How to End the Endless War: Ukraine, a New Way Forward

Updated: Aug 29, 2020

By Sean McLaughlin

"In effect, the human being should be considered the priority in a political war and conceived as the military target. The human being has the most critical point in his mind. Once the mind has been reached, the 'political animal' has been defeated without necessarily receiving bullets." ~ U.S. Central Intelligence Agency training manual.

Peace sign on the Ukrainian flag in protest manifestation against war in Ukraine

Image used under license from

On July 1st, the Russian people approved a constitutional amendment that reset Vladimir Putin's Presidential term tally to zero, thus allowing him to remain in office until 2036 potentially. This could make Putin a President for life since he could potentially be 83 years old when his time in office ends. This is bad news for Ukraine because it ends any hope that a change of leadership in the Kremlin will lead to a negotiated end to the Russian backed insurgency in the east. Ukraine needs to now accept this hard reality and take a long-range strategic approach that will change the political dynamics of the conflict in Ukraine's favor.

Putin's Stalemate

Putin has shown that he has no intention of leaving eastern Ukraine or withdrawing his support for the Russian back proto-states of the Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics. Over the last six years, he has conceded virtually nothing in negotiations, poured resources into Crimea to build infrastructure, and announced that over one million Ukrainian citizens in the occupied territories in the Donbass would be given Russian passports by the end of 2020[1]. These are not the actions of a man who is looking for compromise. Putin appears to be driven by a Cold War ideology that sees an economically stable and fully independent Ukraine as a threat to Russian interests[2]. He seems to have determined that if Russia cannot control Ukraine, then the second-best option would be to thwart Ukrainian attempts at European Union integration and destabilize Ukraine politically and economically[3].

Putin has had some success toward this goal. The conflict has caused vast material and economic destruction in eastern Ukraine. By losing control of the Donbass, Ukraine took an enormous hit to its economy with approximately 25% of its pre-2014 industrial base now inaccessible[4]. There have also been substantial personal costs to the Ukrainian people, with over 13,000 people dead and more than 30,000 injured. There are now an estimated 2 million internally displaced people (IDPs) living in the country[5].

At the same time, costs to Russia as a result of their incursion into Ukraine have been relatively minor. According to estimates from the International Monetary Fund, the targeted sanctions imposed by the west to punish Russia have only curtailed Russia's total economic output between 1.0 and 1.5 percent[6]. The U.S. sanctions on Nord Stream 2 and the Turkish Stream natural gas pipelines have had limited success in slowing down or blocking the building of gas pipelines that would bring Russian gas to western Europe and Turkey[7]. But, the long-standing sanctions against Russia are inevitably having diminishing returns as Russia seeks out new trade partners in Asia and Africa. An example of this being Russian trade with China, which from 2016 to 2019 rose 53 percent[8]. In short, nothing western governments have done has caused Putin to alter his position on Ukraine.

The Fight for Popular Support

Oct. 06, 2019: Thousands Ukrainians attend rally against signing of the Steinmeier Formula on the Independence Square in Kyiv, Ukraine

With this in mind, Ukraine should employ a strong long range strategic plan for countering the Russian backed insurgency under the assumption that the conflict will not be resolved under the current political circumstances. It needs to change the political dynamics by simultaneously demonstrating a show of force to deter Russia from further aggression and also developing a more population-centric approach to the conflict. The goal of this approach would be to confirm to the people in insurgent-held areas that their best hope for the future lies with full reunification. Despite the futility of the Minsk negotiations, Ukraine should also not abandon it, if for no other reason than to demonstrate to the international community that they are continuing to act in good faith.

In regards to creating a deterrence to further overt Russian aggression, by and large, Ukraine has done and is doing this. Ukraine's military has made remarkable strides since 2014. It continues to develop its defensive capabilities to ensure that future incursions into Ukraine by Russian ground forces would be cost-prohibitive to the Kremlin. Ukraine should now incorporate a population-centric approach that would focus on efforts to cut off Russian backed insurgents' popular support[9]. It needs to demonstrate to citizens in insurgent-held areas that Ukraine has the ability and will to respond to their needs and improve their lives. One way to do this is to make a concerted effort to improve the living conditions in eastern Ukraine areas that are close to the insurgent occupied zones. Ukrainians in the insurgent occupied areas must then be made fully aware of these efforts.

This task will be made easier due to the enormous amount of information flow via person to person contact between the insurgent-held territories and government-controlled areas of eastern Ukraine. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians regularly cross over from the contact line in occupied territories each month to visit family or maintain access to basic services[10]. According to the UN, during 2018, there was a monthly average of 1.1 million crossings through the checkpoints in the Donbas and 211,000 crossings occurred over the administrative boundary with the Autonomous Republic of Crimea[11]. If Ukraine were able to better address the local population's social and economic needs in government-controlled areas of Donetsk and Luhansk, it would confirm to the people in insurgent territories that their best hope for the future is through reunification with Ukraine. This could then set the stage for reunification through either diplomatic means or an internal overthrow of the Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics governments.

Gaining Trust and Credibility

Ukrainian soldier conducting public relations, Kiev, Ukraine, April 28, 2017

The Ukrainian military must visibly participate in this effort because by default it has become the only government institution that has credibility with the Ukrainian people. Surveys conducted at the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology have confirmed this fact with fifty-one percent of the Ukrainian people stating they trust the armed forces. In contrast, only eleven percent of the people believe in the civilian government[12]. Trust in civilian government is low according to Gallup Polls as the Ukrainian government holds the dubious distinction of being the least trusted in the world[13]. In some fashion, Ukraine must include its military in stabilization efforts in the east to gain needed credibility and support.

Ukraine could do this by adopting a variant of the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) model used by the NATO and Coalition Forces in Afghanistan and Iraq[14]. The mission of the PRTs was to "enhance their popular legitimacy of the provincial government by developing their capacity to conduct reconstruction and provide effective governance." PRT team members were a mixture of military officers with Civil Affairs training and representatives of U.S. government agencies like the Departments of Justice, Agriculture, and State. In Iraq, PRTs were civilian-led with deputy team leaders generally being a military officer.

PRTs were devised as relatively small teams of subject matter experts divided into functional areas that