It has now been more than three months since the Russian military entered Ukraine in February 2022. The military operation came after years of strife between Ukrainian nationalists and pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas region. Russia stated that its goals were to protect the independence of the breakaway republics in the Donbas, to prevent Ukraine's entry into NATO, and to reduce its military capability. Ukraine has countered that Russia's incursion was an unprovoked war of aggression.
Throughout this conflict, Ukraine has been supported by the United States and the European Union. In addition to recently approving a $40 billion package containing both military and humanitarian aid, the United States has played a significant role in advising the Ukrainian government. Still, despite economic sanctions and military support by the West, Russia has continued to wear down the Ukrainian military in the eastern region of the country. There seems to be no end in sight for the conflict.
Eugene Plotkin is a fintech startup CEO and financial consultant. He was born in the former Soviet Union, studied at Harvard, and currently lives in New York City. Plotkin shares how he thinks the conflict between Russia and Ukraine could play out, and discusses strategies for minimizing more bloodshed.
Fighting for the Donbas
"War is one of humankind's most horrific inventions," says Plotkin. "While I can understand the historical and geopolitical reasons that have contributed to the current situation between Russia and Ukraine, the world must turn its attention to helping the two sides find a resolution."
Plotkin notes that there is a lot of deep-seated emotion on both sides that is only fanned by the fires of the combatants' respective propaganda. "In the early weeks of the conflict, peace talks were initiated between Moscow and Kiev," recalls Plotkin. "The two sides met near the border and then again in Turkey. Unfortunately, shortly after the meeting in Turkey, the talks broke down and since then we have seen a lot of destruction and tremendous loss of life."
"From a strategic, military, and economic standpoint, Ukraine was always the underdog," says Plotkin. "Because the conflict is unfolding within its borders, Ukraine is not only losing soldiers and equipment, but also seeing its infrastructure and economy destroyed. As a result, it is becoming increasingly reliant on its Western partners."
"I can appreciate that Ukraine does not want to simply agree to Russia's terms because it wishes to protect its sovereignty," says Plotkin. "On the other hand, the Donbas has been a majority ethnic Russian and pro-Russian area. Even if Russia would pull its military out of the Donbas, the population in this region has a different orientation from western Ukraine."
Recent history has shown that a significant contingent of civilians in eastern Ukraine are resolved to fight for a pro-Russian way of life. Even if it could do so by force, would retaining these troubled regions be in Ukraine's long term interests?
"We have seen long, drawn-out conflicts in places like Palestine and Kosovo where large populations with a shared culture and ethnicity have been willing to fight for their right to self-determination," says Plotkin. "Historians have pointed to parallels between those places and the Donbas. The challenge is that these are intensely partisan topics, as many world governments fear that any support that they give to the principles of self-determination could lead to separatist movements in their own countries."
Risk vs. Reward
"In economics, we tend to take the emotion out of any situation with two conflicting sides and think in terms of game theory," explains Plotkin. "Let us set aside who is right and who is wrong for a moment and instead focus on the distribution of resources. In this case, most experts agree that Russia has a larger military, significantly greater resources, easier maneuverability, air superiority, and better protection for its supply lines. In any mobilization or wartime economy scenario, Russia can marshal a much larger population and industrial base.
"By delaying a negotiated settlement, the Ukrainian government is risking the loss of additional territory, infrastructure, and, most critically, able-bodied people," Plotkin continues. "Given that all military conflicts inevitably end with some type of peace settlement, should there be greater motivation to commit to meaningful talks?"
Recent news in such respected Western outlets as The Washington Post and The Guardian have reported on significant losses of both Ukrainian territory and armed forces in the Donbas region. It appears that the Ukrainians are being slowly but consistently pressed back. President Volodymyr Zelensky himself reported significant casualties being suffered by his military.
"The longer this goes the more both sides will suffer and the less likely they will be to compromise," opines Plotkin. "And when compromise becomes more difficult, both sides dig in and get to the mindset of fighting until the last drop of blood. This only serves to intensify the spiral of violence and war. As the militarily and economically more challenged side, I worry about the Ukraine government's risk in delaying negotiations."
Peace Talks and the West
It is not known to what extent the Ukrainian government has evaluated the likelihood of potential endgame scenarios and how it has plotted its strategy of emerging from this conflict. What is known is that without peace talks, the military action will almost certainly continue, with regrettable loss of life on both sides.
"During World War I and its subsequent civil war, more than 3 million Russian soldiers died. During World War II, more than 11 million Russian soldiers died," says Plotkin. "History has shown that Russians are willing to fight for years and to die for territory that they believe to be Russian. That is not to take anything away from Ukrainians but merely to state that they are facing a determined opponent."
Experts believe that Russia can sustain a military conflict for many years. Its economy remains robust with a strong ruble and significant export revenues. So far, Russia has made territorial gains in the Donbas despite only deploying a portion of its military. It has also not pursued general mobilization.
"It is surprising that the European Union is not pushing for peace talks," says Plotkin. "Europe is watching a major military action unfolding on its doorstep. Given all the military mobilization in the region, this conflict has the potential to spill beyond Ukraine's borders and engulf countries like Poland, Romania, and Belarus. With such a horrific prospect, Europe should be doing everything in its power to force the two sides to the negotiating table."
What Happens Next
"There has been a shift in how the western and Ukrainian media are reporting on the conflict," notes Plotkin. "In particular, there is a greater acknowledgment of the reality on the ground. This may indicate progress because it is difficult to commit to a course of compromise without first acknowledging that the current situation is not sustainable."
Over the three months of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, there appears to have been very limited progress with respect to any type of peace negotiation. Both sides have accused the other of presenting unacceptable terms and have failed to find significant common ground.
"Having been born in the Soviet Union, I know people on both sides of this conflict," says Plotkin. "It's truly heartbreaking because these are people with a shared history, with similar cultures, cuisines, languages, geographic roots. So, of course, my personal preference is for a negotiated solution, for the preservation of life on both sides.
"Russia and Ukraine are neighbors, and they will always be neighbors," Plotkin concludes. "Eventually, peace will come to the region, but at what price? Now is the time for the Russian and Ukrainian governments, and for the governments of the world's leading nations, to set aside egocentric concerns, to come together for the sake of peace, and to find a compromise that nobody might love, but everybody can accept."
Eugene Plotkin is a Soviet-born, Harvard-educated finance, business, and technology professional. After years of investment banking, he is now a major participant in fintech through his startup TechWallet. TechWallet has been created to bring financial literacy to everyone through cutting edge technologies that support individuals in their pursuit of greater financial success.