Fragments from a War Diary, Part #152
The other day a young Ukrainian man with whom I was discussing the war and geopolitics told me that Ukraine would be prepared to give up the occupied territories in exchange for security guarantees - although, he added, many of his fellow nationals would not agree with him. I had to think for a considerable period about this unusual assertion and what it might mean in terms of western policy for Ukraine. And I thought I would share some of my preliminary ideas with you.
The first thing that occurred to me about this assertion, assuming I am some sort of representative or typical voice of the West (which I am not), is that I was the wrong person to be saying this to because Ukraine is not negotiating with the West about Russia; the party with whom to negotiate (if at all) is Russia. There are no effective negotiations underway at the moment. Nor can the West be used as a proxy for negotiating with Russia, because we are not speaking with Russia either. Therefore I was the wrong person to be “bargaining” with. Nevertheless the statement struck me as having a sort of common sense in the context of what I am going to call the buffer state mentality and I would like to explain what I mean by that.
A number of nations, particularly in Europe, have found themselves wedged between larger powers and Ukraine is one of those nations. Buffer states are used to borders changing frequently and they are used to being invaded, as the competing large powers adjacent to them jostle for influence and they use disputes over the territory and governance of the buffer state as actual or proverbial battlegrounds for their differences. At least this has been the model for much of European history. In the words of one American colleague of mine, “the problem with buffer states is that they get buffered” - pushed around relentlessly. In the face of such international pressures from both sides, they get used to a mentality in which you negotiate with both sides simultaneously and try to play them off each against the other in order to get the best deal for yourself and to avoid being harmed. You accept that you may switch allegiances in order to get the best deal from time to time and therefore you are engaged in a constant exercise of negotiation with every side. Hence my friend was negotiating with me as an imagined western representative with terms to the effect that Ukraine would secede territory to Russia - something the West does not want Ukraine to do - in exchange for NATO membership and hence NATO troops on Ukrainian soil. It is a strange sort of negotiating strategy to offer your negotiating counterpart something they do not want in exchange for something you do want.
Ukraine has now irrevocably committed itself to the West, and although I am no representative of the West’s thinking in general I can say that I think the vast majority of people in the West are delighted with that fact and the opportunities it provides to Ukraine and her people to move permanently out of the Russian orbit and dramatically reform Ukrainian society. Moreover the model of Euro-Atlantic integration into which Ukraine is now irreversibly shifting is one that has discarded the “balance of power” model of rival empires doing battle over proxy territories called buffer states and instead European states now live in a system of common laws that we hope are more or less impartially enforced. This consists of European Union law, European Human Rights law and the international law of nations that European countries pride themselves on upholding as key to stability and increasing prosperity amongst ever more of Europe since 1945. Therefore Ukraine must stop thinking of herself as a buffer state and instead start thinking as an equal member of the European community of nations, albeit one which everyone acknowledges has a lot of work to do in order to meet European standards for public administration reform and the rule of law. I do not think that this is a matter for negotiation; as the recent visit of the European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen to Kyiv has shown, Ukraine is welcome to join both the European Union and NATO provided that she works with her Euro-Atlantic partners to improve institutional quality.
As to the security guarantees, Ukraine has them because the West has been funnelling massive quantities of money and arms into Ukraine in order to prevent the Russian Armed Forces from overrunning the country. The problem we are facing is that the Russians are extremely well dug in along a natural series of geographical boundaries in the south and east of Ukraine and we do not currently have a military solution for removing them from those territories.
I do not think the Ukrainian people would accept a peace agreement with Russia that partitioned Ukraine at this time - and possibly never. However what might be possible is an armistice - an agreement to lay down arms pending some further process. This was the model for the partition of Korea in 1953 and it generated a slew of problems including the need for a “Demilitarised Zone” in which North Korean and South Korean troops face off against one-another, with a US military presence keeping the sides apart. That might be one de facto model for an armistice in Ukraine, with Kherson becoming an internationalised city on the front line, full of NATO troops facing off against their Russian counterparts. However we are a long way from that at the moment as the fighting continues to rage in Kherson and the city and its residents are being steadily destroyed and killed.
This sort of renewed and refreshed thinking about how to end the war in Ukraine is profoundly unpalatable for both Ukrainians and for the West alike, who have spent vast quantities of blood and treasure in resisting the Russian invasion of Ukrainian territory. Everything will turn not on political negotiations but upon the question of whether a renewed military offensive can change the facts on the ground and push the Russians back. We have been trying, Ukraine with her heroic armed forces and the West alike with our advice and guidance and support; but we have not in the last twelve months been hugely successful. This gloomy and sobering thought may weigh heavy in our political calculations of what is necessary to bring peace to Ukraine and to assist her in her now inevitable path towards the reforms necessary to be fully embraced by the Euro-Atlantic institutions.