Neither Russia nor Ukraine shows signs of willingness to negotiate an end to the current war, which is killing and wounding thousands of soldiers on both sides as well as uncountable Ukrainian civilians.
Still, a negotiated end to this stupid war is not impossible. Here is a settlement that both sides might be able to accept:
- Ukraine would recognize Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea if this is supported by the outcome of a genuinely free "confirming" referendum in Crimea.
- Russia would remove all troops from Ukrainian territory and stop supporting local secession movements there.
- NATO would promise not to admit Ukraine to membership even if Ukraine requested admission.
As usual, the devil would be in the details. Although a "referendum" already supported Russian annexation, that is not the kind of referendum that the Ukrainians would agree to.
Unlike the previous Crimean referendum, and the more recent ones in which Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine supposedly opted to join Russia, this "confirming" referendum in Crimea would be conducted by people sent in by neutral foreign powers.
Before the voting there would be full and free debate — confirmed by neutral observers — about whether to support joining Russia. Armed Russian troops would not be allowed at the polling places or to "escort" people to the polls.
And the ballots would be counted and the results tabulated by people supplied by the neutral foreign powers, with full and fair observation of this work by individuals supporting both sides in the referendum.
I expect an honest Crimean referendum would confirm annexation by Russia, although not with the exaggerated margins of the previous "vote."
Recognizing Russian control of Crimea might seem an unprincipled reward for the aggression that produced it. However it would not be all that principled to allow an inconclusive war to continue slaughtering thousands of lives on both sides.
And there are reasons why it might make sense for Crimea to belong to Russia.
Most people in Crimea speak Russian. Its connection with Russian culture is long and deep. Until 1954 Crimea was actually part of Russia. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev engineered a transfer of Crimea to Ukraine in 1954, apparently to bolster his own political fortunes.
Since both Russia and Ukraine were parts of the USSR, this change was not a matter of cosmic significance. It only became important when the Soviet Union split up in 1992.
If this deal were proposed by the Ukrainian government, the Russians might demand that similar referendums be conducted in the contested parts of Ukraine. Again, there were already such elections there, but they were conducted at the point of the Russian gun and cannot be taken seriously, a point which any Russian demand for new votes would implicitly concede.
Given the warm welcome Ukrainian troops just got when they entered Kherson, which the Russians had occupied but then abandoned, Ukraine could happily accept this face-saving proposal by the Russians. Of course this acceptance would be conditioned on the same arrangements as in Crimea — referendums conducted by neutrals, full freedom to argue both sides in advance, and votes counted by neutrals.
Before the voting, people who fled the war area would be allowed to return to their homes. I expect these votes would reject annexation by Russia.
It might be argued that such a deal would be a bad precedent, but it could be an excellent one. The world badly needs a way to change the often arbitrary borders between countries without having to resort to bloody wars. Given today's increasing interdependence between countries, even "small" wars can disrupt life all around the world, as this one indeed has.
Such a deal between Ukraine and Russia could move us toward creating world institutions that formalize procedures for peaceful border adjustments.
Sometimes something good can come out of something bad.