WAR IN EUROPE ANALYSIS
Plans must be laid for a Ukraine settlement — and Russian humanitarian reparations
Even as the fighting continues in Ukraine and the circumstances of the innocents continue to degrade, it is time to begin plotting the way to a political settlement and a humanitarian reparations plan as a way out of this deadly cul de sac.
As the dreadful weeks of combat have rolled on, often in full view on the world’s television screens, smartphones and laptops, the death toll and destruction has continued to rise in Ukraine. To the astonishment of many observers, Russian soldiers have been dying in numbers entirely unexpected by both their commanders and Russia’s president.
Great numbers of Russian heavy armour have also been destroyed while stalled in convoys on Ukraine’s roads along the invasion routes. This debacle has shattered some myths about Russian military strategic and tactical genius — and it has also demonstrated real weaknesses in Russian logistical capabilities, as well as command and control systems.
Now largely static on most of the battlefronts, the Russian military has increasingly shifted to a Plan B, carrying out a devastating air war, using cruise missiles, hypersonic missiles, and some not-so-smart bombs that have largely been hitting civilian targets such as hospitals, schools, shopping malls, theatres used as air-raid shelters, and multistorey apartment buildings.
Beyond the devastation and death, this kind of warfare almost inevitably will continue to harden the resolve of Ukrainians to resist the invasion and it will destroy any remaining fraternal feelings between the two populations, despite a densely intertwined history.
Nevertheless, regardless of the rising civilian death toll and the growing destruction of infrastructure across the country, the Ukrainian military appears to have learnt how to carry on the fight with a degree of canny sophistication against superior forces.
This has forced Russian commanders to confront a nasty Hobson’s choice of either going forward with punishing ground fighting in cities that will bring additional heavy casualties or to continue with its unrestrained pummelling of civilians. The latter has been designed to break the will of the government and its people through its apparently random rain of death and destruction falling on to Ukraine’s cities and towns. But that has not happened yet.
The current situation also is giving rise to a growing unease inside Russia by some (including a growing flow out of Russia by its younger professional class) over these sacrifices being made for an inexplicable cause, as well as in response to the growing clampdowns on the rather limited space left for free expression in Russia. (This has been in contrast to the nearly endless agitprop being pumped out domestically and a run of presidential speeches arguing that the Russian military has been carrying out a sacred duty in preventing a genocide of ethnic Russians or in fighting to extirpate a neo-Nazi, thuggish, drug-dealing governmental cabal, acting at the command of a mendacious West.)
Of course, there have also been the increasing economic disruptions and financial pain now reaching ordinary Russians, flowing from the growing roster of sanctions. This is beyond the pain being dished out to Russian oligarchs and other privileged individuals who now can no longer sail their yachts with impunity or live in guilty splendour as they enjoy the pleasures of Mediterranean resorts. (Those latter criticisms are a paraphrase of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s own angry words as he lashed out in evident frustration, not this writer’s. They seem to be the mark of an increasingly angry, frustrated man, one whose self-deluding plans have now gone seriously awry.)
Taken together, Russia’s military commanders (if not — yet — the nation’s apex predator) increasingly seem to be coming to the harsh realisation that there is no easy pathway to what could plausibly be termed an unambiguous victory in Ukraine. Significant numbers of reinforcements are already being brought in from distant duty stations across the nation and beyond, and mercenary forces are reported to have been recruited for service from Syria and Chechnya as well.
Given the increasing military aid flooding into Ukraine from the West, Russian battlefield losses in men and machines may begin to rise more rapidly. It is even conceivable some troops might start refusing to carry out orders as they will have judged the risk of their dying in this murky cause might rise to a near certainty in exchange for unknowable gains.
Of course, on the Ukrainian side, things have been reaching increasingly drastic circumstances as well. While anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons are becoming increasingly plentiful, and they are largely being used to great effect, civilian morale may be moving closer to an inflection point as the deaths and destruction continue to rise around them.
