Russian and Ukrainian representatives failed to reach an agreement in talks held at the Belarusian-Ukrainian border on 28 February. But could diplomacy ultimately bring an end to the war in Ukraine? Robert H. Wade sets out four points that should form part of the basis for a diplomatic solution.
I was among the large majority confident that Putin would not order the invasion of Ukraine because that would risk heavy Russian casualties and run counter to Putin’s penchant for subterfuge and plausible deniability. Or if an invasion was to occur, it would be one limited to securing the borders of the eastern provinces. I was wrong. We may speculate that what made Putin finally snap was President Zelensky’s speech at the Munich Security Conference on 19 February, where he called for a clear timeframe for Ukraine to join Nato and regretted that Ukraine had given up its nuclear arsenal, then the world’s third biggest.
Emma Ashford writes about the Ukraine conflict in the New York Times that “there are no other good options [than massive sanctions]. Diplomacy has been exhausted” (emphasis added). At some point, diplomacy must again come into gear (unless Putin tries to repeat Russia’s failure in Afghanistan by conquering Ukraine). Diplomacy has a chance of progress if the US, Nato, and the Ukrainian government are prepared to accept the following four points.
The first point is that a diplomatic solution has to be based on US and Western acceptance that “sovereignty” does not mean “the government is free to make its own decisions irrespective of the effects on the security of other sovereign countries”. Nato states keep speaking as though this is the meaning of “sovereignty”, and therefore insist that Ukraine as a sovereign country must have a path to eventual Nato membership, adding that Nato cannot possibly threaten Russian security because Nato is strictly defensive – ignoring that this is not how Russia sees it.
The Western argument is deeply hypocritical. Everyone knows that the very sovereign Mexican government does not have a path to a military alliance with Russia or China; the US would never allow it. Indeed, for the past two centuries the US government, under the Monroe Doctrine, has claimed the Western Hemisphere as its “sphere of influence”, and has no intention of allowing governments it considers threatening to establish themselves there, as the socialist Allende government in Chile found to its cost and as the socialist governments of Cuba have found to their continuing cost. The US has to apply the same concept of sovereignty to the Ukraine crisis as it applies in its own backyard and rule out Ukraine joining Nato. When Western leaders say, “Ukraine as a sovereign country must be free to make its own free choice of alliances”, the BBC and other interviewers should press them, “does the same apply to Mexico and Canada?”
After 1945, the West remembered that the Treaty of Versailles produced Hitler, and acted more generously towards the defeated. After the break-up of the Soviet Union, the West ignored the Versailles lesson.
Second, a diplomatic solution has to be based on US and Western acceptance of their role in “cocking the gun” (as distinct from “pulling the trigger”). Thomas Friedman in The New York Times reports on a conversation he had with George Kennan in 1998. Kennan was the author of the famous “long telegram” sent from his US embassy base in Moscow during the Second World War to the State Department, outlining principles for the US to follow after the war in living with and “containing” Russia. He remained an expert on US-Russia relations for the rest of his life. The Friedman-Kennan conversation took place after the US Senate ratified Nato expansion up to Russia’s borders and after Russia appealed to the US and Nato to honour the earlier assurance not to. When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991 the West assured Russian leaders that Nato would not expand “one inch” east of Germany.
Kennan’s reaction to the Senate’s 1998 ratification of Nato expansion up to the borders of Russia? “I think it is the beginning of a new cold war… I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely… I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever… Of course there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia, and then [the Nato expanders] will say that we always told you that is how the Russians are – but this is just wrong.” Talk about prescient!
After 1945, the West remembered that the Treaty of Versailles produced Hitler, and acted more generously towards the defeated. After the break-up of the Soviet Union, the West ignored the Versailles lesson. It gave little aid to Russia; insisted on a Big Bang market liberalisation, with predictably disastrous consequences (compare China’s gradualism); and it gloated over Russia’s defeat and disempowerment, including by expanding Nato to Russia’s borders while promising not to. This configuration greatly helped to produce “the new Putin”.
