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Russia Won’t Return Occupied Land. So Don’t Ask.

·5 min read
Olga Maltseva/AFP via Getty
Olga Maltseva/AFP via Getty

Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger recently roiled the foreign policy community by becoming the most prominent voice urging Ukraine to pursue peace talks with Russia.

Kissinger prioritized Putin appeasement over Ukrainian victory, critics alleged, exposing his wanton priorities in the process. But critics did him a favor by ignoring the specifics of his vision.

What would a negotiated settlement look like according to Kissinger? “Ideally, the dividing line should be a return to the status quo ante,” he said, meaning Russia should withdraw to its pre-invasion borders.

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At the heart of Kissinger’s call for a ceasefire, in other words, is a wildly unrealistic set of expectations, given Russia’s territorial gains that came at a great cost of blood and economic devastation at home.

What’s worse, Kissinger stands out among advocates of a ceasefire because of how much detail he was willing to offer. Most others avoid discussing specifics about the content, prospects, and consequences of their diplomatic solutions. You won’t hear meaningful details from leftist academics like Noam Chomsky, nor The New York Times editorial board, nor foreign policy experts like Charles Kupchan, nor the ragtag gang of German intellectuals urging their country’s chancellor to withhold military support for Kyiv.

Without specifics, calls for a “negotiated settlement” are mere proclamations of an ideal—but they are not part of serious political analysis and debate. And they don’t merit attention in public conversation, unless they come with clarification on the following points:

What would be different?

Five rounds of negotiations took place during the first month of the war, during which Ukraine signaled an openness to key Russian demands regarding NATO and the status of territories Russia has occupied since 2014. Those talks failed, and few commentators explain why they believe new talks stand a better chance.

Certain factors can change prospects for negotiations. The first are Ukraine’s military successes, which gutted Russia’s visions of easily imposing its will through conventional warfare.

Likewise, Western sanctions have been painful enough that Russia offered concessions in exchange for sanctions relief. Russia may be more willing to negotiate because of its military and economic setbacks. But the reverse can also become true; if, for example, Ukraine were abruptly starved of weapons to defend itself, it would turn to negotiations with a new sense of existential desperation.

Unsurprisingly, we’ve heard little acknowledgement that the fate of negotiations hinges on such factors.

What territory should Ukraine give?

Voices pushing Ukraine to trade land for peace rarely specify how much territory should be sacrificed, or where.

Russian forces currently occupy an area stretching from pieces of the Kharkiv region in Ukraine’s north, circling around the Donbas in the east, and extending along the country’s southern Black Sea coast near the city of Mykolaiv. The occupied territories include rich agricultural land, multiple seaports, and a nuclear power plant. Russia has sacrificed considerably for some of it, especially in places like Mariupol, along front lines in the Donbas, and on the outskirts of Kherson city. Putin is building local governments in some of these areas, too, and his share of the Donbas is increasing.

If this is the territory Ukraine should sacrifice, hardly anyone seems willing to say so. Kissinger came close, as did Columbia University professor Jeffrey D. Sachs who— like the former secretary of state—glibly suggests that negotiations could somehow prompt Russia to withdraw to its 2014 positions: back to the Crimean Peninsula and two regions within the Donbas.

What are the consequences of concessions?

Perhaps one reason nobody wants to talk specifically or realistically about a diplomatic solution is that it, like war, augurs horrifying prospects.

Consider a peace that leaves all occupied territory in Russian hands. In reality, this would mean Ukraine loses seaports, much of its core agricultural base, and substantial, vital energy sources. Alternatively, any deal that incentivized Russia to return to the 2014 boundaries would likely entail spectacular concessions.

Indeed, it is hard to conceive of a settlement that maintains Ukraine’s fundamental nationhood while not emboldening Russian expansionism. Rather, toleration of Putin’s land-grab or offering major bounty in exchange will likely forge a new order not simply honoring Russia’s borders, but also accepting that its foreign escapades—however immoral or poorly executed—get to succeed.

Why would an agreement hold?

To abandon military resistance in favor of diplomacy at this point is to put exceptional faith in the Russian government. This is the same government that, in recent decades, habitually invaded its neighbors while lying about its actions and intentions up to and during the operations themselves.

Forget the emotional impact of trying to engage in a dialogue with the unrepentant perpetrators of the massacre of civilians in Bucha. Can Kyiv trust a military that marched into Crimea in 2014 with unmarked uniforms; that told the world it was withdrawing its troops from Ukraine’s borders before invading this year; and whose obvious battlefield effort to take Kyiv diverged from its stated war aims?

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Then there’s the long-term challenge of ideology. Western commentators seldom take seriously the depth of Russian nationalists’ assertion that Ukrainians are an artificial people maintaining an artificial state. Russia’s pseudo-religious claims to Ukraine are not only the pastime of obscure fanatics; they animated Putin’s speech at the outset of the invasion (“Modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia,” he said). Why would this Russian leadership and intelligentsia ever affirm Ukraine’s sovereignty?

The advocates of “negotiation” should not be excused from addressing these topics.

Perhaps they think that Ukraine should be sacrificed and crimes against humanity tolerated for the sake of preventing inflation, food and energy crises, or a power vacuum in Russia. Fine. Let them then argue for it.

But the current strategy of proclaiming the consequences of war but not its alternatives amounts to little more than a petulant moan. At best, generic odes to diplomacy will be meaningless, given that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy acknowledges that the war will end in negotiations.

A more concerning prospect is that these calls will distract from the urgent task of assisting a society under heinous attack from a nuclear-armed madman.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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