Shortages of food, fuel, potable water, shelter and medical care are hitting the population hard in and around many urban centres. With about 10 million frightened people now on the move to safer spaces at home or in neighbouring nations as permanent or temporary refugees, the growing disruptions are making effective government beyond military action increasingly difficult to achieve. This is the case even if the country’s military and its citizen militias have continued — so far, at least — to hold off Russian occupation of the country’s main cities of Kharkiv, Kyiv, Odesa, and Lviv.
Taken together, the rising tide of human suffering and the staggering costs may just possibly be creating a potential opening window for a way out of this catastrophe. What might tip the scales one way could be unsustainable losses by the Russian military in the field, beyond the levels deemed reasonable for the achievement of Vladimir Putin’s dubious policy objectives. Or, perhaps the opprobrium that would come after the destruction of irreplaceable historic or artistic sites and items in Kyiv and the consequent international uproar beyond what it is already in place might tip those same scales as well.
Of course, if Ukraine were to capitulate formally in the face of an eventual overwhelming Russian military onslaught, despite those forces’ losses in the field, the challenge for the Russians would then become how they could manage to rule and police a vast, restive nation. This would be a territory filled with military irregulars engaged in guerrilla fighting, together with a population filled with resentments about Russia’s forced, deadly intrusion into their lives.
Accordingly, the pressure on the two parties to move through that small window towards a negotiated end to the conflict may feed on growing fatigue and weariness of the combatants. And, one has already heard statements from President Zelensky that he is prepared to sit down with his counterpart, even if the restated Russian demands from Putin from before the fighting began, are about the same as before the tanks began to roll.
Nevertheless, these cumulative pressures to move towards some kind of negotiation will grow. This will be true as the combat takes on increasingly horrific aspects, with greater casualties and general human suffering, and perhaps most importantly in thoughts shared among the small circle of Putin’s senior advisers as they do their cost/benefit sums regarding staying on in this fight. This would still be true even if the Russians “win” on the battlefield.
Regardless, more clear-headed Russian leaders will realise they will be forced to maintain a continuing military engagement in Ukraine for years to come. That eventuality could easily become a much closer to home, much costlier mission than even was the case in their shellacking in Afghanistan in 1989. (That defeat, and the toll of some 15,000 battlefield deaths, was a contributing factor to the collapse of the Soviet Union.)
At this point, the role of potential intermediaries and mediators becomes that much more important. Several nations’ leaders have already been edging their way forward to position themselves for that task. So far at least, Turkey’s president, Recep Erdoğan, and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett have been the most vocal in pressing the case for their availability for this task, although neither may have the geopolitical heft needed for such a role on their own.
But if one adds China’s Xi Jinping into the mix (with the potential benefits that could flow from this), one might conceivably have enough gravitas among mediators, albeit a meeting with a rather awkward seating chart, especially if one adds the UN secretary-general to the mix. By contrast, figuring out where to hold such negotiations would be child’s play. The Israelis have mentioned that holding it in Jerusalem would be appropriate, but the Swiss, among others, have much experience in such things, and tradition matters too.
So, assume negotiations actually will take place amid this nasty, brutal stalemate and a growing exhaustion on the part of the combatants. The first order of business would be to achieve a (grudging) agreement for a general ceasefire in place. Here is where the UN’s responsibility of policing such a declaration must be exercised, even if it requires a large number of expensive peace monitors, drawing upon troops designated by member states, similar to the way such tasks have occurred in the Sinai and elsewhere.
That ceasefire, however, would say little or nothing about the circumstances of those millions of displaced people, the devastation to the countryside, or the costs incurred by individuals as a result of the fighting. But, beyond an eventual political settlement, all of these issues will need their space and attention on the agenda.
On the table for the political and security agenda would be the following: the final resolution of the status of the Donbas territories; the final resolution of the internationally recognised status of the Crimean Peninsula; the future relationship, if any, between Ukraine and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato); the future possibilities of membership in the European Union, once peace is restored; the nature and size of the Ukrainian military; and an overall determination of Ukraine’s status as a “Finlandised” state. (An irony there, of course, is that Finland is increasingly coordinating its defence posture with Nato, in response to Russian military actions vis-a-vis Ukraine since 2014.)