The third point is more specifically about Ukraine. Henry Kissinger wrote in 2014, “The West must understand that, to Russia, Ukraine can never be just a foreign country. Russian history began in what was called Kievan-Rus. The Russian religion spread from there. Ukraine has been part of Russia for centuries, and their histories were intertwined before then.”
Indeed, Ukraine has been an independent state for only 31 years as of 2022; before that, under some kind of foreign rule for almost all the period since the 14th century. A stable peace depends on the US, Nato, the EU, and the Ukrainian government accepting a status comparable to Finland, which cooperates closely with Western European states and avoids institutional hostility towards Russia; plus non-aggression guarantees and a UN-monitored force reduction around Ukraine’s borders.
Fourth, a diplomatic solution has to be based on a commitment by the government in Kyiv to guarantee the rights of the large minority who use the Russian language, culture, and Russian Orthodox religion.
Stalin cobbled together the eastern provinces with the rest of Ukraine, even though the two populations had little identity in common. There has been an incipient civil war between the two populations for decades, which has become an internationalised civil war.
Ever since the 2014 coup against the Russia-friendly Yanukovych government, the later governments – drawing their support mainly from the Catholic culture of the west – have tried to suppress the Russian language and religion, fuelling the separatist sentiment in the east – which Putin has been exploiting. In the days immediately following the collapse of the Yanukovych government the legislature began to de-legitimise all markers of Russian identity – de-legitimise the identity of 20-40 percent of the Ukrainian population (the figures are disputed). Imagine their fear. The great majority of those of Russian culture also see themselves as Ukrainians and proud of it, or did until the Kyiv government moved against them.
To be more precise, on 23 February 2014, the day after Yanukovych fled, the first act of the Ukrainian parliament was to revoke the legal status of Russian as a national language, and prevent regions from allowing the use of any other language than Ukrainian. The government set about blocking access to Russian news, TV channels and radio. These were aggressive suppressive acts towards a large minority. All through the next months, the Kyiv government and the broadcast media and large sections of the population chanted the motto “One Nation, One Language, One People”. It is easy to understand why the many millions of Russian speakers felt under envenomed siege; and felt assured by support from the powerful state on their doorstep.
The fact that language legislation was then not put into law did not suddenly “make everything right again”. The efforts to marginalise Russian speakers continued. One has to remember that Stalin cobbled together the eastern provinces with the rest of Ukraine, even though the two populations had little identity in common. There has been an incipient civil war between the two populations for decades, which has become an internationalised civil war. This fundamental point is ignored in almost all the mainstream coverage in Western media and politics, where Ukraine is presented as a unified entity, not just a state but a nation, which it is not. Very little attention has been given to the situation and views of Ukrainians of Russian cultural identity.
The fourth pillar of a diplomatic solution therefore has to be: constitutional guarantees of Russian as a second national language. And, longer term, a constitutional change from the present unitary central government to a federal one with elected chief executives in each province, as in the United States; and some form of consociationalism with enforced power sharing and right of mutual veto (for example, on matters of foreign treaties and alliances).
Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Featured image credit: European Council
I suspect the author has read Richard Sakwa’s “Frontline Ukraine. Crisis in the Borderlands.”
If any readers find his assertions a little surprising, they may find this review of Sakwa’s book helpful:
Thank you for that reference. Most helpful. Prof. Wade evidently greatly exaggerates the division between Ukrainians who speak Russian as their first language, who of course include President Zelensky, and those who speak Ukrainian, in view of the massive resistance to the invading Russian troops in East Ukraine. The rest of his opinions seem equally unsafe, and it is good to have that review to confirm my unease is not baseless.
These four points sound reasonable except for one thing: they completely ignore the situation in the former Warsaw Pact satellites after the fall of Communism. How could anyone with any knowledge of the region not understand what an incredibly crappy move it would have been for NATO or the EU to deny membership to the Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, or Hungarians? Does nobody remember the 90s?
Might I recommend a reading of points made toward settlement of this frightening conflict suggested by the Pugwash Secretariat?
