Peace under the supervision of the UN and China?

Ukraine’s period of good international fortune is coming to an end and it will have to decide on peace, under pressure that until recently seemed unthinkable. This is due in part to the growing economic problems of the world and the inevitable political changes in the United States. President Volodymyr Zelensky will likely be discreetly persuaded to start a peace initiative after the spring-summer offensive.

The truth is brutal: the territorial borders and shape of Ukraine’s independence lie in the hands of Ukrainian soldiers who are dying on the battlefield. The West, which currently supports this fight “as long as it takes,” to quote President Joe Biden, will not always take this stance. Therefore, the Ukrainian offensive, which everyone is waiting for with increasingly heavy hearts, will decide everything. Meanwhile, in Western decision-making circles, plans are being made for what peace might look like, and when necessary, imposed on Ukraine.

Of course, Ukrainians will not have to accept such an agreement and probably will not want to, but the suspension or significant reduction of military and economic aid will force them to give in. They are now waging their war successfully only because they are receiving enormous support. They will also have to come to terms with the knowledge that restoring the territorial integrity of their country, so brutally and unfairly attacked, will not be the only goal of peace talks. Perhaps not even the most important one.

Wishful thinking, or the place not at the table

This is how one should probably understand the text published over a month ago by the veteran of American diplomacy, the over 90-year-old Thomas R. Pickering, who in the past served as an ambassador to Russia and the United Nations, among others. He titled his lengthy analysis simply: “How to prepare for peace talks in Ukraine.” As for the goal of these talks, he listed achieving peace between Russia and Ukraine in the first place, emphasising that this is “obviously” the most important goal.

Immediately thereafter, however, Pickering stated that the United States and their European partners will certainly want such a peace agreement to make the entire region more stable in terms of security. Finally, he mentioned the stabilisation of mutual relations between the United States and Russia, “especially in the nuclear arena.” One can assume that in more confidential talks, the ambassador would be inclined to reverse the hierarchy of goals. It was very clear from his article that he would like to show Ukraine its proper place, which is rather a place in the ranks, rather than at the table where decisions are made.
Thomas Pickering at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists conference (founded in 1947 by scientists from the Manhattan Project), which moves the hands of the “Doomsday Clock” in case of threats. It warns how close we are to the destruction of civilisation – i.e. midnight. In 2023 – after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, climate threats and advancing technology – the world is only one and a half minutes away from extinction. Photo: PAP/EPA/Matthew Cavanaugh
Pickering emphasised the role of the UN and the need to create a broad coalition of states to facilitate peace talks in Ukraine. He mentioned China, Turkey, and the European Union as potential members of such a coalition. As for the disputed territories, including Crimea, which were under Ukraine’s sovereign rule before 2014, Pickering proposed to place them under the management of the UN administration for a transitional period of 3-5 years, followed by fair referenda. He also wanted Ukraine to take care of its Russian-speaking minority after the war, using Quebec as an example of good treatment of linguistically diverse groups.

The latter idea may indicate that Pickering, who was an ambassador to Russia from 1993-96 – a period of significant weakening of that country and a time when the West had hopes for the development of civil society and democracy there – is not fully aware of what Russia is currently under Vladimir Putin’s rule. Expecting the Russian dictator to allow fair referenda and comparing the situation in regions infiltrated by his people to the situation in Quebec is pure fantasy. Or as Melchior Wańkowicz used to say, “wishful thinking.”

However, the lucubrations of the aged diplomat were only a prelude to a much more serious presentation authored by Richard Haass and Charles Kupchan, which appeared in Foreign Affairs almost exactly a month after Pickering’s article. Haass is a long-standing president of the prestigious think tank, the Council on Foreign Relations, and previously held prominent positions in the State Department and the administration of President George H.W. Bush, although he is retiring now. Kupchan is his colleague at CFR and a political science professor at Georgetown University.

