Sweetening a peace

I. Introduction

In the West, there’s a debate between those who think the Ukraine war should simply be vigorously supported until Ukraine wins a decisive military victory and Russia is further weakened, and those like me, who think that some kind of a peace should be arranged immediately, with remaining conflicting claims and aims to be resolved through negotiation. It is not really an answer to say the Ukranians should decide. Of course they, and Russia, ultimately do decide. But those decisions cannot help but be affected by the views of partners whose support is essential now and will become the basis of Ukraine’s reconstruction, whether or not provision of support is made explicitly contingent. One way or another, “the West” is and will be involved in decisions that surround resolving to fight or seeking a peace.

Those of us who’d like to see an urgent settlement are immediately presented with a pretty damning question: How much of their country are the Ukrainians supposed to give up for your peace? On deontological grounds, the answer should be “none” — Ukraine is entitled to all of its internationally recognized territory, including Crimea. On consequentialist grounds, settling for nothing less than a certain, immediate recovery of everything might mean years of destruction, bloodshed, and impoverishment, would risk a broader, even more terrible war, and might not ever succeed. Before the Bucha atrocities were known, and before the Russian cruiser Moskva was sunk, Ukraine and Russia seemed close to terms for some kind of peace that “set aside” certain territorial questions, or maybe would defer them to some distant referendum. A compromise between consequentialism and deontology was on the table. But Ukrainian outrage and the wounded pride of Russia’s military apparently put an end to those talks.

II. Not Munich, not anymore

I don’t have an answer to the question of what Ukraine should or shouldn’t accept to avoid the carnage of continuing war. I do strongly believe that the interest of the West, and indeed of all the world, is in the shortest conflict possible. Crimea 2014 may have been Munich, but Ukraine 2022 will not be. Far from grabbing territory on the cheap, any territorial gains they achieve will be minimal, and won at a high cost in blood, materiel, and prestige. Rather than preventing a broader mobilization by antagonistic powers, Russia has guaranteed one, as the Eastern flank of NATO will now be heavily militarized. This war may leave Russia aggrieved or ruthlessly determined for revenge, but it will not be emboldened by a belief that it can invade neighbors cheaply and escape consequences for aggression. It is continued grievance, not ebullient confidence, that might render Russia a danger following a peace.

The West’s interest, then, should be to seek a peace that is good for Ukraine and diminishes Russian grievance and isolation. US Secretary of Defense Austin emphasized in remarks diminishment of capacity, but without diminishment of grievance that is at best a short-sighted. Russia is a large, resource-rich, nuclear power, with trade and military relationships that continue throughout the world. We’ve not been able to isolate North Korea enough to prevent dangerous militarization. Over even a medium term, we won’t be able to prevent a determined Russia from rearming. As we reach for World War analogies, it’s Versailles much more than Munich that should trouble us now.

III. Acknowledge multipolarity

Russia ought not be permitted to “win” in the sense of amputating much of Ukraine, but it ought not be defeated in a manner that leaves it isolated, aggrieved, and vengeful. Are there ways this war could end that would leave Ukraine whole but Russia in some sense satisfied and reintegrable into Europe?

I think that there are. There’s an opportunity in the fact that, from Russia’s very public perspective, this war is as much about punching back at a putatively domineering West as it is about achieving goals within Ukraine. I do not think Russia’s complaints about its own treatment by the West are particularly justified. Western powers were quite conciliatory towards Russia, until its 2014 annexation of Crimea and fomenting of separatism in Eastern Ukraine. Remember the 2009 “reset”?

Russia, however, perceives itself as a great power, and it is fair to say that Western powers did not treat it as one. We simply ignored Russian objections to military operations in Serbia, Iraq, and Libya. We had “statesmen” publicly dismiss Russia as a “gas station masquerading as a country”.

To a large extent, this war seems to be motivated by Russia’s desire to be recognized as at least an equal of the nations that have insulted and ignored it, especially the United States. (Go back and read your Fukuyama!) Recognition as an equal is something we can give in a peace settlement while betraying no territory or value.

Russian media accidentally published a weird, triumphalist statement a few days after the war began, written on the assumption that Russia would have achieved a rapid and complete victory. The statement concludes:

A multipolar world has finally become a reality… China and India, Latin America and Africa, the Islamic world and Southeast Asia – no one believes that the West leads the world order, much less sets the rules of the game. Russia has not only challenged the West, it has shown that the era of Western global domination can be considered completely and finally over.

The new world will be built by all civilizations and centers of power, naturally, together with the West (united or not) – but not on its terms and not according to its rules.

There is nothing objectionable in the idea that all must work together and have a hand in ordering the world. “The West”, and the United States, should openly and publicly welcome that. We have sometimes flouted them in practice, unfortunately, but those ideas formed the basis for the rules-based order and multilateral institutions we strived to craft after World War II.

