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The Contours of the Russo-Ukrainian Peace

Fall / Winter 2015 Features

The Contours of the Russo-Ukrainian Peace

The Contours of the Russo-Ukrainian PeaceA five-point plan or algorithm can save us from a terrible winter, a frozen conflict, and a century-long problem

There is a solution to the conflict in southeastern Ukraine. It is not necessarily elegant, but it must come soon – in the next month or two. The solution has five points, each of which I take up in turn below.

The onset of winter, when even in non-war years hundreds of people across Ukraine die from exposure (including in homes without heat), will change the psychological complexion of the conflict. With critical infrastructure destroyed in large parts of Donetsk and Lugansk, and with thousands of refugees internally displaced by the fighting, the winter death toll will likely rise.

While all parties to the conflict are increasingly tiring of combat, winter will inject renewed strategic importance into the question of the supply of Russian natural gas and its transport into Ukraine and through Ukraine to European markets. Economic sanctions against Russia, already felt, will increasingly push Russian leaders and elites to psychologically disconnect from Europe – Russia’s own species of a pro-China Asia pivot. And any push toward extreme sanctions in the form of boycotting or suspending Russia’s 2018 World Cup would likely only intensify Russia’s growing psychic alienation and radicalize its reactions and countermeasures in the theatre of conflict – to wit, by adopting a ‘nothing to lose’ or ‘a plague on their houses’ posture in respect of the West.

It would take a century to recover from the psychological loss of Russia. In theatres ranging from the Arctic to the Middle East, Asia and Europe proper, where there will not be direct confrontation between Western interests and Russia, there will be deep distrust and non-collaboration, leaving many major global challenges unresolved or altogether untouched.

Of course, the reverse should prove true if we are able to arrive at a sustainable peace in the Russo-Ukrainian space: Russia will play its proper role as a strategic and psychological bridge between Europe and Asia, will become a key partner for the peaceable development of the Arctic space, and will play a pivotal role in the reshaping of the Middle East this century.

Any solution to the Russo-Ukrainian conflict must reckon with the basic fact that the Ukrainian revolution and the subsequent Russian annexation of Crimea effectively resulted in ‘two houses radicalized’ – but radicalized in different ways. Ukraine’s radicalization came in the form of the rise and proliferation of violent ultra-nationalist militias – led by Pravy Sektor – which not only provided the sharp end of the revolts that toppled President Viktor Yanukovych in February of this year, but have been a key part of Ukraine’s subsequent military campaign in southeastern Ukraine. These militias are loosely beholden to the new government in Kiev. Indeed, they have threatened to march on this same government a number of times in response to various grievances. And therein lies the key dynamic in Ukraine’s post-revolutionary radicalization: any peace with Russia must not disappoint or be seen as treacherous to these militias. Such disappointment or perceived treachery will lead the militias to topple the Poroshenko government.

For its part, Russian radicalization comes less from the Ukrainian revolution per se and more from the romantic nationalist euphoria (and agitprop) triggered across Russia by the annexation of Crimea – an annexation that might be viewed as a ‘biblical’ response by Moscow to a) the extra-constitutional removal of a sitting, elected Ukrainian president, incompetent but otherwise friendly to Russia, by militias that now have a major say in the terms of Ukrainian government and strategic behaviour; and b) perceived Western cover for, if not interference in the service of, this extra-constitutional removal (see my Query article on the causes and mechanics of the revolution in the Winter/Spring 2014 issue of GB). The annexation had two target audiences: the first domestic, for which the central narrative of the Crimean absorption was the reconstitution of historical Russian territory (the limits of which were left to the imagination); and the second international, for which the message was that Moscow would not accept Western states crossing swords with critical Russian security, political and economic interests right at Russia’s borders (see my Feature article “Governing in the Former Soviet Space” in the Fall 2013 issue of GB).

The Crimean gambit, to use a chess analogy (doubtless part of Russian strategic mentality), turned the board on its head and injected a de novo logic into the Ukrainian revolution. It suggested to counterrevolutionary forces in other parts of Ukraine – particularly in the eastern and southeastern oblasts – an algorithm by which they could also be absorbed by Russia in the context of a post-revolutionary Ukraine in which they did not see themselves as having a voice (or otherwise in response to the revolutionary militias that they perceived as wanting to make them accept the terms of the revolution at the barrel of a gun).

