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No war in Ukraine demonstration in Germany

Demonstrators in Hamburg, Germany at a rally on Spielbudenplatz hold signs reading "No War. 4ever Peace" and "Stop War! Stop Putin!" on Thursday, March 3, 2022. (Photo: Daniel Reinhardt/picture alliance via Getty Images)

What Is the Path for a Negotiated Peace in Ukraine?

Historians of the future should condemn Russia very harshly indeed for its invasion of Ukraine; but they will also not forgive the West if we fail to promote a reasonable peace.

"Forget the cheese–let’s get out of the trap." — Robert A. Lovett, U.S. Secretary of Defense 1951-53.

The talks now underway in Belarus between Ukraine and Russia provide the possibility of a peace agreement and an end to the criminal Russian invasion of Ukraine — which thanks to brave and united Ukrainian resistance and bad Russian planning is not going as the Kremlin had hoped.

The United States and its allies should give their full support to this peace process, while supporting Ukraine in insisting that no aspect of any treaty should hinder Ukraine’s development as an independent market democracy. 

"To pursue the agenda of regime change at the cost of innumerable Ukrainian lives would be deeply immoral, and would recall some of the worst aspects of U.S. behavior during the cold war."

The course of the war so far has already clarified certain things, in a way that helps to lay the basis for peace. On the one hand, the courage and unity of Ukrainian resistance has already won a great victory for Ukraine. If the Kremlin’s plan was to impose on Ukraine a Russian puppet government, then — assuming that the Kremlin is still capable of recognizing basic reality — this plan has already failed.

The Ukrainians have in fact achieved what the Finns achieved by their heroic resistance against Soviet invasion. The Finns convinced Stalin that it would be far too difficult to impose a Communist government on Finland. The Ukrainians have convinced sensible members of the Russian establishment — and hopefully, Putin himself — that Russia cannot dominate the whole of Ukraine. The fierce resistance of the Ukrainians should also convince Russia of the utter folly of breaking an agreement and attacking Ukraine again.

For it is now obvious that any such pro-Russian authorities imposed by Moscow in Ukraine would lack all support and legitimacy, and could never maintain any kind of stable rule. To keep them in place would require the permanent presence of Russian forces, permanent Russian casualties and permanent ferocious repression. In short, a Russian forever war. Moreover, such Russian hopes depended on being able to seize Ukrainian cities easily, with few civilian losses. If Russia has to storm these cities amidst huge destruction and loss of life, how can it possibly then appeal for the support of their populations?

On the other hand, while the West has quite rightly imposed very harsh economic sanctions on Russia in response to its criminal invasion, the United States, NATO and every NATO government have stated officially and repeatedly that they will never send their armed forces to defend Ukraine. In practice, therefore, neither Ukraine nor the West would sacrifice anything concrete by a Ukrainian treaty of neutrality, and it would be utterly wrong to ask Ukrainians to die for an empty fiction.

On the ground, the Russian army has quickly failed to achieve its main objectives in the north and east, necessitating fierce, costly and horribly destructive battles to capture Ukrainian cities. Russian forces appear to be inadequate in terms of numbers for the tasks they have been set. The Ukrainian capital, Kiev, has three million people — a huge military challenge if it is strongly defended.

The Russians are putting themselves in a position to attack Kiev, but have not yet done so. This raises the possibility that for the moment at least Moscow’s intention is to put pressure on the Ukrainian government, rather than destroy it. All of these factors create a strong incentive for the Russian government to agree to a compromise peace, if this allows them to withdraw with the appearance of partial success.

However, in the south the Russian army based in Crimea has advanced much further. It seems to have linked up by land with the Donbas, and to be making progress towards capturing the whole of Ukraine’s Black Sea coast. The Russians also seem to be driving the Ukrainian forces from the whole of the provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk (up to now, the separatist republics have only occupied part of those provinces). If Russian forces establish themselves strongly in these areas it will be exceptionally difficult for Ukraine ever to drive them out again by military means.

So even if the regime of President Putin eventually falls as a result of its monstrous and criminal gamble in Ukraine, it will still be necessary to negotiate the terms of Russian withdrawal with whatever Russia government succeeds to power, and that government will insist on certain compromises. It is very unlikely indeed that Russia will ever simply withdraw unconditionally from all the Ukrainian territory it has occupied since 2014, in the way that both the Soviet Union and the United States withdrew from Afghanistan. Russia’s stake in Ukraine and the Russian minority in parts of Ukraine is far too deep for that, and will be shared to a greater or lesser extent by all Russian governments (as it was shared by the Yeltsin government of the 1990s).

The basic terms of any peace agreement could be the following. Russian forces should withdraw completely from all the areas of Ukraine that they have occupied since the invasion began. Ukraine for its part could to sign a treaty of neutrality loosely modeled on the Finnish-Soviet Treaty of 1948 and the treaty by which Western and Soviet forces withdrew from Austria in 1954. These treaties ensured the internal sovereignty of these countries. It should be noted that while neither country was a member of NATO (or, during the cold war, the EU), both were recognized as fully part of the West due to their success as market democracies, which their neutral status did nothing to impede. This would allow Ukraine to achieve its key objectives as well as the safety and prosperity of its people. A compromise along these lines would be a success for Ukraine.

