Ending the War in Ukraine

Photograph Source: sagesolar – CC BY 2.0

When leaders of NATO met in Vilnius, Lithuania on 11-12 July, commitments to help Ukraine defend itself were reiterated even as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky used social media to complain that Ukraine was not promised future NATO membership, which he apparently considered a goal of this summit meeting. US President Joe Biden had said in advance of the meeting that Ukraine could join NATO in the future but not as long as the Russian “special military operation” was ongoing in their country.

Despite Zelensky’s disappointment, all was good. Biden then took a moment the next day to visit Finland, one of the two newest applicants to NATO (along with Sweden) to show solidarity with a state with common borders with the Russian Federation.

Beneath the goodwill and handshakes of solidarity, there is another reality that must soon be faced: the war has to end, sooner rather than later. On one hand, there are few (Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene notwithstanding) who would like to see Russia victorious in this incursion into another country. The United Nations condemned the initial invasion in March 2022 and passed a second resolution in February 2023 demanding full and complete withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine.

On the other hand, it is, however, conceivable that the United States would be amenable to having a more extended struggle against Russia for two reasons. First, that prolonged struggle would weaken Russia’s economy and would drain its military resources. Second, NATO support for Ukraine means that the US and its NATO allies will support the United States and its Military-Industrial Complex in a continuing way, thus strengthening one of the few areas of the US economy where manufacturing and industry still exist. Parts for munitions, of course, may come from across an international array of supply chains, but US companies are the primary beneficiaries of supplying NATO with guns, ammunition, rockets, drones, and anything else Ukraine needs to protect itself.

The weakening of the Russian economy has taken time. Vladimir Putin and the government took care to load up with hard currency reserves before the invasion commenced, knowing that trade sanctions were likely to come. As US and European companies from McDonald’s to Ikea have stepped away from the Russian marketplace (and sometimes replaced by Russian firms offering replacements, like the burger chain Vkusno and tochka meaning “Tasty and that’s it” taking over for McDonald’s), this has given Russian businesses a chance to expand rather than get pushed out by transnational chains, quite likely producing a better-quality product. There is nothing inherently wrong with that.

However, cached foreign currency reserves are not endless and Russia has already demanded payment for some products in rubles that were sold to other countries for dollars and euros so that they could buy in rubles. Moreover, consumer demand for unbranded goods only goes so far. A “Tasty and that’s it” might taste pretty good, but we live in a world where the value is in the iconic brand and the logo to indicate to the world that, “we’re in.” The ruble has plunged in value in recent weeks and is now close to parity with the EU’s cent: one ruble=one Euro cent.

For the United States, the war in Ukraine is a distant thing. It was talked about a lot in the early days more than a year ago, but these days it gets mixed in with discussions about how damn hot it’s been this summer and what songs are on Taylor Swift’s concert tour set list. In short, Americans don’t spend a lot of time worrying about Ukraine because it’s half a world away.

Things are different in Europe. Concerns over what is happening, the inroads that have been made by Ukraine in areas previously held by Russia, are ongoing. And of course, there is constant talk of what the Wagner Group march on Moscow meant a couple of Saturdays ago as Yevgeny Prigozhin made his big move, was called a traitor by Putin on television, and then apparently met with Putin hours later. The reporting on this came from American sources like the New York Times, but it had an urgency in Europe that was not felt in the US. What does it all mean? No one knows, and so that makes it worrisome.

Looking at things from a European vantage point, the war has to start winding down. A lot will depend on events in the second half of 2023. Supplies of armaments to Ukraine will continue but puts more of an economic strain on NATO members in Europe because their military budgets are not as nearly bottomless as is the Pentagon’s. Moreover, there is discomfort over Russia’s claim that nuclear armaments have now been moved to Belarus. It may be a bluff, but there are some people who still remember the panic during the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. It’s not quite that, but having one authoritarian leader (Putin) pass nukes to another (Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus) even closer territorially to NATO/European Union states is enough to wake one up at night.

But Europeans are really concerned about the war’s aftermath and what becomes of NATO and the EU next. When the invasion first occurred, country after country stepped up to take in Ukrainian refugees. Though estimates vary widely, there are about 4-6 million Ukrainian refugees living in Europe, some 8 million displaced internally, another 2-3 million who have relocated (forcibly or otherwise) to the Russian federation.

If war lasts for a year or two, it is likely that those millions of refugees will return to their homeland once danger passes. If, however, the war marches on beyond a couple of years, those refugees will find it increasingly more difficult to go back home. Jobs have been found, kids are in schools, and it’s hard to move once a certain amount of assimilation has occurred. For this reason, Europeans want a solution sooner rather than later.

There is a final wild card to consider. If the Russian government destabilizes and Putin is replaced by someone who could well be more authoritarian than he is, there could be an exodus of Russians into Europe as well. Finland is building a fence along the Finland-Russia border, not for military purposes, but for fear that the country might be inundated by people running away from Russia.

Beyond all of this, peace is always a good thing. We are all just people, living, struggling, and doing what we can to make life comfortable. Leaders often forget that. We’re not cannon fodder.

Reporting from Tallinn, Estonia

Edgar Kaskla is a lecturer in Political Science at Cal State Long Beach.