One thing is increasingly clear about the war in Ukraine: It will end badly for everyone, regardless of who wins. If Russia captures Kyiv and installs a puppet president, he will face a massive, well-funded insurgency, which could last for years and kill still more Russian troops. If Ukraine keeps successfully resisting the invaders, Vladimir Putin will step up the bombing, massacring hundreds more civilians and forcing hundreds of thousands more to flee as refugees.
For several days, “peace talks” have taken place on the Ukraine-Belarus border, where Moscow’s delegates propose unacceptable terms and Kyiv’s delegates reject them. But some sort of negotiated settlement that stops the fighting is the only hope either country has for avoiding further tragedy.
What would be reasonable terms for an armistice, assuming that both sides are exhausted and willing to avoid additional losses? The challenge is that the deal must give Putin something that he can tout as a victory, without rewarding him for starting the war and shelling civilian targets. At the same time, Zelensky can’t (and shouldn’t) look as if he’s surrendering; he has to be rewarded for being in the right and heroically holding out.
Here is a proposal for how to do both:
1. Ukraine agrees not to join NATO. Putin justified his initial moves toward an invasion by complaining that Ukraine was about to join the U.S.-led military alliance, so he can tout this as a win. Meanwhile, Zelensky said on Monday that he’s “cooled down” on the idea of demanding NATO membership, realizing that the alliance isn’t going to let him join anytime soon, so he can sell this as a concession to reality, not a defeat.
However, Ukraine must be allowed to form military partnerships and security arrangements (short of NATO’s Article 5 guarantee) with any number of individual countries, including those that happen to be NATO members—buying their weapons and hosting their trainers and advisers—with the following restrictions: Ukraine will not build or host missiles with the range to hit Russia or nuclear weapons of any sort. Since Ukraine has no intention to do either, this would be no concession on Zelensky’s part; since Putin claims that Ukraine is doing both, he can take it as another win.
The deal should say nothing about Ukraine’s application to join the European Union. If the subject can’t be avoided, its membership here should not be prohibited. Some believe that Putin is alarmed not only by the idea of Ukraine joining NATO but possibly even more by the much likelier prospect of its joining the EU, thereby showing the Russian people that a former Soviet republic can become a democratic Western nation. If that is Putin’s main concern, too bad; a peace deal shouldn’t appease Putin on this front.
2. Ukraine recognizes Crimea as part of Russian territory. This might be hard to swallow rhetorically, but it amounts to accepting a reality. Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 without firing a shot, in part because most of its residents regarded themselves as Russians already. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev gave the peninsula to Ukraine in 1954 as a gift, but it was purely symbolic; the Soviet Union was the operative power back then, so transferring something from Russia to Ukraine had no meaning. Let it go.
3. Russia must withdraw all of its military personnel and equipment from Ukraine—not just back to Russian territory, but back to their original home bases. (Some of the armored units came from many hundreds of miles away.) This must be done within a strict timetable. If Russia doesn’t comply, the ban on Ukraine’s membership in NATO will be lifted. (NATO leaders could assure Putin informally that, under these circumstances, Ukraine’s bid to join the alliance would be accepted immediately.)
4. A free and fair referendum, controlled and supervised by the United Nations, will be held in Ukraine’s Donbas region to see if its residents want the Donetsk and Luhansk districts to be autonomous republics within Ukraine or a newly annexed part of Russia. Whichever side wins, the region will be a demilitarized zone between Russia and Ukraine, manned by U.N. peacekeepers if necessary.
This is a complicated matter. On the one hand, Donbas is Ukraine’s largest and most populous region; losing it would be a blow to the principle of territorial integrity—much more than losing Crimea would be. On the other hand, the region has been the site of a bloody eight-year war between the Ukrainian army and Russia-backed separatists (about 14,000 people have been killed in this war). Putin preceded his invasion of Ukraine by recognizing Donetsk and Luhansk as an independent republic and announcing that he was sending in troops to protect its Russian-speaking population from Ukraine’s acts of “genocide.”
If Russia wins Donbas in this referendum, it would actually be something less than a victory. Keeping Donbas inside Ukraine, as an autonomous region with representation in the government, would give pro-Russia delegates an outsize influence over the country’s policy, including its foreign policy. To the extent that Ukrainians want to move the country westward (as most of them do, especially since Russia’s brutal invasion), it might be best to let Russia peel Donbas away.
5. The Western governments’ economic sanctions would be lifted gradually, as Russia carries out the terms of the peace treaty. As for the private companies that have abandoned Russia or canceled trade deals or cultural exchanges, resumption of old ties will be left completely up to them. It’s a fair bet that many if not most enterprises will be leery of returning to business as usual as long as Putin is in charge.
V.I. Lenin once supposedly said, “Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them.” But most modern capitalists, who are sensitive to risk analysis and public relations, will be skittish about heavily reinvesting in Russia as long as Putin is in charge. To win many of them back, he may have to not only stop behaving so brutishly abroad but also reverse his shift from authoritarianism to totalitarianism at home.
As a Daily Kos headline put it back on Feb. 28, four days after the invasion began, Putin managed to kill off German pacifism and Swiss neutrality in a single weekend. He may have made even the most cold-blooded corporate bottom-liners allergic to any association with the Russian Federation. The longer he keeps shelling civilians in Ukraine, the more deeply he’ll lose what even he sees as the ultimate global contest. For that reason, he may be ready for peace terms that offer him the slightest fig leaf of vindication. In any case, there’s no harm in trying.
For more on the war in Ukraine, listen to an interview with Ukrainian-American journalist Romeo Kokriatski on What Next, Slate’s daily news show.