Pugwash Statement on the War in Ukraine https://pugwash.org/2022/02/26/pugwash-statement-on-the-war-in-ukraine/
Thank you John,
That Pugwash statement is interesting! I could almost accept it (obviously just as an armchair pundit here), despite it being a very tough pill for Ukraine to swallow – why should Ukraine have to accept the loss of Crimea without compensation, despite Russia repeatedly recognising its borders prior to 2014? However, point 3 is seriously naive:
“3. The recognition of the autonomy of the Donbass region inside Ukraine in terms of local government and linguistic identity.”
Recognition of autonomy can only be granted on certain conditions – the separatist, Russia-backed forces must be completely disarmed and Ukrainian defence must be allowed to reassert its authority over those regions. Otherwise I cannot see how such a settlement could be sustained.
The Pugwash statement also seems to forget that many of the sanctions are in response to issues unrelated to Ukraine. The Salisbury poisonings and the killing of Sergei Magnitsky come to mind
Why should an independent state such as Ukraine, or even Finland, be forbidden from seeking membership in international organisations such as NATO? Each state has a right to arrange for its security. Those sympathetic to Russia are always citing their security concerns – at the cost and subjugation of the states bordering Russia. Don’t forget, it was Russia and its ‘friend’ Nazi Germany that largely caused WW2 by signing an agreement to carve up Europe and subjugate neighbouring states. These states also need non-aggression agreements from Russia, particularly given the suffering, destruction, and savagery Russia has always imposed on its neighbours. Though, it must be said, any such agreements with Russia, as all of Russia’s unfortunate neighbours know, are utterly worthless. Russia is again threatening both Finland and Sweden, so it is only natural for states to seek security from where they can get it. As for language legislation and diplomacy, please stop with this Anglo-naïveté, Putin is not interested in either.
I submit Pugwash Secretariat ‘s considered opinion is vastly superior to most you will find anywhere.
I’d definitely agree the Pugwash Secretariat’s opinion is comprehensive and considered – but it is a work of fantasy, a complete non-starter and not based on realpolitik. It could be a model with which to forward, but realistically it would never be acceptable, first and foremost to Russia. Additionally, the Crimea point and forbidding Ukraine from seeking NATO membership tramples on a sovereign country’s rights, of course. In my opinion, the fundamental (and pragmatic and achievable from the inside) starting point would be regime change. We don’t know who would come next, but it would at least offer a glimmer of hope to achieve something. Of course, whoever comes next will present a unique set of challenges. Russia has always been and will forever continue to be problematic and duplicitous, particularly as it continues to wane in global significance from its former ‘glory’ to something much less. China is only too happy to help speed up this decline.
Why are western leaders not urging Ukraine to accept neutrality? And why have they not been doing so since troops began amassing on the border of Donbass ?
Why was Ukraine not advised by europe and usa, as you say that is their role, in 2014 and onwards, to start serious discussions about the governance of the eastern region with the possibilities of shared russian rule.
Towards the end of Yanukovitch rule, I remember hearing that the opposition leader was given an invitation to join in with the decision making of the government.
In 2019 Putin had talks with Macron about the eastern area. What happened here?
I find it quite strange that a seemingly open minded government should be prepared to sacrifice life and property for the sake of democracy. If they had chosen neutrality, the western leaders could have closely monitored everything as necessary ongoing policy to assess the every move of both sides
These points sound reasonable.
But – They require the West to reimagine itself and role with more humility, at exactly the moment Putin’s violence has solidified a newfound, unified a view of their ‘rightness’.
I just saw an article in the Asian Times. It seems much of the world can see relatively pragmatic solutions. However, the challenge is persuading two entrenched sides to now make practical concessions. E,g
– A UN peace keeping force to police and oversee Ukraine’s neutrality?
– Greater autonomy for the East provinces.
– Clarity on lifting (some) sanctions in return for withdrawal.
How ironic if China prove to be the peacekeepers.
The problem is that Russia makes no distinction between NATO and the US, for which it has good reason. It is a manipulative tool invented by the US with apparently large numbers of minions to assist.
“…de-legitimise the identity of 20-40 percent of the Ukrainian population (the figures are disputed). Imagine their fear.”
Claiming that an impossible-to-verify wide range of the population was de-legitimised, footnoting that the numbers are disputed, and still continuing to using them as basis for the subsequent sentence.
This gentleman must be an excellent researcher.
