Editor’s Note: Peter Paul Anatol Lieven is an Orwell-Prize winning journalist, a policy analyst, a professor at Georgetown University in Qatar and author of several books, including Ukraine and Russia: A Fraternal Rivalry.
The ceasefire in eastern Ukraine agreed to in February has been holding fairly well, despite intermittent violations by both sides. The problem is that the political process that was meant to accompany the ceasefire has barely been proceeding at all. This was meant to involve a consultative process to create a new more federal Ukrainian constitution, with some form of special autonomous status for the Donbas.
In March, President Poroshenko appointed a Constitutional Commission, but it does not include representatives of the Donbas separatists and does not appear willing to consider their proposals, which include both full autonomy for their region and non-aligned status for Ukraine as a whole—thereby precluding membership in NATO, though not necessarily the European Union.
The urgent need is now for Western and international diplomacy to engage closely with this process in order to bring about a compromise. For unless a peace settlement can be achieved in Ukraine, the possible futures facing Ukraine, Russia, and the West will range from the bad to the catastrophic.
Absent a settlement, the best outcome would be a new “frozen conflict”, of the sort that we have seen for so many years in the Caucasus, in Kashmir, between India and China and so on. Such conflicts can last a very long time and do not in themselves preclude economic growth and state development. However—as we saw in Georgia in August 2008 and at regular intervals between Pakistan and India—they are always liable to erupt into new battles.
This is all the more the case if both sides have a strong incentive to change the outcome on the ground and think that they have strong outside backing. This is true of the Donbas separatists today. If the USA—perhaps under a new administration after the 2016 elections—decides to arm the Kiev government, then in the future it could be the rue of the Ukrainian government side. This would replicate the Georgian disaster of August 2008, when President Mikhel Saakashvili launched a military attack on the South Ossetian separatists and their Russian defenders in the apparent belief that the USA would help Georgia—which it didn’t.
With massive US arms supplies, the Ukrainian army might well be able to launch an initially successful offensive against these forces and their local separatist allies. But what then? All the evidence suggests that the Russian government simply cannot afford the humiliation of a Ukrainian military victory. In other words, as in August 2008 in Georgia, Moscow would respond with greatly increased military force. If the USA then sent its own troops to help Ukraine, we would be in a European war between nuclear powers. If it did not, the Ukrainian army would be crushingly defeated and the West utterly humiliated.
Moreover, the needs of mobilizing Ukrainian nationalism and rallying support to support war against Russian separatists in the East run directly contrary to the needs of reforming Ukraine so as to bring it closer to the EU. In the course of this mobilization, the Kiev government has had to ally with oligarchs and their armed followings, generate extreme nationalist propaganda, ban opposition parties, and above all arm ultra-nationalist militias whose ideology is directly contrary to western liberal democracy, and which have been using violence to drive people of whom they disapprove out of public life. All of this may be useful for the struggle against the separatists—but Ukraine cannot possibly conduct needed reforms and move towards the West while these processes continue.
A Ukrainian peace settlement involving a federal system, enhanced autonomy for the Donbas and guaranteed neutrality (which of course would exclude both NATO membership and a military alliance with Russia) would meet the chief goals of Kiev, Moscow, and the West. In fact the only people it might not suit are the separatist leaders, with their dream of an independent militarized state under their own personal rule.
For Kiev and western governments, this agreement secures their most important goal of preserving the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine (minus Crimea), with a central government which preserves the ability to conduct desperately needed reforms.
For Russia, this deal preserves the Donbas as a distinct autonomous area within Ukraine. A federal constitution would also help guarantee the position of Russian-speaking areas of the country against any move to forced Ukrainianisation from Kiev.
It would also rule out NATO membership—which is a huge sticking point for Ukrainian nationalists and for Washington. However, NATO membership is useless for Ukraine, since NATO has now made it abundantly clear that it will never, under any circumstance, fight to defend Ukraine. But if Western leaders are not physically courageous enough to fight, they should have the moral courage to seek a reasonable deal.