A Peaceful Resolution of the Russian-Ukrainian Conflict?

Politics - January 22, 2022

It is worth while discussing the possibilities of a peaceful resolution of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict…

Russian President Vladimir Putin has made it clear what are his short-term goals in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. It is that Ukraine will not become a member of NATO and that in Eastern Europe NATO forces are not permanently placed near Russian borders. It is more of a mystery what are his long-term goals. Will he, and the ruling elite in Russia, reluctantly respect Ukraine’s sovereignty, or are they bent on occupying the country and ruling her from Moscow as was done in Soviet times? Indeed, a recurrent problem in the relations between Russia and the West is that of mutual incomprehension (a situation cleverly analysed in a recent book by Malcolm Gladwell, Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know). Each side tends to cast the other one in its own image. Because Western leaders are accustomed to democratic procedures where compromises are reached after different options have been weighed, they expect the Russian leaders to think and behave along similar lines. Because the Russian leaders are essentially bullies, hardened former secret police agents, they assume that Western leaders are as aggressive and unscrupulous as they are themselves. They seem to believe, for example, that NATO is not merely a defence alliance, whereas we in the West know that the leaders of the United States, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom (not to speak of the smaller NATO countries) have no intention whatsoever of invading Russia, even if an opportunity would present itself.

Dealing with Wolves

Another problem is that this may be a game without a stable or final outcome. The Russian leaders are no innocent doves. They are more like wolves, and wolves become dangerous if they are fed rather than starved. Putin’s appetite for conquest would increase, not decrease, if he were able to occupy Ukraine or at least large parts of her. Moreover, Chinese dictator Xi Jinping is waiting in the wings, ready to invade Taiwan if he sees the West appease the Russians. The Russian and Chinese leaders perceive the West to be weak and decadent. While U.S. President Joe Biden is the Commander in Chief of the world’s greatest military power, he is tottering; German Chancellor Olaf Scholz lacks experience; some members of the British House of Commons and the media seem only interested in whether Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s staff broke rules about social distancing during the covid lockdown, not in the Russian threat to European stability; French President Emmanuel Macron is narrowly focused on French politics, not on the West as a whole. The Russian and Chinese leaders see this weakness as an opportunity. There is however a great difference between them. Whereas China should be regarded as a formidable power, Russia has feet of clay. She has roughly the same GDP (Gross Domestic Product) as Spain. It is therefore likely that her sabre-rattling at present is not really about invading and occupying Ukraine (although the possibility should not be excluded), but rather about moving the default position in international affairs towards acceptance of the Russian annexation of Crimea and quite likely also of Eastern Ukraine. The West has already tacitly accepted the annexation of Crimea, but Putin wants its leaders to breathe a sigh of relief if he does not also invade Ukraine. Paradoxically, if he refrains from an attack, he will be seen as a peacemaker. It is a strange situation. But it is not hopeless. History provides many examples of the resolution of similar problems. Here I shall, as a political philosopher and historian, mention a few possibilities like I did at a conference in Kyiv on 8 November 2019, organised by the European Conservatives and Reformists, ECR.

The Danish Solution

The problem in Eastern Ukraine is that a lot of inhabitants want to be Russians rather then Ukrainians. (This was also the case in the Sudetenland in 1938: the German-speaking majority wanted to be citizens of Greater Germany, Großdeutschland, not of Czechoslovakia.) While most of us would recognise Ukraine’s sovereignty, some of us also have sympathy for the view that people in border regions should not be forced to be citizens of one country rather than another, against their own will. There is an important historical precedent for solving the problem of would-be Russians in Eastern Ukraine. In 1864 the Kingdom of Denmark had lost the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein to Prussia, after a brief war. Holstein was completely German, and so was Southern Schleswig, whereas a large Danish-speaking minority remained in Northern Schleswig. After the defeat of Germany in 1918, it was decided to allow the inhabitants of Northern Schleswig to choose between Germany and Denmark. The territory was divided up into three zones. It soon became apparent that the inhabitants of the southernmost zone overwhelmingly wanted to belong to Germany. A referendum there was therefore deemed superfluous. The inhabitants in the northernmost zone voted for Denmark, 75 per cent against 25 per cent. The inhabitants in the central zone voted for Germany, 80 per cent to 20 per cent. Accordingly, the northernmost zone was in 1920 transferred from Germany to Denmark. It seems to me that a similar peaceful revision of borders could be implemented in Eastern Ukraine, although the definition of different zones would not be without difficulties. This certainly would be a much more humane solution than a war between Russia and Ukraine or the enforced exchange of populations across borders, which is what happened between Greece and Turkey in 1923 and between Russia, Poland, and Germany in 1945.

The Swiss Solution

The problem in Crimea may not be that the inhabitants reject Russian rule. Probably a majority supports it, and as I already noted the international community has tacitly accepted the 2014 annexation, although it went against international law and treatises which Russia had signed. After all, Crimea was Russian from 1783 when the tsar annexed her until 1954 when she was transferred to Ukraine by a Soviet decree celebrating the 300th anniversary of the unification of Ukraine with Russia. The problem is rather that large minorities of Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars remain in the peninsula. The solution could hardly be a revision of borders as in Eastern Ukraine or a massive exchange of populations: the members of the Ukrainian and Tatar communities in Crimea have the same right to live there as the Russian-speaking majority. Indeed, the Tatars lived there long before the 1783 Russian annexation. They formed a majority of the population until the mid-nineteenth century, and they remained one of the largest ethnic groups in the country until they were cruelly deported to Central Asia in 1944, only gradually and partly returning to their ancient homeland after Stalin’s death. Again, there is an important precedent for solving the problem. It is to divide up the peninsula into self-governing cantons on the Swiss model. Switzerland has four linguistic communities, and two major religious communities, and in 1847 she saw a brief civil war on religious lines, between Catholics and Protestants. But since then the Swiss have developed a system of freedom, diversity and tolerance by reducing the possibility of any one group to impose its will on others. The very opportunity easily to move from one canton to another provides a crucial check on any majority oppressing minorities.

The EEA Solution

Ukraine understandably wants to join the West, and she should be welcomed. As a sovereign country, she and not the Russian leaders should decide whether or not she applies for membership in NATO or the European Union. But for the sake of argument, assume that neither she nor the NATO countries would want to go to war with Russia over the issue and that therefore it would be prudent to lay it aside, without of course yielding to any Russian demands. But again, there is an alternative. It is that Ukraine would join the European Economic Area, EEA, rather than the EU. The EEA consists of all the EU countries in addition to Norway, Liechtenstein, and Iceland, and for most practical purposes, although not formally, Switzerland. The idea behind the EEA is that countries which are not prepared to join EU can nevertheless be a part of the common European market. EEA is about economic rather than political integration. It is about countries enjoying the benefits of free trade and the division of labour without having to accept the political obligations that come with full EU membership. This is an arrangement which fits countries on Europe’s Northern periphery, such as Norway and Iceland, or in the Alps, such as Liechtenstein and Switzerland. Admittedly, the EEA countries do not have much say in EU decision-making, but neither do the small EU member countries for that matter. The condition for admission to the European internal market is the acceptance of EU rules and regulations which does not seem unreasonable, while the EEA countries maintain the option of trading elsewhere. Ukraine is like Norway and Iceland on the periphery of Europe. She belongs like them to the EEA rather than the EU. Perhaps one day even Russia might be induced to join the EEA. After all, your propensity to shoot at your neighbours greatly diminishes if you see in them potential customers.