I thought I was going mad…an outbreak of sanity Mr Wade…just found this by accident…unfortunately it requires a humility, memory and statesmanship lacking on all sides…starving peasants, callous invaders, partition…ring any bells for hypocrites!
Given that Prof. Wade’s essay is replete with errors, his proffered “diplomatic solution” is absurd. Let me address each of his four points, after noting that the fundamental problem here is Russia’s failure to evolve into a liberal democracy (either a constitutional monarchy after 1905, or a rule-of-law based republic in 1917 or again in the 1990s) – instead, Russia lets itself still be ruled by a corrupt tyranny. As to Wade’s point #1: Actually, sovereignty does mean a given country may assess how – given its interests & neighbors – it wishes to pursue its foreign policy. Second, the 19th C. Monroe doctrine was about protecting new republics in the Americas from European imperialism and, since then, – despite some mistakes by the U.S. – America’s example and support has finally led most Latin American nations to become liberal democracies of some sort. Can the same be said of, say, Belarus or Kazakhstan that remain under Russia’s “sphere of influence”? Point #2: Wade forgets C. & E. European nations, once oppressed by the USSR, voluntarily sought to join NATO; perhaps a de facto “cordon sanitaire” of ex-USSR republics should have been agreed in the 1990s, but as Russia’s attack on Ukraine shows, joining NATO may be the only way for smaller E. European nations to be safe. Point #3: Selective use of history is nothing new, but – in fact – Kievan Rus predates Muscovy and so Kissinger & Putin might better say that Russia ought (based on history) to be part of Ukraine! In any case, as the U.S. Declaration of Independence puts it, sometimes “in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another [.]” Clearly, Ukraine is now a sovereign state & its people (Russian speaking or not) are fighting for their (new?) nation. #4: Yes, people in the UK & N. Americans understand the value of federalism / decentralization; and, yes, both sides in Ukraine should have implemented the Minsk Accord (II), but Ukraine’s internal issues did / do not justify invasion by Russia, nor any war crimes Russian forces may well be committing. The UNGA and ICJ clearly have issued decisions in that sense, too, leaving Wade in the good company of, e.g., Syria and Eritrea. In short, as an LSE grad who studied comparative government & Soviet affairs back in the day, I’m disappointed that Prof. Wade seems to lack a proper understanding yet is teaching at my alma mater.
The author was wrong then. What does make him to believe he has the correct solution.
Why, oh why, people who are not experts on the subject-matter feel entitled to express their opinions on it widely?
Every sentence of this piece that mentions Ukraine is either incorrect or imprecise.
Yes, Kennan was a great diplomat and an insightful analyst who, unlike the author of this piece, was talking from direct experience – why add a string of ill-informed and factually false statements about the part of the world you know nothing about? Since when having strong opinions has become a measure of expertise? Why dress your opinions as policy advice?
This piece is an example of the typical West-centric colonial approach to knowledge production and dissemination based on a sense of boundless entitlement by white male professors disrespectful of “other” regions and of people who dedicate their life to studying those.
I mostly agree with Dr Wade views: Ukraine west of Dnieper has been different from Ukraine East of Dnieper; their histories are much different. However:
1. It was not Stalin but Lenin who cobbled together the two countries, after the West Ukraine and the Cossacks sided with the “Whites” creating independent Republics from 1918 until the victory of the Soviets in 1921. These years were fundamental for West Ukraine sister nations that enjoyed a longer freedom (Finland, Poland, small Baltic States, Czechoslovakia, ….) but also for those who shared with Ukraine a similar fate (Moldova, Belarus).
2. The feelings of these nations have proven much stronger than the twists of history and alliances (e.g. NATO); just consider the reaction of Poland to the invasion of Ukraine!
3. NATO is really not a problem: was not Putin an ally of NATO in Kosovo? Can we suggest something better for Donbass?
4. A face-saving solution may be to give the Crimean peninsula to the Russian Federation (we all know a new referendum is not needed!) and put the Donbass under temporary ONU stewardship with enough tax exemption privileges to make them forget the war in a decade or so
5. For almost two centuries, a major problem has been the “free” navigation of the Black Sea and the size of Russian navy there. Any suggestion?