Where is Henry Kissinger when we need him? The West has great need for a diplomat of his caliber, capable of resolving seemingly unsolvable conflicts, such as those in Vietnam and the Middle East. What is most frightening in the present war between Ukraine and Russia is the total absence of a strategy of peace, or even of any talk about peace. The secretary general of the United Nations, whose business this should be, theoretically, prefers to talk about the climate crisis. Pope Francis states, from time to time, that peace would be better than war, but this is not a plan, and his legitimacy as a peacemaker in the region is weak. Each of the camps involved seems to be settling in for the long term—into an endless, unwinnable war. This is the main lesson of the conflict that began in 2014, with the invasion of eastern Ukraine by the Russian army and the annexation of Crimea. Eight years later, it has become clear that Vladmir Putin and his militarist clique will never succeed in conquering Ukraine, or in imposing a regime in Kiev that takes orders from Moscow.
Quite to the contrary. Whereas Ukraine had never had a truly distinct identity, Russian aggression has consolidated Ukrainian national sentiment. Ukraine has no natural frontiers, and its history is intimately and reciprocally blended with that of Russia. The Ukrainian language is but a variant of Russian, and Kiev is the historic cradle of contemporary Russia. In reality, Ukraine is Russian, and Russia is Ukrainian. Russian aggression has changed all that, creating a new border, neither geographic nor cultural but political: henceforth, Ukraine is a democracy, and Russia is a tyranny. Ukraine has thus joined the Western democratic camp that supports it, and Russia has become part of a block of tyrannies, with China as its main partner. This new division of the world was not inevitable. Russia, first as it emerged from the Soviet Union in Yeltsin’s time and then under an earlier version of Putin, had sought rapprochement with the West. Whether because of a reversal by Putin or clumsy American and European diplomacy, the war in Ukraine is the result of a misunderstanding, not of some assigned fate.
There is no point rewriting history and assigning blame. We must rather start from the situation on the ground and from what we have learned since the failed Russian offensive on Kiev of February 24. The result is that the Russian army will likely make no further progress in Ukraine, and that the Ukrainians will never succeed in removing the Russians from the five conquered provinces, from Donbas to Crimea; the Russians would prefer to be killed where they are. Already, more than 100,000 Russian soldiers have been killed or injured, along with a similar number of soldiers on the Ukrainian side, according to American information. But the Ukrainians, for their part, will never surrender to Russian terror; the bombardments of civilian populations only tighten the bond between the Ukrainians and the West. The Russians thus do not have much ammunition in reserve, literally or figuratively; nor do the Ukrainians, since they depend totally on American and, secondarily, European military assistance. Resolution of the conflict thus depends, above all, on Washington. Since the Europeans have chosen to align themselves fully with the Americans, it is up to the United States to propose a peace plan, the main features of which are clear.
In the first place, Ukraine should promise not to join NATO, which seems very much to frighten Putin; this pledge would allow him to abandon the conflict by declaring victory. On the other hand, Ukraine’s candidacy for the European Union—which Russians tolerate—would be honored. Russia would promise to respect Ukrainian sovereignty and to desist from destabilizing its democracy; the two adversaries would have to put up with each other. The territorial question is more complex, but not insoluble. If Ukraine recognized that Crimea is Russian, which it did until 1954, then Putin would become more accommodating concerning the other occupied provinces; they could, for example, become neutral zones of common interest, with a regime of free exchange between Russia and Ukraine. Rather than all-or-nothing demands, there exist, in the toolbox of diplomats and economists, certain intermediate categories such as we find in Northern Ireland.
Finally, neither the Ukrainians nor the West can elude the painful question of war crimes. A peace accord does not presuppose vengeance but rather the bringing to light of the facts. This could be the role of a Truth Commission, on a Czech or South African model, since the Russians will not tolerate the establishment of a special tribunal as in Rwanda, nor an intervention by the Court of Justice at the Hague. Would the negotiation conclude more quickly if Putin disappeared? This is not certain, because he could be replaced by a still more tyrannical figure. If the European Union had a diplomacy independent from that of the United States, then the chances of putting an end to the war would be strengthened. But it is too late for that: Europe is neither a major player in the conflict nor an independent agent, diplomatically or militarily. As Kissinger once said: “If I want to talk to Europe, who do I call on the telephone?” The United States saved Ukraine, and it is now up to the United States to negotiate a peace, by putting pressure on the Ukrainians and the Russians. By making itself a peacemaker, the United States will remind the world that it remains the sole guardian of international order.
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