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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 included, but were not, limited to reconstruction and development, agriculture, governance, and the rule of law. The teams worked closely with the host governments and NGOs to consolidate efforts on improving areas like local infrastructure, schools, hospitals, police, agriculture, and small businesses. While the Civil Affairs trained soldiers were always present on the teams, depending on the mission and security situation, there could be more civilians than military personnel on a PRT.

In Ukraine, PRT-like organizations could be used in reconstruction efforts and to support local governments in areas that are in proximity to the proto-states. They could be staffed with western subject matter experts, Ukrainian officials, and the Ukrainian military with joint Ukrainian and international fiscal oversight. These PRT-like organizations could work closely with and support the local governments in eastern Ukraine that are both overwhelmed and incapable of effective humanitarian and reconstruction efforts[15].

This effort could improve conditions in government occupied eastern Ukraine and demonstrate to all eastern Ukrainians a clear difference in governance between Ukraine and the Russian backed insurgents. Because funding for these organizations would require international assistance, fiscal oversight could be conducted transparently as a joint effort between donor nations and the Ukrainian government. This would minimize the risk of interference by corrupt government officials.

Having a military component to this organization would be beneficial not just because of the people's relatively high trust in the military and the total lack of faith in the civilian government's abilities. In certain limited situations and if the security situation permits, the PRT-like organizations could utilize military human resources if needed. With a total force of 250,000 personnel, Ukraine now has the third-largest in Europe after Russia and France[16]. This force is largely static in the contact line area and, in limited instances, could assist with humanitarian related projects in its immediate regions of operation.

International Effort

Why the international community should be involved in supporting Ukraine was perhaps best summed up by the 2019 Congressional testimony of former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor, who stated that the situation in Ukraine "affects the world that we live in, that our children will grow up in and our grandchildren." Taylor explained that "Ukraine is on the front line" of a struggle to prevent Russia from trampling on the post–World War II order, which "actually kept the peace in Europe for nearly 70 years[17].

An effective reconstruction effort may be the best way to help stabilize the fragile Ukrainian economy, and for several reasons, it would require international assistance. The first is that the estimated reconstruction costs of $15 billion is too much for cash-strapped Ukraine to bear alone[18]. Second, western expertise in certain areas is likely to be required as part of the effort. Lastly, the government of eastern Ukraine is too rife with corruption to take the lead in reconstruction efforts. Having international fiscal oversight of PRT-like organizations staffed with outside western subject matter experts, Ukrainian officials, and Ukrainian military could minimize the opportunities for graft and corruption.

The goal of this reconstruction would not be to make government-controlled eastern Ukraine look like Western Europe or western Ukraine. It just has to be better and more appealing to the people than insurgents occupied east Ukraine. This task is made far easier due to the criminal ineptitude of the insurgent governments[19]. Six years into the conflict the proto-states in Donetsk and Luhansk have failed miserably to provide even the basic services of government, extreme poverty, lack of access to potable water, and high unemployment some of the problems that have caused the local population to become disillusioned with the insurgents[20]. The situation has recently become so dire in insurgent occupied Luhansk that coal miners are resorting to hunger strikes to force the government to pay them the back wages they are owed[21].

The Time is now

Kiev, Ukraine April 19, 2019: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky

In his 2019 inaugural address, President Zelinsky expressed a vision that is congruence with a population-centric approach to resolving the conflict in the east. Zelinsky asserted that Ukraine needs to win back the hearts of the people in the insurgent occupied Donbass. He stressed that to regain control of this territory, "we must ...make them feel Ukrainian[22]." An obvious and effective way to start doing this is by rebuilding some of what was destroyed in the war. To do this, Ukraine will require support from Western Europe and America.[23].

Delaying this help will only ensure that Ukraine remains economically weak and susceptible to Putin's overtures. But, a concerted effort to assist in the reconstruction of government-held eastern Ukraine now could demonstrate to the Ukrainians that their government is responsive to their needs and drive a wedge between Putin's insurgents and the population that is under their control [24]. This effort to change the political dynamics of the conflict will require international support and a whole of government approach by Ukraine, of which the military should play a visible role if it hopes to succeed[25].

About the Author

LTC (ret) Sean McLaughlin is a Doctoral Candidate at the University of West Georgia. He holds a Master’s Degree in Government from Harvard University and a Master’s Degree in Education from Notre Dame College and a Bachelor’s Degree from the University of New Hampshire. From 2017 to 2018 he served in Kyiv Ukraine as the U.S. Representative on the Executive Committee Responsible for the Ukrainian Defense Advisory Reform Board (DRAB) located in Kyiv Ukraine. The DRAB consists of strategic level NATO advisors to Ukraine’s military and defense industry. Other duty positions LTC(R) McLaughlin has held include the G-9 for the 42nd Infantry Division, Course Manager for Civil Affairs Officer Branch Qualifying Course (MCAC) and Coalition Forces Liaison to Iraqi Government on the Baghdad PRT.

The author would like to thank U.S. Ambassador John Abizaid for his guidance and support during the authors service in Ukraine.

Disclaimer: The opinions, conclusions and recommendations expressed or implied above are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of any organization or any entity of the U.S. government.

All images used under license from




[3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12] [13] [14] [15] [16] [17] [18] [19] [20] [21] [22] [23]



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1 Comment

Roy Ferrell
Roy Ferrell
Aug 26, 2020

To The Members & LtCol McLaughlin - This is the most Serious & best written article that I've seen on Ukraine & the efforts of the Civil Affairs Groups. Thank You. We who served in the Far East saw these efforts succeed in most instances of establishment of local governments when they were trying to survive & establish order in their Province or AOR.

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