The official U. S. policy regarding Ukraine’s negotiating position to end the present Russian invasion is let the Ukrainians decide. This means, for example, letting them decide whether or not they want to accept the loss of any Ukrainian territory—not only in 2022, but also including Crimea, which Russia took over in 2014, or the self-proclaimed Donbas areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples’ Republics (DPR and LPR), controlled since 2014 by Russian-backed separatists.
But the reality is that Ukraine cannot continue preventing Russian advancement without continued aid, billions of dollars worth, from NATO countries, including the USA. On 20 May the New York Times (NYT) editorial board acknowledged that “Ukraine deserves support against Russia’s unprovoked aggression, and the United States must lead its NATO allies in demonstrating” this. But it also declared that “decisive military victory for Ukraine over Russia, in which Ukraine regains all the territory Russia has seized since 2014…is not a realistic goal,” and that “it is imperative that the Ukrainian government’s decisions be based on a realistic assessment.”
Thus, in reality the decisions regarding possible peace terms will be made not only by the Russian and Ukrainian governments, but also based upon the amount of aid Ukraine can expect from the USA and other NATO countries. Thus, those allied countries will have a voice in determining peace terms.
Up to the present, Russia has insisted that “Crimea is a Russian region” and this must be accepted, and that the DPR and LPR need to be recognized as “sovereign independent states.” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s position is a little harder to discern, as a late May Washington Post analysis indicated. At different times, he has stated he is ready to sit down and talk with Russian President Putin—“we can discuss and find a compromise on how these territories [DPR and LPR] will live on”—but also that Ukraine will fight “until it regains all its territories.” After former U. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger suggested in late May that the war might be stopped only if Ukraine was willing to accept the 2014 loss of Crimea and the pre-2022-invasion status of DPR and LPR, Zelensky compared Kissinger to the Western appeasers of Hitler in the 1938 Munich agreement.
Ah, appeasement! In the decades since Neville Chamberlain seemed to make a fool out of himself by thinking he could achieve “peace with honor” by negotiating with Hitler, it has become a damnable word.
Today, after watching Putin’s Russia forces invade Ukraine and commit atrocities like bombing and shelling civilians and just about everyone and everything else in Mariupol, a city of about a half million people (pre-invasion), it is understandable that almost no one would want to be accused of “appeasing” Putin. Our hearts, minds, and imaginations should be fully open to the agonies being suffered by the Ukrainian people.
It is fully understandable that here in the Western world we should want the heroic Ukrainians to repel the Russian invaders and take back all the territory that Putin’s forces have seized—in early June, President Zelensky estimated that figure at about 20 percent of Ukrainian territory. It is even more understandable if that’s what Zelensky and most Ukrainians want, and if he seeks all the military and other aid he can get from outside countries, including the United States.
Nevertheless, some in the West, including more than a few reasonable experts, have argued that the USA and its NATO allies have not been completely blameless in causing the present conflict. For example, they have argued that the USA and its NATO allies have gone too far in expanding NATO—it now includes many countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Bloc alliance and even three countries that were once part of the USSR (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania). Moreover, in 2008 U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced, “We agreed today that Georgia and Ukraine [two other former USSR republics] will [eventually] become members of NATO.”
Jack Matlock, a former ambassador to Russia appointed by President Reagan, stated in 2014 that he thought it was quite irresponsible, the talk that we had…of bringing Ukraine into NATO, and the fact that the Ukrainian governments were not willing to sort of pledge neutrality.” Former Secretary of Defense (under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama) later agreed—“Trying to bring Georgia and Ukraine into NATO was truly overreaching…NATO expansion was…recklessly ignoring what the Russians considered their own vital national interests.”
Yet acknowledging Western failures in dealing with Putin’s Russia in no way justifies his Ukrainian policies, either in 2014 or 2022. His later invasion, now lasting more than 100 days, has caused innumerable deaths, destruction, and agonies in Ukraine—the list could go on and on including ecocide. Moreover, outside Ukraine the invasion has and will cause additional agonies, including increased hunger and significant economic losses. Other negative effects of the war are many and include a lessening of positive relations between Russian citizens and those in Western countries.
