By David Wendt, Co-Founder and Senior Advisor, Jackson Hole Center for Global Affairs
As Russia’s war on Ukraine drags on with no end in sight, it behooves us – knowing that, someday, it will come to an end -- to recall how past wars have, in fact, ended. World Wars I and II both ended with the unconditional surrender of one side, but with very different eventual outcomes. World War I ended with the declared purpose of the victors to “make the world safe for democracy.” But by dividing the old Austro-Hungarian Empire into a group of successor states, in accordance with the newly-proclaimed doctrine of “national self-determination,” it actually made democracies more vulnerable. Munich followed. World War II, on the other hand, ended with the reconciliation of former enemies and the creation of a network of global institutions -- the United Nations, the World Bank, the Bretton-Woods financial system – that, for the past 70 years, have by and large managed to keep the peace and to enhance global prosperity.
The Cold War ended, in the words of former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, with “Cataclysmic changes in the blink of an eye, from a historical perspective, without a single shot being fired.” This outcome was owing to the deft diplomacy of U.S. President George H.W. Bush, West Germany Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who trusted each other enough to give each other confidence to take risks for peace within their own constituencies. Is a similar outcome possible with the Ukraine war today?
First, it is difficult to foresee a negotiated peace. Both sides have defined their war objectives in mutually exclusive terms -- and for Putin, it is difficult to see him backing down, though that is exactly what he should do.
What seems more likely is that the war will end with the collapse of one side or another. Given the stamina and unity that the people of Ukraine have demonstrated, and the continued solidarity of the members of NATO in backing it, that side is unlikely to be Ukraine. Russia, on the other hand, is capable of tremendous heroism when it believes in its cause, as it did against Napoleon in 1812 and Hitler in 1941; otherwise, as in World War I and at the end of the Cold War -- and as seems the case now -- it has no staying power.
Second, if Russia did collapse, this would represent a unique moment in potential transformation of the global landscape. With Putin’s control fundamentally altered or gone, the path would be clear for the reassertion of long-suppressed democratic forces in Russian society.
Third, and paradoxically, however, the path to power for these forces is not at all clear. If the past is any guide, such a trend is much more likely to beget its own resistance, to the point at which anti-democratic forces regain their momentum. If the proponents of democracy are to prevail, they must have a strategy to overcome this resistance.
That strategy cannot simply be improvised on a moment’s notice. The interplay of forces in Russian society is far too complex to allow for seat-of-the-pants diplomacy. A strategy to strengthen the forces of democracy in Russia must already have been put in place, so those forces will already have started to take root and grow, and they can fight back. For Russia, therefore, it is possible that with the conclusion of the war—and the possible ouster of Putin – the real task at hand, democracy building, will have only just begun. Russia will need all the help it can get from its democratic neighbors, including people-to-people exchanges, exchange of knowledge and best practices, and city-to-city partnerships, as well as financial support to rise to this challenge.
Ukraine will also face a complex array of challenges. A war -torn society will have to be rebuilt from the ground up, including not only physical but institutional infrastructure, with help – and conditionality, in accordance with the terms of membership in EU – but with Ukraine setting its own priorities. The huge challenge of repatriation of those who have fled from the war will also have to be addressed, particularly in partnership with Poland and other neighbors who have so generously opened their doors. New international agencies, specially adapted to these purposes to fit the circumstances, may have to be temporarily created to address these tasks.
For Europe and the United States, the challenge is inclusion. A democratic Russia – if that is potentially what is to emerge from the war – belongs in the EU and, ultimately, NATO. The same principles of conditionality which govern Ukraine’s admission should govern Russia’s. Their joint admission would strengthen the bonds between them. The first order of business for democracies the world over is peace.