Syrian Solution Looks Increasingly Likely in Ukraine

Faisal Al Yafai

Image courtesy of Yuriy Dyachyshyn / AFP

The war in Ukraine has been burning for more than 100 days. But outside of the West, the conflict is a “quiet” war – burning away somewhere over the horizon, but not consuming the same political focus as it does in Western Europe.

survey by the Economist Group found that two-thirds of the world’s population live in countries that are neutral or Russia-leaning when it comes to the Ukraine war. In other words, for most outside of the West, this war is someone else’s problem.

Its consequences, however, are not. The war has disrupted wheat supplies, raised energy prices worldwide and compounded global inflation. Many countries outside Europe are suffering grave consequences because of the war. The mood is shifting away from sympathy for Ukraine.

Even within the West, which has remained impressively united, cracks are beginning to show.

The first such cracks appeared over the issue of Finland and Sweden joining NATO. Turkey, a long-standing NATO member with the second-largest armed forces of the alliance, has refused to sign-off on the plan unless the two countries end their support for Kurdish militants.

The most high-profile western leader to break ranks is Emmanuel Macron, who said at the weekend the West “must not humiliate Russia,” so that after the war ends, there could be diplomatic contact.

Unsurprisingly, the comments led to anger from Kyiv, concerned that such statements open up the possibility of eventual territorial concessions to Russia – a diplomatic reward, in effect, for waging war.

But Macron’s comments highlight a particular strain of thinking within European capitals, one which fears the Ukraine war is becoming a war without end and that Russia needs to be offered an “off-ramp.” Others who appear to have similar concerns are the Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, who started off maintaining the hard European line. But as polls in Italy show little public support for Italy’s involvement, Draghi has shifted towards advocating a negotiated settlement.

Others will surely follow. One hundred days of war can easily turn into 200, and then 300. Indeed even the “optimistic” scenario put forward last month by the head of Ukraine’s military intelligence envisaged the war ending by the end of the year – in other words, 200 more days. From a European perspective, that does not sound optimistic.

Gradually, then, the West is splitting into two camps, a realist camp and a more hawkish camp.

The ultimate position of the realist camp was expressed by the former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, who told the World Economic Forum last month that Ukraine would have to concede territory to Russia to end the war. Realists look at the economic pain – inflation in both the US and UK is at decades-long highs – and the risk of escalation and look for a way out.

The hawkish camp is led by London and Washington. Though not explicitly stated, the Anglo-American position is to keep supporting Ukraine with military equipment and intelligence, in order to deal as harsh a blow to Russia’s plans as possible. This will both strengthen Ukraine’s eventual hand at the negotiating table, and deter Russia from any future aggression towards other European countries – in particular, the vulnerable EU states of the Baltics.

Yet even this hawkish position has a limit. Just last month, the New York Times published an editorial in which it warned Ukraine would have to make “painful territorial decisions.” Russia’s open threats last week to hit “decision-making centers” if US-supplied long-range missiles were used against Russian territory will also give western leaders pause for thought. (In case there was any ambiguity over the threat, Russia’s former prime minister Dmitry Medvedev explained that “the final decision-making centers in this case … are not in Kyiv”.)

What both these camps have in common is the belief that the Ukraine war has to end with a negotiated settlement, even if the shape of that settlement is fiercely disputed. But after 100 days of war, a negotiated settlement looks further away than at the start of the conflict. What looks increasingly likely, instead, is a permanently simmering conflict, one in which Kyiv never regains all its territory, and Russian troops never leave. In other words, it could look a lot like Syria.

From Moscow’s perspective, a Ukraine not in total control of its territory might be a “reasonable” outcome. Vladimir Putin has staked his political prestige on victory in Ukraine, something the West is anxious to deny him. But a war without end might eventually drag the West – after 200 days or after two years, especially as a US presidential election inches closer – towards some sort of compromise.

Once the pain becomes too much to bear, especially if a brutal winter bites Europe hard, the West may well be willing to end some sanctions and tolerate some troops left behind. Like in Syria, Kyiv would find its territory full of foreign troops it cannot expel and reliant on governments abroad to prop it up.

No doubt, in that moment, it will seem a compromise worth making. But it will not be. A long war in Ukraine may be a sticking plaster on Putin’s disastrous invasion, but it would create a permanent wound on Europe’s borders.

Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.