There are and perhaps always will be real power differentials in the world, so some states will in practice have more sway than others. Russia, for example, has a military presence in Syria protecting port access to the Mediterranean that it craves. Very few countries have any sort of arrangement like that. When there is a civil dispute in Kazakhstan, Russia intervenes, but not vice versa.

De facto power is unequally distributed, a circumstance that Russia, the United States, and other powerful states, take advantage of. But at a normative level, we want to be a world of equals, all of whom work together to define our collective future. And at a practical level, we should all seek to create a more equal world, but one that extends the security that has been enjoyed by only a portion of the world to inhabitants of all nations, rather than one that extends insecurity to all.

A settlement with Russia could include a statement signed by, say, the American President and the leader of NATO affirming that the “world will be built by all civilizations and centers of power, naturally, together with the West (united or not) – but not on its terms and not according to its rules.” Russia might not have succeeded at its territorial aims, but it would have struck a blow against The Man, while the cost to Western powers would be simply to affirm aspirations that we all share.

IV. Recommit to the UN

More concretely, we could use the Ukraine settlement to acknowledge that the era of unilateralism in addressing global security challenges has proved a failure, and we must recommit to a multilateralism centered around a UN process. That process must be reformed to be more accountable, and less afflicted by the paralysis that provoked the United States and NATO to circumvent it in the first place. The catastrophic consequences of interventions in Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan, as well as Syria and Ukraine, have proven that letting independent powers or “coalitions of the willing” freelance global security invites accidents, abuses, and disputes. But the conditions that left the world helpless to prevent the catastrophes of Rwanda and Bosnia, not to mention the conflicts in Ethiopia and Yemen today, must also be addressed. [*]

V. Mutual regime change

I am absolutely opposed to “regime change” as an ambition of foreign policy. How a polity is to be governed is a matter for its own citizens to decide. However effective or poor a state’s institutions might be at enabling and ensuring consent of the governed, perceived foreign aggression or interference in the process provokes reactionary nationalism that may entrench a bad government and excuse its repression. It seeds mistrust and division that badly damages civil society. Even when it is “successful”, it rarely produces a government with enough legitimacy to govern well. Who is to govern Russia and how is for the Russians to work out.

Unfortunately, given the perception in the West now of Putin as a dangerous and aggressive dictator, it strikes me as unlikely that sanctions will be reversed while he remains Russia’s leader. Sanctions will not yield regime change, any more than they have in Iran or North Korea, and it will be very difficult to reintegrate Russia as a neighbor and friend while Putin remains in power. But a permanent “fortress Russia”, like a North Korea on steriods, is a terrible outcome, for Russia and for the world.

I think people in Russia quietly understand this dilemma. Perhaps even Mr. Putin himself does. But surrendering to a demand of regime change by hostile foreign powers is a humiliation, politically unthinkable.

What if, however, a settlement were to require mutual regime change? It would be very simple. What if Russia’s President Putin, Ukraine’s President Zelenskiy, and perhaps even America’s President Biden all agreed not to stand for a further term of office? That would be a kind of mutual recognition that existing leadership failed to preserve the peace and good relations, and a very terrible catastrophe occurred on their watch. It would constitute a remarkable act of statesmanship by each President. For democracies like Ukraine and the United States, regime change is regularized in the form of term-limited elections. Russia would, by its institutions formal and informal, work out its own succession.

There would be a risk that Putin would choose his own successor, perhaps a person still under his effective control. But there would also be a strong national interest in choosing a new government not so abhorrent to Russia’s neighbors that ending the country’s forced isolation remains impossible. A new government in Russia would be a true reset, a new hope for a warm peace rather than a cold war on the Eurasian continent, “from Lisbon to Vladivostok”. And that, according to former President Dmitry Medvedev, was one of Russia’s objectives in the war.

VI. Sanctions relief

The most straightforward sweetener of all is sanctions relief. Putin allegedly discounted the threat of sanctions in his decision to go to war, because he views Western powers as so implacably hostile that whatever sanctions his invasion might provoke would eventually have been imposed in any case. There was then little to lose in “striking first”.

I would like to see the West prove his thesis of permanent hostility wrong, and quickly reopen to Russia when a settlement is reached. If there is a change of government, failing to do so would unhelpfully validate Putin’s paranoia. For some period of time, the West will probably maintain controls on exports of dual-use technology to Russia, but as relations normalize and improved, hopefully those too can be loosened.

VII. An extended hand

In general, I think it is critical that Western leaders remind the Russian public that we will not hold a grudge against the people for their leader’s awful choice. We must express hope and optimism that Russians can become full fledged members of a Europe, a Eurasia, whole and at peace. This is a moment where love must temper judgment.

Whatever complicity you want to attribute to ordinary Russians for their failure to stop their leaders or their acquiescence to a ginned-up chauvinism, preventing or disrupting this war — under conditions of great risk and repression, when Vladimir Putin was resolved to prosecute it — would have been an extraordinary challenge. Given the risk, the degree of public protest and dissent has been astonishing. Perhaps there is room to offer the Russian public some credit for that. It would be a good outcome if nearly all Russians look back to this time and see themselves as having quietly been objectors, regardless of whether or not you think that is true.

