We CAN Achieve Peace
An interview with Anatol Lieven.
“I think that the most important point is that it’s extremely unlikely—militarily speaking—that either side will win a complete victory in this war.”
“We’re ultimately talking about limited amounts of territory in eastern Ukraine.”
“We already know most of the basic elements that the peace deal will have to include—the fundamental question is how many people inside Ukraine and outside Ukraine will have to die before we implement what we know we will have to implement sooner or later.”
Anatol Lieven is a policy analyst and journalist and author—he’s a visiting professor at King’s College London and he’s a senior fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Lieven is a major scholar when it comes to world affairs and it was a huge honor for me to be able to interview him.
Lieven has given me the opportunity to really clarify matters for people—I have to admit that I’ve really failed to paint a clear picture for my audience when it comes to the war in Ukraine, but I’m hopeful that going forward I will be more clear when I address various issues. It’s been a valuable and excellent and wonderful learning experience—and growing experience—for me to try to communicate effectively to people about the war in Ukraine, so I’m not at all depressed about my failures on this front.
The next step is for me to explain the concrete steps that people can take in order to push Washington to change Washington’s policy—I’ll tackle that aspect of this in an upcoming piece.
This war touches everything—even if you only care about domestic politics, you should still feel the urgency of diplomacy, since this was is driving inflation in a way that might put the GOP in power. And this war—through global heating and global starvation—means 100s of millions of innocent people dying as well as global political stability as well as potential civilizational termination.
I was honored and thrilled to interview Lieven—see below my interview with him that I edited for flow and organized by topic.
1) If the war drags on, what’s at stake from worst thing to least worst thing? I would list the following things:
this war is locking in terminal global heating that could bring us all down
this war is starving 100s of millions of innocent people
this war is destroying Ukraine and posing horrifying risks to Ukraine
this war is driving inflation in a way that could give the GOP power in the US
this war is threatening to produce massive global political instability due to the aforementioned global starvation
this war could lead to a nuclear war that would bring us all down—I’m not sure how to assess the risk of this happening
Regarding the global starvation, I read in The Economist about 100s of millions of people being on the brink of starvation, so that’s extremely precarious and urgent and grim:
“The coming food catastrophe” (19 May 2022)
First let me describe the worst possible outcome and best possible outcome.
The worst thing would be nuclear war between the United States and Russia. I think—as the CIA does—that Russia won’t deliberately launch a nuclear war or use nuclear weapons. But one can so easily draw scenarios for escalation, and for brinkmanship, and for accident—I keep reminding people that there were a number of times during the Cold War when it was only the wisdom of one Soviet or American officer that prevented cataclysm. So that’s the worst scenario.
And the best scenario is probably something like Cyprus where you have a division of Ukraine but it moves to the diplomatic table and you have endless negotiations—I hope that that would eventually lead to a peace settlement in the case of Ukraine, but if not then maybe you’d at least have endless negotiations without a resumption of war. So that’s the best scenario.
But the middle scenario—and perhaps the most likely scenario, alas—is an ongoing conflict with periods of ceasefire when both sides become exhausted and also with periods where fighting resumes. That would have certain parallels to what’s happened in Kashmir where you have intermittent fighting interspersed with occasional big wars—that’s gone on for more than 75 years now in Kashmir.
So that’s the spectrum of outcomes.
As for the impact on climate change, one can see what’s likely to be the massive expansion of fracking in the US—that’s of course linked to very high prices for oil and gas. This war is also locking Europe into oil and gas and locking Europe into dependence on the US. And this war is causing a flight to energy security in Europe and elsewhere—crazily, there’s a new surge in coal production due to the war. So the war’s effects are enormous when it comes to climate change.
As for the global starvation, these are things that Russia should’ve thought about before launching the invasion. But frankly, maybe The Economist should’ve also thought about this a few months ago—they should’ve thought about the need to seek a diplomatic solution with Russia, but instead they were constantly talking up the need to support Ukraine and keep open the offer of NATO and so on. So The Economist prides itself on its superior intelligence and foresight, but so much of this was eminently foreseeable.
