In mid August the Ukraine crisis seemed to be moving toward a diplomatic solution in talks scheduled in Minsk between Russian president Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart, Petro Poroshenko, with European Union officials hovering in the background offering advice and incentives for a peaceful settlement. On the battlefield the Ukrainian army was advancing steadily and regaining territory from the “pro-Russian” forces (i.e., Ukrainian separatists, Russian regulars, and mercenaries hired by Russia to strengthen the separatist side). It seemed that the peace talks would ratify a Ukrainian victory.
Only a few days before the two presidents met, however, well-equipped Russian regular forces crossed the border into eastern Ukraine in large numbers and began to reverse the earlier gains made by the Ukrainians. At the same time other Russian regulars invaded southern Ukraine and seemed likely to capture the port of Mariupol and, if they were to succeed, to create a corridor linking Mariupol and the seacoast to other rebel-held areas. The fighting has intensified on both sides (though a cease-fire may now be in the offing); refugees from it are arguably numbered in the hundreds of thousands; it has included apparent war crimes such as the massacre of almost 200 Ukrainian troops who were offered a safe passage and then ambushed by “pro-Russians”; and the screws are tightening in Russia on those civil-society organizations that publicize the secret funerals of Russian soldiers killed in battle.
Surely only very substantial gains could justify this stepped-up Russian aggression? What might they be? As Peter Pomerantsev has argued in his study (for the Legatum Institute) of Putin’s postmodern, media-driven dictatorship, knowing the Russian president’s real intentions is extremely difficult. His aggressive war-making is as likely to be a fraud as his diplomatic offers. In this case, however, he seems to have two objectives. The first is to ensure that the talks in Minsk ratify Russian gains on the battlefield rather than the Ukrainian recovery of almost all its territory outside Crimea. Successful negotiations in Minsk would have earlier ratified a clear Ukrainian victory, which would have been a massive setback for Russia and an unmitigated defeat for Putin personally. The second objective — as statements by Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, make clear — is to secure an “autonomous” region of eastern Ukraine that would . . . well, do what?
Poroshenko has already offered a decentralized political system for Ukraine that would allow local autonomy and protect the culture and rights of ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers. Before this crisis started almost a year ago, incidentally, Crimea was already an autonomous region. But what would be the rights of the inhabitants of the autonomous parts of eastern Ukraine? Would they be able to reject in elections the “pro-Russian” thugs and mercenaries who now rule them? Or would they find themselves in exactly the sort of authoritarian slum ruled by a political mafia that was the reason ordinary Ukrainians wanted to choose “Europe” over Russia’s Eurasian Union in the first place? And would the political representatives of the eastern autonomous region, whether sent to Kiev by election or by appointment, enjoy a blocking veto over the decisions of Kiev’s central government? If so, that would give the Kremlin indirect control of the political decisions of a sovereign government and a license to destabilize Ukraine indefinitely. Kiev will not agree to autonomy if it comes accompanied by such arrangements — and it would be right to reject them.
It is a fact of international life that diplomatic settlements always require concessions from both sides. Kiev has already conceded — de facto if not yet de jure — the loss of Crimea and the extension of a reasonable degree of autonomy to eastern Ukraine. It would be unreasonable to demand more — and, further, additional demands would not be accepted by the Ukrainian political system. If Poroshenko were to concede them, he would fall from power. Putin cannot admit that he has already made a major concession by accepting the loss of four-fifths of Ukraine that he controlled by proxy a year ago (if indeed he has genuinely accepted it). He will therefore doubtless seek the unreasonable degree of autonomy sketched out above. If he fails in that, as seems likely, then he will seek guarantees from Kiev, Brussels, and Washington that Ukraine be kept permanently out of the European Union and/or that eastern Ukraine be admitted into his Eurasian Union. Those are likely to be the limits of compromise on both sides.
If any such deal is to be possible, then the West will have to lean heavily on both sides to achieve it. What are the specific interests of the West, coldly considered, in this crisis? One important interest, as Anne Applebaum has harrowingly reminded us, is to avoid a major European war exactly a century after the civilizational suicide of 1914. Another is not to respond to Putin’s aggression in such a craven and short-sighted way as to invite a slightly different European war some years in the future. A third is to prevent the current crisis from slithering into a combination of smaller but endless war and deepening recession that harms everyone more or less equally and produces social disorders on the scale of 1919. It is not easy to combine all these interests, and it may prove impossible to do so. But the following blend of policies — not necessarily in the following order — seems to offer the prospect of a compromise that is neither a defeat nor appeasement.
First, tighten sanctions so that Russia suffers enough to make it reluctant to wage aggressive war again — and, not coincidentally, prop up both international rules and the post–Cold War settlement.
Second, quietly take Putin aside and tell him (a) that Washington will train and arm Ukrainian forces to enable Ukraine to resist Russia indefinitely and (b) that unless his policy changes soon, the Europeans will indict him in the International Criminal Court for waging aggressive war.
Third, persuade Poroshenko to accept an apparent balance in trade relationships between the EU and the Eurasian Union in return for a Western aid program to Kiev on the scale and generosity of the Marshall Plan.
Last, establish a commission under a respected European political leader – Janos Martonyi, Hungary’s former foreign minister, would be an excellent choice — to regulate and report on the exercise of powers between Kiev and Donetsk and to ensure that democratic rights are protected in the east.
And if something like this is to be done, it were well it were done quickly. With every additional death, with every new refugee, with every massacre that comes to light, the threat of a major war looms larger. After a while, as the 1914–18 war illustrates, the number of deaths in a war ceases to be an incentive for peace and comes to be seen as an obligation not to betray the fallen.