  They published an article arguing that the West needs a “new strategy” for Ukraine and should adopt a position that would “acknowledge realities without sacrificing principles.” Anyone who has ever read political or diplomatic speeches immediately recognises what this means: since the realities are not on our side and cannot be changed, and principles cannot be sacrificed because it would look bad, the only way to reconcile the two is to reorient the principles so that they still remain “principles,” but better align with realities.

In other words, Haas and Kupchan proposed to leave in place the principle formulated by President Biden that assistance to Ukraine will last “as long as it takes” – meaning that the principles will remain in force. However, this principle should be defined in terms of time. Specifically, it should be valid until the end of this year, and specifically until the weather prevents offensive operations by the Ukrainian army. The United States should support Kyiv with military deliveries as strongly as possible to give Ukrainians a chance to recapture as much of the territory occupied by the Russians as possible. After that time, however, the United States and Europe will have, as the authors write, “good reason” to stop the policy symbolised by the phrase “as long as it takes.”

Crimea and Donbas “sold” for 3 trillion dollars?

What will the new “principles” look like? “Maintaining the existence of Ukraine as a sovereign and secure democracy is a priority, but this goal does not require this country to regain full control over Crimea and Donbas,” wrote Haas and Kupchan. For war-torn Ukraine, such a solution must have sounded brutal. This is because, as both authors write, the world economy requires it, which – according to OECD estimates – will grow by an amount nearly three trillion dollars less in 2023 due to the war than it would have if the war had not been waged. Economic problems also cause political unrest “from France to Peru,” and furthermore, the war intensifies the geopolitical rivalry between the democracies of the West and the Chinese-Russian bloc. In this way, Haas and Kupchan showed what it means to “balance the reasoning between various priorities.”

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The authors, like Pickering, also recognise that the end of the fighting should be supervised by international organisations, mentioning the UN or OSCE. And also by “influential countries” such as China and India, who should be asked to support the proposal for a ceasefire. It does not seem that they overly focus on assessing the feasibility of this plan. They do not address the problematic role of the OSCE in monitoring the situation in eastern Ukraine since 2014 at least. They do not ask the question of what forces could be part of a possible UN contingent and what it could do if one of the sides decided to attack after some time. They are not interested in whether “influential countries” would be willing to participate in the implementation of such a plan and what their declared and actual role could be.

What is important in this article and in this plan is something completely different. Again, similar to Ambassador Pickering, Haas and Kupchan are most interested in building an agreement with Russia on security. They write: “NATO allies would initiate a strategic dialogue with Russia on arms control and a broader European security architecture.”

As an example that such a dialogue is possible, the authors cite the “2 plus 4” talks, when after the end of the Cold War, the reunification of both German states was negotiated with the participation of the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union. Haas was then in President Bush’s team and probably that is why he considers this model useful, but the shortsightedness of this belief is obvious. Comparing the shaky and collapsing Soviet Union under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, dismantling the communist system, to the consistently building authoritarian and dictatorial system of Putin’s Russia could only come to the minds of analysts who were accustomed to comfortable chairs and soft carpets in the decision-making institutions of the Western world…

But what if, after achieving and stabilising the ceasefire, such designed peace talks did not succeed, which seems quite likely? Haas and Kupchan believe that… we should not worry about it. They cite the Korean Peninsula and Cyprus as two places in the world where no agreement was reached after the ceasefire and the parties are formally still in a state of war. In their opinion, this is certainly not an ideal solution, but always better than the intense state of war that existed before. They write: “This formula reconciles strategic pragmatism with political principles. Peace in Ukraine cannot be held hostage to war goals that, although morally justified, are probably unattainable.”

The “security pact” is dangerous for Poland and Ukraine.

As an incentive for Ukrainians to accept such a plan, one can view the mentioned guarantees in the form of a “formalised security pact” quite generally. However, it is difficult to guess from the article what the nature of this “formalisation” would be. One thing is certain: these would not be guarantees from the entire NATO alliance, but would involve the participation of the United States.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenski greets Polish soldiers during his visit to Warsaw. Next to him is Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki. 5 April 2023 Photo: Marcin Banaszkiewicz / FotoNews / Forum
It can be expected that Poland would certainly be invited to participate in such a pact as the only military force in the region capable of real action in the near future. I do not expect Germany to join, as they would probably hide behind a thousand excellent justifications related to the realisation of their famous mission resulting from the fact that they caused two world wars in the past.

