New Geopolitical Equilibrium
All conflicts between two or more people could end in two ways. Either the people involved sit down and try to find a compromise in order to get back to normal relationships, or they completely ignore each other for the rest of their lives and the conflicts ends once they are all dead. For nations, the second alternative is almost impossible, because nations live for centuries or even ages. In consequence, a compromise will follow sooner or later. If all nations involved are satisfied with the compromises they have made, we enter a new phase of equilibrium, in case of states, a geopolitical equilibrium.
Tilting the balance
However, the geopolitical equilibrium, once achieved, cannot perpetuate itself ad infinitum. The political, economic and military situation of a country is in a permanent change and, at a certain moment in time, one of the countries could consider the actual equilibrium unsatisfactory and try to tilt the balance, to break the geopolitical equilibrium. The more satisfaction countries get when establishing the initial equilibrium, the more this equilibrium would last. It is totally not the case of Ukraine, whose situation was tensioned from the beginning.
After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, a considerable number of countries have emerged, one of them being Ukraine. This country was based on Vladimir Lenin’s Ukraine and included territories from Romania, Poland, Slovakia and even Russia. Consequently, even from the beginning of its existence, Ukraine had several small conflicts with its neighbours. However, those conflicts never escalated because the neighbouring states found more important the adhesion to NATO than reclaiming their territories from Ukraine.
Russia on the other hand, had not constrained from international organization such as NATO. However, both the political and economic situation of the country constrained them to agree with the initial boarders of Ukraine. Once Putin got into power, things have radically changed. The economy got better especially because of the oil price (from $19/barrel in 1998 to almost $160/barrel in 2008) but also due to a whole network of gas pipelines (Nord Stream 1, Yamal, South Stream) which pumped gas to Europe and pumped back billions to Russia.
Once consolidated on both economic and political aspects, Russia considered the status quo as no longer being satisfying. Considering the absence of strong political leaders in the period of 2014-2015, Putin took advantage and took control of Crimea and the so-called separatist republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. In the last years, The EU policies and the election of Biden as president of the US gave Russia an even greater, maybe unexpected opportunity that Putin saw as his last chance of expending his territories and influence.
Based on their energy transitioning policies, the European states ceased the production of conventional energy and systematically closed coal mines and nuclear plants, replacing them with green, but inefficient and intermittent energy. Facing energy shortage, the European countries desperately started to buy Russian gas which led to the best fiscal year for Kremlin in the last period of time and making the invasion of Ukraine less costly. By the way, Putin started to send troops to the Ukrainian border when gas prices first peaked in September 2021.
Re-establishing the equilibrium
Certainly, the actual situation in Ukraine will end up with negotiations followed by a new geopolitical equilibrium. Who will participate in those negotiations? Ukraine together with all its neighbours (including Turkey), the US and eventually the UK, if we take into account all the assets Russian oligarchs have in London. The sooner we get to the negotiations the better it is for everyone, because nothing is worse than uncertainty.
The first reasonable equilibrium that we can imagine will come with more territories on the Russian side. Territories that are important either from an economic or strategic point of view, especially the Donbass economic region and all southern territories that give Ukraine access to the Black Sea. In exchange Ukraine could join NATO and sign treaties with other economic or political organisations such as the Intermarium for instance.
This deal will benefit Russians because it will increase their control on the Black Sea, including having access to some of the most important ports in the region, Odessa and Mariupol. Besides, they will receive a very important industrial and resource abundant region (Donbass) and in the same time weakening the state of Ukraine that will find itself without access to the Sea and without their most important economic region.
On the other hand, Ukraine could also benefit from the deal, being able to join NATO and have its security guaranteed which obviously translates in a higher degree of foreign investments and the overall development of economic activities. In addition, Ukraine could also sign agreements with the EU or other economic or political organisation among which the Intermarium, that would add an extra layer of security to the country.
Finally, the West could hardly have any objection to this deal. Such a scenario would guarantee the security in the region, making a future Russian invasion almost impossible considering Ukraine’s membership to NATO and Intermarium. In addition, if this opportunity leads to an agreement between Ukraine and its neighbours regarding the old territorial disputes, this will considerably enhance regional collaboration.
A second scenario, less sustainable but more likely to happen, consists in a retreat of Russian troops after making a deal where Ukraine agrees to never join NATO structures. This scenario will lead to the pre-war situation, with the exception that both Luhansk and Donetsk separatist republics will now become also de jure Russians.
Russia will then receive its guarantees that Ukraine would not join NATO and will most likely avoid the sanctions, or at least an appreciable part of them. Besides, they have the “green light” to integrate the two separatist republics and still have a considerable influence over Ukraine’s politics overall. On the other hand, they have to renounce to some important economic and strategic territories that would have served their expansionist purpose.
Ukraine will come back to its initial borders, except for the two republics that were in any case under Russian control previously to invasion. They will also keep some regions with a significant Russian minority that could lead to future military conflicts, especially considering that Ukraine will remain neutral. Another drawback would be the inability to exercise their sovereignty and decide for their future together with the uncertainty that holds back foreign investors.
From a western point of view this would at least bring peace in the region and loosen up the economic burden. But again, this would not lead to a sustainable geopolitical equilibrium and the risk of future escalation will persist. Not to mention that Ukraine’s historical disputes mentioned earlier would also continue. On the other hand, a buffer between Russia and NATO is not a priori a bad thing from a European perspective.