Preventing a new cold (or hot) war between Russia and the United States is a matter of the highest urgency. Preventing war, however, is not just a matter of good intentions. Stable peace requires resolving the pressing conflicts between potential antagonists.
Currently the most dangerous conflict between Russia and the United States concerns Ukraine and Crimea. The present phase of this conflict began with the Ukrainian nationalist revolution of 2014. This revolution, which was encouraged by the U.S., deposed the elected president Viktor Yanukovych and established a strongly anti-Russian government in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital.
The revolution provoked a rebellion in the culturally Russian Donbas region of Ukraine, which had voted overwhelmingly for Yanukovych in the 2010 election. Russia has given military support to the Donbas rebellion. Russia has also annexed Crimea, which was not historically Ukrainian, whose population seemingly wants to be part of Russia and which contains a vital Russian naval base at Sevastopol.
Ukrainian governments stridently demand unconditional return of the Donbas region and of Crimea. U.S. governments have declared “unwavering” support for Ukraine and, along with the European Union, have imposed economic sanctions on Russia. Over 15,000 people have died in the Donbas-Ukraine-Russia struggle, over 1 million people have been displaced and new episodes of violence occur fairly regularly. The Ukrainian clash poisons relations between Russia and the West and could even engender warfare between Russia and the United States.
In 2015, a plausible settlement was proposed (called Minsk II) giving full autonomy to the Donbas region under Ukrainian sovereignty. The Minsk II proposal was endorsed by Russia, France, Germany, United States, and the U.N. Security Council. It was initially accepted but subsequently rejected by Ukraine.
An important recent report by Anatol Lieven, of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, provides convincing arguments for a negotiated solution to Donbas and Crimean disputes based upon an expanded version of the Minsk II proposals. It can be found at quincyinst.org. According to Lieven, President Biden should start by making a commitment to a pluralist, multiethnic and federal Ukrainian republic, as advocated in the Minsk II plans. Biden should also withdraw the U.S. commitment to bring Ukraine into NATO, which is a useless provocation of Russia.
The terms of the settlement advocated by Lieven are the following:
- Immediate ceasefire accompanied by withdrawal and disarming of all armed groups in the Donbas region. This includes Ukrainian armed forces, Russian “volunteer” forces and Donbas separatist militias.
- Restoration of Ukrainian sovereignty over the Donbas region including control over the border with Russia.
- Full autonomy of the Donbas region in the context of decentralization of power in Ukraine as a whole. Full autonomy includes local control over official languages, courts and police.
- A Ukrainian constitutional amendment establishing the Donbas region as an autonomous republic within Ukraine.
- Transitional military security provided by a U.N. peacekeeping force composed of troops from neutral countries outside of Europe.
- A treaty establishing Ukrainian political neutrality for at least the next generation.
- Resolving the Crimea issue in accordance with the wishes of the local population. Determination of these wishes through a new U.N. supervised referendum on union with Russia.
- International recognition of Russian sovereignty over Crimea in exchange for Russian recognition of Kosovo independence from Serbia.
- Removal of U.S. and European Union sanctions on Russia in tandem with Russian compliance with the above conditions.
Lieven acknowledges that his proposed settlement will be disliked by ardent Ukrainian nationalists. Yet he argues that it is the most favorable agreement they can realistically obtain. Lieven concludes by emphasizing the major benefits of this Donbas settlement:
“By reducing tensions with Russia through a Ukrainian settlement, the United States would increase the possibility of progress on wider issues in the bilateral relationship … For Ukraine, a peace settlement would eliminate the possibility of a war with Russia that could lead only to Ukraine’s defeat and possibly the loss of much greater areas of eastern and southern Ukraine.”