Both Kyiv and the West want a full and stable truce with Moscow – sooner rather than later.
Why and how Ukrainian national interest currently contradicts a ceasefire with Russia is clear: Kyiv’s problem in negotiating with Moscow is that an agreement with the Kremlin now will not lead to the full restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. It will also not protect Ukraine from continuing Russian imperialism and anti-Ukrainianism.
According to most Ukrainians and other Eastern Europeans, talking to the current Russian government about accommodation is a waste of time. Only after a crushing defeat of Russia is a lasting condominium between Moscow and Kyiv feasible. As in earlier periods of Tsarist and Soviet history, a military disaster may trigger fundamental domestic change in Russia.
Western countries, as well as other states across the globe, face a different dilemma.
They may be more equivocal toward Putin’s idiosyncrasies, Russia’s future, and Ukraine’s sovereignty. Western capitals may worry far less than Kyiv about the long-term prospects of a ceasefire or peace agreement. Electoral cycles in democratic states suggest to politicians in pursuit of public offices to look for quick solutions today rather than engaging in multi-year stand-offs.
The cynics' challenge
Many in Washington, Brussels, Paris, or Berlin – not to mention capitals in Asia, Africa, or Latin America – may view Russia’s war against Ukraine as a far-away regional, post-Soviet, and/or Slavic dispute. Some politicians continue to argue openly that this Eastern European confrontation is of little concern to them.
Ukraine is geographically, culturally, historically, and politically remote from most Western actors’ homelands. That could be seen to imply for their governments that financial, military, and political investment in Ukraine’s defense, security, and recovery should be limited or even discontinued. It could also be seen to mean that a bad but soon peace now is preferable to a noble but long military confrontation.
Even politicians and governments unconcerned about justice, freedom, and self-determination cannot separate, however, their behavior vis-à-vis Moscow and Kyiv from issues of global stability and security. Ukraine is – like Russia – part and parcel of the world’s political and legal order. It constitutes a full member of the international community of states.
Already in 1945-91, the Ukrainian Soviet republic was, unlike the Russian Soviet republic, a non-sovereign participant of the United Nations.
Ukraine became, after gaining independence in August 1991, not only a regular member of the UN as a fully sovereign state. It is today also an orderly participant of the Council of Europe, OSCE, and Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, as well as many other international organizations, regulations, and agreements.
The Kremlin's gauntlet
For this reason, Russia has, already with its illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014, created a fundamental problem for the international community of states – including those governments caring little for the fate of the Ukrainian people and state.
Moscow insists that the Ukrainian nation and state have no full value. The structure, logic, and functioning of international order, trans-border cooperation, and the security system suppose, however, that it does.
Eight years after its armed capture of Crimea, Moscow doubled down on its denial of Ukrainian statehood. Again illegally and even more unashamedly, Russia annexed yet four more regions, now in Ukraine’s southeastern mainland.
This additional demonstrative violation of international law, as well as Moscow’s escalating terror campaign against Ukraine’s civilians since Feb. 24, 2022, have increased the stakes. The war’s course, duration, outcome, and repercussions have become ever more fateful not only for Ukraine, but also for the solidity of the planet’s order of sovereign states.
Nine years ago, the Kremlin’s story about the allegedly disputed status of Crimea was partly bought by the international community. Today, in contrast, only a few politicians, diplomats, and experts would any longer accept the Kremlin’s odious justifications for Russia’s outrageous behavior in Ukraine.
The Kremlin still provides putative explanations as to why Ukraine does not have the right to exist, at least not in its internationally recognized borders. Moscow continues its selective presentation and plain falsification of Ukrainian history, law, politics, culture, etc. All of this is meant to substantiate the Kremlin’s claim that Ukraine is “not really a thing.”
International order, adieu?
The problem of the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign is not only and not so much its factual inaccuracies and cherry-picking of events in Ukrainian history. Moscow’s more fundamental challenge with its narrative about Ukraine is that rhetorically similar stories could be told about many countries.
Most states and territories across the globe had confusing histories, contradictory allegiances, and odd episodes during their ancient and recent pasts. Some have until today disputed territories and ambivalent identities. All countries of the world did, like Ukraine, not exist at one time. They were all once not real nations, and had, like Ukraine, different borders.
In spite of the explosiveness of Moscow’s behavior for the international system of states, the Kremlin insists that Pandora’s Box is empty. Worse, Russia is, in doing so, not just any country in the post-Cold War world. It has inherited from the Soviet Union a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), and the status as an official nuclear-weapon state under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
The Russian Federation is one of those five members of the community of peoples which have special rights and responsibility for upholding the order of states, world security, and international law. With its actions, Moscow is undermining the most fundamental principles of the UN Charter.