The algorithm was intimated, the counterrevolution gained speed (of course, even without Russian insinuation, there would have been counterrevolution of some description – as revolutions always breed counterrevolutions), but Russia did not, or could not, absorb. Still, Russia’s de facto and self-propelled role as the protector and patron of these counterrevolutionary forces was confirmed – in particular for Russian audiences and for the more nationalist representatives of Russia’s political class.

And so we have the boxes in which both Ukraine and Russia find themselves: Poroshenko must consolidate the revolution and stabilize post-revolutionary Ukraine without disappointing the ultranationalist militias, while Putin, in the context of a systemically fragile Russia, must not betray the image that he has erected as protector of Ukraine’s Russophone and Russophile populations. Let me add that if this is, defensively speaking, Russia’s bottom line, then in light of the harsh economic sanctions levelled to date against Russia, Moscow also surely has the more general long-term (or ‘offensive’) objective of having these sanctions lifted and of normalizing Russian relations with Western states – even if the Kremlin is skeptical about the upward elasticity of Western demands in respect of the lifting of these sanctions.

The good news is that, for those who care to look, a diplomatic exit from the Ukraine-Russia impasse is in sight. The recent ceasefire agreements brokered in Minsk have been imperfect in completely arresting the hostilities, but they have shown that all sides, and certainly the civilians caught in between, are tiring of the fight – especially as the conflict has often pitted family against family, and cousin against cousin, even on the front lines. Still, the short-term ceasefire regime will soon be gamed against the prospects and content of a longer-term truce. If this strategic truce fails to materialize or is seen as improbable (the growing perception on the ground, and also in key international capitals), then general hostilities will resume – only to be complicated, as mentioned, by the onset of winter.

A five-point plan or algorithm suggests itself for resolving the conflict in a way that meets the interests of both Kiev and Moscow.

The first immediate part of any comprehensive peace plan must be the introduction of international peacekeepers into southeastern Ukraine and along the Ukraine-Russia border. While the current ceasefire regime has called for a buffer zone between the belligerents, only proper peacekeepers can secure this buffer zone and give the parties confidence to begin the process of disarming and demilitarization. Let me stress that, in order to be reasonably acceptable to all sides, these peacekeepers should come only from Asian countries (I nominate India and Singapore) – that is from non-NATO countries, and preferably not from other countries in the former Soviet space.

Second, Ukraine should federalize – yes, federalize. It should decrease the number of oblasts from the current 24 to no more than a dozen provinces in order to allow Kiev to still have planning and strategic coherence over the whole, while at the same time allowing the provinces to elect their governors. Federalism will moderate the excesses of the revolution for those parts of the population that have been reluctant to accept it, and will also allow the country to democratize more rapidly. Moreover, the UK’s inevitable push to federalize in the aftermath of the Scottish referendum should overcome a received wisdom in Kiev today to the effect that unitary states seldom go federal.

That the major federations of the West – Canada, the US and Germany – have not jumped on Russia’s proposals for federalizing Ukraine is a testimony to how strangely dogmatic otherwise open societies have become in the course of the year since the Euromaidan protests began in late 2013. These same federations, with Canada in the lead, have for the last few decades been energetically advising on, and engineering, federal and quasi-federal solutions for countries around the world in order to resolve various species of majority-minority fissures. And yet for Ukraine, which, like all of the countries of the former Soviet space (including Russia), has no clue about how federalism really works, it is only the fact that a federal solution should come from Russian lips that has blinded established federations and their marketers from appropriating Moscow’s words in order to help Ukraine craft a proper federal regime that would save its national skin.

Third, Ukraine should insert into its constitution, in the idiom of Australian constitutionalism, that its federation is indissoluble. Russia should recognize this indissolubility in the peace treaty. This should overcome the Ukrainian fear that elected provincial governors will go on to hold secession referenda, as per the algorithm suggested by the Crimean annexation.

Fourth, Ukraine should establish ‘special economic zones’ for several provinces in the southeast. These zones would allow these provinces to continue to enjoy preferential trading terms with Russia and the Eurasian Customs Union just as Ukraine in its entirety moves to free trade with the EU.

Finally, and most controversially, Ukraine should agree not to pursue NATO membership, or otherwise to never allow the positioning of any foreign bases or forces on its territory.

The fifth point – more symbolic than substantive, as Ukrainian membership in NATO is highly improbable in the first place – will be the most contested, but it should not prevent a deal comprising at least the first four. We have a month and a half – maximum two – to make this happen.


Irvin Studin is Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of Global Brief.

(Illustration: Christian Northeast)

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