picture alliance / Caro | Trappe

Is ceding territory the only way to end the war? Peace for Ukraine

» Lesen Sie diesen Artikel auf Deutsch

Its stated condition was that it should have a realistic prospect of joining the European Union, one that would not be torpedoed by Moscow. In addition, Ukraine was – prepared and this is relevant to the issue of whether Ukraine should cede territory to attain peace to accept Russia’s annexation of Crimea. It was also willing to clarify the status of both separatist regions in eastern Ukraine during the next fifteen years, i.e., to keep it unresolved until the day that a peace treaty might be signed. The latter issue had already been subject to an agreement, the Minsk accords, which proved unable to preserve the peace.

Historians will have to clarify the reasons why the negotiations held in Istanbul in March, 2022, mediated by the prime ministers of Turkey and Israel, ultimately went nowhere. They will be able to do so only when the documents are open to inspection and the propensity to lie and deceive in wartime has faded away. To this day, irreconcilable narratives are competing with each oter. Some say that serious negotiations of this kind have never happened, although that claim is highly implausible. Many others maintain that the Bucha massacre has been decisive in keeping Ukraine from concluding a peace agreement. Still others claim that it was Boris Johnson’s intervention, in consultation with the U.S. government, bearing the message »It’s time for victory, not for negotiations,« that stymied the effort to end the killing just a few weeks after hostilities began. Johnson’s words proclaimed the West’s unwillingness to engage constructively in a peaceful resolution of the war. 

Two years ago, strategies were shaped by the expectation that Ukraine, backed by Western financial, logistic, and military aid, could roll back the Russian attack and drive Russian troops out of the areas they had conquered. Despite massive Western support this scenario has not come to pass. Instead, thousands of soldiers on both sides have died and Ukraine’s civilian population has suffered severely. Recently, Russia even has chalked up some territorial gains.

An unfavorable moment in time

The circumstances that might have enabled Ukraine to conclude a favorable peace have grown less propitious compared to those that prevailed at the start of the war. Furthermore, Russia is presumably guessing that Donald Trump will win the November election this year, an outcome from which they expect to benefit. At the beginning of 2024 Ukraine asked Switzerland to prepare an international peace conference to be convened in mid-June, about the time when this article went to press. It is doubtful that the meeting will produce any results. At any rate, what strikes the observer is that neither side, whether west or east, so far has advanced proposals for ending the war that are conceptually persuasive. The precondition that has been set, that Russia should withdraw completely from Crimea and all the separatist regions in the east, is unrealistic. But so is the Russian demand for regime change and demilitarization in Ukraine. So, how might a peaceful solution look? And would it have to include territorial cessions on Ukraine’s part?

»Russia would be the dominant power in case of escalation and would not be gravely weakened by sanctions« 

An ethically informed Realpolitik intended to secure peace would consider the set of interests involved and the balance of forces, but also would apply the principles of international justice as limiting conditions. In evaluating power relationships, one must take into account that Russia would be the dominant power in case of escalation and would not be gravely weakened economically by Western sanctions. In fact, those sanctions have forced Russia to redirect its trade relationships toward the south and east and thus have brought about a novel state of affairs in global politics in which a reprise of east-west conflicts is on the horizon. Before Russia began its war of aggression there might still have been a chance to de-escalate if NATO or even just the USA had signaled that plans to admit Ukraine as a NATO member were being dropped and that instead the goal was to integrate Ukraine into the EU. But now the situation has changed fundamentally. By admitting Sweden and Finland into the alliance, NATO has expanded farther to the east, thereby considerably extending its border with Russia. The security guarantees granted to Ukraine after it gave up its nuclear weapons evidently have not worked.
That is the Achilles heel of a peace treaty-based solution. How can Ukraine be given long-term guarantees against further Russian aggression, no matter how domestic politics play out there and in Russia? Against this background, the accession of Ukraine to NATO seems to make sense under certain conditions.

»Russia will not take on NATO militarily«

NATO would undoubtedly deter Russia from further military aggression. As far as I can tell, there is no danger whatsoever that Russia would attack member-states of NATO, even those that previously belonged to the Soviet Union. Russia will not take on this military alliance by military action, especially considering its experiences during the last two years of war. Still, the question arises: under what conditions could Russia accept such an outcome? In any case it would be unwilling to do so if, from the Kremlin’s point of view, the threat level it faced were to increase dramatically. That would be the case, among other factors, if nuclear weapons were stationed on Ukrainian territory since that would shorten the early warning time Russia would have if missiles were launched. Thus, one can imagine NATO membership for Ukraine only if it were linked to a new security architecture in eastern Europe that would guarantee the maximum degree of stability in security policy and that aspired to render a first-strike capability with conventional weapons structurally impossible.

Nevertheless, NATO membership for Ukraine presupposes that the trouble spots that have developed around ethnic affiliations can be eliminated. Minsk I and Minsk II were not able to do that. Both sides, including the Ukrainian, systematically violated the agreements with brutal consequences. One example of how peace might be achieved would be to allow the populations of the areas in question, eastern and southern Ukraine, to decide their fate in UN-run referenda. One can imagine several different outcomes: their reintegration into Ukrainian sovereign territory; the establishment of an autonomous status for those populations under international control, as in Kosovo; independent statehood; or even the choice of union with Russia.

Crimea and the separatist regions

Since the annexation of Crimea presumably occurred in accord with the majority will of the peninsula’s residents, and Ukraine was willing to stop contesting the annexation two years ago, recognition of the status quo there by both sides could facilitate negotiations. Otherwise, Crimea would have to be treated in a similar fashion as the separatist areas of eastern Ukraine. Two years ago, the Russian side in the negotiations was prepared to pull back from the territories it had conquered since February 24, 2022. A renewal of that offer on the part of Russia would likewise make negotiations easier.

An approach to peace such as this would take up the thread of the negotiations held two years earlier, but would modify their results on one crucial point. Russia is no longer demanding that Ukraine decline NATO membership. But for its part Russia could also insist that the threat level be reduced through arms control measures and that the Russian elements of the population should be protected. The permanent conflict between the separatists in the east and the Ukrainian central government thus would be at an end. NATO membership for Ukraine would be a stable security guarantee and would ensure a certain degree of Western control over the security situation in the region. There would be a key role for Turkey, a NATO member, in mediating between Russian and Ukrainian interests. Depending on the outcome of the referenda, Ukraine would have to give up the separatist regions in the east, but that would of course not signify any change in the real situation that already existed when the war started.

Nevertheless, a settlement like this one would again imply a sharp boundary line to be drawn right across Europe. As in the time of the Cold War, Europe would be divided once again for the foreseeable future. But the more appealing vision of a Europe of cooperation and balancing, in which even neutral countries could play an important role, has become moot due to the escalating conflict in the eastern part of the continent. The one thing we can still hope for is that the situation does not harden into a new Cold War between East and West, with a European-American Western bloc confronting a Russian-Chinese Eastern bloc, while neutral countries of the Global South maneuver between them on a case-by-case basis. I cling to the vision of a cooperative global society that joins together to surmount the great challenges facing humanity such as climate change, protection of species diversity, and the fight against hunger and poverty, and does so against the tide of the times.    

Go to top