So, let us assume Ukraine formally agrees to relinquish any dream of joining Nato, but it still reserves the right as a sovereign nation to negotiate its way to membership in the EU. This would clearly be to gain easy access to its large, rich market, those EU support funds dedicated to poorer member states, a real connection to the European Central Bank, and a real chance to anchor itself firmly with the West, at least in economic terms. (Agricultural policy questions will likely complicate negotiations with the EU.)
In exchange, a logical negotiating posture for Ukraine would be to insist the official final status of Crimea and the Donbas regions would be dependent on well-policed referenda monitored by the UN and that Ukraine would bind itself to accepting the results. (There would naturally be all manner of issues over who is eligible to vote, but those will have to be the responsibility of whatever international body supervises the voting.)
Finally, regarding its defence establishment, Ukraine would agree it is willing to downsize its military commensurate with its status as a neutral nation like Austria or Switzerland, but only in exchange for formal acceptance of the absolute territorial integrity of the state by Russia and Russia’s willingness to abide by the results of the two referenda. Those are the easy issues.
Then there are the truly hard questions. The repatriation of the several million refugees who have fled to other nations or internally within Ukraine and who hope to return to their homes (assuming the buildings are still standing) must be given urgent attention to minimise the immediate human cost arising from the fighting.
But more important still, the human cost arising from the hostilities and the destruction of infrastructure, homes and other property must be paid for by those who caused it. And that, of course, will mean reparations. And reparations inevitably mean someone must pay them. Here the logical — indeed, the only — candidate must be Russia, given the massive evidence of its actions as well as the recent International Court of Justice finding that Russia is the proximate cause of all the death and destruction.
To some, the concept of reparations might seem like an abstract, distant fantasy, but the concept has deep historical roots. The first documented reparations came out of the Punic Wars when the Roman Republic demanded reparations from Carthage as the price of peace.
In more recent times, reparations payments have been an integral part of numerous peace treaties. At the end of the Franco-Prussian War, the French, having lost decisively after having initially forced the issue, were saddled with a massive payment to Prussia that was only achieved through a major national effort. In one of the interminable Balkan Wars, following a defeat in 1897, Greece needed to pay a reparations bill to the rickety Ottoman Empire. The Chinese, meanwhile, paid a settlement to Japan to achieve the end of the Sino-Japanese War of 1895. And as is well known, part of the peace treaty for World War 1 was a massive reparations bill handed to Germany after its defeat.
Following the end of World War 2, German reparations were largely paid in kind through the disassembly of manufacturing equipment, most of which was sent eastward to compensate the Soviet Union for the destruction of its capital equipment stock. Other nations that had participated as Axis partners — Italy, Hungary, Romania and Finland — also made reparations payments in the final settlement of the war.
Following World War 2, Japan also was required to pay reparations to China, Korea and other states. Of course, the German state also eventually paid reparations to individual survivors of the concentration and extermination camps, as well as some funds to the new Israeli nation.
More recently, Iraq was required to make restitution to Kuwait following Iraq’s defeat in the first Gulf War. The bulk of those payments went to individuals, rather than to a government. The UN Compensation Commission (the war had been fought effectively under UN auspices) noted that its prioritisation of claims by “natural people”, ahead of claims by governments and entities or corporations (legal persons), “marked a significant step in the evolution of international claims practice”. Funds for these payments were supposed to come from a 30% share of Iraq’s oil revenues from the “oil for food” programme.
In the current case and the putative future settlement, where would the funds to provide reparations and compensation come from? Fortunately, economist Robert Litan of the Brookings Institution, in just the past several days, has come forward with a plan to approach that question in his article, first written for Bloomberg and then carried on the Brookings Institution website, Russia can be made to pay for Ukraine damage now, Litan wrote, “Billions of people around the world are watching helplessly as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine accelerates into its third week, continuing to kill more innocent people every day while destroying infrastructure throughout the country and forcing millions of refugees into neighbouring European countries.
“There is one positive step that the U.S. and like-minded countries should begin developing immediately to ensure that Russia at least is held responsible for the cost of humanitarian assistance, reparations, and eventual reconstruction: Tap Russian foreign exchange reserves that are held in central banks outside the country and that have been frozen by their governments.”
