The ongoing war in Ukraine appears intractable, given the divergence in objectives among the parties. The initiatives for a peaceful resolution to it that have been emerging over the past year and a half from regional and global powers have quickly revealed their limitations as a result.
Very often these initiatives have not gone further than attempts at mediation. However, some more unconventional proposals grounded in political realism have also surfaced, even if these have meant a departure from the strict adherence to international law.
The current Russian special military operation in Ukraine clearly violates the tenets of international law, but it is based on a certain logic and on political considerations. Finding a peaceful resolution to the conflict may also involve departing from the tenets of international law as a result, something foreshadowed by former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger’s ideas presented at the 2022 Davos Forum.
Kissinger initially linked ending the war to Ukraine’s relinquishing some of its territory to Russia. He later specified that this territory should be that annexed by Russia after the start of the Russian military operation in Ukraine and implied that Crimea would also remain under Russian sovereignty. Areas that were not under Ukrainian control before the operation started were also included. However, Kissinger’s ideas were not pressed further, especially as Ukraine has been able to continue the war thanks to Western military support.
There has also been some abandonment of the opposition to Ukraine joining NATO on the grounds that this was necessary to avoid war with Russia. Now that war has broken out in any case, the opposition to Ukraine’s accession loses its original basis. Nevertheless, there has still been opposition to Russia’s exclusion from the security situation in Eastern Europe and to any attempt to dismantle it, due to the chaos that this would cause and the deepening of the Russia-China relationship that would likely see any such moves against Russia as a threat to global security.
The clearest initiative in this regard has come from the US businessman Elon Musk, who has proposed ending the war by organising an international referendum in the Ukrainian territories annexed by Russia as a result of its special military operation. The international community would then accept the annexation if the residents of these areas voted in favour of staying in Russia, Musk suggested. However, if the opposite occurred, they would return to Ukrainian sovereignty, with the exception of Crimea, which would remain under Russian sovereignty.
But the real surprise among such unorthodox suggestions for ending the conflict in Ukraine came in the shape of a statement from Stian Jenssen, director of the Private Office of the NATO Secretary-General, on 16 August, in which he did not rule out Ukraine’s accession to the alliance if it made concessions regarding ceding territory to Russia as part of a deal to end the war.
It was said at the time that this statement came from a marginal figure within the alliance and that it should be treated with caution, even though Jenssen claimed that the idea had been discussed within alliance circles. It was also said that the idea was vague and not well-defined and was similar to others that had been floated simply as test balloons. However, Jenssen’s suggestion may reflect concerns within the NATO alliance about the continuation of the war and its high cost, especially after the Ukrainian counteroffensive this summer failed to bring about a change in the balance of the conflict.
Despite the shift in thinking regarding a settlement represented by such ideas, the path ahead remains long and marked by various obstructions. Even if the principle of territorial concessions by Ukraine is accepted, there are several reasons why this is still a distant prospect.
One of the most important is that this idea has been rejected by both sides to the conflict, even though the intensity of this rejection varies between Ukraine and Russia. No state would be willing to give up parts of its territory, regardless of historical claims, unless it had suffered a crushing defeat on the battlefield, which has not happened or shown any sign of happening thus far. Instead, Ukraine’s leadership still talks about liberating its territory by force.
At the same time, such ideas are also far from satisfactory to Russia because they either fall short since they do not include the return of all the territories that it considers to be part of its sphere of influence or are tied to what are still unacceptable conditions, such as Ukraine’s accession to NATO. It is worth noting that the demand for the annexation of territories inhabited by a Russian majority in Ukraine did not arise before the outbreak of the war. Under the 2015 Minsk Agreements Russia accepted that these territories would have autonomy under Ukrainian sovereignty, a commitment Ukraine did not adhere to.
Former German chancellor Angela Merkel and former French president Francois Hollande publicly acknowledged at the time that the agreements were just a way to buy time for Ukraine to prepare for a military confrontation with Russia. In other words, the primary goal for Russia should have been to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO before territorial annexation took place, which was the original reason for Russia’s use of force in the crisis.
It should be noted that any proposal for Ukraine to surrender territory taken by force is in clear contradiction to international law, something that will be discussed in the next article in this series.
* The writer is professor of political science at Cairo University.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 31 August, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly