War Stories

Elon Musk Stole My Old Plan for Peace in Ukraine. Too Bad It Doesn’t Make Sense Anymore.

These ideas might have worked in March. But things have changed.

Elon Musk speaking to a crowd of reporters with cameras and microphones
Tesla CEO Elon Musk gives interviews as he arrives at the Offshore Northern Seas 2022 meeting in Stavanger, Norway, on Aug. 29. Carina Johansen/NTB/AFP via Getty Images

Elon Musk has a car to save the environment, a plan to colonize Mars, and a list of nine books that you should read right away. So it makes sense that he has also come up with a way to stop the war between Russia and Ukraine.

His peace plan—Ukraine declares neutrality in the new East-West divide, Russia hangs on to Crimea, and the UN supervises new elections in Donbas to decide whether its people want to be Ukrainians or Russians—has been widely derided, and rightly so. I say this, even though I outlined a suspiciously similar proposal last March in an article titled “How to End the War In Ukraine.”

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The difference is that I wrote my column less than two weeks after Putin launched his invasion. At the time, the fate of Kyiv was still in doubt, Russians had just started bombing and shelling civilians, and both sides were holding talks (phony as they clearly were). It was well before Russia’s humiliating retreat, Ukraine’s counteroffensive, and Putin’s doubling (or quadrupling) down on his rhetoric about wiping Ukraine off the map and, as well as his decision to “annex” sections of the Donbas after a series of sham referendums.

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My plan also demanded a bit more of Putin. For instance, that he must first pull back all of his troops, not just behind Russia’s borders but back to the bases from which they’d been mobilized months before the war began. Finally, I saw the plan, even back in March, as an arrangement that both sides might reluctantly accept if they were completely exhausted and saw no point to fighting on.

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Seven months later, the situation is of course very different. Ukraine is on the rebound, the Russian army is in disarray, and neither side has any incentive to give up.

In short, an idea that may have seemed reasonable at the very start of the war is clearly preposterous today—tantamount to surrender from Ukraine’s point of view and impractical besides, as Putin would not allow a real referendum on soil that he has already “annexed.” Nor would a credible election be possible on any territory where battles are still raging. (Musk’s plan did not call for a Russian withdrawal as a prerequisite.)

So, if Musk’s plan won’t bring peace to the Slavic east, what is the future course of this war? Is there a plausible exit ramp, or roadmap to a truce, in the foreseeable future? Probably not. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has victory in his sights, perhaps not unreasonably, while Putin is hoping that NATO—whose aid is essential to Ukraine’s military progress and economic survival—will grow weary and press for a truce, especially as winter comes and the cutoff of Russian oil and gas makes life too costly and cold.

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In other words, at least for the next few months, there is no negotiated settlement to be had. The only ways that the war might end are suddenly, with extreme violence.

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It is possible, though not at all likely, that the Russian army, engorged with more than 100,000 newly mobilized troops, bulldozes through Ukrainian lines, even while suffering enormous casualties in the process—a case of quantity overwhelming quality.

It’s more probable that Ukraine, aided by Western arms and intelligence, continues to disrupt Russia’s defenses despite Putin’s mobilization, cutting off its supply lines, and scattering its newly drafted, ill-trained, inadequately equipped recruits into chaotic scrambles. In this scenario, the Russian army falls apart; the Ukrainians slice through the disorganized holdouts all the way to the border.

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Still, Putin is not the sort to back down, much less surrender. On top of that, he has invested too much into this war, pumping up the stakes from a “special military operation” to stop “genocide” in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region to a Holy War against neo-Nazis and Western imperialism. He may regret not dialing back his war aims seven months ago, just after his blitzkrieg on Kyiv went haywire, when he might have struck a deal that he could claim as a victory of sorts. But it’s too late for that now. It’s all or nothing.

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Which means that the fastest, cleanest way out of the war may be Putin’s demise, politically or literally. Given the growing tensions and dissensions within the Russian military, this is most likely to come in the form of a coup d’etat. What happens after that depends, in large part, on who the coup-plotters are. They may be war hawks who try to set forth a more efficient, effective plan to recapture the Great Russian Empire. Or they may be “realists” who recognize that Russia’s only way to recover its status as a world power—either as an ally to China or integrated into the global economy—is to scuttle the Putin era as a dreadful mistake, end the war, reopen the economy, and summon the technocratic exiles back home.

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Do such realists exist? What posts do they occupy now? I don’t know. In his 20 years of rule, Putin has managed to create a power structure of one-man rule like no Russian ruler since the czars. Even Soviet leaders had to contend with a politburo; Stalin’s was a rubber stamp, but Nikita Khrushchev’s ousted him after decrying his various “harebrained schemes,” including the reckless Cuban missile crisis.  In contrast, no one looms over Putin, not even in name only. Those in his entourage who so much as utter criticism are forced to sell off their assets for dimes on the dollar—or wind up falling down stairways or jumping out of windows.

In short, the fastest way to peace, at this point, is to make sure Ukraine keeps up the pressure, accelerates its advances, throws the Russian army into disarray. At the moment, Moscow propagandists are blaming various generals or intelligence officers for the failures on the battlefield. At some point, they will run out of scapegoats. Their gaze of reproach may turn, at first hesitantly, then with increased ferocity, on the man in the Kremlin who is truly in charge.

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