It is becoming more and more urgently necessary to achieve a stable cease-fire in Ukraine, leading to a lasting peace; and unfortunately, the initiative for this will probably have to come from Washington. The Europeans are too divided among themselves and too subservient to the United States to adopt any effective independent strategy for peace. With the East Europeans opposed to any compromise, the European Union is paralyzed.
To judge by the wildly contradictory messages that have come from them, the Ukrainian political elites are also deeply divided. President Volodymyr Zelensky has said repeatedly that the war must end with a diplomatic agreement, and Ukraine’s own sensible peace proposals of late March have never been withdrawn; but other Ukrainian officials, including the foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba (writing in Foreign Affairs), have demanded that the West help Ukraine to win a “complete and total victory.” Very understandably, the Ukrainians are also too angry over Russia’s invasion and the destruction and atrocities that have resulted to think clearly about the need for compromise. Western officials and commentators sitting safely in Washington, however, have a duty to keep cool heads and to recognize that the vast majority of successful peace processes have involved agreement with or between people who have committed great crimes. The British government negotiated the Northern Ireland peace agreements with terrorists who had murdered the queen’s cousin and come very close to murdering the British prime minister.
The argument, which is the prevailing line in Washington, that only the Ukrainians have the right to propose peace terms therefore makes no sense either practically or morally. In numerous other conflicts worldwide, Western governments have felt able to propose and even in some cases to enforce peace settlements of their own devising. Moreover, the US administration and other Western governments have responsibilities that go far beyond Ukraine. In the first instance, these responsibilities are to their own citizens who elected them. Secondly, they are to the world in general and Western interests in the world.
The Russian invasion, and the Western sanctions imposed in response, risk triggering a deep global recession. In America itself, inflation and economic suffering are already creating misery for the poor—and seem likely to bring about a victory for the Republicans in the midterm elections, blocking essential legislative initiatives for the foreseeable future. The war in Ukraine has also been a disaster for action to limit climate change. Germany, despite a government in which the Green Party plays a leading role, has increased its consumption of coal to replace Russian supplies of natural gas.
The Russian naval blockade of Ukraine and Western restrictions on international payments for Russian goods, combined with the impact of the climate crisis in India, threatens acute food shortages in many vulnerable countries. As during the Arab Spring and the Syrian Civil War, these shortages risk causing profound instability and local conflicts. The sooner this war can be brought to an end, the better for the entire world.
Finally, a prolonged continuation of the war is fraught with intense dangers of escalation, whether from Russia trying to hit back against Western arms supplies by attacking supply routes or US interests elsewhere in the world, or from Washington pursuing a proxy war to the point of involving US military personnel, or through backing Putin into a corner to the point where he felt his own political survival was at risk. I do not believe that the Kremlin would ever deliberately launch a nuclear war; but in circumstances of extreme international tension, the chances of an accident are vastly increased. We must never forget the time during the Cold War when only the wisdom and caution of one American or Soviet officer prevented the destruction of civilization.
The basic challenge for any peace process is clear-cut. It is to persuade Russia to withdraw from the territory it has occupied since the start of the invasion on February 24. Nothing less than this could possibly be acceptable to any Ukrainian government. On the other hand, for the Ukrainians to pursue this goal on the battlefield means years of war with no certainty at all of final success, and with little evidence that Ukraine would achieve more through war than it could through an early peace settlement.
On the other hand, the fantasy of Ukraine reconquering Crimea and the eastern Donbas—which Russia has held since 2014—should be dismissed out of hand. Even if Russia were put on the defensive in the Donbas, its artillery could still inflict unacceptable losses on attacking Ukrainian forces; while Crimea, as a peninsula, cannot be captured by Ukraine unless America is prepared first to destroy the Russian Black Sea Fleet. And while Ukraine might eventually reconquer these areas—with massive Western help—reintegrating them into Ukraine would require massive repression, possibly amounting to ethnic cleansing.
How then can the Russian government be persuaded to withdraw from the new territory its forces have occupied since February? Firstly, by fighting the Russian army to a standstill, and inflicting such heavy casualties that a continuation of large-scale Russian offensives becomes impossible. This has now been to a great extent achieved by a combination of Western weaponry and Ukrainian courage and grit.
To the astonishment of every observer (myself included), in four months of war Russia, though it has made considerable advances in the south, has not even managed to conquer the whole of the Donbas, and the war in eastern Ukraine has become a grinding battle of attrition for control of a handful of small towns that until recently few outside Ukraine had ever heard of.
This military success having been achieved, the next step is to offer Russia something that Putin can use to claim that a peace settlement represents at least a limited success for Russia. It is understandable that helping Putin in this way is repugnant to many; but once again, we must remember that every successful peace process everywhere in the world has involved compromise with some extremely unpleasant people.
