Cambridge historian Christopher Clark misleadingly titled his account of the origins of World War I “The Sleepwalkers.” There is no chance of the confrontation between the West and Russia over Ukraine leading to such a cataclysm, but the Western leaders do seem to be walking in their sleep. While indignation at Putin’s violations of international law and norms is justified, it should not distract us from seeing that the West has pursued unattainable and inappropriate goals with feckless means. The fact that the experience of several months of failure has not led the West to reconsider call to mind Mark Twain’s definition of insanity as repeating the same thing while hoping for a different result.
Unless a great deal is happening behind the scenes, what has been lacking is diplomacy and negotiation. There do not appear to have been any serious talks between Kiev and the separatists or between the West and Moscow. Of course not all disputes can be settled by bargaining and the separatists and Putin may not be fit partners for discussion. But it is hard to argue that Kiev or the West has given them much of a chance.
Terribly corrupt and badly governed
The fundamental problem is not only that Putin refuses to accept the Western rules of the game, which he correctly thinks have been stacked against him and waived when it suites Western interests, such as in allowing Kosovo to become independent, but that the West seeks to weld Ukraine to it economically and politically. Although it is likely that much closer relations to the West are sought by a majority of people in the country, especially now that Crimeans have lost the vote, this should not dictate Western policy.
The least of the difficulties is that Ukraine is terribly corrupt and badly governed. It has wasted the two decades since independence and it is far from clear that much better can be expected in the future. Equally obvious but more important is the deep division within Ukraine. This is not to say that the eastern and western sections are either internally united or inevitably hostile to each other on all issues. But ethnicity, interests, and orientations towards Russia and the EU are very different. Excessive centralization is a recipe for major strife, especially in a country without deep democratic traditions and strong institutions. Furthermore, while Putin is an authoritarian thug, Russia does have legitimate interests in what happens on its borders. We might like a world entirely governed by laws in which power relations could be ignored, but that is not the one we live in. Russia cannot be allowed to dictate what happens in eastern Ukraine, but neither can it be ignored, especially when it is aligned with a large segment of the population.
Rather than tying Ukraine to the West, the latter should seek a form of flexible neutrality for the former, something akin to Austria during the Cold War. NATO membership should be simply off the table, and while crafting economic ties to Europe that are compatible with Russian interests and ties to Russia that are compatible with European desires (and of course acceptable to Ukraine) will be more difficult, it is not beyond the ingenuity of skillful diplomats. Internally, some sort of decentralism and federalism is necessary, probably accompanied in the short term by UN peacekeepers.
Sleepwalking will not do
Some would say that this is giving in to Russian brutality, and that it would only encourage further aggression. But states adjust to others’ power and interest all the time without dominos falling. The danger of Russian pressure on its neighbors, especially the Baltic republics, is real and requires Western steadfastness, but should not be exaggerated as Putin’s Russia lacks the ideology and power of for example Hitler’s Germany.
This does not mean that it will be easy to reach agreements within Ukraine or between Russia and the West. But Putin has given numerous signals of a willingness to negotiate, and while his recent seven-point plan is not acceptable, elements of it could be a start. The alternative of bringing the conflict to an end by a combination of Western sanctions and the Ukrainian government’s conquest of the east is simply implausible. It was quite predictable that Putin would react to the Ukrainian victories by sending sufficient forces to hold the line. The West needs to maintain serious pressure on Russia, and countries like Germany may have to sacrifice economic interests in order to do so, but this stance will not work if it is in service of maximalist goals. The US and Europe need to do what the leaders in 1914 did not: think about how to establish and maintain arrangements that are at least minimally acceptable to all the states and interests. This is what good diplomacy is all about; sleepwalking will not do.