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Ukraine and Russia: The Endgame

The key to the situation is to ask what any reasonable Russian government, tsarist, democratic, communist, or authoritarian would want.

(Asatur Yesayants/Shutterstock)

Many of the usual suspects who upheld America’s unwise wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan—and its ill-considered interventions in Yugoslavia, Syria, and Libya, with their destabilizing refugee flows—are predictably upholding Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s pre-Russian-invasion intransigence with regard to possible NATO membership for Ukraine. Blinken, as well as National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, are devoted Clintonistas who fully bought into the NATO expansion project opposed by George Kennan, William Perry, Jack Matlock and others.

This intransigence is set against what has long been apparent to me and many others: Post-Khrushchev Ukraine is an artificial construct. Its elections disclosed sharp fissures on regional, ethnic, and religious lines. Crimea, Russian until 1954, was a traditional seat of Russian culture and only 22 percent Ukrainian by 1959. The Donbas was Russia’s Rust Belt. Proceedings in the parliament of the united Ukraine resembled a rugby match more than normal parliamentary deliberations. The regime was at least as corrupt as Russia’s, and the country had a lower economic growth rate. The U.S. was wise not to make a serious issue of the Russian annexation of Crimea.


Putin’s further aggressions were obviously undertaken in the hope of precipitating a swift collapse of Ukraine and immediate union with Russia. That did not happen. But if Russia is to extract itself from his adventure, some incentives to do so are needed.

The key to the situation is to ask what any reasonable Russian government, tsarist, democratic, communist, or authoritarian would want. The answer is that it would want what the Soviet Union was effectively promised at Yalta and San Francisco: a role as one of the world’s Five Policemen. The Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, recently said as much, though no one was listening.

The post-war settlement originating at Tehran and Yalta contemplated a Holy Alliance of the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, not a world government founded on the equality of states, like the League of Nations. Such an arrangement, followed by the Concert of Europe and the conference system, produced a hundred years free of major wars. The U.N. was a focus of Roosevelt’s at both Tehran and Yalta, as shown in Robert Divine’s Roosevelt and World War II (1969) and Frank Costigliola’s Roosevelt’s Lost Alliances (2011).

Roosevelt’s concessions to Stalin at Yalta over such things as the Kuril Islands and Kaliningrad were justified as inducements for Soviet participation in the San Francisco Conference establishing the U.N., regarded by Roosevelt and his secretary of State, Edward Stettinius, as a great diplomatic victory. Subsequent Soviet and Russian foreign ministers, as well as Soviet President Gorbachev, urged the activation of the U.N.’s Military Committee as a peace-keeping device, as well as periodic conferences of the Big Five powers as contemplated by the U.N. Charter. President Nixon in one of his post-presidential books urged periodic great-power summit meetings on the Franco-German model instituted by De Gaulle and Adenauer.

At the least, institutionalizing those practices would be a face-saving gesture to the Russians, as would dedicating the several billion dollars of Russian assets seized by Western countries to compensate the families of the Russian and Ukrainian war dead. Instead, the State Department’s sanctions tsar gleefully celebrates the depletion-through-war of Russia’s foreign exchange reserves, as if an impoverished Russia would be a bastion of peace, rather than of anarchy. Any settlement should contemplate the abandonment of sanctions respecting all imports save military ones. The inefficacy of sanctions to induce peace has been demonstrated for forty-five years with Iran, sixty years with Cuba, and seventy years with North Korea.


While Ukraine has a legitimate interest in joining the E.U., it should do so on terms limiting the E.U. external tariffs on Russia–Ukraine trade. The E.U.’s relationship with the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) countries of Norway and Switzerland may provide an example here. Ukraine’s continued membership in the Commonwealth of Independent States should be not nominal, but real. In the Soviet era, the economies of Russia and the Ukraine were seriously interdependent. Russia understandably does not want a balkanization of the Soviet economy similar to the proliferation of tariff barriers that had a devastating effect on the successor states of the Romanov, Habsburg, Hohenzollern, and Ottoman empires between the wars.

