Prospects for a partitioning of Ukraine

The war in Ukraine has reached a stalemate due to the West’s slow response and differing goals; three potential outcomes appear possible.

A memorial is seen outside a residential building destroyed in the shelling of Russian troops in the Northern Saltivka neighborhood.
Nov. 1, 2023: A teddy bear sits in a makeshift memorial on one side of a fence in the northern Saltivka neighborhood of Kharkiv. On the other side is a residential building that was destroyed by Russian shelling. © Getty Images

In a nutshell

  • Dithering in the West raises concerns about a protracted conflict
  • Scenarios are a Russian victory, a frozen conflict or a NATO resurgence
  • Ukraine’s allies must introduce ambiguity to complicate Moscow’s planning

The outcome of the war in Ukraine now hangs in the balance. While Russia is taking all steps necessary to secure victory, major Western powers remain in denial. Given that the combined gross domestic product of European countries is around eight times that of Russia, Europe has the potential to economically outproduce Russia, and thus defeat the Russian military machinery. Yet very little is happening.

The primary implication of the slow-motion response to Russian aggression is that whatever possibilities may have existed for bringing the war to a speedy resolution have been squandered. Consequently, Ukraine’s allies must start preparing for an outcome in which the war drags on for years and where an eventual outcome could be a Russian assault on NATO itself. The latter would provide a litmus test of President Joe Biden’s lofty promise that the alliance stands ready to defend every square inch of its territory.

Talk about negotiations in some Western countries is exclusively for domestic audiences, because there is nothing to negotiate. Whatever Russia’s aims may have been at the outset of the war, it now seems that the Kremlin will seek to continue fracturing Ukraine and reducing it from a sovereign nation to a landlocked, rump territory. And so, Kyiv’s efforts, which were first geared toward a defense of the eastern regions, have now been transformed into a struggle for survival.

Ukraine’s aims – namely, that all Russian troops must be withdrawn, that Ukrainian sovereignty over the full extent of its recognized territory must be restored, and that Russia must be forced to accept accountability for what it has done, including paying war reparations and handing over war criminals – are in accordance with established international law. This being the case, it is difficult indeed to envision any of the major Western powers being both willing and able to enforce compliance.

Possible outcomes

Accepting that it is now up to what Russia refers to as the “collective West” to decide what the outcome of the war is going to be, and that there is an absence of consensus on the need to secure victory for Ukraine, illuminates three different paths the war can take, all with very different sets of consequences, including the sordid scenario in which Ukraine is partitioned or falls.

Countries that support the Ukrainian refusal to negotiate are, in contrast, convinced that Russia cannot be expected to honor any form of agreement.

The first is a Russian victory that ends with Ukraine being eliminated and its territory divided between hostile neighbors. The second is a frozen conflict, whereby Russia keeps most of the territories it has captured with force. The third is an aggressive move by some NATO member states to help Ukraine recover most – if not all – of the occupied territories.

Characteristics of a Russian victory

The outcome of a Russian victory entails three features.

The first is the cementing of Crimea’s status as part of the Russian Federation. As it emerges from the war, and as sanctions are removed, Russia will be able to rebuild its military presence on the peninsula. With the Black Sea Fleet back in the game, with air force bases returned to par and with powerful missile batteries in place, Moscow will again seek to control the Black Sea, potentially reducing the influence of Turkey and NATO more broadly.

The second feature is full military control over the Ukrainian oblasts Kharkiv, Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and possibly Odesa. This will have the practical effect of resurrecting the “New Russia” (Novorossiya) that was created under Catherine the Great. Although still only under partial military occupation, four of the five oblasts (excluding Odesa) have already been incorporated into the Russian Federation, though they are not internationally recognized as Russian territory. With all five under full military control, Moscow will seek to expand its reach further to incorporate central parts of Ukraine, including Kyiv.

The third feature of a Russian victory concerns what will happen to the western part of Ukraine. In an obvious ploy to boost support from a friendly country inside the European Union, the Kremlin has suggested that those parts of Ukraine that have not formed part of what President Vladimir Putin refers to as “historical Russia” will be handed over to Poland and Hungary.

By tempting Hungary with the prospect of territorial enlargement, the Kremlin is driving a wedge deeper into NATO and the EU.

While the Polish government has been clear in its refusal to accept any such deal, Hungary’s far right has insisted that it will pounce on any Ukrainian collapse to seize a part of the Transcarpathian region. Budapest has been pursuing a policy of accusations against Kyiv, claiming that the ethnic Hungarian minority in Ukraine is being poorly treated. Demands have also been made for a Hungarian representative in the Verkhovna Rada.

Although it is obvious that the Russian offer of delivering the western parts of Ukraine to other countries is a mere ruse, there is a rationale behind it. By tempting Hungary with the prospect of territorial enlargement, the Kremlin is driving a wedge deeper into NATO and the EU.

