A Ukraine-Russia peace deal: Crimea must have a cost

March-06-14-Russia-Ukraine-and-Obama2Efforts to secure some kind of peace deal between Moscow and Kiev—and not just a temporary ceasefire that preserves a frozen conflict—continue. The latest suggestions are that Washington is coming up with proposals to this effect, as explored in this story from Bloomberg by Josh Rogin. While not officially confirmed, its details chime with what I have been hearing from people in and close to the policy circles. The essence is that in return “for a partial release of some of the most onerous economic sanctions” Russia would have to adhere to September’s Minsk agreement and cease direct military support for the rebels, while the “issue of Crimea would be set aside for the time being, and some of the initial sanctions that were put in place after Crimea’s annexation would be kept in place.”

In other words, Russia’s seizure of Crimea would be considered a done deal and taken out of the equation, in return for only minor and personal (ie, not systemic) sanctions, while Russia and Ukraine would in effect be considered to have positions of equal moral weight in the negotiations over eastern Ukraine. Although it is essential to end this war—and both Moscow and Kiev want and would gain from a resolution—this basis is, in my option, immoral, muddle-headed and downright dangerous.

1. Yes, alas for the moment it is not worth trying to get Moscow to surrender Crimea. It may not be right, but this is the only viable position. For Putin to abandon the peninsula would not be totally against his own instincts, it would also be politically lethal, critically undermining his credibility and legitimacy. He simply will not do this.

2. But there must be a real and serious cost to Russia as a result. The US terms would essentially give Moscow a pass on this act of aggression, reverting to only the most minor and entirely bearable level of sanctions. The lesson this would teach to both Moscow and other powers observing this debacle (not least China) is that there are acts of aggression which are mortal sins and others which are merely venial ones, peccadillos which deserve only a slap on the wrist and the lightest mortifications. Rather, if Moscow is (for the moment) to be granted Crimea—de facto if, and this is important, never de jure—then it must be made to realize that this is a major concession from Kiev right from the start and one for which Ukraine must be compensated.

3. The claims of Kiev and Moscow cannot be considered comparable. Both because this is a conflict triggered by illegitimate and unjustified Russian interference into Ukrainian domestic affairs and also because of the Crimean compromise, Kiev is the injured party. The Kremlin may not like that, but Washington must never lose sight of this, or allow itself to forget it in the name of a deal. The reported Kerry proposals essentially make this false comparison.

4. The Minsk Agreement was just a start point: Moscow must renounce all interference in Ukraine. It is not enough that Russia “cease direct military support” for the rebels, as that leaves open political support, economic pressure and indirect support (eg, encouraging third parties such as Transdnestria to provide weapons and offering transport routes into Ukraine). Moscow will also have to cooperate in active measures to end the fighting, such as by offering asylum to those rebel leaders for whom there is no scope for reconciliation with Kiev. Obviously the ideal thing would be that they face justice for their crimes and I would imagine a lot of Interpol Red Notices (international arrest warrants) being issued, ensuring that they would not be doing any global jaunts for the foreseeable future, but again a pragmatic desire to end the war as quickly and as neatly as possible means amnesties for some fighters and quiet evacuation for others.

5. Moscow owes Kiev. This is a war of aggression, and when it ends Kiev will be left picking up the pieces in a region that has been ravaged by vicious fighting. Just before Christmas, Ukraine paid the remaining $1.65 billion to cover its gas debt, but paying for Russian energy remains a long-term challenge that also opens up future grounds for conflict (and Russian pressure). So the answer may be that instead of expecting a Kremlin already dealing with an economic crisis to hand over any cash, that suitable reparations be offset against Ukraine’s future energy bills, allowing Kiev to focus its efforts on reconstruction.

6. NATO and EU membership are neither imminently likely, nor anything over which Moscow has a veto. I can fully understand why Kiev would want to join both NATO and the EU, but we must face facts: neither is going to happen for years and years to come, and not until Ukraine has managed to develop its institutional, economic and security structures. To this end, while demanding that Kiev formally repudiate any such aims might seem a painless enough move—after all, is it really any sacrifice to give up something you won’t anyway have?—it would also implicitly acknowledge that Ukrainian sovereignty is conditional upon Moscow’s comfort. Would Washington ever accept that Canada or Mexico get to veto the USA’s international affiliations? I think not. By all means let NATO and the EU affirm that they do not see any prospect of Ukrainian membership for years, if this will help ease Moscow’s concerns, but don’t treat Kiev like some unwanted pariah.

