Facing Reality in Ukraine

Breaking down the deeper meaning of the controversy surrounding the Boistö plan. 

The attack letter on the Boistö bilateral U.S.-Russian Track II initiative setting out a path toward a stable cease-fire in Ukraine is sad, yet, in ways, useful. Sad, because it graphically displays how hard it will be to achieve consensus, even among outsiders who want to be helpful in easing Ukraine out of the current morass. But it is also useful, because it highlights what the real choices are among a series of unhappy alternatives. Participants on both sides are highly respected, experienced individuals and, thus, their clash of views merits more than passing attention.

Set aside the critics’ strange dismissal of the Boistö plan, because Ukrainians were not part of the meeting. Since when have any among the eighty-nine letter signers not participated in some initiative—singular, bilateral or broader—designed to develop ideas for solving a problem where the third party or parties concerned were absent? The Boistö participants, most from universities and think tanks, were simply trying to sketch a path that might be helpful, should the Ukrainian sides and their foreign allies wish to walk it. As the report says, a high-level U.S.-Russian dialogue is needed as “part of a larger discussion that must include Ukrainian as well as European representatives.”

The real issue is whether the path suggested is helpful. The signers say “no” for four reasons:

First, they contend, the initiative treats the two sides “as equals and fails to recognize Russia as the aggressor.” Russia’s role in the Donbas war surely amounts to aggression, but how helpful will making that the premise of an agreement requiring Russian cooperation be to achieving an agreement? To drive home their point, the authors of the letter condemn the initiative’s call for “withdrawal of regular Russian and Ukrainian army units to an agreed distance from conflict zones,” and insist that “Russia must remove all of its forces from Ukraine and stop attacking and invading its neighbor.” Here, however, it would be useful to distinguish between steps key to a cease-fire and what will ultimately be required to end the war in eastern Ukraine. What President Poroshenko and President Putin agreed to as part of the Minsk cease-fire is essentially what the Boistö initiative urges; what the initiative’s critics demand must, indeed, be the ultimate goal.

Second, the initiative’s critics say Russians and Americans have no business recommending a number of “humanitarian” and “cultural” measures that are for the Ukrainians to decide. But who among the letter’s signers seriously doubts that, for any cease-fire to stick, it will require “the return of and humanitarian assistance for refugees,” repair of the war’s damage, mutual guarantees for labor migrants, improved transport and energy-related infrastructure and the like? Indeed, the recommendation for “amnesty for combatants not involved in war crimes” is already a part of President Poroshenko’s fifteen-point peace plan and the Minsk cease-fire agreement.

One point in the Boistö plan should be weighed carefully. The plan calls for the “preservation of Russian-Ukrainian economic relations, including defense-industry cooperation.” The issue is controversial, but cuts to the heart of any durable accommodation between Russia and Ukraine. Tensions between Russia and Ukraine began over Moscow’s fears, whether well founded or not, that Ukraine’s Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area agreement with the EU would impair Russo-Ukrainian economic ties. The deal is now done. While signs are that all three parties—Ukraine, Russia and the EU—are willing to consider steps easing Russian concerns, finding formulas that protect legitimate, transparent Russian economic dealings, particularly with eastern Ukraine, will require some doing. Simply allowing Russia more time “to adjust” to the Association Agreement’s effect on Ukrainian trade, the EU’s likely offer, won’t suffice. Defense industrial cooperation is a separate matter, and given its importance to both economies, preserving it should be welcomed—not opposed—by the United States and its European allies.

The Boistö plan’s handling of the Crimean issue constitutes the critics’ third objection. Urging, as the plan does, a “discussion of the settlement of legal issues pertaining to the status of Crimea” is indeed a nonstarter. The annexation will not and should not be given legal standing. But if the letter’s signers mean to suggest that restoring Crimea to the status quo ante must be a precondition for any resolution of the Ukraine crisis, they are recommending that the crisis remain unresolved. Ukrainian leaders themselves recognize that the future of Crimea can only be resolved over the long run, and for now, the task is to find a productive way of dealing with a reality whose legitimacy is unaccepted. The United States and other nations do have a major stake in de-legitimizing this breach of international law, and in ensuring that it is not repeated by Russia or others. Doing that, however, requires focusing the larger international community, including Russia, on the norm’s reaffirmation in as many ways and forums as possible.

Fourth, the Boistö initiative’s critics strongly object to what they claim (rather inaccurately) is the initiative’s support for “permanent guarantees of Ukraine’s ‘non-bloc status.’” The Boistö plan, in fact, calls for “mutual respect for the non-bloc status of Ukraine as stipulated by Ukrainian legislation.”

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