Danger of a land-for-peace deal with Russia that would reward it for its war aggression

Despite widespread condemnation of Russia’s unlawful invasion of Ukraine, some nations and some politicians in the West feel dubious about Ukraine’s territorial integrity and political autonomy. Unlike Ukrainians, they are unconcerned about the long-term stability of a potential cease-fire or peace treaty between Kyiv and Moscow.

Electoral processes and pacifist sentiments in democratic nations suggest that leaders should accept a questionable compromise today rather than upholding standards and values in a multi-year standoff.

That’s the conclusion made by Andreas Umland, a prominent political expert and analyst at the Stockholm Center for Eastern European Studies at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs. We quote key points from his article written for the SCEEUS project on hindrances to a Russian-Ukrainian truce.

Even leaders and governments unconcerned with justice, freedom, self-determination, emancipation, and other comparable principles must respect their actions toward Moscow and Kyiv from more significant world peace and security issues. Many in Washington, Brussels, Paris, and Berlin and capitals in Asia, Africa, and Latin America may see Russia’s war in Ukraine as a regional, post-Soviet, or/inner-Slavic conflict, Mr Umland concludes.

Ukraine is geographically, culturally, historically, and politically far from the countries of these actors. Their narrative indicates that international financial, military, and political investment in Ukraine’s defence, security, and recovery should be constrained. For this group, a flawed but quick peace today is better than a noble but long military confrontation later.

Read also: What’s behind calls for talks with Russia and halting weapons to Ukraine?

However, like Russia, Ukraine is a part of the global political and legal system. It is an active member of the international community of states. Unlike the Russian Soviet, the Ukrainian Soviet Republic was a non-sovereign but formally full participant in the United Nations from 1945 until 1991.

After achieving independence in August 1991, post-Soviet Ukraine became not just a regular member of the United Nations but a legitimately sovereign state. It is now a recognised and orderly member of the Council of Europe, the OSCE, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and other international organisations, regulations, and agreements.

As a result, Russia has already created a fundamental crisis for the international community, including the states that care little about the destiny of the Ukrainian people, with its official annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014. Moscow’s propaganda asserts that the Ukrainian nation does not have total value. Nonetheless, the structure, logic, and operation of the international legal order, security system, and transnational cooperation of nation-states assume that it does.

Russia has doubled down on denying Ukrainian statehood eight years after its unlawful capture of Ukraine’s Crimea. It formally annexed four more regions now located on Ukraine’s south-eastern mainland. This new demonstrable breach of international law, combined with Moscow’s intensifying terror campaign against Ukraine’s civilian population and infrastructure since February 24th, 2022, has raised the stakes. The war’s direction, duration, end, and ramifications have become much more fateful for the international system of states than they were in 2014-21.

Read also: How to avoid a prolonged Russia-Ukraine war and ensure peace in Ukraine?

The international community believed the Kremlin’s tale about Crimea’s contested status nine years ago. Only a few people nowadays would think Kremlin propaganda is a heinous reason for Russia’s horrible behaviour in Ukraine. Of course, the Kremlin continues to offer ostensible arguments for why Ukraine has no right to exist – at least not within its present internationally recognised borders. Moscow selectively depicts or flatly falsifies various aspects of Ukrainian history, law, politics, culture, etc. All of this is aimed to bolster the Kremlin’s assertion that Ukraine does not exist.

The issue with this Russian disinformation campaign is more than just a lack of factual accuracy and cherry-picking or de-contextualisation of particular historical events. The more fundamental problem with Moscow’s narrative on Ukraine is that rhetorically identical stories could be spun about any number of countries.

Numerous governments, regions, and borders worldwide have perplexing histories, contradicting tendencies, and strange incidents in the past or present. There were no countries in the world, including Ukraine. They were all, like Ukraine, not yet nations at the time and may have had different borders.

Despite Russia’s violent conduct toward the international system, the Kremlin maintains that Pandora’s Box is empty. Worse, Russia is unlike any other country in the post-Cold War world. It inherited a permanent place on the UN Security Council and the status of an official nuclear-weapon state under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty from the Soviet Union.

As a result, the Russian Federation is one of the five UN members charged with maintaining the order of nation-states, the global security system, and international law. Moscow’s actions contradict the most fundamental foundations of the UN Charter and the logic of the non-proliferation regime.

