Ukraine soldiers fire 52-calibre gun towards Russian positions in June of 2022

Ukrainian servicemen fire with a French self-propelled 155 mm/52-calibre gun towards Russian positions at a front line in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas on June 15, 2022.

(Photo by Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images)

Ukraine: Which Way Out?

If there's an uneasy silence on the Left—and there's a reason for that.

The American Left’s relative silence regarding US involvement in the Ukraine War, while surprising, is also understandable. Surprising, given the Left’s nearly blanket opposition to 21st century American military-related operations of such magnitude; understandable, in that the U.S. is actually on the right side in this case—unfortunately, far from the norm for American foreign policy—and has committed no troops.

Is the Left’s silence an uneasy one? Hard to say—but it should be. There are actually many legitimate reasons for unease about the current situation, not least among them the fact that not only is there no end to this war in sight, but also that there seem to be few actually looking for a realistic route to an end.

This war’s primary tragedies are, as always, borne by civilians—in this case the Ukrainians living under the bombs—and the soldiers forced to fight it, both Ukrainians and Russians. But there are numerous other negative impacts that are by no means minor: Inconvenient truths about past American meddling in Ukrainian politics are cast aside, as is any questioning of the continuation and now expansion of a military alliance whose logical expiration date is long past.

Cluster bombs, banned by 111 countries, are shipped to Ukraine, along with depleted uranium shells. The rearmament of Germany, the end of Swedish and Finnish neutrality, the apotheosis of the arms industry—all happening at a moment when the planet’s declining health screams for a halt. Diplomatic efforts are seemingly limited to one or the other side attempts to further its support, where the only outcomes discussed are the two sides’ military goals: total Russian withdrawal or the dissolution of Ukraine as a state—both of which seem extremely unlikely.

There are actually many legitimate reasons for unease about the current situation, not least among them the fact that not only is there no end to this war in sight, but also that there seem to be few actually looking for a realistic route to an end.

With the Soviet Union now more than thirty years gone, relatively little attention is given to a crucial aspect in which it resembled the former Yugoslavia, which was the site of a series of civil wars that were the most violent events in Europe since World War II—up until now. Both the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia had been multinational—or as we might think of it in the U.S., multiethnic states—and in both cases violence accompanied their dissolution, when populations found themselves now living in the “wrong” countries, which is to say new nations dominated by national/ethnic groups other than their own. One has only to consider the case of Bosnia, a country that has still not developed into a society that anyone would consider stable, to realize how significant this history can be and remain.

And impolitic as it may currently be to say so, due to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s indefensible invasion and his preposterous claims that there is no such thing as Ukraine, it is nonetheless true that there are substantial numbers of ethnic Russians who would have preferred a life in Russia to one in the post-Soviet country where they actually live. Any serious effort to find an alternative to endless war in Ukraine must come to grips with that reality. Unfortunately, what discussion there once was of this topic in the West pretty much came to a halt with the 2014 Russian-organized, post-annexation Crimean referendum. With official results showing 97 percent of Crimeans supporting Russia’s takeover, the vote appeared farcically reminiscent of widely scoffed-at Soviet era election results of the past, and as a result was widely seen as evidence not of support for the takeover, but rather of the lack of it.

The resulting situation is what the western academics John O'Loughlin, Gerard Toal, and Kristin M. Bakke called “the disconnect between the international community, which saw the takeover as illegitimate, and the people within Crimea, who were generally supportive of the move,” which their April 3, 2020 article in Foreign Affairs dubbed “the Crimea conundrum,” where “the perceptions of the bulk of the peninsula’s residents don’t get the same attention in the West as do the reports of dissidents.” What they reported was that their “surveys in 2014 and again in 2019 show that Crimeans were and remain mostly in favor of the Russian annexation.”

Given that these surveys were funded by a joint U.S. National Science Foundation/Research Councils UK grant, and conducted by the Levada-Center (an independent Russian research organization declared a “foreign agent” by the Russian government in 2016), their results cannot easily be dismissed as “Russian propaganda,” unwelcome as their findings may be in Washington and other NATO capitals. The second survey found approval of the outcome of the March 2014 referendum “still very high among Russians (84 percent) and Ukrainians (77 percent) ... both unchanged from 2014," while “levels of support for the annexation grew among Tatars, up from 21 percent in 2014 to 52 percent in 2019,” something the researchers found particularly striking, in that Tatars have “harbored a particular resentment and suspicion of Moscow” since 1944, when “Joseph Stalin deported all Tatars from Crimea to Central Asia as punishment for perceived disloyalty during World War II.”

The results become less remarkable, though, when considered in light of the fact that Crimea had actually been a part of Russia from 1783 until being transferred to Ukraine in 1954 by the Soviet government of the day—something far less noted these days than it was before the war. More surprising, perhaps, was an October 2019 survey that found a majority of those living in the Donbas—the region that broke away from Ukraine in 2014 with Russian support—wishing to remain in Russia.

Specifically, the November 9, 2019 Kyiv Post reported that “Only 5.1 percent of people living in the Russia-controlled parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions [an alternative name for the Donbas] want Ukraine to regain control over the territories under the old terms ... special status for the region as part of Ukraine is desired by 13.4 percent while 16.2 percent insist on independence ... Half (50.9 percent) want a union with Russia and another 13.4 percent said the region should accede to Russia with a ‘special status.’ For the whole of Donbas, including its Ukraine-controlled areas, 49.6 percent want it to become part of Russia, with another 13.3 percent choosing such a scenario with a “special status” for Donbas. A fifth (19.2 percent) see Donbas as part of Ukraine.” The survey was conducted by the Ukrainian Institute of the Future and the Dzerkalo Tyzhnia weekly newspaper with the assistance of New Image Marketing Group.