And I do not think that Poland should agree to play the role of the only de facto guarantor of Ukraine’s security in Europe. Because in this way, Western European countries would perfidiously exploit both Poland and Ukraine to ensure their own security. Even if the United Kingdom and smaller Central and Eastern European countries were to join the pact, the burden of real actions would not rest on them. And for Germany and France, we would simply be a front line. Both us and Ukrainians. The idea of Haas and Kupchan is simply dangerous, creating a category of “frontline” countries, which would of course include Ukraine, but also Poland and at least the Baltic countries.

As I mentioned earlier, the idea of a “security pact” should be rather seen as a bitter pill for Ukraine to swallow. And in the end, as the authors of the analysis write, “Ukraine would have little choice but to submit to a policy that would provide it with military and economic support to secure the territory under its control – which is the vast majority of the country – while giving up the use of force to regain the regions under Russian occupation.”

I described in detail the views expressed by Richard Haass and Charles Kupchan, because for some time now, reading the opinions expressed by Western analysts, I have had the impression that the current of thought they represent is gaining strength. This is also due to the possibility of a change of administration in the White House, which could happen in a year and a half. In such a period of uncertainty, the role of representatives of the deep state significantly increases, and both authors undoubtedly belong to this group.

Putin’s “Red Line” hiding nuclear annihilation

However, fairness requires mentioning that this is not the only line of thought among those involved in shaping US foreign policy. Interestingly, on the same day that the aforementioned article was published in Foreign Affairs, two other authors, Ian Brzezinski and Alexander Vershbow, published a set of demands on the website of The Atlantic Council in relation to the NATO summit planned for July in Vilnius. This text is not entirely devoted to Ukraine, nor can it naturally include proposals for peace in Ukraine, but one of its aspects refers to this issue in a way that is clearly different from how Pickering, Haas, and Kupchan see reality.

The postulate in question is about providing full support for Ukraine’s war goals: “Ukraine and only Ukraine must define its goals in this war unleashed by Russia. In Vilnius, allies should signal their full commitment to supporting Ukraine in its effort to achieve victory in this conflict in the way it defines it itself.” Furthermore, the authors mention the recovery of the entire territory within the borders from 1991, including Crimea.

This last point is particularly important because Putin’s propaganda seems to have planted very serious doubts in the minds of many Western analysts regarding Crimea. The narrative that the Ukrainian SSR “received” Crimea from Nikita Khrushchev in 1954, and that previously the peninsula was simply a part of Russia, seems to be accurate.

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Because it is easy to write in Western media that most of the peninsula’s inhabitants speak Russian, attention is drawn to the potential difficulties associated with reintegrating the region with the Ukrainian state, and some authors even assume from the outset that ethnic persecution may occur there. Interestingly, these same authors do not seem to pay much attention to what the Russians are currently doing there, for example, in relation to the Crimean Tatars. Why? The answer is probably simple: because it is not about caring for ethnic minorities. The secret to this one-sidedness lies in the second part of the Putinist narrative, namely in the effective persuasion of some Western elites that an attempt to regain Crimea could provoke a reaction in the form of Russia’s use of nuclear weapons. Donetsk, Luhansk, or Kherson may not be, but Crimea is certainly that “red line” for Putin beyond which nuclear annihilation lies.

The Russian dictator has managed to obtain a “special status” for Crimea in the minds of many people in the West. One of them, British author Anatol Lieven, even wrote that Crimea had become a “Frankenstein’s monster” for the authorities in Kyiv. A creature that, after prolonged Ukrainian internal propaganda had ingrained it in human minds as an essential war goal, began to live its own life and could not be sacrificed in the name of a peace settlement like “land for peace.” Crimea is simply an obstacle, potentially dangerous, and many observers would gladly trade it away.

