Current Western strategy in Ukraine is not conducive to peace because it does not deal with some essential aspects of the current conflict. It does not deal with the rights of Russian speakers in Ukraine, and it does not address the thirty-year failure to set up a pan-European security system that includes Russia. Both are issues of primary importance to Russia. The relationship between them may not be obvious to many in the West, but for Russia, they illustrate a mindset of promoting Western interests and values at the expense of Russia’s.
It is precisely because of this mindset that the West was caught flat-footed when Russia suddenly seized the initiative to assert its interests through military means. This has left the West in a quandary, with few palatable options. Its preferred means of coercion—economic sanctions—are bound to become less and less effective over time, just as they have been in other countries, which have always found workable substitutes to reduce dependence on the West. Russia’s importance in providing the world with essential commodities, such as oil, gas, grains, and fertilizer, gives it even more economic clout.
At the same time, the political isolation that the West has sought to impose, while it has a certain public relations appeal, further limits the West’s ability to get Russia to cooperate on other issues of vital importance, and forces Russia into new alliances that will invariably be anti-Western. Henry Kissinger has recently argued that institutionalizing such animosity would be historically unprecedented and should be avoided at all costs.
Meanwhile, despite the rhetoric from Kyiv, the war has not brought Ukraine any closer to a resolution of its own internal conflicts. The rise of Ukrainian patriotic fervor is quite real, yet it often reflects the same regional disparities that have divided Ukraine since its independence. No matter how the military conflict ends, therefore, old resentments are likely to resurface, with Russian-speakers once again being blamed for their supposedly divided loyalties. As the popular Ukrainian journalist Mikhail Dubinyanski recently put it, “it took but a moment for the front lines to stabilize, for the traditional internal hate to re-emerge.”
A lasting settlement must recognize that this conflict will not end with the withdrawal of Russian troops. A settlement must, therefore, address three vital aspects of the conflict simultaneously, or it will not last. First, the competition between Russia and the West over Ukraine, which is clearly not going to end after the fighting stops. Second, the conflict between Russian and Ukrainian elites over their respective national and cultural differences, which is only going to intensify after the war. Third, the conflict between Ukraine’s western and eastern halves, which current patriotic enthusiasm has temporarily masked.
Our proposal does not seek to end these conflicts, which are endemic, but rather to shift the competition from the military arena, with its concomitant dangers of escalation, to the arenas of economic well-being and soft power. In essence, this is the kind of competition that the West was engaged in with the Soviet Union during the heyday of détente after it decided that coexistence was preferable to mutually assured destruction.
In exchange for the cessation of hostilities and the withdrawal of its forces, Russia would be obliged to not annex the regions it currently occupies and agree to hold a status referendum there under international supervision, some ten to twenty years from now. Ukraine, for its part, would accept its temporary loss of control over Novorossiya (the regions of Donbass, Lugansk, Zaporozhye, Kherson, and Nikolayev), with the proviso that their status will be ultimately determined by the referendum outcome.
In addition, NATO would formally pledge not to consider Ukraine for membership. In deference to Ukraine, however, there would be no formal pledge of Ukrainian neutrality. This would permit Ukraine to receive a wide variety of defensive military assistance and training from other countries, short of permanent foreign bases and weapons systems capable of striking Russian territory. Ukraine’s security concerns would be further allayed by a formal pledge by Russia that it will not object to European Union (EU) membership for Ukraine, opening the door to the multi-year assistance with investments and reforms that Ukraine will desperately need to recover.
Russian security, meanwhile, would be bolstered by international recognition of Novorossiya (some of the mechanisms used to defuse the dispute over the Free Territory of Trieste and Saarland might apply). A demilitarized zone on both sides of the Russian-Ukrainian border could be created and security further enhanced by the commitment of several key states to ensure the borders of both Ukraine and Novorossiya.
Sweeteners for Ukraine
A Ukrainian state that is able to pursue the post-2014 nationalist agenda. To obtain Western security guarantees, Russia will have to give up its goal of fully de-Nazifying Ukraine.
The firm prospect of EU membership in the foreseeable future. Russia may draw some scant comfort, however, from the fact that the regime that will be built in Ukraine will then be Europe’s headache (as some are beginning to realize).
Multi-year aid and defensive weapons assistance for Ukraine.
The possibility that regions now lost could eventually rejoin Ukraine if Kyiv provides them with appealing reasons to do so. This will, of course, depend on the policies that Kyiv adopts toward those regions, but Ukrainian authorities will have the better part of two decades, and significant Western assistance, to make their case.
Sweeteners for Russia
The loss of Ukrainian territory—Crimea permanently, Novorossiya perhaps only temporarily.
No NATO membership for Ukraine.
Western sanctions lifted on Russia, Belarus, and Novorossiya. One can reasonably assume that the regions within Novorossiya will be more naturally drawn to Russia. The EU should therefore not repeat the mistake that it made in 2013 of forcing Ukrainians to choose between European and Eurasian economic integration. This time around, everything should be done to create a free trade zone that encourages these regions to become a vital bridge linking both.
Finally, there is the possibility of Novorossiya eventually choosing to join Russia, should it prove to be more appealing and successful than Ukraine. No doubt, the West will do everything in its power over the next ten to twenty years to ensure that this is not the case.
The West should welcome such a shift in the focus of competition since it regards economic success and soft power as areas of traditional strength. Russia too should also welcome it, since it argues that at heart Russians and Ukrainians share a cultural and spiritual bond that goes much deeper than economics. This would be a chance to prove or disprove this argument. Ukrainian nationalists should also welcome it since it would give them two decades in which to build a broad base of support within Ukraine for their view that Russians and Ukrainians have nothing in common and to propagate this view through cultural ties and exports to Novorossiya. Moreover, they will be able to do so among a much more homogenous Ukrainian population, with the blessing and financial support of the West.
Finally, there is the not inconsiderable security advantage that Europe and the world would derive from establishing a framework in which Russia and the West can compete in ways that would be potentially mutually beneficial, rather than assuredly mutually destructive.
It will be objected that such a settlement rewards Russian aggression. In an imperfect world, however, the morality of punishing Russia (without, mind you, ensuring its withdrawal) must be weighed against the morality of allowing further suffering in Ukraine, especially when the alternative not only stops the bloodshed but also offers a mechanism whereby, under more auspicious conditions, Ukraine could potentially regain its territories. Time, however, is of the essence. The longer settlement negotiations are delayed, the more territory that Ukraine is likely to lose to Novorossiya.
Another likely objection will no doubt be that Russian officials cannot ever be trusted to keep their word. Those who feel this way have a ready-made objection to any form of negotiations, and not just with Russia. The only thing we would point out is that by putting the status referendum a good way off into the future, the means of its implementation will be negotiated not by those who unleashed this war, but by a post-Putin Russian leadership. The type of relationship we will have with those future Russian leaders is still very much in the West’s hands to determine.
Gilbert Doctorow completed a Ph.D. in Russian history at Columbia, followed by a 25-year career in international business focused on the USSR/Russia. His two-volume Memoirs of a Russianist, published in 2021-22, has been reissued in translation in St Petersburg.
Nicolai N. Petro is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Rhode Island (USA). During the collapse of the Soviet Union he served as Special Assistant for Policy in the Office of Soviet Union Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. He was a U.S. Fulbright Scholar to Ukraine in 2013-2014, and is the author of the forthcoming book, The Tragedy of Ukraine.