VIII. Embrace Ukraine

Sweetening a peace is not just for Russia, but especially for Ukraine. Ukraine is the country being bombed and shelled and shot, whose people have been displaced and so much worse. Peace itself will be a profound reward for Ukraine. But with any settlement that is not complete and total victory, the sweetness will be tinged with the bitterness of terrible injustice and loss. Ukraine’s friends and partners should help ensure the most delicious peace possible for the country. Ukraine’s accession to the EU should be accelerated, and that should only be the beginning.

IX. Marshall plans

Europe and the United States should jointly provide extraordinary investment in Ukraine’s reconstruction, a new Marshall Plan. No doubt this investment will be expensive, but Ukraine is owed the support for its role and extraordinary valor in protecting the Europe’s postwar order.

If there is new leadership in Russia, a Marshall Plan should be undertaken there as well. The value of preventing the emergence of a vast, hypernuclear North Korea would far exceed the cost of the investment, as it did with Germany after World War II. Russia is a state beset with the “resource curse”, the infamous phenomenon whereby resource rich countries prove liable to corruption and difficult to govern well. It would be wonderful if a new investment program for Russia would look to neighbor Norway, among the most successful countries in the world at managing resource wealth for the benefit of its citizens.

X. Conclusion

All of this may sound difficult and unlikely, perhaps absurdly idealistic. But please consider the alternatives. Perhaps Russia’s nuclear saber rattling is just that, and there is no great medium-term threat. I am far, far from comfortable with that risk, but let’s say. What does a world look like over time in which Russia remains aggrieved and isolated, however badly it is beaten in this war? If North Korea and Iran can’t be coercively prevented from rearming over time, can Russia be? In an angry, isolated, still nuclear Russia, can we be confident that some even madder regime won’t emerge? Perhaps the best case scenario is that Russia becomes more comfortably, less bitterly, enmeshed in a reasonably rational, China-led bloc. But is that really likely? And can we do no better than a new cold war, with China and Russia on the other side, as our iffy very best-case scenario?

This war must come to an end quickly not just because every day it continues means death and destruction in Ukraine and risk to human life on all the planet. The war must come to an end quickly because we must start the work of building a future that is hopeful both for Ukraine and for Russia, upon which a hopeful future for the entire world depends. The longer and more bitterly the war drags on, the harder it will be to create that future.

Let’s work to end the war now, and build a durable prosperous peace, for Europe, the Americas, and also for Asia, Africa, the Indo-Pacific. We will always have our rivalries, but we can work together to make them constructive rivalries. We can no longer afford major war, between existing large powers, or with emerging powers like Iran. We cannot keep sleepwalking through history in habitual hostility, until something breaks that threatens all of our lives. We are too powerful to be so reckless and survive. Instead, let’s all survive, and thrive, in peace.

[*] A simple reform would be to impose obligations along with the right to veto upon permanent members of the Security Council. When the Security Council would have approved some action but for one or several permanent members’ veto, the power(s) that exercised the veto would become obliged to take a leadership role in ensuring a humane resolution of the crisis at issue diplomatically, without Council-authorized action. An independent inspector would simultaneously be convened, staffed by appointees of nations that would have acted, to report on and evaluate the vetoers’ diplomatic efforts. The intent of this would be to force vetoing powers at the Security Council if they act to shield their friends (Israel for the US, Serbia for Russia, etc.) to take some responsibility for their friends’ actions after the shielding. Another perhaps overdue reform might be to add a special joint permanent membership for India and Pakistan, so that when those two powers are agreed (and only then), they too have veto power. The world’s most populous nation should be a permanent member. But elevating post-partition India alone would empower one side of ongoing conflicts, for which maintaining some balance at the level of global diplomacy remains important.

Update History:

  • 17-May-2022, 1:40 p.m. PDT: “It is continued grievance, not ebullient confidence, that might render Russia a continuing danger following a peace.” Fix extent of blockquote, which mistakenly incorporated a paragraph of my text.

3 Responses to “Sweetening a peace”

  1. Sergej Novik writes:

    You biggest mistake is that you rationalize Russia and the “russian world” based on the western values. Russia, despite Russians being genetically Slavic, holds close to none of those values, and that ignoring the rest of its non-slavic population

  2. mpr writes:

    Except for some very fanciful items (all 3 Presidents resign), everything you suggest was more or less tried during the last 30 years, and especially after 2014 – as your essay more or less acknowledges. None of this outreach from the West changed the fact that Russia thinks is has a right to invade its neighbors, and this isn’t going to change now. Your plan would result in Russia rearming and coming back to finish the job in a few years, just as they did after 2014. The only solution is arm Ukraine to the teeth with Westerns weaponry, and squeeze Russia with sanctions indefinitely, or until there are substantial reforms.

  3. korual writes:

    The self-determination of the people of the Donbas and Crimea will have to be addressed in the peace to come.