and then he will go to the Baltics. Annexation wouldn’t end, so it has to stop now. Particularly because Putin so unmistakably declared his intentions in that speech on February 21st.

Would the West accept Crimea as being Russian? I don’t know. Would the West accept Luhansk along the provincial administrative borders (which is not the same as the current line of control, which is currently roughly half of the of the provinces)? I doubt that. I think the West may demand a return to the status quo ante. I don’t know if they can get that. Maybe Ukraine would have to give up the entire administrative region of Luhansk and Donetsk. But the West will want to go back to the status quo.

When do you think the war will end?

  • Either in the next month and a half, or it’ll be years.

Goemans: Either in the next month and a half, or it’ll be years. Months, if the new class of Russian conscripts in April fails to turn up. Otherwise I’m not optimistic. It’ll be ongoing bloodshed, pulverizing of Ukrainian cities, coupled with insurgencies, and Russia will never have full control of Ukraine.

But going back to the video of the captured Russian soldier who was ashamed of taking part in the invasion of Ukraine: If he returns to Russia, he’ll most likely be killed. Yet, he’s speaking up and he’s hoping that he affects another guy, and then maybe two other guys, and it spreads like that. That’s how an army dissolves. On the other hand, that’s also how a Ukrainian army becomes more determined.


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