I don’t know whether we’ve actually reached starvation yet, but the World Food Program and so many other organizations have warned that there will be a really bad situation in a number of countries—certainly by autumn—if the present situation continues.
And we can of course expect based on the past—look at the Arab Spring in the Middle East—that food shortages will lead to radical political instability in many parts of the world. There are some particularly unstable parts of the world—West Africa, the Sahel, the Middle East—that are heavily dependent on wheat imports.
There was this idea that India would emerge as a major wheat exporter and replace Russia and Ukraine, but that of course was before the Indian heat wave kicked in and had a really severe effect on Indian wheat production—the Indians then banned wheat exports because they need to feed their own people.
And incidentally, scientists have repeatedly predicted an impact—from higher global temperatures—on wheat and rice production.
2) How much time do we have to make peace?
Unless we manage to blow ourselves up, there will always be a time to make peace. Kissinger talked in terms of a couple of months, but I might be a bit more optimistic than that—the Europeans will get really, really anxious about the war’s continuation when autumn comes and the impact becomes intolerable in terms of economic impact and energy prices and so on.
But certainly the next months will be critical if we’re to avoid an endless, dragging conflict.
The Russian government clearly believes that it has to conquer the whole of the Donbass region for Putin to be able to present this war—which has been a disaster for Russia—as some kind of success. And Russia is only moving very, very slowly towards that goal.
So one of two things will happen. The Russians might conquer the whole of the Donbass and then offer a ceasefire and peace negotiations, or else the Ukrainians might fight the Russians to a standstill or even—as we’ve seen elsewhere in Ukraine—push the Russians back.
And if the latter happens then the Russians will give up on conquering the entire Donbass and will declare a ceasefire. But that of course is when the whole question of peace becomes absolutely open and becomes an issue of (1) whether the US and the West are prepared for some sort of territorial compromise or (2) whether we are aiming at complete Russian defeat and at complete Russian expulsion from Ukraine and at regime change in Russia.
And of course refusing a territorial compromise requires the Ukrainians to fight for a very, very, very long time. And during that prolonged fight the dangers of escalation would obviously increase.
3) Is this a race against time? Is that fair to say?
There have been so many surprises on the battlefield—we could be surprised again in either direction.
So the Russians might achieve some breakthrough, get what they need in order to declare victory, and then stop.
Or of course the Ukrainians—who are recruiting more and more men and getting massive military aid from the West—might launch a partially successful counterattack. I don’t think that they can possibly retake all of the areas that Russia has taken since 2014, though the Ukrainians could retake some of the territory that Russia has captured since the invasion in February 2022.
1) My friend told me that there’s a “long and detailed record of the US undermining the prospects for diplomacy, becoming even more explicit since Ramstein”—is this fair to say or too harsh?
The US really undermined diplomacy before the war when the US refused to agree to a treaty of neutrality with Russia—Zelensky himself has subsequently offered that to Russia. That was always Russia’s chief demand, so I don’t see how Russia could possibly have invaded Ukraine if the US had offered that.
After the war began, the Ukrainians came up—in March—with an actually pretty reasonable set of proposals. And I’m ashamed to say that Britain apparently did something to block those proposals—I don’t know whether the US blocked those proposals, but the US certainly did nothing to support those proposals.
But since March the Ukrainians have had military successes in certain areas. So Zelensky’s own statements—let alone those of other Ukrainian officials—have become tremendously contradictory. You’ll see a statement one day recognizing the need for a negotiated compromise solution and then you’ll see a statement the next day saying that Russia must be driven out of Ukraine completely—they’ll make the statement that Russia has to withdraw to the preinvasion lines of February 2022 as part of a peace settlement, and then they’ll make the very different and very ridiculous statement that Russia must withdraw to the preinvasion lines of February 24th before Ukraine will even talk about a peace settlement.
So for peace to happen, the US will have to really strongly advocate diplomacy and will have to really strongly support Zelensky against the Ukrainian hardliners.
