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A Possible Peace

Could both sides inch toward a settlement?

Russian President Vladimir Putin Hosts Ceremony With Separatist Leaders Of Ukrainian Regions After Referendum
Russian President Vladimir Putin with Ukrainian regional separatist leaders attends the annexation ceremony of four Ukrainian regions at the Grand Kremlin Palace, September 30, 2022 in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Contributor/Getty Images)

The war in Ukraine has reached a level of danger unimagined at the start. With Russia formally absorbing Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia into Russia on October 5, those regions are now regarded by Russia as part of its territory. That means that Russia will see any attack on those regions as an attack on Russia. Such an attack would justify, in the words of Putin, the “use of all weapon systems available to us.” Such attacks are inevitable; indeed, they are taking place now. There is an urgent need for a negotiated settlement to the war.

Recent statements have suggested the outlines of what such a settlement might look like. Unfortunately, those outlines are tragically like the ones that existed on the eve of the war.

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On September 30, in response to Russia’s annexation of the Donbas, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky applied for “accelerated ascension” into NATO. He did not get the response he hoped for. Despite the months of NATO assistance and Ukrainian suffering, the response was unchanged from prior to the war. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg still said that NATO’s door is open to all European countries. But he again closed the door, reminding Zelensky that he had to settle for NATO’s “focus now [being] on providing immediate support to Ukraine to help Ukraine defend itself against Russia’s brutal invasion.” National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan once again bolted the door, saying Ukraine’s application “should be taken up at a different time.”

Zelensky made his case for ascension by pointing out that “De facto, we have already made our way to NATO. De facto, we have already proven compatibility with Alliance standards. They are real for Ukraine — real on the battlefield and in all aspects of our interaction. We trust each other, we help each other, and we protect each other.” That the painful battlefield proof of the reality of de facto NATO membership has changed nothing highlights, once again, that NATO membership is out of reach for Ukraine for the foreseeable future. Since that is de facto the case, making it de jure the case practically changes nothing. But, in terms of a hopeful settlement, it could change everything.

A possible negotiated settlement could start with the realization that Ukraine will not become a member of NATO. That seems to be something that Zelensky was prepared to accept as early as March and again during the April talks in Istanbul, when Ukraine seemed poised to agree to outlines of a settlement that would have included the promise not to seek NATO membership before, according to Putin, “the West . . . actually ordered [Kiev] to wreck all these agreements.” Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu lends credence to Putin’s claim with his charge that the promise of peace had been killed by "countries within NATO who want the war to continue." This point of past agreement could be returned to. That Ukraine will not join NATO will remain true either way.

Also on September 30, Putin called for Ukraine “to return back to the negotiating table.” However, he stipulated that “the choice of the people in Donetsk, Lugansk, Zaporozhye, and Kherson will not be discussed. The decision has been made, and Russia will not betray it. Kiev’s current authorities should respect this free expression of the people’s will; there is no other way. This is the only way to peace.” Though perhaps slightly swollen in territory, that too has been on the table from the start. Autonomy for the Donbas was an essential part of the Minsk II agreement that was brokered by Germany and France, signed by Russia and Ukraine and backed by the U.S. and the U.N. Implementing Minsk II was part of Zelensky’s successful election platform.

Though he has clearly changed his mind and is now insisting on the return of not only the Donbas but also Crimea as a criterion for ending the war, in December 2021, Zelensky was open to the possibility of those regions remaining within Russia, saying “I do not rule out a referendum on Donbass in general. It might be about Donbass, it might be about Crimea." As recently as March 8, Zelensky was still saying that he is open to discussions on "compromises in Crimea" and that he "is ready to hold a dialogue with Russia on security guarantees, on the future of the occupied territories of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions [and] Crimea." Although he said that "We cannot recognize that Crimea is the territory of Russia," he also said, "But we can discuss with Russia the future of Crimea and Donbas." He added that “Ukraine is ready to hold a dialogue with Russia on . . . the future of the occupied territories of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.” At the Istanbul talks, the two sides seem to have tentatively agreed that there would be a compromise on territory, with Russia withdrawing “to its position on February 23, when it controlled part of the Donbas region and all of Crimea.”

A possible negotiated settlement could start with the realization that Crimea and the eastern regions will have, at least, their autonomy. Short of a complete Ukrainian victory, which is not only unlikely but would risk a severely escalated war with Russia, and possibly even a nuclear war, Crimea and the eastern regions will be something less than part of Ukraine. That status has evolved from autonomous to independent to being part of Russia. That too, with negotiations on the exact boundaries—which Russia has at times suggested might still need to be determined—could become official without changing the already determined facts on the ground.

Of course, both sides would have to agree to a ceasefire. Russia would have to provide guarantees that they would not invade further into Ukraine than the agreed upon borders. Just as Ukraine would have to promise not to go into NATO, NATO would have to promise that it would not go into Ukraine: it could not use Ukraine as a base for weapons that could be used to attack Russia. Ukraine would need to receive some security guarantees. All the points in this outline of a possible settlement have been suggested by recent remarks. They provide a place to start diplomacy when the time is urgent and the window small.

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