Russia and Ukraine—Returning to a Status Quo. The Transnistria Solution
By James Maclaren
THE Russia-Ukraine war is into its second year and on the current trajectory holds no sign of a resolution. That the decision to invade Ukraine was a strategic mistake by Russia must now be apparent to everyone including its architect, Vladimir Putin. These types of attritional conflict are complex and difficult to resolve and the original justifications for their beginning, such as they are, rapidly become lost as attention and scrutiny shifts to the horrors of the human suffering and destruction and the evolving justifications as the conflict spreads engaging new actors and new political flanks. The challenge facing both protagonists now is not so much how to win, but how to return to the status quo.
Aside from the mistake of an illegal invasion at the strategic-military and operational level of war and despite an overwhelming material and physical superiority, the Russians made other fatal mistakes. These mistakes formed as a product of their strategic and operational objectives not being thought through and then not matched to the tactics and resources which they chose to use.
Russia has used the pretext of Ukrainian discrimination against the indigenous Russian speaking and culturally aligned peoples of the eastern provinces as justification for its illegal invasion. Using this as an invasion pretext resulted in the Kremlin finding itself committed to a land grab operation of exchanging possession of territory from Ukrainian sovereignty to their own control. This is an extraordinary decision to undertake, quite different from the unique circumstances of population and geography that existed with Crimea, an operation which may have seduced Russian leaders into believing a similar success was possible. Despite the existence of widespread support for Russia and dislike of Kiev in these areas, support was far from universal, the idea that advancing Russian troops would be seen as liberators was for the birds and the Kremlin propagandists. In military terms attempting to recolour a map is extraordinarily difficult to do and, given the size of the area over which the Russians are attempting sequestration nigh on impossible, even for the extensive, if unsophisticated military capability of the Kremlin.
It's not as if the Ukrainians had not known it was coming. I recall discussions with Ukrainian General Staff officers in 1999 predicting that someday the Russians would strike. They’ve had twenty years to prepare their plans and study the ground including quiet assistance from western capabilities and had no intention of meekly allowing Russian armour to roll over it.
The probably better strategy of forcing regime change in Kiev by occupying that city and installing an administration more inclined to Russian demands was attempted and swiftly abandoned by Russian forces. This axis was defeated through resolute Ukrainian counter-moves and Russian military half-heartedness, probably caused by growing nervous Kremlin realisation that removing the Zalensky government sounded solid in theory, in practise the global implications for Russia were too severe to contemplate.
So the conflict has become a wrestle of land, a wrestle in which the Ukrainians are too weak to retake the land they have lost and the Russians not strong enough to hold the land they have gained. As with so many conflicts that have gone before before, huge resources of equipment and life are being cheaply consumed in herculean efforts to seize small towns, defend high ground, deny transport hubs and waterways crossing. My view at the beginning of the conflict was that the Russians had to win quick or they would not win at all. I also did not share the euphoria that surrounded some Ukrainian reversal of Russian gains in 2022. They simply do not have the combat power to win a campaign at the operational level against overwhelming Russian land superiority.
So, where does that leave this unwanted and unnecessary war now heading to a 1916 style insanely wasteful stalemate and, how do the participants and their global supporters force the conflict to play out to some form of a conclusion.
A politically unsatisfactory solution, but one which nevertheless has the attraction of saving life and property, is modelled not too far away from the conflict area in a tiny enclave territory squeezed between Moldova, Ukraine and Romania. Transnistria is internationally recognised to most of the world as a part of Moldova the country whose claims to that territory are upheld with the legal authority of the United Nations. But internally, its people prefer to align themselves politically and culturally with Russia. It is ruled by an authoritarian government that fiercely resists Moldovan attempts at influence and interference. It has a border that runs along the Dnieper River, a taxation system, police, indeed most, if not all, the trappings of an independent state. In order not to offend a Russia which has demonstrated its resolve to come to the assistance of diaspora who are discriminated against, the Moldovan government wisely leaves the issue of Transnistria for another day. Transnistria operates a border a southern border with Ukraine and Kiev must have noted the parallels to the situation on its eastern border.
As the Russian Ukraine struggle entrenches itself, costing human and economic capital and acting as a dangerous cancer deep inside Europe, it is hard to see a different solution to that of Transnistria being achieved in the east of Ukraine. The Russians will not withdraw and the Ukrainians will be unable to force them to. While there is much sympathy for the west to ramp up military support for Ukraine and NATO members states edge closer to direct involvement, the range of capabilities that Ukraine needs to win decisively are unlikely to come on to the table, or if they did the potential for a dangerous escalation of the war to directly involve the west increases significantly.
Politicians and leaders will have to face the truth and get pragmatic. Paranoia or reasonable justification, the Russian desire to have a security buffer between that country and the western alliance is hardly news, unless political instability in Russia forces a change of direction, a Putin-led regime will continue this conflict because it has no where else to go. Under these circumstances establishing a score-draw de facto buffer region of the ethnic Russian states over which both sides can claim legitimacy but which are not being grotesquely ruined by war, seems the preferable option.