The world is in the midst of the most dangerous European security crisis since World War II. The war in Ukraine has caused enormous destruction and loss of life, and millions of people have been displaced. Some perceive a risk that the conflict could spread further into Europe or set the stage for later conflicts in countries bordering Russia, or even increase the possibility of war over Taiwan. There are finally some calls for thinking about how to achieve a ceasefire and a general settlement of the Ukrainian-Russian issues, in the context of the broader European security situation. Actually, the time to begin to think about this was February 24, when the Russian invasion began, but there has been an understandable reluctance to do this until now.
The tragedy of this situation is compounded by the fact that Russia and Ukraine ought to be close friends. It is after all largely true that geography is destiny. A more compelling reason is the extraordinary amount of history, language, religion, and culture the two countries share. To be sure, in Soviet times, especially under Stalin, Ukraine was sometimes grievously abused, but the two Republics were always tightly connected. Russian children do not grow up wanting to kill Ukrainians. Intermarriage is common, and Ukrainian names are found everywhere in Russia.
So this war is quite baffling, at least to Western minds. Persistent efforts by some in the West to pull Ukraine away from Russia may be one dissonant note in this story. In any case, the friendly and cooperative state of relations that ideally ought to exist between these two neighbors seems very distant indeed today and that is the situation with which the rest of the world must deal.
The dismal situation. Neither Russia nor Ukraine and its allies seem willing to contemplate what compromises they would be willing to make to bring this war to an end. Both sides seem to believe that “victory” is possible and that prolonging the war now will improve conditions for a more favorable eventual settlement. Neither side has clearly articulated what a realistic “victory” would look like and, of course, both sides will need to claim victory in the end. Actually, however, there can only be losers to this war. Regardless of what policy arrangements may be agreed, and where territorial boundaries may be drawn, Russia will have suffered huge losses of military personnel and equipment, gained pariah status in the international community, and have to endure punishing long-term sanctions. Ukraine will have suffered enormous losses to its population, housing, industrial capacity, and infrastructure, from which it will take years to recover.
Compared to other conflicts in recent memory, the lack of calls for a ceasefire and peace settlement on the part of the UN and United States is really quite remarkable. Aside from a few muted suggestions for a ceasefire from third countries, such as China, one almost gets the impression that much of the world wants the war to be as long and as bloody as possible. Statements that the primary purpose of the war should be to “weaken Russia” seem to point in this direction.
Any reasonable settlement will require both sides to stop dredging up grievances from the distant past. On the Russian side, this means ceasing the emphasis on how segments of the Ukrainian population welcomed the Nazis during World War II and extrapolating that to today’s Ukraine. Of course, there are neo-Nazi groups in Ukraine today, just as there are in many countries, including the United States, UK and Germany itself, but they are by no means in influential positions. For their part, the Ukrainians need to get over a fixation on the Holodomor, the manmade famine brought on by Stalin’s terror almost 100 years ago, along with other crimes of the Soviet period.
Strategic mistakes. It is useful to identify the moves made by both sides that led to this tragic war in the first place. It is ironic that, on both sides, policies designed to avoid a dreaded catastrophe actually ended up leading to just what the country was trying to avoid.
The primary motivation on President Putin’s part was presumably to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO, bringing NATO bases and NATO weapons (including perhaps even nuclear weapons) right up to Russia’s borders in a land intimately associated with the historical Russia. This could have included even the loss of Russia’s major naval base at Sevastopol, Headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Russia’s aggression, however, has brought about precisely what it was trying to prevent—enlargement of NATO, with the addition of Finland and Sweden to the alliance and a massive strengthening of anti-Russian, pro-Western sentiment in Ukraine itself. The invasion was based upon the belief that the Ukrainian population would welcome the Russian intervention and a more pro-Russian government installed with little trouble. In asking how such a colossal mistake could have been made, it is useful to recall the similar mistake made by the United States in its invasion of Iraq.