While Western military aid of a largely unrestricted character should continue to be available to Ukraine owing to its recent experience, no Russian government would want full Ukranian membership in NATO, and even Norwegian and Danish membership is qualified by the limited presence of foreign military bases and troops on those countries' soil. Germany and France have in the past forestalled Ukraine's membership and no doubt will continue to do so. This does not seem to be a sticking point.

The leaders of both nations are entitled to assurance that they will not be extradited to the Hague or elsewhere. As the veteran Italian Foreign Minister Carlo Sforza pointed out, dictators are reluctant to dismount the tiger if they are going to wind up inside. The 19th century usage did not contemplate execution of defeated heads of state: Napoleon was packed off to Elba and then St. Helena; Emperors Wilhelm II of Germany, Karl of Austria-Hungary, and the last Sultan of Turkey were allowed to die abroad, and the leaders of the Communist states who voluntarily relinquished power in 1989 (the intransigent Ceausescu being an exception) were allowed to die peacefully in their own countries.

The only war crimes trials should be of leaders by their own nationals. It is sheer hypocrisy for a country, the U.S., that has not joined the International Criminal Court to demand or assist extraditions to it, lest its officials cast themselves as successors to the murderers of the tsar and his family at Ekaterinburg.

Whatever chance there was of a complete “velvet divorce" of Russia and the Ukraine was not aided by our support of an Orange Revolution. (Remember “cookies on the Maidan” distributed by a person who is still, appallingly, a high officer of our State Department?) The effectiveness of Ukrainian resistance to Russia was due less to a great upsurge in Ukrainian unity and patriotism than to our provision to Ukraine of some $30 billion in military aid since 1989, more than has flowed to any other country save Israel and Egypt.

Any resolution of the conflict should seek not a “hard border” or iron curtain, like that between India and Pakistan, but rather a renewed interdependence, with joint tourism, railroad and civil aviation, postal authorities, and representation by the two countries on the directorates of at least some cultural institutions.

Article 19 of the League of Nations Covenant secured by Lloyd George after his subordinates remonstrated against the draconian provisions of the Treaty of Versailles, allowed revision of treaties with the consent of the League of Nations Council, which in its early days arbitrated a number of disputes. It would not be a great stretch to allow the U.N. Security Council to do the same thing.

The fundamental insight here, when our justified indignation at Putin’s brutality has subsided, is that asserted by Lavrov: a Pax Americana is no longer sustainable. “We cannot be the policemen of the world,” Andrew Bonar Law said in saving Britain and Turkey from a disastrous war in 1920. We no longer live in the world of the ’50s, in which all the other great powers had bombed each other into smithereens. The permanent members and the institution we designed to preserve world order must be respected in their roles. Recognizing reasonable spheres of influence is part of that. Ukraine, under duress, now seems willing to renounce its quest for NATO membership. In the Minsk agreement it conceded substantial autonomy to a defined part of Donetsk and Luhansk.

To this observer, it seems unlikely that Russia will continue to attempt to conquer and permanently subordinate Ukraine. The costs are far higher than it anticipated; after a decent or indecent interval, Putin’s adventurism will be rewarded by Khrushchev’s fate. The Russians have probably not forgotten that it required several years and several thousand lives to subdue a Western-aided insurgency in the Ukraine in the wake of World War II. The Russian regime, deplorable as we may find it, is not a personal dictatorship like that of Saddam or Gaddafi; it has probably been a mistake on our part to pretend otherwise.

It will remain for us to defenestrate Blinken and Sullivan. It is worth remembering that their counterparts, Rusk and Bundy, derided Adlai Stevenson for his early advice to trade Russian missiles in Cuba for American missiles in Turkey. That was precisely the deal to which the blusterers ultimately agreed, after coming within a hair’s breadth of precipitating a nuclear exchange, though they concealed the fact for several years in deference to the political ambitions of Robert Kennedy. Rusk and Bundy survived in their offices, to the nation’s subsequent regret in Vietnam. Blinken and Sullivan should not be allowed to do likewise.