There Is No Zero-Sum Solution
Since February 2014, U.S. policy towards the Ukraine crisis has been predicated on the notion that Russia can be stopped by force – first, that economic warfare could coerce Russia into relinquishing Crimea, then that Ukraine could actually succeed in militarily crushing the insurgency in Donbass, and finally that U.S. military support for Ukraine could turn the tide or convince Russia to back down. In reality, sanctions have failed to have any noticeable effect, and with its August advance, Russia proved that it will never permit a Ukrainian victory over the rebels. Finally, the overwhelming military superiority that allows Russia to deny Ukraine victory also means that no amount of U.S. support for Ukraine, short of direct military intervention, will be able to save the country if and when Russia decides to renew combat.
Even that, in fact, might not be sufficient: while many of its citizens have displayed extraordinary patriotism and bravery, Ukraine’s government appears less than committed to its war with Russia. Kiev is, for instance, apparently content with a troop strength far under 200,000, much of which is not even being deployed in the war. For a country with a de facto population of around 38 million (out of a pre-invasion 44 million) that is currently being invaded, this is an absurdly low level of mobilization (0.5% of the population), especially considering that many hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have had military training within the last few years. For comparison, the U.S. military also comprises roughly 0.5 percent of the country’s population – but 14 percent of Americans (roughly, the population of California and Oregon) are not currently under foreign occupation. Supplying weapons to Ukraine – as is currently under consideration in Washington – thus appears unlikely to substantially improve the country’s ability to defend its territory, when Kiev itself appears so uninterested in doing so.
If the U.S. is unwilling to take real military action, then it should consider a mutually acceptable settlement now
Yet the idea, offered by some, that a compromise guaranteeing Ukraine’s exclusion from NATO could induce Russia to cease its intervention in Donbass or even return Crimea, is similarly unsound. Zbigniew Brzezinski has proposed a “Finland solution” for Ukraine, in which the country would be allowed to join the EU but forbidden from joining military alliances threatening to Russia. To the Kremlin, however, the EU is at least as unacceptable as NATO, binding its members politically, economically, and culturally to the West, and committing them to a mutual defense clause similar to (if somewhat weaker than) NATO’s. The Ukraine crisis, itself the product of frantic Russian efforts to prevent Ukraine from joining the EU, has if anything confirmed Russia’s fears of the bloc, as its entire membership (including Finland) is now united in economic warfare against Russia.
Further worsening matters, Russia’s recent actions suggest that it is not even willing to accept a united Ukraine outside of NATO and the EU, instead preferring a de facto partition of the country between itself and the West. At the moment of the Euromaidan’s triumph, the pro-Russian camp in Ukraine still remained quite strong: though it, along with Yanukovych, had lost power, Russia could still probably have deployed influence and pressure to prevent Ukraine signing an association agreement with the EU. Instead of at least trying to ensure Ukraine’s neutrality, it invaded Crimea and then Donbass, willingly choosing to launch an open-ended campaign to conquer an unspecified amount of Ukraine that, it must have been clear, would permanently alienate the rest of the country.
If, then, the US cannot realistically deter or halt Russian aggression, nor avoid it by offering any concessions that would be palatable to the Western camp, what is to be done? This entire conflict is the result of its main parties’ pursuit of zero-sum gains. The EU offered Ukraine an Association Agreement that was mutually exclusive with hypothetical membership in the Eurasian Economic Union and could have led to full membership, which would not have been compatible even with the extant CIS Free Trade Area. Russia felt compelled, with the success of the EU’s Ukraine policy, to seize as much of the country as it could by force. Rather than negotiate with moderates or consider any solution that could satisfy both sides, Ukraine then sought to crush the Russian-backed uprisings in Donbass by force.
Now, a mutually acceptable solution that eschews zero-sum gains is likely the only possible way out of this crisis. The objectives of the main parties to the conflict are all fairly clear. Russia seeks to bring Ukraine, or as much of it as possible, into its own political, economic, military, and cultural sphere (and is willing to accept the loss of the rest in the process). The majority of Ukrainians (overall and in the west, but not in the east) want to enter the EU, which in turn wants to help them move in that direction, though it is unclear when or whether it might offer full membership.
Perhaps the most promising way to reconcile these objectives would be for the EU and Eurasian Economic Union to find some way for Ukraine to become a special member of both organizations simultaneously, integrated in all respects save for those that are incompatible or security-related. This would largely satisfy the expansionist ambitions of both the EU and Russia, while providing Ukraine with the economic benefits of integration with both. In return for what amounts to a tremendous victory for Russia, the West should demand an agreement that legally binds the EU, EEU, NATO, and CSTO to not only respect Ukraine’s independence, territorial integrity, military neutrality, and equal integration, but to defend them by any means necessary. Such an agreement (unlike the Budapest Memorandum, which is sometimes mistakenly believed to commit the West to protecting Ukraine from third-party aggression) would force Russia to risk full-scale war if it attacks Ukraine again.
At this point, such a solution, perhaps sufficient six months ago, will likely have to be supplemented by a new federal constitution for Ukraine that would provide the northwest and southeast with equal and deep autonomy, assuring the Donbass that it will not lose the power it has seized at great cost. The new constitution would also need to require the assent of both regions to major domestic and (especially) foreign policies, guaranteeing that an overall majority of Ukrainians will not be able to end integration with Russia at the first opportunity, over the objections of the majority of the southeast. Measures such as the teaching of Ukrainian as a second language in the southeast, and Russian as a second language in the northwest, could contribute to the pluralistic unity of the country.
Such an agreement will likely be seen as a capitulation by many figures in the West (and Russia, for that matter), but it is now the only realistic means of even possibly recovering Donbass and preventing further Russian aggression. If the U.S. is unwilling to take real military action, then it should consider a mutually acceptable settlement now, before it and its allies find themselves in an even worse position, bargaining for the return of Kharkov, Odessa, or even Kiev. If done properly, Ukraine’s federalization could ensure its peace and fundamental political and economic unity, which cannot be said of current US, European, and Ukrainian policy.
Dylan Royce studies international affairs at George Washington University