By Harry C. Blaney III
A number of observers and commentators have recently argued for some kind of accommodation with President V. Putin. Essentially, they wish to avoid an escalation of the conflict to a level of existential risk for both sides. The basic argument has been that Putin can’t afford to be seen as the “loser” in his effort to control Ukraine, while also preventing its drift towards an open society as part of the democratic Western Europe. In sum, they argue for some kind of accommodation for the sake of letting him achieve his goals, and thus hope to avoid igniting a dangerous conflict. I agree with part of this argument, as long as we can find a way for Ukraine to maintain its independence and its desire to be part of the larger democratic and free Europe.
The problem is that proposed scenarios would bar Ukraine from entering either the EU or NATO. In return, Putin would give the West a promise that he would respect Ukrainian integrity and independence. What is left open by some commentators is the question of the exact degree to which Eastern Ukraine would remain independent. This is a vital issue, as to give too much power to the East could end up undermining the true independence, democracy, and integrity of Ukraine itself.
My view is that the West can’t deny to an important independent nation of nearly 46 million people the right to make democratic choices and shape its own destiny. To try and control this would only result in a “win” for Russia, and a long-term loss for Ukraine and Europe at large. It would also endanger the security of vulnerable nations under the threat of Putin, who would feel he could act with impunity in the region he views as his “Near Abroad.”
Who would not want to calm and dampen down the current Ukraine/Russia confrontation? And, with reasonable people and leaders, there is likely to be some path towards that objective.
But, is there likely a better “bargain” to be had? And, if so, would Putin accept it? The key problem is the question of whether Putin truly is an “absolutist,” and bent on getting it all to go his way. If so, under any Putin-dictated “deal,” Ukraine simply becomes an appendage of Putin’s ruthless whims.
If there is to be a compromise, it must include a willing and free choice by the central Ukrainian government and people. This is a right the West can’t deny. It is they who have to live forever in this dangerous neighborhood – not America and not even the EU. Voices out of Germany that urge a Ukrainian surrender seem – given their history – rather grotesque.
For those seeking a peaceful path, one has to assume many things. One, that Putin is a man of his word and, if he promises to not interfere with Ukrainian independence, he will respect that promise. The problem is that Putin already reneged on the 1994 agreement to respect Ukraine’s independence as part of Ukraine’s decision to give up nuclear weapons on its own territory. Then, Putin lied about the participation of Russia’s special operations force in Crimea. He lied again about the false election there and said that the choice was free and accurate. Now, he is lying about the participation of his special forces in Eastern Ukraine, lying about sending in major weapons systems, lying about who shot down MH17, and lying about Russian forces on the Ukrainian border (now numbering near 45,000).
The Ukrainians must be asking themselves: what is the value of any high-level guarantees? It would seem that only some firm security guarantees from the West would make Putin’s promises believable. Is the West willing to give that guarantee? Ukraine has already signed an association agreement with the EU. Ukrainians in the western part of the country have shown that they want to become part of a democratic and modern Europe. EU membership has to be a possible medium-to-long-term option. As for NATO membership, this can be put off for many reasons. But, again, in return, the West would have to give some other pledge of security support to ensure that Russia does not one day decide to run its forces over Ukraine while the West looks on, wagging its finger at Putin.
Some of these same writers have argued that President Obama does not have a strategic plan for Ukraine. Others feel that he has not sincerely attempted to reach a deal with Putin. This is, of course, another provocation on the part of our war hawks who got us into the Iraq war in the first place and who would get us into every possible war anywhere. In his talks with Obama, Putin has lied about his actions and intent. Obama has made numerous calls to Putin to try and work out a deal, but all of these have fallen on deaf ears and have resulted in more military build-up.
Still, we should seek a “good” compromise via diplomacy. We must find, as some might say, an “off ramp” to this confrontation. It is not enough to have the terms so vague as to justify another act of aggression. One of the great problems is to assume that someone with a consistent record will change; it is like believing a leopard can shed its spots. In short, we need the kind of assurances that are real and can be enforced, while also giving in some areas to ensure a fair deal for Russia. War can be avoided. Has Putin, like Obama, made an assessment of the real interests of Russians?
As many of us say: “war is not the answer.” But, in this, it takes two to tango.
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