I have to say that a lot of Western journalists are really not doing their jobs at the moment because we’re simply not hearing about the splits in the Ukrainian government—given the public statements from the Ukrainian government, it’s absolutely apparent that there are profound splits in the Ukrainian government.
2) And it’s not so much about Ukraine entering NATO—the issue is that the US has been integrating Ukraine into the military command.
That’s exactly it—since earlier last year the Russians have been saying that Ukraine could be turned into a heavily armed de facto US ally with the US giving de facto cover to Ukraine’s moves at home against the Russian language and also with the US arming Ukraine so that Ukraine can attack the Donbass’s separatist areas.
And Russia has been saying that all of this can happen without Ukraine actually being a NATO member.
3) I often say that the US is “blocking” diplomacy, but is the word “blocking” too strong? My understanding is that ”blocking” is a strong word to use but not one that rules out the same meaning as the word “undermining”.
The US is certainly discouraging diplomacy.
The Biden administration has been ambiguous—Biden will say things and then an hour later his staff deny that he said it, and Lloyd Austin says that American policy is to “weaken Russia” and then Biden later denies it.
Obviously it’s essential to suspend some key sanctions not just to incentivize Russia to make peace but also so that the West has the ability to say to Russia: “Look, the Ukrainians have demanded certain security guarantees in exchange for their signing a treaty of neutrality—we’ve suspended some key sanctions, but we’ll resume full sanctions if you ever violate those security guarantees that the Ukrainians want.” You can’t reintroduce sanctions unless you’ve suspended them. So there are two important reasons to suspend some key sanctions.
4) Don’t the US’s hawkish formal pronouncements completely throw a wrench in the works of diplomacy? How is Zelensky supposed to talk to Putin about neutrality when the US is integrating Ukraine into the military command and making hawkish formal pronouncements? It seems preclusive.
Yes—I totally agree.
5) Would you agree with my friend’s provocative and interesting comment below about hypocrisy and deception?
There’s a simple fact about diplomacy that is not understood—more accurately, is understood but is suppressed. Diplomacy by definition means that both sides tolerate it, even if it’s not to their liking. The alternatives are capitulation of one side or perpetuation of the war with all the horrors and dangers it entails. That’s logic.
For Russia to tolerate diplomacy there has to be an “off-ramp.” Again, close to truism, though you have some commentators who concoct absurd tales to try to get around it. The overwhelming majority of commentators claim to be in favor of diplomacy but vigorously denounce any concessions to Russia, any off-ramp. That means that they are opposing diplomacy and calling for capitulation, the ghastly experiment. All of this is crystal clear.
What we are seeing is a massive exercise in hypocrisy and deceit, with professions of high principle that none of those who posture heroically believe for a moment, as easily proven.
All clear, and clearly presented over and over, but the raging irrationality is so extreme that it’s hard to explain that 2+2 = 4.
So people say that they’re in favor of diplomacy, but when you press these people you see that they’re actually being deceptive—diplomacy by definition means “off-ramps” and these people aren’t in favor of off-ramps.
They’re basically in favor of diplomacy involving complete Russian surrender, which of course is not diplomacy.
It’s interesting that two characters as radically different as Noam Chomsky and Henry Kissinger are at one on this. Chomsky and Kissinger are both clear that any diplomatic solution—or at least any lasting diplomatic solution—has to involve both sides getting something out of it.
Short of complete Ukrainian military victory, diplomacy will almost certainly require giving something to Putin that allows Putin to present this as a Russian success.
6) This is a very elementary point, but should we try our best to achieve peace even if doing our best might fail? There’s a lot of focus on the Kremlin and how hopeless it is to negotiate with the Kremlin, but we don’t control the Kremlin, whereas we do control our own actions—we can choose to do our best.
That’s just it.
I get very tired of this endless line that basically puts words or thoughts into Putin’s head. So people say: “It wouldn’t have done any good to offer a treaty of neutrality before the war, since Putin wanted to invade Ukraine anyway.” And I say: “How do you know, since we didn’t offer it? You’re speculating.”
