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A Peace Plan for Ukraine

What does it take to let reason prevail?

March 6, 2014

Whenever he was faced with political crises with great risks and small gains, the U.S. statesman Robert A. Lovett is supposed to have exclaimed, “Forget the cheese — let’s get out of the trap.”

In the present Ukrainian crisis, the original cheese at stake between Russia and the West — and a pretty mouldy, rat-nibbled one — was the issue of Ukrainian accession to competing Western or Russian alliances.

This goal is now impossible for both Russia and the West. The uprising in Kiev that overthrew the Yanukovych government made it absolutely clear that a large number of Ukrainians will fight literally to the death to prevent Ukraine joining the Eurasian Union or any other Russian-dominated economic and political bloc.

On the other hand, it is absolutely clear that Ukraine is too dysfunctional and too deeply divided to join the European Union in any rationally foreseeable future. As for NATO membership, this is a surreal joke given NATO’s decision categorically to rule out even the faintest possibility of using force to defend Ukraine.

Getting out of today’s trap

Instead, we need to find a way to get out of the trap. For if events are allowed to continue their present course, there could be a war in Ukraine.

This war would most probably not be precipitated by direct actions of the Russian or Ukrainian governments. The more likely cause is the clash of rival armed volunteer groups on the streets of eastern Ukraine, which would lead to the progressive involvement of armed forces on either side.

If that were to happen, it would be a shattering humiliation for NATO and the EU in the short term, as they stood by while the Ukrainian army was crushed.

However, in the longer term the resulting isolation from the West would make it a much greater economic, political and cultural disaster for Russia — dooming it to permanent economic and political stagnation and probable dependency on China.

Moreover a war, leading to Western economic sanctions and Russian retaliation through a radical increase in gas prices, could very easily plunge Europe and the world into renewed economic recession.

Enter the UN

The only organization which retains enough independence and respect from both sides to bring about serious negotiations is the United Nations.

The Secretary General should move swiftly to appoint a mediator to begin talks. The goals of these talks should be:

  • to reduce international tension surrounding Ukraine;
  • to reduce the combined threat of clashes between rival militias in eastern Ukraine, and thereby also to reduce the threat of Russia extending its military takeover beyond Crimea, thereby greatly increasing the possibility of clashes with Ukrainian troops;
  • to return the Russian and Ukrainian armies to the positions they held before the Russian intervention;
  • to reassure the Russian-speaking population that their rights will be respected and that the Ukrainian army and police will not be controlled by nationalist extremists;
  • to restore an agreed legal constitutional process, and ensure that both sides will accept the May elections as free, fair and legitimate.

A cooling-off period

In order to achieve these goals, I propose the following set of agreements:

1. A five-year moratorium on offers to Ukraine of accession or partnership agreements with the Eurasian Union, the EU or NATO.

2. Thereafter, a constitutional amendment would be introduced, making ratification of any such agreement dependent on a majority of at least 70% of voters in a referendum.

3. Russia reaffirms its agreement to the new elections in May. The elections will be supervised and monitored by the UN, to prevent intimidation by nationalist or pro-Russian forces.

4. Russia withdraws its troops in Crimea to military bases. The Ukrainian government cancels its military alert as well as its call-up of reservists.

5. Russia recognizes the new government in Kiev as legitimate on a provisional basis — in return for placing the Defense, Security and Interior ministries under neutral professional officials.

6. A promise by the new government in Kiev not to pass any laws banning political parties or carrying out lustrations of former or serving officials, and not to take any action to replace elected officials and councils in eastern and southern Ukraine.

The carrots

If Russia agrees to these terms, then the existing Western threats of non-attendance at the G8 Summit in Sochi in early June 2014, and of economic and other sanctions, should be suspended.

If the government in Kiev agrees to them, then the international community should move to put together a financial rescue package for Ukraine.

No doubt, these terms will be difficult for both Russia and Ukraine to accept:

  • Russia because it would involve abandoning Russian recognition of Yanukovych as elected president (though Putin has said publicly himself that he does not think that Yanukovych has any political future);
  • the new Ukrainian government because it would have to accept certain internationally mandated restrictions on its internal actions.

Without an agreement however, developments on the ground — for example, actions by both Ukrainian and pro-Russian militias to seize control of provincial governments in the East and South — could easily bring about a war that neither Kiev nor Moscow desires.

To paraphrase Lovett, the temptation is always there to go for the cheese. In the present situation in Ukraine, however, the trap opening before us is so obvious and so deadly that it would seem madness not to seek ways to avoid it.


Ukraine is too dysfunctional and too deeply divided to join the European Union in any rationally foreseeable future.

Many Ukrainians will fight to death to prevent Ukraine joining a Russian-dominated economic and political bloc.

The UN is the only organization which retains enough respect on both sides to bring about serious negotiations.

There should be a five-year moratorium on offering Ukraine accession to the Eurasian Union, the EU or NATO.

A UN-sponsored peace plan is the only surefire way to prevent a war that neither Kiev nor Moscow desires.