Why now is the time for Russia and Ukraine to talk to each other

The absence of any serious effort to end the conflict between Russia and Ukraine through negotiations is striking. The withdrawal of Russian forces, Ukrainian neutrality, an end to economic sanctions and, most importantly, a ceasefire and a legitimate UN-monitored plebiscite are all negotiable, even if you wouldn’t know it from the rhetoric. from Russia or the West.

Before dismissing such efforts, it is important to ask yourself, “What do I really know about Ukraine? For most Americans, the answer is not much. A year ago, few of us could find Crimea on a map. Ukraine’s history is complex and the current situation fluid.

Part of the problem is simply defining Russia’s borders. Are you talking about the Tsarist Empire that included half of Poland, Stalin’s Soviet Union that covered most of Central Asia, or the now much diminished and embittered Russian Federation? In neither of these configurations does Russia have clear and naturally defensible borders. As a result, it was invaded by the Mongols, Swedes, French, and twice by the Germans. Breaking free from the Nazis cost Russia 22 million lives. For comparison, American casualties in World War II were 400,000 out of a roughly similar sized population.

Because border security is a vital concern for Russia, the eastward expansion of NATO was always going to be problematic. George Kennan was America’s pre-eminent Soviet expert and author of our Cold War containment policy. In 1997, he wrote: “Expanding NATO would be the most fatal mistake in American policy in the entire post-Cold War era. … Such a decision can be expected to inflame nationalist, anti-Western and militarist tendencies in Russian public opinion, harm the development of Russian democracy, restore the atmosphere of the Cold War in relations East-West and steer Russian foreign policy in directions we definitely don’t like. His predictions were entirely correct, but his advice was ignored. The enlarged NATO, adding 14 new members which had either been part of the Soviet Union or dominated by it.

A trolleybus passes on an unlit street on November 2, 2022 in Mykolaiv, Ukraine.
Carl Court/Getty Images

Ukraine was not among these new NATO members, in part because Russia had clearly expressed its opposition. US Ambassador to Russia William Burns wrote with foresight in a memo to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice: “Ukraine’s entry into NATO is the brightest of all red lines for the Russian elite (not just the Russian President Vladimir Poutine). In more than two and a half years of conversations with key players in Russia, from flirts in the dark recesses of the Kremlin to Putin’s most outspoken liberal critics, I have yet to find anyone who considers Ukraine in NATO. as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests.”

It’s not hard to see why Ukraine would be “the brightest of all red lines” for Moscow. Simply put, the key is the Crimean Peninsula and land access to it. Although it contains 11 time zones, Sevastopol has been the only Russian naval base in warm water for nearly 250 years. It became Russian in 1783. In 1853, the Tsar led a war against France and Great Britain to keep it. During World War II, tens of thousands of Soviet soldiers died defending and ultimately liberating Sevastopol from the Wehrmacht. Whoever controls Crimea dominates the Black Sea and can threaten Russia’s southern flank. The idea of ​​Sevastopol becoming a NATO naval base has always been as unacceptable to Moscow as the placement of Soviet missiles in Cuba was to Washington.

Some claim that we are fighting for democracy and that we must crush Putin for as long as it takes. They clearly overlook not only how unpopular Eternal Wars have become with the American public, but also our checkered experience with regime change. Other experts even call for reparations or trials for war crimes as if we were at Versailles or Nuremberg. They forget that the Treaty of Versailles and the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials were based entirely on abject German defeats. Unless there is a nuclear war, this will not happen to Russia.

Ukraine has always had flexible borders. Until 1918, the city of Lviv (then Limburg) was Austrian. Between the two world wars, western Ukraine was Polish. Crimea was transferred from the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic to the Ukrainian Republic only in 1954, mainly to increase the number of Russian speakers in Ukraine. Not counting Crimea, post-Soviet Ukraine has now lost almost 20% of its pre-war territory and has become almost entirely dependent on foreign arms and financial aid, three-quarters of which is American. Millions of people have been left homeless or have fled the country. As labor reserves and the tax base collapse, inflation has soared and infrastructure has been systematically destroyed. Despite recent gains, it is by no means certain that Ukraine will win the war. Yet Ukraine remains a difficult country to help. Its post-Soviet governments have been deeply corruptedand you can’t give endless money to a man who has a hole in his pocket.

Russia, meanwhile, is largely self-sufficient in food, energy and armaments. The ruble is stronger today than a year ago. Western sanctions have caused more economic havoc in Europe than in Russia. It is perhaps worth recalling that Putin’s parents lived through the siege of Leningrad where 600,000 Russians chose to starve rather than surrender. It seems unlikely that he will capitulate now because he can no longer buy Big Macs.

We indeed live in a rules-based world order, and one of the cardinal rules of international relations is that the great powers expect to control a sphere of influence which they will fight to defend, as we are ready to do so in Taiwan. One of the main functions of diplomacy is to avert or stop the bloodshed of military conflict. Most often, this involves talking to people with opposing views that you don’t like and don’t trust.

What would a negotiated solution look like? It should start with an honest appreciation of what local people want. Support for self-determination has been a central part of American foreign policy ever since President Woodrow Wilson went to Versailles. We remain convinced that the consent of the governed is the most fundamental form of legitimacy. Czechs and Slovaks separated peacefully. Citizens of Quebec were allowed to vote to remain Canadians. The Scots were given the option to leave the UK. The British were even able to vote to stay in the European Union. Don’t the people of Crimea and Donbas deserve so much? If we trusted the UN to monitor Iran’s nuclear activities, we can certainly trust it to organize and monitor a fair election.

The First Crimean War (1853-1856) ended with a negotiated compromise. In all likelihood, the Second Crimean War will end the same way. In 1962, faced with the possibility of nuclear Armageddon during the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy did everything possible to defuse the situation through independent thought, negotiation and compromise. Today we face a similar situation. There are many issues to negotiate, but a ceasefire and a plebiscite would be a good place to start. It would be complicated, controversial and expensive to administer, but so is continuing to support and fund a war. The suffering of the Ukrainian population is getting worse day by day and winter is coming. It is time for creative thinking and effective diplomacy to end this war before it spirals even further out of control.

David H. Rundell is a former Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Saudi Arabia and the author of Vision or mirage, Saudi Arabia at a crossroads. Ambassador Michael Gfoeller is a former political adviser to US Central Command. He served for 15 years in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors.

Comments are closed.