The new president will decide whether to break promises made to Ukraine

However, the perception of the role of Crimea in the West should be considered more in psychological than political terms, which would be good to analyse separately. Now, it is time to return to the ideas related to ending the war in Ukraine and to recall the opinion from the camp of the potential next president of the United States. It seems that it might be the current governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis. The sentence he wrote a month and a half ago electrified all those who follow the struggle of Ukraine and the help provided to it by the West: “While the United States has many vital national interests, continued involvement in the territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia is not one of them.”

However, he faced criticism from many sides, not only from Democrats. In many cases, this criticism had more to do with internal political struggles than with views on Ukraine’s independence and territory, as DeSantis is an interesting target for both Joe Biden and Donald Trump. Interestingly, a relatively young political scientist from Florida, Mario Loyola, took up the defence. Perhaps in the future, we will find him in the team of another president. What is interesting is that the ultraliberal The Atlantic gave him space to defend his position.

Loyola stated outright that DeSantis is right about Ukraine, and his position simply stems from the realism of his views. The extensive text by the young political scientist is certainly more intelligently written than the texts of other “realists,” such as John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, who were unable to avoid internal inconsistencies and weaknesses in their arguments. Loyola presented a coherent position, delegitimizing in essence the entire borders of Ukraine from 1991: “By including large swathes of historical Russia, millions of ethnic Russians, and a key naval base in Sevastopol (...), these borders in fact ensured Russia’s short-term hegemony. That is why from 1991 until the Euromaidan revolution in 2014, pro-Russian candidates won almost all presidential elections.”

The political scientist went on to argue that while Russia may be the aggressor from a legal standpoint, from a historical and strategic standpoint, it is fighting to maintain its strategic position. Meanwhile, America, by engaging in Ukraine’s assistance, is de facto a participant in the war. Loyola also criticised the lack of a clear American goal for engagement, as he did not consider supporting a fighting country “as long as it takes” as a valid goal. Finally, the most important element of his reflections were China, which is the primary target of American foreign policy in the 21st century, and here he fully agreed with DeSantis’s statement that Biden’s policy on Ukraine “pushes Russia into an actual alliance with China.”

Loyola then posed a valid question: What if Russia decides to unilaterally cease fire and simultaneously declares that any attack by Ukraine will be met with a nuclear response? In his opinion, this would mean that America will be forced into an unwanted dilemma, where it will have to choose between breaking promises to Ukraine and entering a nuclear war.

It seems to me that in the light of this very question, one should read the proposal by Haass and Kupchan mentioned earlier, who would like to “recognize reality without sacrificing principles,” that is, to bend principles to fit reality. In this way, American policy makers probably want to get out of a situation that they feel the reality of. There are many indications that Ukraine’s good period of international prosperity is coming to an end and it will have to decide on its peace under pressure that just a few months ago seemed unthinkable. This is due to the increasing economic problems in the world, the growing threat from China, the unpredictability of Russia, and the inevitably forthcoming political changes in the USA.

Of course, the West, first and foremost the United States, will not want to create the impression that it has abandoned the bravely fighting Ukrainians. Nobody needs a story about the “betrayal of the West,” least of all the West itself. Therefore, it can be expected that President Volodymyr Zelensky will be discreetly persuaded to start a peace initiative after the spring-summer offensive, which will end in some kind of success. The losses that Ukraine will suffer as a result of it will probably help to convince a large part of society that this is a good solution. The question, for which there is currently no good answer, is: can the end of the fighting, which will most likely occur at the end of the year, be called peace, or just a break in the war? And also, how and when will this break end?

– Robert Bogdański

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by jz
Main photo: NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during a meeting in Kyiv on 20 April 2023. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation chief’s visit to Ukraine had not been announced and was the first since Russia’s invasion of the country began in February 2022. Photo: PAP/EPA/ Presidential Press Service of Ukraine
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