Frozen conflict

Compared to an outright Russian victory, the possibility of a frozen conflict is considerably more likely. It is becoming increasingly clear that isolationist factions in the United States and Germany are trying to derail promises of standing by Ukraine “for as long as it takes,” which would ensure that there is never an option of victory for Ukraine. But even around some pro-Ukraine leaders, commitment is lacking. Take for example security advisors in Washington and in Berlin, who have been advocating for the provision of defensive military support that is sufficient for Ukraine to secure a good outcome at the negotiating table, but insufficient to eliminate the threat.

Those who desire a frozen conflict pursue this outcome along two tracks. Escalation management aims at keeping Russia open for negotiations, by preventing Ukraine from striking against Russian territory, while control over the flow of weapons will force Kyiv to either negotiate or face total defeat. The main problem for those in favor of this outcome is that they grossly underestimated the willingness of both sides to fight on until victory can be reached on the battlefield.

Read more on the war:

On the American side, frustration has led to media leaks suggesting that Ukraine cannot win, and to public admissions that the Biden administration does not favor Ukrainian strikes against targets inside Russia. On the German side, leading Social Democrats have rallied around Chancellor Olaf Scholz in an orchestrated media campaign demanding that the conflict must be frozen.

Countries that support the Ukrainian refusal to negotiate are, in contrast, convinced that Russia cannot be expected to honor any form of agreement. Security assurances given before have proved to be worthless. A freezing of the frontlines would only provide Russia with time to regroup and rearm, after which it will return to finish the job of eradicating Ukraine. Meanwhile, allowing it to remain in control of Crimea and the Sea of Azov will allow it to throttle the Ukrainian economy.

NATO pushes back

The third possible outcome stems from a growing realization in some parts of the West that unless Russia is defeated in Ukraine, it will be emboldened and eventually proceed to attack NATO in one way or another. Although a full-scale military invasion is unlikely, NATO must prepare to face limited strikes or incursions that are designed to test whether Article 5 really stands.

This possibility is inspired by French President Emmanual Macron, who this year has emerged as a hawk on weapons supply to Ukraine. The French media has speculated on varying levels of support for Ukraine, from building military factories in Ukraine and engaging in demining operations, to providing air defense for Odesa or sending troops for support and training operations.

The main ambition of this approach is to create a protected sphere in the western and perhaps also the central parts of Ukraine, where it will be possible to ensure that civilians and critical infrastructure are kept safe from missile barrages.

A twist to this possibility has been provided by former NATO General Secretary Anders Fogh-Rasmussen, who has suggested that once NATO has provided credible security for the western part of Ukraine, that part may be included into NATO with full security guarantees, and that once this is done, NATO should allow Ukraine to fight on to recover the full extent of its territory.



Unlikely: Full Russian victory

The scenario in which Russia secures a complete military victory is unlikely, not least because it simply does not have the necessary military power. Nevertheless, by dangling the prospect of Budapest sharing in a partitioning of Ukraine, Moscow hopes to have a Trojan Horse within NATO.

In a crisis, Hungary would not only be in a position to block vital transit routes to Romania from Poland and the Czech Republic. It could also offer Russia transit into the very middle of Europe. And Slovakia may join with Hungary. No matter how unlikely these outcomes may seem to Western analysts, to Moscow they must seem very appealing.

Possible: Frozen conflict with potential for a refugee crisis

The scenario of freezing the conflict is considerably more likely, but also fraught with complications. No matter how an agreement on freezing the frontlines is formulated, Russia will view it as a victory.

What still makes this outcome a distinct possibility is that both Germany and the U.S. have invested so heavily in making it happen, likely including some “backchanneling” to Moscow about red lines that must not be crossed. While it is hard to see Berlin and Washington pulling back, it is also a fact that the moral implications of escalation management are becoming increasingly disturbing.

The refusal to provide long-distance weapons like Taurus and ATACMS is driven by a fear that such weapons would be used to strike strategic targets inside Russia. As Russian missiles raining down on Ukraine are fired from Russian territory, the implication is that the assaults may continue with impunity. The escalation managers stand accused of viewing the associated loss of life and material destruction as an acceptable price.

The potential reputational damage to Berlin and Washington would be augmented by accounts of atrocities committed against civilians in occupied areas and by plans for large numbers of that civilian population to be drafted by the Russian occupiers and sent into assaults against the Ukrainian defenders. The legitimate government in Kyiv may in consequence not survive, and Ukrainians will start leaving the country en masse, creating another refugee crisis in the EU.

Somewhat likely: Ukraine partitioned and pushing back

If France does assume the leadership in a coalition of states that commit to an escalation of the conflict, it will be a very different game. The likely outcome is that the coalition wins out over the escalation managers, and that a sizeable part of Ukraine can be partitioned off under de facto NATO protection.

If such a protected zone can be extended to include Crimea, which is uncertain, unlike protecting western Ukraine, it will mean that Russia has lost the war. Although several NATO member states would refuse to accept membership for Ukraine, such a proposal would at least manage to stop sending signals to Russia about what the West is not ready to do. By introducing an element of strategic ambiguity, which is now Mr. Macron’s strategy, the task of Russian military planners will be made much harder.

But it will be a long slog and it will still leave an open-ended outcome in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

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