In reporting on the same survey, another Ukrainian magazine, Krytyka, while noting that “the challenges with conducting public opinion surveys in occupied territories might have tainted the survey’s reliability,” acknowledged that if “the results can be taken at face value ... Ukraine might have lost the hearts and minds” of those in the Russian-controlled areas. Also in that magazine’s pages, Nataliia Kasianenko, assistant professor of political science at California State University, Fresno, called attention to the fact “that over a third of approached respondents refused to be interviewed,” as well as the possibility “that those who refused to participate were afraid to express their honest opinions if those opinions were not in line with the ‘official’ views of the “governments” of the DPR and LPR [Donetsk People's Republic and Luhansk People's Republic],” yet concluded that “the results of the survey indicate bleak prospects of reintegrating the occupied parts of the Donbas region into Ukraine.”

Not only did 84.5% of respondents consider the Ukrainian government responsible for the Donbas conflict, but when asked the main enemy in the war, 14.3% of respondents named Ukraine and 23.6% said it was “Ukraine’s fascists.” Kasianenko noted that “The term “fascists” was used by respondents in response to an open-ended question asking to identify the opposing sides in the Donbas conflict.” The upshot here seems to be that while it might be foolish to take these numbers as “hard,” it would be equally foolish to regard them as meaningless.

In an April 15, 2022 Washington Post article, the above mentioned O'Loughlin and Toal, along with Gwendolyn Sasse, wrote of polling done in January of that year—before the Russian invasion: “Our research suggests that in a free and fair referendum held throughout the Donbas—under international supervision and with impartial, transparent and inclusive voting rules that allowed those displaced since 2014 to vote—the majority would be likely to vote to remain in Ukraine. However, a vote restricted to just those remaining in the Donbas would be likely to endorse joining Russia. Either way, war has hardened attitudes, so any such referendum would be bitterly contentious.” (In this case the “war” they speak of was that between the Russian-backed separatists and the Ukrainian government starting in 2014.)

Meaningful negotiations will happen sometime, even between adversaries who currently insist that there is nothing to negotiate.

While present war conditions are obviously fairly prohibitive for polling, what should be clear at this point is that support for remaining in Russia is far from non-existent in Russian-occupied Ukraine. Which then obviously suggests a goal for an eventual end to the war—plebiscites in the Russian occupied territories. At this point, only in our dreams could we expect either Ukraine or Russia to agree to such a thing at this time, but always true, if generally forgotten during war, is the fact that peace is ultimately made between enemies, i.e., between parties that have heretofore dedicated themselves to raining death down upon each other.

We currently appear to have reached a point in the U.S. where it may no longer be unspeakable to suggest that negotiations will ultimately be necessary. But there seem to be two major roadblocks to considering what might seem to be an utterly reasonable path to ending a war by letting the affected people decide. The first is that, at the moment, the “wrong people” are suggesting it. Most prominent among this group internationally is former French president Nicolas Sarkozy who told the French newspaper Le Figaro that if Ukraine cannot manage to recover the territories “unjustly taken from them,” their best option may be “referendums strictly overseen by the international community." But since Sarkozy has signed a three million Euro contract with a Russian insurance company and been convicted of influence peddling since leaving office in 2012, his view is widely dismissed as that of “a Russian influencer," as French Green Party legislator Julien Bayou dubbed him. Stateside, the most prominent referendum backer has been Elon Musk, whose four-point peace plan started with “Redo elections of annexed regions under UN supervision. Russia leaves if that is will of the people.” (He was referring only to the Donbas; he did not propose changing Crimea’s current status. For further background on Musk, see X, formerly known as Twitter.)

Poland's Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki succinctly stated the more substantive objection to negotiations resulting in putting the question of the final status of the occupied territories to a vote: “Would you negotiate with [Adolf] Hitler, with [Joseph] Stalin, with Pol Pot?” The point of view is clear enough and understandable—if Ukraine comes out of this with anything less than the territory it had before the Russian takeovers, the aggressor will have been rewarded, thereby setting a precedent for such future aggression.

Yet, while in war—and in politics in general—the position taken at the moment is often asserted to be the standard for all time, further investigation will usually show that not to be the case. Currently, the position of the U.S. and NATO is: “Of course, we oppose the break-up of Ukraine; it is a sovereign nation entitled to fight to maintain its geographical integrity.” But when the subject was the independence of Kosovo seceding from Yugoslavia, the positions were reversed. Russia opposed it, then and now, while today the U.S. and most NATO members recognize it as an independent nation (Spain, which is trying to suppress its own Catalonian independence movement, being a notable exception.) In that situation, the desire of the ethnically Albanian Kosovars to leave Slavic Yugoslavia was so widely understood to be the case that if there had been a referendum held resulting in an outcome similar to that of the 2014 vote in Crimea, it probably would not have prompted broad skepticism in the West.

As we have seen, although its exact level is subject to debate, there is little doubt that significant support for Russian affiliation exists in the Crimea and Donbas regions of Ukraine. At the same time, by and large, it is not the pro-secession populations of those areas who bear the responsibility for the ongoing attack on Ukraine. While the assault that Putin has launched on Ukraine has undeniably served to discredit any justification he has cited for it, it does not change the fact that there were substantial numbers of Ukrainians who would have preferred that their citizenship be Russian before this war started. Nor does it negate any rights they may have to alter their current political jurisdiction.

While public (and probably private) discussion of such questions between Ukraine and Russia is obviously out of the question at the moment, it should not be for the rest of us. Meaningful negotiations will happen sometime, even between adversaries who currently insist that there is nothing to negotiate. And in raising the question of what might constitute reasonable subjects for such negotiations, the rest of us have the opportunity, if not the obligation, to help that process along, however modestly.

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