Besides, the very effort to reach the criteria for membership, whether or not ultimately successful, would create a great basis for Ukraine’s future development after twenty-plus years of failed state-building (and feel free to read that as a failure to build a working state, or the active construction of a failing one…). Without the hope of membership, the spur to build proper institutions may well be much less powerful, and it will take a powerful and above all sustained effort to challenge the toxic legacies of institutional corruption, localized clientelism, economic drift and political cynicism that beset Ukraine.

7. The optics are important: Moscow cannot be allowed to claim victory, but nor can it be humiliated. In return for a grudging and de facto acknowledgement of its claim to Crimea (perhaps including lifting some of the economic sanctions on companies operating there: there is no reason why ordinary Crimeans should suffer disproportionately), Moscow must in effect abandon its interference in Ukraine. This represents a defeat, but for practical reasons it would be essential that the West and Kiev alike not crow over that. Putin needs some face-saving assistance if any deal is to be palatable, and if the intent is to bring peace to Ukraine—rather than to use this as an excuse to punish or even destabilize the Kremlin—then this needs to be on the table.

Kiev can offer protections for the rights of Russian-speakers (already on the table), a degree of autonomy or guarantees for the political elites of the east (already on the table), reconciliation programs and amnesties for those fighters not involved in atrocities (already on the table). Given that the ostensible reason for Russian involvement—insofar as the Kremlin admits it at all—has been the claimed threat to the Russophone population, this would give Putin the opportunity to claim “mission accomplished” to his domestic audience, and the pliant Russian broadcast media would duly follow this line.

Of course, this would be a thin fiction, and in the eyes of the world, Moscow would have been forced to retreat and to pay a price for its seizure of Crimea. And so it should, not least to warn others that even a nuclear power cannot breach international law without consequences. But in the delicate balance between punishment and humiliation, the best chance of peace can be found.

The bottom line is simple. Russia is the aggressor, not just one party in a dispute. Forcing the return of Crimea may for now be impossible (and would actually be something of a headache for Kiev), but Moscow must not get a pass as a result. Any peace must recognize the damage done to Ukraine and the cost of reconstruction and penalize Russia as a result. And if Moscow is unwilling to accept these terms? Then the economic warfare that is the sanctions regime must continue and if anything be ratcheted up. Yes, US Secretary of State Kerry may be uncomfortable with this state of affairs. Yes, there is an inevitable collateral impact on Europe (and, for separate reasons, Central Asia). Yes, it means Moscow will seek to stir up trouble in Europe and elsewhere. But to buckle would be to reward Putin for his aggressions and strengthen his regime, while weakening the whole fabric of international law.

Leave a comment


  1. But even this scenario looks like the kind of thing Putin can’t afford to do — not with nationalists already claiming he is not ‘doing enough’ to support their compatriots in the Donbass. Doesn’t it seem more likely that, if anything like this is proposed to Putin, he will simply say this is part of a Western plot to again bring Russia down on her knees?

    • Mark Galeotti

       /  January 1, 2015

      I honestly don’t think the nationalists are a serious threat to him now (though that might change over time as the economy worsens). The point is that Putin and Russia are bleeding, and no amount of rhetoric on his part will stem that flow. Of course, he may still reject any opportunities to deal — but the point is that if he does, the West needs to offer consequences, not compromises.

  2. Mark – agree with your argument comprehensively. I fear though that your final few sentences, where you consider what happens if Moscow rejects such a proposal, is what will likely occur. Furthermore, all the consequences of that which you list will be uppermost of the minds of policy leaders in the EU and US – and so, rather than ensuring Moscow pays a price, the initial proposal mentioned in your post, noted by Rogin, is likely to ensue. Moscow will be given a free pass, and that will only encourage it to pursue its ambitions further – either in Ukraine, or elsewhere.

    But the reality is – without political resolve and unity in the EU and in the US, and with no good military options on the table to deter further Russian expansionism – this is where we are headed. At some point, Moscow will push too far, and NATO will have to push back. Then things become much more dicey indeed. Predictions of the unthinkable – a NATO Russia conflict – are becoming more common, and indeed – thinkable. Are we ready for this future? I don’t think so.

    • Mark Galeotti

       /  January 1, 2015

      Thanks for the comment. Sadly, I am likewise not especially confident that the West will retain the unity and determination to keep up the pressure. As you say, this only empowers Putin and his ilk to push again. I don’t honestly anticipate a direct NATO/Russia shooting war (although the economic sanctions are war by another name/means), but certainly I’d rather see resolve now rather than response later.

