Here’s what a realistic Ukraine settlement may look like

Here’s what a realistic Ukraine settlement may look like

Josh Cohen
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis wants to supply Ukraine with “defensive weapons” to combat the Russian-supported separatists occupying parts of eastern Ukraine.

Yet however justified the outrage over Moscow’s behavior, retaliation is risky. If the US arms Ukraine, the Kremlin will almost certainly respond in ways that could damage American national security interests, such as sending additional troops or arms to support its separatist proxies in Ukraine or retaliating against American interests in other parts of the world.

Bringing an end to the war will require creative diplomacy along with some unpleasant compromises by both sides, but it can be done. Here’s what a realistic settlement might look like:

To begin, the possibility of Ukraine’s joining NATO should be taken off the table. Ukrainian membership in the organization remains a neuralgic issue for the Kremlin, with Putin saying in his 2014 speech announcing the annexation of Crimea that Kiev’s statements about Ukraine soon joining NATO “would create not an illusory but a perfectly real threat to the whole of southern Russia.”

Keeping Ukraine out of NATO wouldn’t be a big sacrifice for its members. Russia’s overwhelming military strength in the Black Sea region makes it unlikely NATO could effectively defend Ukraine and many NATO countries don’t support Kiev’s admission anyway, so Kiev gives up little by foregoing NATO membership while potentially setting itself up to demand concessions from Moscow in other areas.

In exchange for concessions on NATO, Moscow must accept it cannot block Ukraine’s right to pursue membership in the EU - a priority for Kiev. This will be difficult for Moscow since it wants Ukraine to join a Russian-dominated free trade bloc aimed at consolidating Russian influence in the former Soviet Union.

However it’s time for the Kremlin to accept that Kiev wants a decisive break from Russia’s orbit - and Washington should make clear to Moscow it has no right to prevent Ukraine from pursuing what it sees as its Western destiny.

Once these two geopolitical issues are resolved it will be easier for Washington to help Russia and Ukraine to reach agreement in other areas. Any final deal must require that the Kremlin end military support for its separatist proxies in Eastern Ukraine and allow Kiev to regain full control over its border with Russia. In exchange, Kiev should forswear using military force to reclaim and offer some kind of autonomy to its separatist-occupied eastern territories.

The issue of Crimea may be hardest to solve. Moscow says that it considers Crimea part of Russia while Ukrainian officials insist it’s part of Ukraine. For this reason, any final agreement may have to defer negotiations over Crimea – perhaps by suggesting some kind of formula for shared sovereignty or Russian payment to Ukraine for the territory taken. The US can make this more palatable to Ukraine by not recognizing Crimea is part of Russia until a deal on the peninsula’s status acceptable to Kiev is reached.

Forging a deal of this sort won’t be easy. Putin may not settle for anything other than pulling Ukraine back into the Russian orbit, while Kiev may consider any deal preventing NATO membership or fudging on Crimea to be unacceptable. However, the US could provide a sweetener such as offering to ease sanctions against Russia while Ukraine could be offered assistance in rebuilding its war-torn Donbass region.
These are hard compromises. But they beat the alternative of an endless war.

*The full text of this article was published by Reuters