The point is that—in diplomacy—you can only go based on a country’s official demands and public statements. You negotiate on the basis of those things.
You can do all sorts of behind-the-scenes deals and so on, but your starting point is the official demands—maybe Putin would’ve invaded anyway even if we’d offered a treaty of neutrality, but we never offered it, so we don’t know what would’ve happened.
How Peace Works
1) Why would Ukraine want peace?
The Ukrainian economy has been shattered—it seems like the expectation is that it will go down by almost 50% this year. And many, many Ukrainians have been killed—we don’t know exactly how many.
And if you don’t have peace, Russia will simply continue to occupy most of the territory that it’s taken, unless the Ukrainian army can win an outright victory. Even if an outright victory could be achieved it would mean years of war—it would mean further suffering and further death and further material destruction in Ukraine.
2) I heard that Russia now occupies 20% of Ukraine.
That’s a little bit misleading because that 20% includes the territory that Russia has in fact held since 2014—the additional territory that they’ve captured since the 2022 invasion is only maybe half of that 20%.
But if you take Ukraine as it was in 2013, then yes, Russia occupies about 20%.
3) Why would Russia want peace? I’ll offer one idea—they’re getting bled really badly.
Precisely that—the Russian army has suffered colossally in men and also in equipment.
It’s true that the Ukrainians are now getting huge amounts of sophisticated NATO arms.
But the Ukrainians are also now aiming to call up to the military basically the entire male population between 18 and 35, so it’s complete WW1- or WW2-style national mobilization. Russia of course hasn’t declared total mobilization—clearly part of the explanation for that is that Putin fears that total mobilization would finally produce some really serious unrest and unpopularity at home.
So Ukraine will raise—I don’t know—a million men or two million men. And NATO will arm them.
This is why you have the hardliners in Ukraine and in the West who want to keep the war going—there’s a real prospect that the Russian forces in Ukraine will eventually find themselves seriously outnumbered as well as up against sophisticated NATO arms.
For what it’s worth, my information is that Russia will—if it can capture the whole of the Donbass—stop and try to get a ceasefire and basically stand on the defensive. Russia would then challenge the Ukrainians and say: “Look, we’re prepared to negotiate a reasonable peace settlement. And if you don’t want to do that, then now it won’t be us attacking you but instead you’ll have to attack our positions.” And going on offense would of course be monstrously costly for the Ukrainians.
So there are very good reasons for Russia to want a ceasefire, but I don’t think just yet—I think they’ll try to take the whole of the Donbass first.
But they may well not be able to take the whole of the Donbass—their progress on the ground has been glacial in recent weeks.
4) We have to try diplomacy because there’s no alternative except the “ghastly experiment”, but the reality is that the peace deal could fall apart in a year or something, so what exact incentives will keep Moscow and Washington inside this peace deal? Historically, what exact incentives keep states inside peace deals? And historically, what percentage of peace deals have been successful and what percentage of peace deals have fallen apart?
The key thing is that both sides should get enough out of the peace deal that they have an incentive to continue it.
And both sides should also face a situation where violating the peace deal would mean significant enough losses that there’s a strong disincentive to do that.
No international agreement can ever—ever—be cast-iron. By definition, agreements can be broken—God knows Washington has demonstrated that to us again and again.
But we want to get a peace deal that gives enough to the Russians and the Ukrainians that they enter into it. And then the thing that will best incentivize Russia and Ukraine to stay inside the peace deal is that both sides have suffered so terribly in this war—a Russian government will have to think very, very seriously about undergoing this again, and would Ukraine really want to risk another war that would destroy half of its economy again?
So in the end that’s the best hope for an enduring peace.
As for historical comparisons, people endlessly draw parallels with Hitler. It’s like the people who write these things have only ever heard of three non-American names—Hitler and Stalin and Churchill. What about Bismarck? What about Castlereagh? What about Metternich?
For the great 19th-century practitioners of diplomacy, the whole point was to leave the losing side in a war with enough that they didn’t feel absolutely compelled to start fighting again—the Congress of Vienna is a great example, but it’s also useful to look at Bismarck’s wars of the 1860s where he was careful not to permanently damage and humiliate his opponents.
As for historical analogies, I’m writing a piece for Foreign Policy at the moment about the comparison between the war in Ukraine, the other wars in the former Soviet Union, and postcolonial wars in many parts of the world—the Soviet Union was an empire of a sort. And as we ought to know, empires leave endless problems and disputes and wars behind when empires fall—look at Sri Lanka where a war broke out more than 30 years after British rule came to an end, or look at Ireland where war resumed in Northern Ireland 50 years after Ireland was partitioned.
So the point is that every empire leaves enormous numbers of potentially violent disputes in its wake. And so far—thank God—even the horrors of the war in Ukraine don’t begin to compare to the massacres in India at the time of partition or the genocide in Rwanda.
But the difference here is that in the case of Ukraine you have much higher geopolitical stakes and you have the US and NATO waging a proxy war.
5) People worry that Russia will violate the peace deal in a year and reinvade.
Well, which country has broken the most treaties over the past 30 years?
6) Exactly. This is a two-way danger—Washington could also violate the deal.
And frankly, you could ask why anyone should ever trust America again after what happened with the Iran nuclear deal where Trump and the Republicans broke the deal.
But you have to try diplomacy even with states that have bad reputations—to depart from that standpoint means that there will never be any agreements ever again. You can always point to America’s bad reputation, and China’s bad reputation, and Iran’s bad reputation, and so on.
7) What’s the closest historical analogy to the war in Ukraine? Or is this just a unique situation that doesn’t have any close analogs in history?
None of the analogies are really close, but I suppose that you could look at the Congress of Vienna. France in the end had been completely defeated and there were voices—especially in Prussia—who did want to dismember France. But the victors recognized that expelling France from the European security order would’ve been unwise—France was there, and it was too big and too powerful. So the victors sought an arrangement that would provide reasonable security against France but that also wouldn’t put France in a position where France felt that it had to overthrow this order—that was being established—at the first possible opportunity.
That order essentially lasted for 55 years until the Franco-Prussian War of 1870—that’s not forever, but 55 years is pretty good in historical terms.
1) What’s the first element of a peace deal?
The first element is neutrality. And this would include security guarantees for Ukraine.
2) That’s incredibly simple and straightforward, correct?
Well, as Zelensky said: “I went to NATO, and I went to European capitals, and I asked for a guarantee that NATO would be admitted to NATO in a reasonable space of time. And they said that they wouldn’t provide that guarantee.”
And it’s true you would need to provide security guarantees for Ukraine, but we can find diplomatic formulas for that—after all, what the hell do we pay diplomats for? For example, there could be a promise of Western military assistance for Ukraine in the event of another attack instead of a promise to go to war if Ukraine is attacked again.
So neutrality is actually the easiest one.
There were two other Russian demands—“demilitarization” and “denazification”. But actually at least back in March and early April the Russians appeared to be backing away from those other two demands.
The Ukrainians and the West can’t agree to demilitarization of Ukraine. But it should be possible to redefine “demilitarization” as an exclusion of certain categories of long-range missiles. Or else to fold “demilitarization” into the neutrality agreement and say: “No US bases or Western bases on Ukrainian soil.”
As for “denazification”, that’s of course unacceptable in itself, partly because it’s grossly exaggerated. But I suppose that the Russians can now say: “Look, we’ve captured Mariupol and we’ve destroyed or captured the Azov Regiment, so we’ve done it ourselves—we’ve denazified Ukraine.”
And there’s something that I think we really should be pressing on the Ukrainians and that the Ukrainians really ought to do it themselves completely independent of any Russians demands.
The Ukrainians say—and it’s mostly entirely true—that the great majority of the Russian speakers and ethnic Russians in Ukraine have resisted the Russian invasion and have supported the Ukrainian state. And this resistance and support wasn’t a certain thing, but it happened.
So these Russian speakers and ethnic Russians in Ukraine deserve gratitude and recognition from the Ukrainian state and the Ukrainians should withdraw the laws that Ukraine has passed over the past two years.
3) They don’t need those laws anymore, right?
Well, they certainly shouldn’t—for example, there’s no need to maintain the laws outlawing the Russian language from officialdom and from the media and from education.
And by the way, we ourselves should be urging this—we want a civic Ukrainian nationalism, but we don’t want an ethnic Ukrainian nationalism. One European said to me—off the record, of course—that they don’t want any more “Polands and Hungarys” in the European Union.
And then the final issue is the territory.
4) You can kick Crimea down the road, right?
The Ukrainian phrase was that they’re willing to “compartmentalize” this and leave it for future negotiation.
I see this very much as the Cypriot option where you’ve had by now something like 47 years of negotiations over the reunification of Cyprus. These negotiations have never led to anything, but—equally—there hasn’t been a resumption of the war.
And interestingly enough, the situation hasn’t prevented the Republic of Cyprus from joining the European Union, so that’s a rather attractive model for the Ukrainians.
5) You don’t give Crimea to the Russians, though—you kick it down the road, which is different.
In the first place, you don’t “give” it to Russia, since Russia has occupied it since 2014—I mean, it’s already lost.
And it’s a peninsula, so it’s frankly extremely hard to imagine how Ukraine could retake Crimea—the Russians now say that Crimea is Russian national territory, and a pretty well-informed friend of mine in Moscow said that an effort to retake Crimea is the one scenario that actually worries him when it comes to Russia using nuclear weapons.
Practically speaking, Ukraine will never get Crimea back. And it’s a key Russian demand that Russia’s sovereignty over Crimea be recognized. So it would—for the purposes of a peace deal—be a great diplomatic move to give Russia a success regarding Crimea.
And incidentally, the Ukrainians wouldn’t know what to do with it even if they somehow retook it, since the population would be bitterly anti-Ukrainian.
So there’s a lot to be said for granting this Russian demand in exchange—of course—for Russian flexibility on other issues.
And the biggest issue is the borders of the Donbass—Russia has recognized the independence of the Donbass republics, but nobody else has. But this Russian recognition doesn’t stop the separatist Donbass republics from reentering Ukraine with arrangements in place for autonomy. So you could just go back to Minsk II.
But there’s a key problem—Russia recognizes the independence of the Donbass republics on the whole territory of the Donbass provinces as the Donbass provinces existed before 2014. Russia hasn’t yet occupied the whole territory—half of the Donetsk region is still in Ukrainian hands—so that’s one reason why I think that Russia will go on grinding away.
But my point is you could recognize reality and give Russia diplomatic success regarding Ukrainian and international recognition of Russian sovereignty over Crimea—that would allow you to do a deal where on the other hand Russia compromises regarding that key problem that I mentioned about the Donbass. So there’s an opportunity to eliminate the issue of the borders of the Donbass.
Russia already has control over Crimea, but nobody else has recognized Russian sovereignty over this territory. So recognizing this would give Putin an “off-ramp”—it would give them the ability to say: “We achieved victory because we got Ukrainian and Western recognition of Russian sovereignty over Crimea.”
And doing that would mean that the West could then lift the sanctions that were imposed on Russia in 2014. So the prospect of those sanctions being lifted would provide an additional incentive for Russia to make peace.
6) Would any of these elements involve Ukraine losing any territory in any way or shape or form? Maybe the answer to that question is that it depends on the outcome of a referendum.
The point is that there have in fact been referenda. But nobody has recognized them and they haven’t been in any way reliable.
The French and the Germans brokered the Minsk II agreement of 2015, which was precisely about the separatist regions rejoining Ukraine in return for a constitutional guarantee of full autonomy and also in return for security guarantees.
The Ukrainian government and parliament simply refused to pass laws establishing permanent autonomy for the Donbass. And the West did nothing to pressure the Ukrainian government and parliament to pass these laws.