  3. You wrote: ” … people in and close to the policy circles … cease direct military support for the rebels …” I don’t know who these people are or what make believe world they live in; the Putin position is clear that sanctions or threat of sanctions will not alter policy. That is clear time and again from Russian officials. The policy is the military support and lie about it. I cannot imagine what would make anyone think that that policy will change. Reality should wake up the hibernating snails about the time Kiev is under attack.

  4. Pragmatic approach may be:
    Ukraine sells Crimea to Russia as in Louisiana Purchase. Putin gets Sevastopol and scores in Russian polls. Ukraine gets cash to modernize the country’s infrastructure and huge Keynesian stimulus for the economy. Sanctions are eased on settlement of Eastern Ukraine issue. But Putin learns that taking things that don’t belong to you comes at a huge cost.
    ….While Crimean Tartars get shafted as usual.

  5. …..Ukraine gets to join the EU. Putin gets buried by crude at $25/barrel. US and NATO avoid another war.

  6. If what is proposed between Obama and Putin is true, it is a dreadful betrayal of Ukraine. Agree Crimea is de facto now Russian. Sanctions must stay for that reason alone. Putin has never admitted that Russia is even involved in the Donbas so it is highly unlikely he would withdraw troops, heavy equipment and allow a Ukrainian controlled border. The Minsk Accord is simply Putin’s terms for Ukraine’s surrender. The ATO must continue and either force the terrorists out or draw open Russian support at which point they can be dealt with openly. There is no non-military solution.

  7. Good analysis of why we cannot afford to give in. But is not the present status quo the best of all possible worlds? With Russia in recession and the rouble at 60, the country is not, and probably will never again be a significant market for either the US or EU. With every day more enterprises and banks become vulnerable–to be bailed out not on any economically rational basis, but according to who has the most influence with the Kremlin. Every attempt by Putin to appear strong only makes Russia weaker over the long term. Another year of sanctions will put Russia in a place where she can never be a serious player outside her borders again.

    That, surely, is the essence of Real Politik.

    • Yeah, probably that’s what the Obama administration means when they refer to “strategic patience.” I hope sanctions are unanimously extended in the EU — that’s the biggest wildcard though — that would be a serious blow to the Putin regime.

  8. While i generally agree for the most part, a word of caution should be made clear. The Pandora’s box had been open wide and loud not by the Putin’s miscalculated adventure but Nato led Kosovo campaign. It would be nothing short of dishonest to claim otherwise. One may spin it anyway one likes, however, it’s painfully clear that those same Int’l Law and Fabric were thrown into a trash bin when Nato attacked a souvereign state, interfering in their domestic affairs-the very same accousation against Russia.
    Even more dishonest is pointing a finger at pro-Russian separatists over war crimes. Really? I’d be pleased to see Strelkov and similar Russian figure heads get locked up, but what about Ukrainian volunteer battalions? We’ve heard clear Amnesty Int’l’s accusations aginst Ukrainian fighters. Any plan for punishing them?
    My simple point is that Russia has to pay for the unjust invasion, but i find it very hard to enforce some serious punishment since the US/EU block doesn’t hold a morally supreme position-contrary to what you may be advocating.
    It strongly remindes me of the Kosovo campaign. Nato put forward some clumsy excuse, went for it without UN’s approval and propped up a pupet state. We know now, from Dick Marti’s report, what terrible attrocities the “freedom fighers” committed-something the Nato conviniently overlooked at the time.
    I suspect this makes Putin feel morally strong and just, even though the Russians are breaking the Law even more the Nato did. Let’s hope the sanctions will force him to back off, for the sake of the ordinary people who suffer. But on a global level beyond this conflict, things i am affraid, look grim. One power showed the world it really couldn’ have cared less about UN/Law stance-now it will be one hell of an effort to convince regional players to adhere to those same rules.
    The fact that Blackwater came to the rescue to train the Ukrainian army doesn’t help either. There’s perhaps too visibile US effort for Putin to pull out and save-face at the same time. Coupled with his impression that he’s morally righteous since A) Crimea was historically Russian territory so he only took back what belongs to him and B) it was the Nato that used force disregarding the UN so he’s only following suit and nothing more-all this makes me wonder how realistic it is to extract any sort of a fair deal over Ukraine?
    The sactions have been effective so far, contrary to the Kremlin’s “we’re fine” propaganda. Their economy is far from being fine, it’s in a disarray as of now. When the treasury gets empty it will be all over for Putin & Co. It’s not the case yet, so any attempt to stop the fighting will hardly include a fair deal. In a two-years time when the Russian economy reverts to the 90s, yes. If we want to see the end of fighting now, well, seems to me we’ll have to disregard moral, law and sense of justice-as have been done many times by all world powers. And it just happens that Kerry’s aware of it.
    Just my two cents. Great blog-keep it up.

  9. While I am sympathetic to Edwin Pace’s sentiments, we should not forget that wounded bears are probably the most vicious.

    Personally, I am quite concerned about the consequences of cyberattacks targeting our banks, governments, infrastructure, stores, etc done at the behest of Russia, its agents and operatives if we were to raise the present stakes to the point of actually threatening the Putin Regime. I think that Ukraine is more important to Russia than Sony is to the North Korean president.

    According to numerous accounts, elements of the Russian state have cooperative relations with organized criminal groups active in the area of cybercrime. Such groups can be based and target anywhere in the world — ask the Australian authorities.

    No doubt the Kremlin would make all efforts to maintain plausible deniability. Our cybersecurity simply is not sufficiently prepared — although we could have a situation of mutually assured non-destruction.

    While we may be relatively secure from conventional military attack, we are in a new technological era — as NATO has noted recently. Economic threats can be met in non-traditional ways. Let us not have a failure of imagination.

    While emotionally, I favor making Mr. Putin and his cronies (as opposed to the Russian mass), pay a price for its policies towards Ukraine, I am not confident that those states that have imposed sanctions against Russia can sustain them indefinitely.

    Query who is really suffering from the present sanctions — Mr. Putin’s cronies or the Russian mass? If billionaires lose half their wealth, they are still wealthy by any measures. If average Russians are further impoverish by the declining price of oil, the absence of foreign investment and trade, and the sanctions, will the resulting situation be one that serves our interests? Who might succeed Mr. Putin? I have no idea,

    According to Karen Dawisha and others, much of the Russian elite’s wealth is invested abroad in OECD countries. Might it make more sense for law enforcement in such countries seek to determine if such investments were made in accordance with applicable disclosure laws, did not involve money laundering, etc. What better way for the kleptocrats lose their assets by the application non-Russian laws, regulations and rules. It would be difficult for countries that are tempted to end sanctions to justify their failure to apply their own laws.

    Of course, the kleptocrats have had numerous accomplices based outside of Russia, who might not be very happy. Criminal entities and individuals willing to help them should not be too big to fail.

  10. Russia is doomed to disintegrate, and world needs a plane for that.

  11. A well-reasoned article, although as an American, I’m troubled by its underlying assumption of the US as the Global Policeman which has an obligation to punish aggression around the world. It’s relatively easy for pundits and academics like Dr. Galeotti to huff and puff about the dangers of “weakening the whole fabric of international law” by not standing up to Putin, but do they have any skin in this game? As an aside, my son just deployed for his 2d tour to Afghanistan, and as an American, I am sick at the prospects of using military force to help the Afghans (or Ukrainians) build a functional state. Let them sort it out among themselves. Our government in Washington needs to place genuine American interests above these delusions of global grandeur.

    • Mark Galeotti

       /  January 3, 2015

      Where is there even the slightest suggestion of using military force here? Speaking as a non-American, I have no great commitment to US “delusions of global grandeur.” I was writing in response to purported (and plausible) claims of an initiative from Washington and trying to suggest how it is dangerous and could be made better. For what it’s worth, the Europeans — who do have much more “skin in the game” — are also a central part of this process. Oh, and the day “genuine American interests” mean ignoring international law and also the interests of your allies, the USA will find itself in a lonely and rather miserable world…

  12. Thanks for the reply. You’re right, you make no direct mention of using military force, but the logic of increasing sanctions (which some Russians view as an act of war) would appear to suggest that military force remains an option. What happens if sanctions don’t stop further Russian aggression? (I personally think that Russian domestic pressures will force Putin and company to enlarge the Novorossiya project, securing a land route into the Crimea–and possibly to Transdneister).

    I think Kerry and the Obama administration have read the US tea leaves correctly: the American people have no stomach for further foreign entanglements, and it would be better to cut a deal now with the Kremlin before a more hawkish Congress convenes in couple days.

    I hope that the European leadership can resolve this conflict. Maybe I’ve been watching too much RT, but I wonder about the dedication of the European leadership (except perhaps Merkel) to unite and support the democratic aspirations and economic solvency of the new Ukrainian government. I just don’t see it.

    Don’t want to sound too cynical, but the folks in Washington have demonstrated a remarkable ability to ignore international law when they perceive it is in the country’s best interests.

  13. O.K….. That is green light to nuclear-weapon states for Кiiv! Any ukrainian government will be dead before accepting this “deal”!

  14. Ukraine should be given rights to ALL the Black and Azov Sea resources that Russia has tried to snatch by annexing Crimea. Keep the useless peninsula, but not the gas and other deposits. Non-negotiable!

  15. I can understand the concern by many about possible war. But does not Putin’s Hybrid War strategy implicitly underline Russia’s military weakness? Most Great Powers in the past used overt displays of force to enhance their positions. That was why the SU intervened several times in eastern Europe. Putin, on the other hand, has done everything possible to avoid any overt links to the separatists. A confrontation with the West is the very last thing he wants.

    Putin made many mistakes last year. But he also knows just how weak Russia is, both economically and militarily, and will act accordingly.

  16. For what it’s worth, I am in fairly decent agreement with your first 5 points, and probably point no. 7, too. At least half of point no. 6 seems to me very problematic, however.

    To wit: The idea of “let[ting] NATO…affirm that [it doesn’t] see any prospect of Ukrainian membership for years”, without at the same formally rejecting Ukraine outright, seems a rather precariously ambiguous approach to take. I’m willing to at least accept the possibility, though, that this may be the only viable approach that can be taken in this situation.

    Even the notion of conceding Russian demands that Ukraine abandon its NATO aspirations seems a bit questionable, of course—simply in that it is conceding Russian demands, demands that are in fact being backed up by military aggression, and therefore is effectively rewarding that aggression.

    On the other hand, I realize that NATO is never going to even consider accepting Ukraine as long as its northern neighbor, which happens to still be a fairly significant military power, is engaged in territorial aggression against it (which of course is one of the reasons the Putin Regime is doing what it is doing in Ukraine).

    So, in accordance to this logic, and given that this regrettable situation does in fact exist, it might not be such a bad thing to at least think about the notion of putting NATO accession for Ukraine completely off the table for a certain period of time, even on an official, formal level. As you say, it’s not much of a “sacrifice to give up something you won’t anyway have”. And it could possibly lead to a process whereby the Putin Regime is gradually persuaded to stop doing what it is doing in Ukraine.

    But the question of EU membership is I think a very different matter. It was after all the refusal of Yanukovych to even begin the process that would lead to eventual EU membership that kickstarted Maidan in the first place. To take this prospect of EU membership off of the table now—in a sense returning Ukraine to the nearly same state of affairs it was stuck in before it rose up in protest—even if it is understood that it might someday be put back on the table, at some point any number of years in the future, seems like a real nasty blow to the country’s nether regions, so to speak.

    That is, what you seem to be arguing is that Ukraine accept some vague, imprecisely defined “hope” that it may someday be considered for membership (or really, as a candidate to begin the process that might lead to membership), but that it should otherwise cease and desist any real engagement with the EU for now, abandoning any sort of interactive process with EU institutions by which it might strive to bit-by-bit conform to the requirements of eventual membership.

    You shouldn’t in my opinion set aside too readily the likelihood that this state of affairs itself might knock the air out of the very state-building efforts you rightly argue are absolutely needed in Ukraine at this moment.

    (and you should also consider that Ukrainians are not likely to be forgetful of what happened the last time it accepted a set of vague, imprecisely defined assurances, from a group of ostensibly well-meaning international entities in the city of Budapest in 1994).

    Again, I think in most of the points you make your overall argument is not only very impressively put forth, but is one that the situation at hand very much calls out for. I would just ask you to reconsider point no. 6 somewhat more.

    • Mark Galeotti

       /  January 6, 2015

      I have a lot of sympathy for what you say, but it is also absolutely clear that there is no way that Ukraine will be an EU member for a long, long time, and my point is that simply acknowledging this does help move a deal forward. It does not rule out cooperation with the EU and I certainly think that Ukraine ought to be encouraged to move towards that at the future which, let’s be honest, means a massive effort to put its house in order in terms of institutions, economy, corruption, etc.

  1. A Ukraine-Russia Peace Deal: Crimea Must have a Cost | International Policy Digest « Geopolitics: Ukraine
  2. Ukraine and Russia. How We Got Here. What’s Next? | Common Sense and Whiskey
  3. Too Much Time
  4. A Ukraine-Russia Peace Deal: Crimea Must have a Cost

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: