Some days ago Viktor Pinchuk, an influential Ukrainian businessman and philanthropist, the son-in-law of the former Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma and an organiser of Davos Ukrainian Breakfast and Yalta European Strategy forums, published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal offering a solution to war in Donbas. He claimed Ukraine should renounce its aspirations to join the European Union and NATO, hold elections in the uncontrolled territories under the conditions proposed by Russia and accept Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Clearly, his article has triggered a fierce opposition of numerous public figures and commentators in Ukraine. However, any good offer to stop a war should be considered seriously and rationally. Let us therefore discuss why many people in Ukraine believe that the solution put forward by Pinchuk would not bring peace and, on the contrary, would deepen the conflict.
The European choice
In November 2013, the former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych decided to postpone the signing of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, which caused mass demonstrations. After the use of force by riot police, the resulting civil unrest made Yanukovych flee the country. What followed were early presidential and parliamentary elections, the signing of the Association Agreement and the launch of comprehensive economic and political reforms.
Renouncing the European choice, would make redundant all of the aspirations, efforts, sacrifices, and achievements of Ukraine. More than 10,000 soldiers and civilians were killed in the military conflict and the country has paid a high price for its choice. While the country still does not have any prospective of European membership, for Ukrainians the pro-European course has been an anchor, a symbol of the liberal economic and political modernisation that the country must undergo, and the European values many of them died for.
In 1994, the young Ukrainian state (formed three years earlier) signed an agreement with the United States, the United Kingdom and Russia to give up its huge arsenal of nuclear weapons, which was an important step in the nuclear non-proliferation regime. The other three parties of the agreement guaranteed the independence, sovereignty and inviolability of Ukraine’s borders.
20 years later, Ukraine became a target of Russian aggression with the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas. In a very short period of time, the country managed to form a powerful army (before, Ukraine had relied on the agreement and did not invest in its military forces), which contained the invader. But Ukrainians feel that only a collective security system will be able to defend the country from further aggression. Any other approach would just lead to the continuation of the war.
A deal to give up on a piece of one’s territory in exchange for a ceasefire in another place will hardly stop a war. This is a clear signal for an aggressor that escalation of war will bring them more fruits. And such a deal could be made only at the expense of Crimean Tartars, a small nation that has lived there for centuries, with painful experiences of deportation from the Stalin era. Russia’s policy towards Crimean Tartars in the annexed territory suggests that history is repeating itself. Thus, these territories and people living there are not an object for a bargain.
According to the Minsk agreement, elections in the territories that are currently not controlled by Ukraine are possible only after a reliable ceasefire, the withdrawal of all Russian forces, and establishing Ukrainian control over the border. Furthermore, what ought to follow is the demilitarisation of the region, return of the internally displaced persons and access to the area by independent media. This is the only way to organise free and transparent elections, where all Ukrainian political colours and flavours can compete. Any elections under Russian control behind the frontline of the conflict will just help strengthen the rule of self-proclaimed People’s Republics, since alternative candidates will not be able to reach their voters. Millions of Ukrainians living in these territories would be held hostages and the separatists and collaborationists would become members of parliament, which would further prolong the division of the state.
Pinchuk and Russian policy makers may call their offer a compromise, but they have not mentioned the concessions Russia is ready to make. Such a unilateral, non-reciprocal approach looks more like a capitulation.
There are two major questions to be asked. Can Ukraine accept such an offer? Can Ukraine resign on its two major regions, abandon its citizens living there, stop European-style reforms, stop its integration into European markets, and remain a poor, weak and defenceless country dependent on Russia? The majority of Ukrainians will not accept the offer, including the families of killed soldiers and civilians, the internally displaced people (more than 1.7 million), the inhabitants of annexed and occupied territories, all army soldiers and their families, business owners exporting to the EU (now comprising more than 35 per cent of Ukraine’s exports) and their employees, as well as all those who have supported Ukraine’s pro-European path.
Will the acceptance of the offer stop the war? Unilateral, discriminatory concessions just provoke and stimulate an aggressor, increasing its appetite. History provides enough such examples. Efforts to appease an aggressor may lead to further expansion and the continuation and intensification of its attacks.
Syria is a case in point. Until now Ukraine has dealt with the problems caused by the conflict and has not caused any crisis in Europe, be it refugee or military. But the expansion of the conflict would create a black hole on the eastern border of the EU, which could undermine the continent in a similar way as the European efforts to appease Hitler in 1938. Unlike Syria, however, Ukraine borders the EU and is not separated by a sea.
The surrender of Ukraine would not save thousands of lives, as Pinchuk argues, but would lead to the escalation of war and, in return, more suffering, more deaths and more damage. Moreover, it would create a dangerous precedent of a violent redrawing of European borders for the first time since the Second World War, the long-term consequences of which would not be hard to guess.