Read also: Russian propaganda efforts against weapons supply to Ukraine leverage reports in the West

Self-declared pragmatists and pacifists worldwide may not be on the Kremlin’s payroll or sympathise with Vladimir Putin; some may even have a genuine concern for Ukraine and its people. Their cease-fire or peace plans may have even been drafted with the naive notion that they correspond to the imagined actual interests of the Ukrainian people – whatever the validity of such an assumption.

Nonetheless, the various plans envision a temporary or permanent constraint on Ukraine’s geographical integrity and political sovereignty, either officially or indirectly. They are not only a problem for Ukraine but a worldwide concern as well.

The execution of such peace proposals would mean that a full UN member’s borders, freedom, and independence would be controlled by Russia and other signatories to such an accord. Russia would be officially allowed to keep certain rewards of its war aggression after utilising large-scale military brutality and nuclear blackmail.

This would result in an unfavourable incentive structure for future global relationships. A globally sanctioned land-for-peace agreement might be considered a model for other UN members’ conflicts. In essence, the message would be that armed aggression, border violations, terror against people, and scaring believed adversaries with the deployment of weapons of mass destruction will be rewarded in the end.

As a result, there is a “moral hazard” in security policy. What authority and validity will the UN system and European security order have if Russia is allowed to violate hundreds of its bilateral and multilateral commitments under numerous international treaties and organisations?

Accepting and legitimising an agreement that results in net gains for Russia would not only violate Ukraine’s political sovereignty and territorial integrity. They would also be violating their international legal commitments not to legitimise the collecting of the fruits of aggression.

Otherwise, not only would other revanchist regimes strive to be as clever as Russia, but many states worldwide might desire to avoid ending up in Ukraine’s position. What would prevent other comparably powerful countries in different parts of the world from doing things to their neighbours comparable to what Russia did to its “brother nation”?

Aren’t other lands far from Ukraine that aren’t as contested and waiting to be returned as Crimea and “Novorossiya”? On the other hand, why would governments in relatively weak countries worldwide continue to rely on international law and multilateral organisations to defend their countries’ borders, territory, and independence?

Other instruments may be required if Western governments and other powerful states demonstrate that they cannot be relied on to maintain the international order and national boundaries.

Read also: Pro-Russian forces try to halt German military aid to Ukraine using ‘anti-war’ rallies

The international community’s delayed and half-hearted response to Russia’s unlawful annexation of Crimea in 2014, as well as the hybrid war in Donbas from 2014 to 2021, has already contributed to undermining the international security system.

Since February 2022, a more constant Western response to the large-scale invasion has helped to heal some of the damage. The execution of a plausible peace plan will reverse this beneficial influence on the international system. While it may temporarily stop the fighting in Ukraine, it will exacerbate the world order’s flaws.

Thus, there is no common ground between the interests of Ukraine and the entire world in maintaining international law on the one hand and Russia’s war objectives on the other. Moscow has been attempting to seize complete political control of Ukraine since the beginning of its invasion in 2014.

The Kremlin has been willing to pursue this war goal for over nine years. There is no reason to suppose that Moscow will not seek it again if the opportunity arises. As with the infamous Minsk I and Minsk II accords of 2014-15, a “Minsk III agreement” would become part of the issue rather than the solution.

A land-for-peace or similar agreement would accept Russia’s right to continue operating. This entry would jeopardise not only the liberal order but also world security and stability. It would mock the worldwide regime for nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction non-proliferation.

Key supporting pillars of the international rules-based system would be shaken. A dubious arrangement now may also entail only a brief truce. Short-term comfort would come at the expense of fundamental human rights such as border inviolability, state sovereignty, and national territory integrity.

Read also: Putin’s “useful idiots” in Europe identified by the Economist

As long as Russia’s violent war against Ukraine and genocidal assault against the Ukrainian people cannot be entirely reversed by non-military methods, the only option is to meet force with force. This is consistent with international law in general and specifically with UN Charter article 51.

Compromises, sacrifices, and other concessions to an aggressor power are not the road to a lasting peace in Eastern Europe or elsewhere. They will gravely weaken the international system based on rules and the future rule of international law.

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