For Russia, the exclusion of possible future NATO membership remains crucial to any peace agreement. As William Burns, present Director of the CIA and U.S. ambassador to Russia, memoed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice from Moscow in 2008:

“Ukrainian entry into NATO is the brightest of all redlines for the Russian elite (not just Putin). In more than two and a half years of conversations with key Russian players, from knuckle draggers in the dark recesses of the Kremlin to Putin’s sharpest liberal critics, I have yet to find anyone who view Ukraine in NATO as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests…” (William J. Burns, The Back Channel: American Diplomacy in a Disordered World)

As part of this treaty, Russia would have to guarantee the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. However, even liberal members of the Russian establishment insist that as a matter of realism, it must be recognized that Russia cannot hand back Crimea (re-annexed by Russia in 2014) and the Donbas separatist republics (recognized as independent by Moscow on the eve of war) to Ukraine. At best, Russia might agree to reopen the Minsk II negotiations on a confederal relationship between these republics and Ukraine. In the opinion of Alexey Gromyko, Director of the Institute of Europe at the Russian Academy of Sciences:

“Russian troops will be withdrawn as soon as a political settlement reached according to the basic Russian conditions: the recognition of Crimea as a part of Russia (otherwise the security threat for Crimea will be perennial as well as a threat to the water supply), the recognition of the two Donbas republics in their full administrative borders (or some other kind of de facto settlement without the official recognition of the republics by Kiev), limitations on the Ukrainian military (primarily no strike systems, which should be defined), a status of military neutrality akin to the Austrian precedent under legally binding international guarantees…For the West to touch the issue of Russian sovereignty over Crimea is a dead end. If such a linkage is established that would show that either the US does not understand not Putin’s but Russian attitudes to the peninsular and the sentiments of people who live there, or that it does it on purpose to leave the new sanctions for long with unpredictable consequences ” 

In other words, to insist on the return of Crimea to Ukraine as part of any peace settlement would very likely only prolong the war and make peace permanently impossible, under any future Russian government. However, as suggested by Thomas Graham, Senior Director for Russia at the National Security Council from 2004 to 2007, any change in the international status of these and other disputed territories in Europe must be confirmed democratically by local referenda under international supervision. The West can also demand separately that as part of the price of Western support for an agreement Russia should recognize the independence of Kosovo and allow the United Nations to do so.

The West should incentivize Russia to agree to such a treaty and withdraw its forces by promising that if Moscow does this, we will lift all the sanctions imposed on Russia. These sanctions have been passed in retaliation for the Russian invasion, not to change the regime in Moscow (however much we may hope that the Russian people themselves may do this). 

To pursue the agenda of regime change at the cost of innumerable Ukrainian lives would be deeply immoral, and would recall some of the worst aspects of U.S. behavior during the cold war. As for Russia, it is likely to stick to the terms of such a peace agreement because it is in its interest to do so — and because the West must state categorically that any major violation will bring the automatic re-introduction of full economic sanctions against Russia.

Moreover, Ukraine should receive not just a very large Western aid package for reconstruction, but also greatly increased aid in general to help Ukraine develop as a successful Western-style market democracy — as Finland and Austria succeeded in doing despite their treaties of neutrality with the Soviet Union.

A compromise along these lines will be a win for Ukraine. It will spare Ukrainians colossal destruction, suffering and death, while preserving Ukrainian sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity. Its fierce and successful resistance thus far will also serve as a deterrence against any future Russian adventurism. A continuation of the war by contrast raises the serious risk that much larger areas will be permanently lost to Russia. Without peace, Russia is likely at the very least to hold land linking Crimea to Russia and securing Crimea’s water supply, cut off by Ukraine in recent years.

The United States and the West for our part have both a moral and a practical interest in an early end to this war. Western governments have ruled out sending troops to defend Ukraine, but the extent of Western economic sanctions raises the strong possibility of Russian cyber attacks in retaliation, leading to a colossally damaging cycle of retaliation. A long-running Ukrainian insurgency supplied by the West through Poland would be very likely indeed to result in Russia seeking every possible way of indirectly attacking the West.

Putin is doubtless bluffing in his mobilization of Russia’s nuclear deterrent; but tensions on the level now existing between Russia and the West raise the obvious possibility of misunderstandings and unplanned nuclear exchanges, with catastrophic results of humanity. Several times during the cold war we came very close indeed to this cataclysm. We must not take these chances again.

Western economic sanctions against Russia are entirely correct and very damaging to Russia, but they also have serious implications for the world economy as a whole, especially in terms of inflation. Oil and gas prices have already risen sharply, in ways that will benefit Russia and offset some of the effects of Western sanctions. We must also not forget that Russia is the world’s largest food exporter — and higher global food prices have the capacity to destabilize states around the world, including key U.S. allies. Finally, while Beijing has done its best to hold aloof from this conflict, permanent Western economic warfare against Russia will inevitably drive Russia into greater dependence on China.

Historians of the future should condemn Russia very harshly indeed for its invasion of Ukraine; but they will also not forgive the West if we fail to promote a reasonable peace. The voices of those in the West who favor  sacrificing innumerable Ukrainian lives to advance other geopolitical ambitions against Russia must be resisted.


© 2021 Responsible Statecraft

Anatol Lieven

Anatol Lieven is a Professor at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, Qatar, visiting professor in the War Studies Department of King’s College London, and a senior fellow of the New America Foundation in Washington DC. He is the author of ­
Pakistan: A Hard Country.
 Anatol spent the first part of his career as a journalist in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the former USSR.

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