What will it take to end Russia’s war in Ukraine? Creative diplomacy
After two weeks of war, it should be abundantly clear that Russian President Vladimir Putin will stop at nothing to achieve most, if not all, of his war aims. The incessant bombing of civilian targets in Ukraine’s major and lesser cities is a reprise of Russia’s destruction of the Chechen capital of Grozny in the Second Chechen War of 1999-2000. In that operation, the Russians employed thermobaric weapons, cluster bombs and other weapons intended to terrorize as well as decimate the Chechen opposition. Putin was Russia’s prime minister at the time, and it was he who oversaw the war in Chechnya. If there were any remaining doubts about Putin’s current intentions, the bombing of a maternity hospital in Mariupol should put those doubts to rest once and for all. He will fight Ukraine as he fought the Chechens.
At the same time, it should be clear that the United States and its NATO allies will not employ their militaries to confront Russia directly, regardless of any outrage that Moscow perpetrates. Washington and its allies fear that a direct confrontation would provide Putin with a pretext for launching a tactical nuclear attack on NATO, in line with longstanding Russian — and previously, Soviet — military doctrine.
The White House has warned that Russia might employ chemical weapons against the Ukrainians. The Biden administration is unlikely to do anything more than continue to put an economic squeeze on Russia and to supply the Ukrainians with defensive weapons. It is unlikely to draw a “red line” that Russia should not cross were it to employ chemical weapons. After all, Joe Biden was vice president when Barack Obama drew his infamous red line against Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Syria, and then did nothing except rely on, of all people, Putin to give him a face-saving way out of his embarrassing dilemma.
The brave Ukrainians may well hold out several more weeks, perhaps months; in the meantime, their cities will be bombed into a collection of Groznys. For his part, Putin is every bit as aware as the Western analysts who opine that Russia does not have the wherewithal to occupy Ukraine, or to cope with a determined Ukrainian insurrection. He knows that bombing the country’s cities to a pulp will not resolve the challenges he will face if he brings Ukraine to its knees.
In the absence of a military rejoinder to Putin, Washington needs to offer him a creative diplomatic incentive that could stop his criminal invasion. The West could agree to a treaty along the lines of the Austrian State Treaty of 1955 that would guarantee a neutral Ukraine. It is a virtual certainty that some NATO members would oppose Ukraine’s entry, which would require the unanimous support of all 30 NATO members; there is, therefore, no likelihood that Ukraine could join NATO in the foreseeable future. A neutral Ukraine would offer Putin a major “off-ramp.”
The West also could agree that the breakaway provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk should be granted self-government comparable to that of the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq. The KRG has its own administration, its own flag, its own military, its own official language, and its own relations with the outside world. In exchange, Putin would withdraw recognition of these provinces as independent states and withdraw from the rest of Ukraine. Crimea would be the subject of a separate negotiation, given its historical relationship with Russia but its formal status inside Ukraine.
The European Union (EU) could offer Ukraine the same relationship it has with other non-EU states such as Norway within the framework of the European Economic Area (EEA), an arrangement that allows for free movement of capital, services and people with EU countries without full membership. In return, Ukraine and Russia would sign a separate free-trade area agreement. Such an arrangement would open the EU to Russian goods and vice versa. The agreement could be modeled on the longstanding arrangement that the EU’s predecessor organization, the European Community, had with East and West Germany, the Federal Republic inside the Community and the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR) within the Soviet bloc.
Finally, the West would agree to lift the sanctions it imposed in response to the Russian invasion. Although doing so will be distasteful — Putin and his henchmen deserve to be punished for their ill-gotten gains — there nevertheless are other ways to limit their financial reach. Britain’s determination to put an end to Russian manipulation of its political and financial systems offers a different, less explosive model for bringing the oligarchs to heel.
A compromise agreement — to which Ukraine would have to be a party in any negotiation — would grant to both Russia and Ukraine some, though not all, of their objectives. Russia no longer would have to fear Ukrainian accession to NATO. It would have obtained for the two eastern Ukrainian provinces the autonomy it long has sought for them. It would have limited Ukraine’s full membership in the EU but would benefit from the country’s joining the EEA. And it would end an increasingly costly Russian war, in terms of both blood and treasure, that Putin must know he can ill afford to prolong indefinitely.
Ukraine would benefit, first and foremost, from an end to Russian destruction of its territory and the massacre of its people. It could prosper as a neutral state, while maintaining close ties to the West, much as Austria has done since 1955. It would retain its territorial integrity, with Crimea’s status to be determined. Yet it also would have close ties to Russia and benefit as an economic conduit between Russia and the West.
The Russo-Ukrainian war has lasted longer than anyone expected and could go on even longer. But the price that Ukrainians are paying, and will continue to pay as the war drags on, will become increasingly untenable — as, over time, will that of Russia. Washington must leave no stone unturned, not merely to buttress Ukraine’s ability to keep fighting but also to develop a formula that leads to the war’s termination. A diplomatic compromise, perhaps along the lines outlined above, may help do just that.
Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.
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