The reason for the refusal to pass the laws was that the Ukrainians feared that this would effectively create within Ukraine a Russian fifth column that Russia would use to block NATO membership.
But those were the only terms on which Ukraine could’ve gotten those territories back, so complaining about a Russian fifth column was a completely circular argument.
And why not give the Donbass away if you’re worried about a Russian fifth column? Let the Donbass go—you’ll be much stronger without it.
But since 2014 and especially since the Russian invasion, you’ve had this business of the sacred soil of Ukraine. That’s what always happens in these circumstances—you see it everywhere. So the wretched Himalayan mountains were never part of any organized Indian state—China has occupied them, so now they’re the sacred soil of India. And the accursed reefs and sandbanks of the South China Sea are now the sacred soil of China, even though in that case there isn’t even any actual soil on them.
Americans or Brits will present arguments to me about how Ukrainian sovereignty over this territory is so important that it makes a compromise peace morally unacceptable. And my reply to them is the following: “You really believe this, right? You really sympathize so strongly with the Ukrainian claim to this territory that you think that innumerable people should die for this claim, right? OK, you yourself should go and fight—I support you totally, and I will buy your boots, and I will buy your uniform, and I will pay for your air ticket, and I will kiss you goodbye.”
The point is that somebody who’s not willing to go themselves to fight in Ukraine has no right to say: “I oppose a peace deal.”
7) You have to consider the human consequences—should we starve the world over this territory?
And the Americans and Brits and so forth who are saying this are paying no serious price as compared to the people who are going to starve around the world, let alone as compared to the people who have been killed in Ukraine.
8) Does a peace deal require off-ramps regarding war crimes?
There’s a hypocrisy when it comes to war crimes, since the US doesn’t recognize the International Criminal Court.
And then there’s the issue of reality. How are you going to negotiate with—and go on negotiating with—the Russian government if in order to meet with them you have to travel to Russia because they can’t travel without being arrested? It’s all nonsense—will you arrest them if they go to the United Nations? You can’t conduct international affairs that way.
9) I think that George W. Bush is a war criminal, but I don’t feel a deep need to punish him, especially if punishing him means causing a lot of collateral damage in the world—I have no problem with him living out his life and never going to The Hague, even though I think that he’s a war criminal.
Exactly—if punishment means screwing up the international system and preventing many positive things, then it’s not worth the costs.
There’s no serious prospect of prosecuting the Russian government for war crimes any more than there’s a serious prospect of prosecuting the American government for war crimes.
But it’s not like the Russians have got off scot-free or anything—in the court of public opinion, the Russian army’s crimes have done colossal damage to Russia’s image and to the Russian army’s reputation.
10) Does a peace deal require off-ramps regarding sanctions?
My view is that we shouldn’t end sanctions.
My view is that we should suspend sanctions and then link that to a treaty of neutrality—I think that we should say to Russia: “We haven’t canceled the sanctions, but we’ve suspended them. And the sanctions will be resumed in full force if you ever break the peace deal.”
I think that that’s the way to go—that would incentivize Russia to make peace and would also incentivize the Ukrainians to sign a treaty of neutrality.
11) To bring Russia to the table, do you 100% definitely need off-ramps regarding both war crimes and sanctions?
But in the end, the most important thing will be what happens on the ground militarily—that’s the single most important thing.
12) If Russia is doing extremely badly, that’ll bring them to the table, right?
I think that the most important point is that it’s extremely unlikely—militarily speaking—that either side will win a complete victory in this war.
We’re ultimately talking about limited amounts of territory in eastern Ukraine.
We already know most of the basic elements that the peace deal will have to include—the fundamental question is how many people inside Ukraine and outside Ukraine will have to die before we implement what we know we will have to implement sooner or later.
1) Could we apply activist pressure on Washington in order to get Washington to remove the impediments to peace?
Bringing public pressure to bear is always a positive thing—look at the opposition to the Vietnam War.