Thus, public opinion in the USA and most of Europe agrees that Putin is the aggressor, and Western countries should aid Ukraine in its fight for independent survival. But then what? What kind of end result do we hope to achieve?
Eight years ago I advocated a policy of “ethical realism” toward Russia, which would be realistic but not appeasing. The term is borrowed from the title and policy of a book by Anatol Lieven and John Hulsman, and it lists Reinhold Niebuhr, Hans Morgenthau, and George Kennan as fathers of the idea. It also insists on taking a pragmatic, but moral, approach, one based on real facts not wishful thinking.
And the facts are Vladimir Putin rules Russia, and Russia has the power (including nuclear weapons) to prevent Ukraine from regaining all the territory it has lost since Russia took over Crimea in 2014. Thus, some kind of deal has to be struck with him—as awful, immoral, even soulless as we think him. What’s the alternative? A nuclear war?
But what kind of deal?
For possible ideas I suggest turning to Johnson’s Russia List (JRL) which for many years has sent out a daily posting or reposting of about 20-25 pieces, many of them since the late February invasion dealing with various aspects of the ongoing war. For a realistic appraisal of the war and various governments’ and media’s maneuvers behind the scenes, it is a valuable resource because it presents a wide spectrum of opinions.
One concrete proposal I found posted in JRL first appeared in the right-center magazine National Interest. It was authored by two experts who often seem more progressive than right-wing, Gilbert Doctorow and Nicolai N. Petro, the latter the author of a forthcoming book on Ukraine. I recommend the piece not as an ideal proposal, but as the type of thinking we should be engaged in, as opposed to wishfully thinking Ukrainians are going to drive Russian forces out of Ukraine and Putin is going to stop the aggression.
First, the authors’ territorial suggestion: Russia withdrawal from the Ukrainian areas it has seized since late February, but “Russia would be obliged to not annex” those areas and “agree to hold a status referendum there under international supervision, some ten to twenty years from now.”
Second, Ukrainian relations with NATO and the European Union: “NATO would formally pledge not to consider Ukraine for membership,” but Ukraine would be able to negotiate “a wide variety of defensive military assistance and training from other countries, short of permanent foreign bases and weapons systems capable of striking Russian territory.” Also, Russia would pledge “that it will not object to European Union (EU) membership for Ukraine, opening the door to the multi-year assistance with investments and reforms that Ukraine will desperately need to recover.”
The authors anticipate several objections to their proposal. One, that it “rewards Russian aggression.” Their answer: Not necessarily. “Ukraine could potentially regain” the territories lost in 2022—if it wins the status referendum. A second objection: “Russian officials cannot ever be trusted to keep their word.” Their response: Putting the status referendum off 10-20 years into the future means that “its implementation will be negotiated not by those who unleashed this war, but by a post-Putin Russian leadership. The type of relationship we will have with those future Russian leaders is still very much in the West’s hands to determine.”
Although there are many other possible objections that could be made to the plan, the idea of Russia and Ukraine competing for the hearts (and votes) of people from the presently occupied territories is appealing. Provided, of course, that a free and fair vote could be arranged.
No doubt the proposal of Doctorow and Petro is just one of many that could be made. But we need to think along some such lines, as opposed to just continuing to provide more and more weapons to Ukraine and hoping for the best. (This is not to deny that supplying weapons to Ukraine has been helpful. Without them, Ukraine would have suffered more military defeats and been in a much worse position to negotiate acceptable peace terms.)
The bottom line, however, is that a peace and an end to the nightmarish Ukrainian horrors can only come when the Ukrainian government and Putin agree to negotiate. This may be extremely difficult to arrange, but it can be done. Look, for example, at The Belfast Agreement (Good Friday Agreement) of 1998, which ended decades of killings in Northern Ireland. Figuring out a way to end massive violence and suffering is always worth the effort.