Ukraine and Russia are slugging it out, with heavy losses on both sides. The Russian strategy, such as can be determined, seems to be to surround Ukraine’s main cities and squeeze the Ukrainian government as hard as they can. The Russians also threaten to lop off parts of Ukraine, such as the area around Chernobyl and Kharkiv, both in the northeast of the country. But Odessa also appears to be surrounded in the south, which would be fatal for Ukraine if the Russians took it.
The courageous leader of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, faces some harsh choices. But so does Vladimir Putin, president of Russia. Russia has taken many casualties, with more than 5,000 soldiers reportedly killed already. The Russian currency has all but collapsed, and there’s deep-seated anger in Russia against Putin and his war. Putin needs to wrap this war up fast, or he could be replaced by his adversaries in Russia.
There are some signs of progress. A second meeting between the Russians and Ukrainians has taken place in Belarus, near the Ukrainian border. In addition, Naftali Bennett, prime minister of Israel, has talked separately to Zelensky and to Putin. No results are yet forthcoming, but reading between the lines suggests a deal may be possible, provided Russia and Ukraine also make some progress with the United States and NATO. That’s a tall order, but not outside the realm of possibility.
Assuming a deal is possible (it may not be), what would it entail?
A potential solution covers four main issues. The first is the future of the Donbass area; the second is NATO membership for Ukraine; the third is the Crimea; and the fourth involves nuclear weapons.
Perhaps the easiest solution is Donbass, which the Minsk Accords saw as becoming autonomous regions of Ukraine. Since Russia has now recognized the two breakaway areas (Donetsk and Luhansk) as independent states, it’s more difficult now to find a way to a solution. Nevertheless, it is possible. One formula would be for the two breakaways to remain independent only while their status as autonomous Ukrainian areas is worked out, at which point it would be politically and economically expedient for them to become autonomous parts of Ukraine.
NATO, however, is a bigger issue for the Russians and for Ukraine. Ukraine believes, rightly or wrongly, that NATO guarantees their security (even though the support they have received from NATO hasn’t achieved that goal at all). Russia believes NATO in Ukraine is a major threat to Russian security. How to solve this problem?
The simplest but more difficult way to handle the matter is for Ukraine to give up seeking membership in NATO. Even in the midst of a horrible war, Ukraine doesn’t seem disposed to do this, and NATO has not backed off either. Is there a way out?
A straightforward solution is for NATO to give Ukraine a special type of membership whereby NATO would come to Ukraine’s help if it is attacked. But to assuage Russia, NATO would not put any troops in Ukraine nor any NATO bases, and wouldn’t try to convert Ukraine’s military infrastructure into the NATO system. NATO, of course, isn’t directly part of the Russia-Ukraine negotiations, but some sort of formula can be agreed (no NATO bases, infrastructure, etc.) in Ukraine, leaving aside Ukraine asking for special status under Article 5 (collective security) in the NATO treaty.
It’s far from clear the NATO partners would agree to a special status for Ukraine. However, that isn’t key to a deal between Ukraine and Russia.
The most sensitive issue involves nuclear weapons and Ukraine. Officially, Ukraine has to renounce building and deploying nuclear weapons it may develop, but even more importantly, Ukraine would need to agree to not permit other nations (NATO or otherwise) to put nuclear weapons on Ukrainian soil. Such an agreement appears crucial to Russia, which declares it’s concerned about a nuclear threat coming from Ukraine.
Finally, there’s the Crimea issue. One doubts this can be resolved in these negotiations, especially since Russia has annexed Crimea. There could be solutions, such as a hybrid arrangement with Ukraine, but the Russians are unlikely to want to discuss Crimea in any negotiations at this time. In any case, solving the Crimea problem isn’t urgent at present.
Beyond striking a deal between Ukraine and Russia, there’s the even more serious matter of working out a revised model for European security. This involves the deployment of forces on all sides, nuclear weapons, and arms control as well as security guarantees that are lacking in the post-Soviet European area. A responsible role for the United States, which is the main guarantor of security in Europe, is needed, but relations between the United States and Russia have badly deteriorated, and it will be hard and difficult trying to work out a new security framework to cover the main concerns in Eastern Europe.
The Russians want security guarantees from NATO and they want some deal to keep nuclear weapons and their delivery systems out of Eastern Europe. They want other things, too, but it’s clear that the European security framework needs a refresh, and some of the Russian demands are not unwarranted. It’s important to note that the Russians believe that Washington hasn’t been honest or straightforward; moreover, there’s a kind of paranoia in the Russian leadership (including the Russian security establishment) over Washington and NATO’s intentions, particularly regarding nuclear weapons. Taking all this into account, it still seems that mature and responsible leaders ought to be able to find a way forward.
We don’t know if Putin and Zelensky will be able to reach a solution to the current fighting and the horrors that go with it. But a deal between them remains in the realm of the possible, and the United States and its European allies should encourage both sides to reach an accommodation. Ukraine doesn’t really lose anything vital to its future—in effect, it gets an acceptable deal. Russia can also be satisfied that its security needs are met for Ukraine.
But Washington and NATO also have to take Russia’s security into account and negotiate with the Russians as part of a general settlement. This is a geopolitical necessity. World peace depends on finding the right answers.
President Joe Biden needs to shed the rhetoric and move in a constructive direction.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.