Is Ukraine’s future West German?

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The writer is an FT contributing editor, chair of the Centre for Liberal Strategies, Sofia, and fellow at IWM Vienna

Uncertainty may reign in the world today, but we can be sure that the next president of the Russian Federation, to be elected in mid-March, will be the incumbent, Vladimir Putin.

It is also a safe bet that Putin is not going to enter any meaningful negotiations before the US elections. He can surprise us. And while it will be a mistake to take Moscow’s “end the war” noise too seriously, it will be also a mistake to ignore it totally.

Putin has been burnt once before in his expectation that Trump’s America is his natural partner. Trump is the epitome of unpredictability and this is something Moscow abhors. On Wednesday the Russian president said in an interview with state television that Joe Biden was “more experienced [and] predictable”. He probably means it.

In another notable recent interview, this time with the former Fox News host Tucker Carlson, Trump was barely mentioned. Instead, Poland was blamed for the outbreak of the second world war, Nato deemed culpable for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and former UK prime minister Boris Johnson held personally responsible for the fact that the war did not end promptly in March 2022.

Russia is paying a very high human cost for its modest military advances. All of which means there are growing signs that Moscow could decide to press for “the end of the war” at a moment when both Europeans and Americans are preparing to head to the ballot boxes.

Putin used the encounter with Carlson as an opportunity to make clear his desire to negotiate. “I will tell you what we are saying on this matter and what we are conveying to the US leadership,” the Russian president told Carlson. “If you really want to stop fighting, you need to stop supplying weapons. It will be over within a few weeks. That’s it. And then we can agree on some terms before you do that, stop.”

For Moscow, the postwar status of Ukraine would ideally resemble the future of the Palestinian state as envisioned by Israel’s extreme right. At best it would be an occupied territory; at worst a demilitarised, depopulated and economically unsustainable state.

In other words, Putin sees the end of the war as the end of pro-western Ukraine. As Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s adviser Mykhailo Podolyak observed some time ago: “Russia is not fighting for land. It is fighting for its right to live in the past.”

It is clear that for the Russians, negotiations are merely a prelude to or pretext for Kyiv’s capitulation. But it is also clear that if Moscow decides to use Putin’s re-election to kick-start a diplomatic offensive, both European and American political leaders will face a public backlash if they insist that Ukraine and its allies will never talk to the Russian leader and will not accept any outcome other than the liberation of all occupied territory.

Today this position is less compelling than it was a year ago. The Ukrainian army is in a precarious position and American military support has stalled. While western public opinion is still overwhelmingly sympathetic to Ukraine, there is a growing constituency that is reluctant to pay the price for Kyiv’s victory. Allowing pro-Putin forces to seize the mantle of the “peace party” would be a political disaster.

Inevitably, in a long war the objectives of both sides evolve, and this is why leaders would be well advised to be flexible about what constitutes victory. But what leaders should not do is to keep their idea of defeat undefined. If Ukraine is forced to give up territory as part of a future settlement, it will be a tragedy and a painful compromise. But if the price of ending the war is turning Ukraine into a no man’s land, this will be a defeat for Europe and a threat to its security.

Ultimately, Ukrainians will decide when and how to negotiate. But when Moscow advocates talks, it is important for western leaders to be clear about what is not negotiable when it comes to the future of both Ukraine and Europe. And what, in my view, should be non-negotiable is not so much Ukraine’s complete territorial integrity as its democratic and pro-western orientation.

It is now time for those who favour a negotiated end to the war to start advocating that Nato admit Ukraine as soon as possible as the only effective response to Moscow’s desire for territorial changes. Only a Ukraine that is part of Nato can survive the permanent or temporary loss of control over some of its territory.

If Putin’s offer is, “if you really want to stop fighting, you need to stop supplying weapons”, the western counter-offer should be, “if you really plan to occupy Ukrainian land, you need to accept that Ukraine will be a Nato member” — as West Germany was during the cold war. It is time for the West German scenario to be put on the table.

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