The answer lies in a return to Russia’s original demands, and the partial acceptance of these by the Ukrainian government at the end of March. The first of these demands was for a treaty of Ukrainian neutrality. President Zelensky has already accepted this in principle, referring—reasonably enough—to the fact that in the run-up to the war NATO governments, including the Biden administration, repeatedly refused to promise NATO membership in the foreseeable future.
Zelensky demanded in return that governments (including all the members of the UN Security Council) promise to go to war for Ukraine if the treaty were violated. This was also rejected by the West (something that in itself renders the promise of future NATO membership completely empty and hypocritical). However, it should still be possible for Western diplomats to find a satisfactory formula, promising instead military “assistance” (which after all we are now giving) and a resumption of full sanctions against Russia.
The second Russian demand, for the “demilitarization” of Ukraine, is obviously completely unacceptable as it stands, and indeed in March Russia appeared to be backing away from it. This demand can be answered in the limited form of a ban on long-range missiles capable of striking deep into Russian territory—something that the Biden administration has in effect already acceded to by refusing to provide Ukraine with such missiles.
The Russian demand for the “denazification” of Ukraine is equally unacceptable as it stands, and based on a grotesque exaggeration of the strength of neofascism in Ukraine. What the Ukrainian government and parliament should do—quite irrespective of any Russian demands—is to withdraw those laws passed in recent years discriminating against Russian language and culture in Ukraine. In the first place, contrary to many expectations, the Russian and Russian-speaking minorities have demonstrated their loyalty to Ukraine in this war, and deserve recognition for this.
Secondly, developing a civic rather than ethnic version of nationalism will be absolutely crucial to Ukraine’s hopes of joining the European Union. These hopes for the first time now have a real chance of being fulfilled, but the process of joining will still be a long and difficult one, and once the sympathy generated by the war has died down, Ukraine will still face deep concern on the part of many West Europeans about Ukrainian political culture. As an EU official remarked in private recently, “The last thing we need in the EU is more Polands, Hungarys and Romanias.” Incidentally, some institutions in the West are sending an absolutely terrible signal in this regard by discriminating against Russian culture. Tolstoy and Chekhov are not responsible for the invasion of Ukraine, and Ukrainians who continue to read them are not thereby indicating their support for Vladimir Putin.
The last Russian demand raises the truly difficult issue, that of territory. It is for Ukrainian (and Western) recognition of Russian sovereignty over Crimea, and of the independence of the separatist republics of Donetsk and Luhansk on the full territory of those two provinces. As far as Crimea and the separatist republics as they existed prior to February 24, we should recognize that this does not actually require Ukraine to “give up” anything. Russia has held these territories since 2014, and prior to this war, the vast majority of Western experts and officials recognized in private that Crimea was permanently lost to Ukraine.
As to the Donbas republics, France and Germany brokered a very sensible agreement whereby they would become fully autonomous parts of Ukraine. As I have argued previously in The Nation, this was the only way in which Ukraine could retain these territories—but Ukraine refused to implement the agreement, fearing that these territories would act as a Russian “fifth column” within Ukraine. This, however, raises the obvious question of why on earth, if the Ukrainian and government fear the eastern Donbas so much, they should want it back again?
The only solution to these disputes, it seems to me, lies through the United Nations and respect for local democracy—something that has been completely ignored both by Russia and the West. In Crimea, a referendum on Russian or Ukrainian sovereignty should be organized by the UN. In return, Russia should agree to a similar referendum in Kosovo, where the vast majority of people also clearly support independence from Serbia, just as a majority of Crimeans clearly favor belonging to Russia. Moscow’s lifting of its veto would allow Kosovo to be accepted as a member of the United Nations, and would greatly reduce the danger of another disastrous conflict in the Balkans. The US argument that there is no parallel between these cases is a piece of legalistic casuistry, which the present head of the CIA, William Burns, acknowledges in his memoirs to be completely empty.
In the Donbas, a UN peacekeeping force should be established on the whole territory of the two provinces, accompanied by a mission tasked with organizing a referendum there after a fixed period that will allow most refugees to return home. This referendum should be on a district -by-district basis. The likely result, it seems logical to assume, will be that most of the people of the separatist republics, who have been bombarded by Ukraine for the past eight years, will opt to remain independent, while the areas that have been invaded and devastated by Russia in the past four months will opt to stay with Ukraine.
Back in February and early March, this war could legitimately be seen as an existential one for Ukraine. The initial Russian plan was clearly to capture Kyiv and turn Ukraine into a client state. That plan was however comprehensively defeated, and given Russian military losses and Western military support for Ukraine, it cannot be revived. Ukraine, with Western help, has won a great victory, and secured its freedom to move towards membership of the European Union—and the EU, not NATO, is the truly important institution when it comes to integration into the West.
The war has now become a struggle over very limited amounts of territory in eastern and southern Ukraine, of a kind miserably familiar from other postcolonial conflicts. If it is ever to end, it will have to do so sooner or later through some form of pragmatic compromise. The interests both of Ukraine and of humanity demand that we should seek this compromise now, not after years of suffering and destruction, with dire side effects for the wider world.