For its part, Ukraine’s motivation in aggressively seeking membership in NATO (even writing it into its constitution) was to protect itself from possible Russian aggression. Its pursuit of that goal has been a factor in bringing about precisely what it was trying to avoid, and worse. It was a major tragedy that the good people along the Dnieper (Dnipro), along with their friends to the west, failed to understand that NATO membership was a bright red line for Russia, which would go to war to prevent what it perceived as a worst-case outcome. President Zelensky ran on a platform that included the promise that he would solve the Donbas problem and improve relations with Russia in general. It is fair to ask which would have been better for Ukraine– implementing the Minsk Accords, which would have resulted in full Ukrainian control of the pro-Russian Donbas, but given it “special status,” or the current and likely future status of the Donbas?
Another unhelpful forerunner of the war was the fact that the Bush/Cheney administration forced through NATO an official statement that “Ukraine and Georgia will be members of NATO.” This went far beyond the traditional policy line that NATO has an Open Door Policy and welcomes qualified applicants, and countries should be free to choose their associations.
Possible solutions. The war in Ukraine has been transformed from a policy dispute to a fight over territory. In some ways, that simplifies matters down to, putting it crudely, drawing lines on a map. On the other hand, it also complicates the situation, as both sides try to achieve more favorable geographical control before the fighting stops. That, of course, leads to more death and destruction on both sides as fronts move back and forth, with a stalemate as the likely result. Another reason to seek a settlement soon, or at least a ceasefire, is that it would put a stop to the dangerous and irresponsible talk from the Kremlin of the possible use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine.
Crimea. Regardless of the wishes of much of the international community, Crimea as a part of Russia, which it was for 250 years until Khrushchev arbitrarily transferred it to Ukraine in 1954, is a fait accompli that is extremely unlikely to change. If a settlement in which it reverted to Ukraine could somehow be agreed, it could presumably also allow Russia to keep its naval base at Sevastopol, creating a sort of Guantanamo Bay-in-Cuba situation. In any case, in an ideal world, Russia would have no need for a land bridge from Russia to Crimea, nor complete control of the Sea of Azov. Ukraine would allow free land passage between Russia and Crimea. It would also reopen the canal that provides water to thirsty Crimea (and charge Russia for the water, which comes from the Dnieper River). Had Ukraine offered such an arrangement before the war, it might have been quite helpful, but it seems unlikely to be sufficient to solve the problem now. Whatever the details of a settlement, both Ukrainian and Russian citizens should have easy access to Crimea for commerce, tourism, family visits, etc.
The Donbas. The best case for Ukraine would be regaining control over all the Donbas, including the portions controlled by the separatists since 2014. The worst case would be for Russia to control essentially all of it. With enough good will and common sense, either case could be made to work, with a more-or-less normal life for Donbas inhabitants. Most observers expect the fight over the Donbas to end in a stalemate, although Russia is slowly gaining the upper hand.
A settlement in which Ukraine has at least some control would probably need to include some version of the Minsk Accords, in which citizens would have full Ukrainian/Russian language rights, along with additional influence in the Verkhovna Rada (parliament) in Kyiv. The line of separation between Ukrainian and Russian/separatist territory should be monitored by UN or Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) peacekeepers. The arrangements should be such that the intermittent shelling across the line of control, which has occurred since 2014 (mostly from the separatist side), stops. Russia could try to annex parts of the Donbas, along with other portions of Ukrainian territory it controls—it is already issuing Russian passports to citizens of the Donbas. It could also try to create for it some separate status, as it has done in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In the former arrangement, Russia would be responsible for the enormous rebuilding required after the war. It the latter case, it might try to shift this responsibility to the international community, whose reaction would be interesting to see. It is worth noting that a Ukraine Recovery Conference has already been meeting in Switzerland.
In both Crimea and Donbas, a clean international agreement on the legal status of the territory in question would certainly be the best solution. However, one could end up with a situation analogous to that of the Baltic states for many years—i.e., treated by the West as de facto parts of the Soviet Union, without ever formally recognizing this legally.