Litan cited Russian central bank figures and legal reasoning to the effect that, as of 2021, “Russia’s foreign currency reserves totalled $585 billion, though not all of this would be accessible to pay for damages. That’s because Russia holds a good portion of the total in gold at home (22%), a substantial amount of renminbi in China (14%), and some in international institutions (5%). Subtracting these amounts leaves about $350 billion in ‘available reserves’ for distribution—mostly held by France (12%), Germany (10%), Japan (10%) and the U.S. (7%), with the rest scattered among many other countries.
“In the past, reparations have been paid after hostilities ended by the aggressor country…. Now, the fact that many countries already have control over Russia’s holdings of foreign currency means that, in effect, reparations for the Ukrainian invasion have been pre-funded by Russia itself. This is an admittedly unique circumstance, but there is a basis in international law for enabling nations that hold these reserves to commit them to pay for damages.
“Russia has committed on a massive scale what under U.S. law is considered an ‘intentional tort’: unprovoked violence, which requires at a minimum that the aggressor pay damages for human suffering, deaths, and property losses. In December 2005 the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution affirming a variation of intentional tort doctrine by providing a right to reparations to victims of human rights abuses under international law.” That case can only have been made stronger as a result of the recently issued International Court of Justice decision.
While it is extremely unlikely the UN would be in a position to administer such a fund given those Security Council vetoes held by Russia and China, Litan argues, “Nonetheless, a coalition of willing states could establish their own special reparations task force to rectify the massive human rights wrongs committed by Russia in Ukraine.… It should be staffed by experts provided by countries whose central banks hold Russian foreign currency reserves, along with others from nonprofit and private sectors, preferably with government expertise. Representatives of the Ukrainian government should be involved.”
Litan has even set out a three-step process for carrying out the assignment of the fund and disbursing payments for claims against the money. The First would be establishing the mechanisms for reimbursing the costs of humanitarian relief being paid by those European nations sheltering Ukrainian refugees. Litan has suggested the amount of $5,000 per person. Assuming some five million refugees are eligible, that would amount to $25 billion. However, given the need to be prepared for more time before some refugees can return, perhaps $50 billion might be needed.
Second, a major portion of those Russian reserves would need to be set aside to compensate Ukrainians for the loss of their property in the hostilities. As he explains, “If reparations for 11 million Ukrainian family units (the population of 44 million divided by 4) averaged out to be $20,000 a family, the total would reach $220 billion. Add to this potentially tens of billions [more] to compensate surviving family members for the wrongful deaths of their loved ones, both military and civilian, caused by the Russian invasion.”
The third share would be the retention of a share of the reserves for the reconstruction of Ukraine, following the cessation of hostilities. This would assume Ukraine retained sovereignty over at least a portion of its territory or even the full extent of the country, if Ukraine were to actually prevail in battle. As Litan argues, “Until then, reconstruction funds would be held in trust and invested in income-producing assets. Russian-inflicted damages already likely exceed $100 billion, and will mount much higher as the war continues.”
Once the plan is established, nations holding Russian reserves could either have central banks transfer the full portion to an entity like the Bank for International Settlements (the central bank for all central banks) or through a defined schedule of distributions to an internationally agreed schedule.
Litan also suggests that if some portion of the $350 billion is held back, such funds could even be repaid to Russia upon agreement of the return of full sovereignty to Ukraine, or even dangled as an incentive for a new Russian leadership (hint, hint) to do the right thing in the future. The point being driven home, obviously, is that in the international environment, especially if a country embarks on a risky international adventure like this one, you have to pay to play, especially if things do not go so well for one. It is even possible such a repayment mechanism could become a more recognised roadmap for sorting out the damages from other hostilities like this one.
Naturally, though, given current circumstances, there is much ground to cover before actual negotiations begin over the future shape of Ukraine’s relationship with Russia and the West, let alone a mechanism for helping restore the lives and circumstances of the victims of the fighting. But even as the fighting rages on, it is crucial to start thinking through how the conflict must come to an end, and how the plight of the fighting’s victims will need to be addressed. DM