For twenty months, the focus in the West has been on who is to blame for starting the war in Ukraine. It is high time to stop asking who started it and start asking who is going to stop it.
Moving Beyond the Blame Game
It would be convenient for there to be a simple answer to the question of who started the war in Ukraine, as President Biden has suggested. The complicated reality, however, is that the answer to that question depends on the perspective of the actors.
Russia is surely to blame for starting the war with Ukraine. Although Russia had fears and security concerns and may have felt, in the words of its ambassador to the United States, that they had “come to the point when we have no room to retreat,” that does not legitimize a preemptive war undertaken without an immediate need for self-defense and without United Nations authorization. Russia made the choice to invade Ukraine and bears full responsibility for it, no matter how limited it felt its options were.
But, the horrific decision to invade Ukraine does not absolve the United States and its NATO allies from their responsibility for provoking that decision.
At the end of the Cold War, Russia hoped to transcend Cold War blocs and alliances and join a transformed international community where they would be part of a “Europe whole and free.”
But instead of abolishing the division of Europe, as the founders of the European Union did after World War II, post-Cold War leaders in the West decided to keep these divisions and just push them a bit further East. This not only removed the buffer zone between NATO and Russia that had kept the peace in Europe for more than fifty years, but it also relegated Russia permanently to the status of a non-European nation. This was done against the warnings of many of the West’s most knowledgeable and experienced officials—from William Burns to Jack Matlock, George F. Kennan, Richard Davies, Egon Bahr, Hans Dietrich Genscher, Colin Powell, and even Joe Biden in 1997.
Putin has been widely mocked in the West for his insistent claim that “the threat of Ukraine’s accession to NATO is the reason, or rather one of the reasons, for the special military operation.” Still, that claim was recently confirmed by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who stated publicly that Putin “went to war to prevent NATO, more NATO, close to his borders.”
America’s European allies also bear their share of the blame for the eruption of hostilities. Germany and France consistently failed to pressure Ukraine to implement the agreement. After the invasion, their former leaders, Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande, admitted that they thought of the Minsk process as a deceptive soporific designed to lull Russia into a ceasefire with the promise of a peaceful settlement while actually buying time for Ukraine to build up its armed forces. Former U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union Jack Matlock has said that the war in Ukraine “probably would have been prevented” had the Minsk Agreement been enforced.
And Ukraine, too, bears part of the blame for this catastrophe, specifically for pursuing military solutions when a diplomatic solution that would have restored all of Donbas to Ukraine was readily available through the implementation of the Minsk Agreements.
Time for a Diplomatic Settlement
Whoever is responsible for starting this war, it is becoming horrifically clear that everyone would benefit from ending it.
That a diplomatic agreement is possible is testified to by the fact that Russia and Ukraine seemed close to a deal at least three times. First in Belarus, then in talks mediated by then-Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennet, and, most promisingly, in Istanbul, where they actually initialed a tentative agreement. We, therefore, know that but for the opposition of the United States and key allies, the war could have ended on terms that would have preserved Ukrainian statehood and its current government and even allowed it to join the EU with Russia’s blessing, provided only that it gave up NATO membership. We can also confidently say that, despite all that has occurred since, Russia would be willing to return to the Istanbul agreements if Ukraine agreed to negotiate.
So, what is preventing a ceasefire? The two most obvious sticking points are Zelensky’s presidential decree of October 4, 2022, prohibiting any negotiations with Russian president Vladimir Putin, and the adamant opposition of the United States to any ceasefire “right now.”
Yet, the mere fact that a framework for an agreement has been reached before suggests that the most debilitating assumption about this war—that the parties’ differences are irreconcilable—is not true. In fact, it is the willingness to negotiate, not the terms of the agreement, that now stands in the way of peace.
Mindful of this past, meaningful negotiations could begin on what all sides can agree on, namely, that Ukraine should continue to exist as an independent state that has good relations with all its neighbors. No one disputes this, not even Russia. It is its therefore its borders, foreign policy, and attitude toward its minorities that are the subject of contention.
A diplomatic settlement must, therefore, accomplish three goals. First, Ukraine must be guaranteed sovereignty, security, and the potential to thrive. Second, Russia must receive guarantees that its legitimate security concerns will be respected. And third, the Russian-speaking population of Donbas—and Ukrainians in any new Russian territories—must be afforded legal protection.
In arriving at these three goals, ideally, three conditions should be met. One is that the United States and NATO cannot be overly rewarded for their desire to expand NATO into Ukraine in violation of the pledges they made to the “indivisibility of security” in Europe at the Istanbul Declaration of 1999 and the Astana Declaration of 2010. According to the Istanbul Declaration, “(8) Each participating State has an equal right to security… They will not strengthen their security at the expense of the security of other States… (9) The security of each participating State is inseparably linked to that of all others.” In addition, as Richard Sakwa points out, it also violates NATO’s own principles, stated at its foreign ministers’ meeting in Copenhagen on 6-7 June 1991, “not to gain one-sided advantage from the changing situation in Europe,” not to “threaten the legitimate interests” of other states or “isolate” them, and not to “draw new dividing lines in the continent.”
In the 2022 Istanbul negotiations, for example, Ukraine promised “not to seek NATO membership.” In exchange, Russia reportedly agreed to alternative security arrangements that would include “giving Ukraine the tools it needs” to defend in accord with “the Israeli model” and include bilateral security guarantees from a number of countries, possibly including the United States, Russia, the UK, France, and China.
Second, Russia cannot be overly rewarded for its invasion of Ukraine and should be encouraged to negotiate over the status of the territories that it incorporated in 2022. And finally, Ukraine cannot be harmed in a way that undermines its future potential for achieving a harmonious, secure, and prosperous society. Part of that will require that it revise its approach toward its indigenous Russian-speaking minority and bring it in conformity with the norms of a modern and liberal society.
The issue of territory will clearly be the most difficult to address. The Minsk Agreement can no longer serve as a model. The current reality is that, as with Crimea, Russia is unlikely to allow the Donbas to return to Ukraine. However, with respect to the newly annexed Kherson and Zaporizhzhia oblasts, this position is tempered by the reality that recognized borders have not been established there. During the Istanbul negotiations, Russia agreed, in principle, to withdraw to its prewar position. Therefore, it is conceivable that Russia might be willing to return some parts of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia Oblasts in the context of a larger comprehensive settlement.
Russia should also provide explicit assurances that it will not take any further territory, including Odessa and Kharkov. An assurance not to take Odessa or the coastline along the Black Sea would allow Ukraine to avoid being turned into what John Mearsheimer has described as “a dysfunctional rump state.” The potential for Ukraine to thrive would certainly be enhanced by a Russian commitment to aid in the economic recovery of Ukraine, including privileged oil prices and provision of technology for energy and nuclear power infrastructure, if the benefits of such investments were shared with Russia.
Given Russia’s demonstrated willingness to attack Ukraine and the long-range missiles supplied to Ukraine by the West, both sides would be wise to establish a demilitarized buffer zone and begin negotiations on some form of mutual strategic arms reduction.
It goes without saying that Russia must explicitly and meaningfully guarantee the sovereignty of Ukraine. Ukraine must be allowed to peacefully coexist as an independent state and never again fear being attacked and absorbed into Russia. At his press conference at the UN General Assembly on September 23, 2023, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reiterated that Russia recognized the sovereignty of Ukraine based on its Declaration of Independence of 1991, which included a pledge not to join NATO. “On those conditions,” he went on to say, “we support Ukraine’s territorial integrity.” That statement suggests that Russia would be willing to guarantee the sovereignty of Ukraine in exchange for a similar guarantee that Ukraine will not join NATO.