But the bipartisan US establishment is so united behind this war that it will be very difficult to get any real political traction in Washington.
2) After accomplishing that objective, could we then apply additional activist pressure on Washington in order to get Washington to start to actually facilitate peace?
It’ll be hard work—activism worked during the Vietnam War to some extent, but that was when very large numbers of American soldiers were dying, whereas in this case American soldiers aren’t dying.
How This Would Work
1) Regarding a peace deal, would there be no vote on the Russian side, given that Russia is a dictatorship?
I don’t see why there wouldn’t be a vote on the Russian side, but whether that vote would be an honest vote is an entirely separate matter.
2) Regarding a peace deal, would the Ukrainian people vote?
By international democratic tradition, it’s not necessary to have a national referendum—a country’s parliament can ratify a treaty. So in the US it’s the US Senate that ratifies a treaty—there isn’t a referendum for each ratification in the US.
So in principle, you just need the Ukrainian parliament to ratify this—a national referendum would be icing on the cake.
And why do we never ask the local populations for the deciding vote? What about the wishes of the people in Crimea or the people in the Donbass?
Local democracy should also count—the West has completely ignored the issue of local democracy when it comes to the former Soviet Union, even though the West supported local democracy in Kosovo.
So my own view is that there will have to be internationally supervised referenda when it comes to sovereignty in Crimea and the Donbass—that’s the only way to reach a territorial compromise with Russia while saving the face of the West and the Ukrainians.
Suppose that a majority votes to separate from Ukraine—we could accept this in return for an end to the war and in return for Russia’s evacuation from the rest of the territory they’ve occupied. That outcome would be very difficult for the Ukrainians to accept, but local democracy is—in the end—the only way to achieve a conclusive peace settlement.
3) How would the vote work on the Ukrainian side? Would there be a ceasefire and polling stations? What precedents can you point to when it comes to doing a vote like this in a devastated country that’s at war?
Obviously a referendum in the Donbass would have to be delayed for a considerable time—until refugees had returned—and should take place on a district-by-district basis so that certain districts could stay with Ukraine if those districts wanted to.
1) For each element, to what extent are Zelensky and his government on board? And for each element, to what extent are the Ukrainian people on board?
There’s huge opposition to a peace deal from Ukrainian hardliners.
And especially from the Ukrainian neo-fascists, who—we should remember—have gained great prestige during this war because of the genuinely heroic defense of Mariupol. So they will be bitterly opposed to a peace deal.
So there will be opposition. And that’s why it’s absolutely essential that the US and the West fully support such a peace deal—only that support would enable Zelensky to overcome the hardline elements in Ukraine and to make peace.
And you have to ask whether people in Ukraine are opposed to giving up any new territory that Russia has conquered during this invasion or whether people in Ukraine are instead opposed to Russia having territory that has been lost since 2014—that’s an absolutely critical question, and it’s not really “giving up” territory if the territory has been lost since 2014 and cannot be reconquered.
2) Given that all of the elements don’t necessarily have sufficient support—from the Ukrainian people—right now, how long would Zelensky and his government have to persuade Ukrainians to vote “Yes”?
It would take a significant amount of time to organize and run the referendum, but I don’t know how long he would have.
3) What about the fact that the more territory Russia grabs the harder peace will be to achieve, since Russia doesn’t want to relinquish that newly acquired territory?
As I’ve said, in negotiations you go based on the official statement and you negotiate on that basis—the official Russian statement is that they want recognition of Russian sovereignty over Crimea and that they want independence of the whole of the Donbass. There’s been no Russian claim—so far—to anything beyond Crimea and the Donbass.
Suppose that there’s no peace deal or provisional peace deal, though—in that case, Russia will hold whatever it can hold.
Russia can’t conquer the whole of Ukraine and can’t replace the Ukrainian government—those things won’t happen. So everyone now acknowledges that Russia has already been completely and irrevocably defeated when it comes to Russia’s initial maximalist goals.
So Ukraine has already won a great victory. And Russia—for purely military reasons—has to concede that.