Russia is turning the logic of the worldwide regime to prevent the spread of atomic arms and the exceptional status of the five official nuclear-weapon states on its head. The UNSC and NPT have, in Russia’s hands, become instruments not of stabilizing but of undermining the international order.
Nevertheless, peace now?
Most self-proclaimed pragmatists and pacificists who argue for a land-for-peace deal are not on the payroll of the Kremlin. They may have little sympathy for Putin & Co. Some express empathy for Ukraine and its people. Their ceasefire and peace proposals are drawn in the belief that they correspond to the assumed real interests of the Ukrainian people.
Yet, the supposed pragmatists seem to be unwilling or unable to consider all consequences of their pacifist plans.
First, a land-for-peace deal with Moscow begs the question of what kind of truce in eastern and southern Ukraine this can lead to. The local population in Ukraine’s Russian-occupied territories has been exposed to deportations, torture, executions, expropriations, and other human rights violations. Many of the ceasefire advocates are prone to moralistic argumentation. They typically avoid, however, the fundamental ethical issue of prolonging Russia’s terroristic occupation regime in parts of Ukraine.
Second, the various peace plans either ex- or implicitly foresee a temporary or even permanent limitation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity or/and political sovereignty. Among the most popular proposals are leaving Crimea under Moscow’s control or/and excluding Ukraine’s NATO accession. This would, however, create a problem not only for Ukraine. It would also send an ambivalent global signal.
Following such a path to peace implies that the territory, freedom, and independence of a full UN member would be constrained not only by Russia. An internationally promoted compromise would mean that other countries too become complicit in subverting the international order.
This course of action would repeat France’s and Germany’s dubious pressure on Ukraine within the infamous “Normandy Format” of 2014-21. After using large-scale military violence and nuclear blackmail, Russia would again be officially allowed and supported, by a multilateral group, to harvest the fruits of its aggression.
What authority and legitimacy will the UN system and European security order have if Russia gets away with violating dozens of bi- and multilateral commitments it has taken upon itself in various international treaties and organizations?
If a larger community of states promotes and accepts a deal resulting in net gains for Russia, this would not only fail to respect Ukraine’s political sovereignty and territorial integrity. It would also contradict these countries’ obligations, according to international law, not to legitimize the spoils of military conquest.
Even a partial satisfaction of Moscow’s political and territorial demands may send a message to certain countries around the world that may try to be as “smart” as Russia. Why should other relatively powerful countries in different parts of the world not attempt, with some semi-plausible apology, to do things to their neighbors similar to those which Russia did to its southwestern “brother nation?” Aren’t other territories around the world not as disputed and as much waiting to be brought home as so-called “Novorossiia” or “New Russia” (i.e., Ukraine’s east and south)?
Worse, several or even many smaller nations around the world might want to make sure they do not end up in the shoes of the Ukrainians. Why would governments of relatively weak states across the world continue to rely on international law and organizations for the protection of their borders, territory, and independence?
If Western governments and other influential states signal that they cannot be counted on as defenders of the international order, perhaps, other instruments may be necessary for self-defense, such as chemical agents or nuclear warheads?
The slow and half-hearted reaction of the international community to Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, hybrid war in the Donbas in 2014-2021, and large-scale invasion since Feb. 24, 2022, has already done damage to the international system. The implementation of a well-sounding peace plan may temporarily end the fighting in Ukraine today. Yet, it would further deepen the already worrisome cracks in the world order.
A multilaterally sponsored land-for-peace deal between Russia and Ukraine would acknowledge that might is right. This admission would derail not only the international liberal order, but world security and stability in general. It would do lasting damage to the worldwide regime for the non-proliferation of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction.
The Russian armed aggression and genocidal campaign against the Ukrainian nation cannot be fully reversed with non-military means. There is thus no other way than to meet force by force. This is in full accordance with international law, in general, and the UN Charter’s Article 51, in particular.
Compromises, concessions, and other allowances to an aggressor state are no way toward a durable peace in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. A land-for-peace deal would do lasting damage to the rules-based international order and future rule of international law.
This article has been written within a larger SCEEUS project on hindrances to a Russian-Ukrainian truce. (See: https://sceeus.se/en/publications/)
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in the op-ed section are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the views of the Kyiv Independent.