Ukraine and the West. Much has been made of President Putin’s view of Ukrainian history (or lack thereof) and an apparent refusal to acknowledge its status as a sovereign nation separate from Russia. Detailed analyses of these views have been presented elsewhere. Of course, Ukraine is a sovereign nation and member of the UN—this has never been seriously challenged by any country and certainly will not change in any scenario. Nevertheless, Putin’s apparent goal to “return and fortify” historic Russian lands does sound ominous.
In the recent past, Russia and Ukraine have worked together to resolve difficult problems, such as allocation of assets following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the status of the Sevastopol Naval Base, large Ukrainian debts for purchases of Russian energy, and so on. The current issues largely date from the Maidan Revolution in 2014. The desire to join Western institutions on the part of the majority of Ukrainian citizens is well-known. This has obviously been strongly reinforced by the war. Another factor: Many pro-Russian citizens who oppose this course of action have fled to Russia and Belarus and no longer have a vote in the matter.
Without discussing the history and ramifications of all this, one can say that NATO membership is the real sticking point and proximate cause of the war (although Putin has also hinted at larger, completely outrageous goals probably not shared by Russian society in general). A realistic settlement of the current crisis will very likely need to include an understanding that Ukraine will be militarily neutral and not seek membership in NATO. This could be accompanied by appropriate security guarantees. The model for this would be the Austrian State Treaty of 1955, which has been a great success. Austria is today a highly secure, flourishing and attractive country, with no need for a huge military. Switzerland is another highly successful militarily neutral state in the heart of Europe, though Austria is the better example for Ukraine.
This solution, clearly not one desired by Ukrainian patriots, would not apply to joining other Western institutions, in particular the EU. Ukraine already has EU candidate status and this must be allowed to advance, though full membership will probably take years, with others, such as Turkey, already in the queue for EU membership. The choice of other countries to join non-military Western institutions has not been strongly opposed by Russia. This was even true of the Soviet Union regarding its allies in earlier times.
Recalling that being forced to choose between commercial arrangements with the West or East was the primary cause of the Maidan Revolution in 2014, the EU should seek arrangements that permit Ukraine to trade appropriately also with Russia and other neighbors to the east. Similar arrangements are being discussed in a civilized and constructive manner regarding Northern Ireland’s relations with both the UK and EU under Brexit and, with enough good will, Ukraine might actually be an easier problem to solve.
Another difficult problem, not much noticed in the West, concerns the dispute between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church. Although these two important branches of Eastern Orthodoxy have very similar beliefs and practices, they disagree on who owns churches and their related possessions in Ukraine. Unlike the other issues discussed, this appears to be a bilateral problem, without serious linkages to the broader European situation.
Beyond Ukraine: arms control and European security. A large subject that cannot be explored fully here concerns the overall security situation in Europe. With the recognition that the current “rules-based” order has somehow failed, it is now widely recognized that a new and comprehensive security architecture is needed. Then-President Dmitry Medvedev proposed something like this—a new European Security Treaty—in 2008. It was not explained well but involved an expanded role for the OSCE. In any case, the idea was rejected almost out-of-hand by the United States and NATO.
The demise of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty has opened up an unlimited competition, which no one wants, in these dangerous missiles. This is one of the most urgent problems in arms control today. A long-term solution may well involve combining INF-range missiles in some way with the longer-range systems now included in New START. In the near term, however, some sort of moratorium on the deployment of these missiles is needed. Russia has already proposed this, but its apparent opening position on the subject is clearly a non-starter.
The moribund status of the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty also cries out for new negotiations to deal with the new situation on the continent. The Open Skies Treaty, from which the United States withdrew, is another agreement most European states would like to see revived in some form. New START, also highly relevant to European security, does not expire until 2026, but its replacement will be difficult to negotiate and talks on this have been suspended because of the war in Ukraine. All of these problems are both complicated and urgent but made even more difficult by the new hostility and lack of trust brought on by the war in Ukraine.
The Bulletin elevates expert voices above the noise. But as an independent nonprofit organization, our operations depend on the support of readers like you. Help us continue to deliver quality journalism that holds leaders accountable. Your support of our work at any level is important. In return, we promise our coverage will be understandable, influential, vigilant, solution-oriented, and fair-minded. Together we can make a difference.