Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a turning point in world history. But what will it mean for future generations? It could affirm the right to self-determination, or it could mark the end of it.
Vladimir Putin, a troglodyte left over from the first half of the 20th century, is trying to re-fight Russia’s glorious but bloody victories in World War II. He is launching a massive tank and artillery battle in the Donbas to defeat the “Nazis,” who he claims have taken control of Ukraine.
Most of the civilized world has united to denounce Putin’s invasion, impose economic sanctions, and supply military equipment to help the courageous Ukrainians thwart his attempt to take over their country by force. So far so good, but what’s missing from this picture?
A good exit strategy is the main thing that’s missing. How can we salvage anything positive from this terrible tragedy? An analysis of several scenarios for possible alternative futures shows that the only even marginally plausible approach that ends well is to put on the table a proposal for a referendum for the disputed parts of Ukraine. To help make it more acceptable to both sides and not a surrender for either, the idea for a referendum should accompany a ceasefire to end the bloodshed and should come from an intermediary that hasn’t overtly taken sides, perhaps China, India, or Turkey — or, better yet, a combination of countries.
Empowering the people to decide their own future at the ballot box is especially important in the Donbas region in the southeast, which “has been identified by the Kremlin as a Russian-speaking part of Ukraine that is more Russia than Ukraine,” according to Sam Cranny-Evans of the Royal United Services Institute. Although not widely reported in the U.S., Putin claims that “we were … forced to defend the Russian speaking population of Donbas, forced to respond to the struggle of the people living in Crimea to return to the Russian federation,” according to Newsweek.
Who knows whether he really believes it or whether that is just a cover story. Either way, a referendum would offer Putin a face-saving way out, but that’s not its only selling point. The more fundamental reason is that the rest of the world shouldn’t merely help the Ukrainians kill as many brainwashed Russian conscripts as possible. That is to descend to Putin’s level, where might makes right. Real leaders throughout history have known that arms are important, but so too are ideas. To win this war in a way that will make it stand for something positive in history, the civilized world needs to stand up for the right of popular self-determination. This simple but revolutionary idea is the basic principle behind the UN Charter, as well as our Declaration of Independence. Russia as well as every other country in the world has agreed to it in principle. It is what separates the modern, post–World War II era from the hundreds of prior wars in which the strong conquered territory from the weak. Whether or not Putin would agree to such a referendum is not the point. The point is uniting the world around a principle that people worldwide can understand, even in Russia, and simultaneously refuting Putin’s claim that he is fighting for the rights of people in the Donbas and Crimea to determine their own future.
Consider what is likely to happen if we keep just helping Ukrainians kill Russians, but without standing up for the universal human right to self-determination.
Three things can happen here, and none of them are good:
Scenario 1-A – Russia Wins. Russia eventually annihilates Ukraine, destroying most of her cities and killing many more people on both sides.
Scenario 1-B – Ukraine Wins. As Ukrainian victories continue to accumulate, Putin becomes increasingly frustrated and desperate, and resorts to more brutality, including possible use of weapons of mass destruction.
Scenario I-C. Neither Side Wins. If neither side can destroy the other, the conflict could settle down to a permanent state of war that goes on for decades, like the Arab–Israeli conflict or the standoff between North and South Korea, as recently predicted by the Chair of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley.
This is important particularly in the Donbas, where according to recent polls just before the invasion, a significant minority of the population (31 percent) does want to become part of Russia. Two things can happen based on that referendum, and both of them are good.
Scenario II-A — Acceptance. Suppose both Putin and Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky accept the proposition that the future of the peoples in the disputed regions should be decided at the ballot box rather than on the battlefield. Not only does this save tens of thousands of lives, but it reaffirms the right of self-determination, which is one of the most basic governing principles of international law in the modern world.
Putting a proposal for a referendum on the table makes this war about the right to self-determination, which ironically both sides claim is on their side.
Why Would Putin Ever Accept It? I don’t purport to be able to read Putin’s mind, but I do know that modern science has shown that to be a really effective liar — and Putin certainly is an effective liar — one has first to convince himself that the lie is true on some level. Putin may actually believe that he is fighting to protect the human rights of those Ukrainians who self-identify as Russians. And even if he doesn’t actually believe it, this distorted version of reality is what he has been saying for years. He and his military have suffered bitter losses, and they must be looking for a way to declare victory and go home. A referendum would give him a face-saving way out to declare that he has “won” and celebrate his “victory” in protecting what many Russians see as oppressed minorities on May 9, Russia’s traditional Victory Day. Also, the outcome of such a referendum is not a foregone conclusion in certain areas.
Why Would Zelensky Accept It? Zelensky is “our guy,” so this is more difficult to see, but he has painted himself into a corner and a referendum would offer him a way out too. Zelensky has declared publicly that he will not agree to cede a single inch of Ukraine’s territory to the Russians. This pledge includes even any areas in Crimea and the Donbas in which a majority might prefer to join Russia.
People in the Donbas and Crimea are also entitled to the basic human right of self-determination, and if they were to vote to join Russia, Zelensky’s allies in the West should force him to accept their choice, even though it violates Ukraine’s historic borders.
What About Implementation? To be sure, lots of specifics would have to be worked out. Which areas would vote? Who would supervise the election? Perhaps the UN. Perhaps some other international body or “poll watchers” nominated by both sides or hundreds of private journalists from all over the world. What about the refugees who have fled the conflict? Would they be allowed to vote in the countries to which they have fled? How would they prove their prior residency? Would they have to affirm that they intend to return? But we should be so lucky as to stop the bloodshed and bring the warring parties to the negotiating table to try to gain advantage on such matters in the upcoming election.
Scenario II-B — Rejection. Now for the more likely and more interesting scenario: suppose Putin (or Zelensky) refuses to agree to such a referendum. That’s obviously not as good as the previous outcome, but it is still far better than all of the scenarios above without an offer of a referendum. Whoever refuses to allow the populace to decide its future peacefully — probably Putin – is exposed for what he is for all the world to see, a tyrant rather than the liberator of enslaved peoples that Putin now claims to be.
Many Russians support Putin’s war because they are being fed the narrative that they are coming to the aid of oppressed ethnic Russian speakers in the Donbas region. That’s why the rest of the world has to put this choice to Putin — let the people decide or risk being unmasked as the aggressor who wishes to impose his will on an unwilling population by terror and force of arms.
Who knows: Putin might actually believe his own propaganda and think that some portions of the Donbas and Crimea might vote to join Russia, and if they do Ukraine would have to accept that result. In any case, a proposal for a referendum gives both sides a face-saving way out and affirms the fundamental principle of popular self-determination that underlies the new world order since World War II, at least in legal theory if not always in practice. Even if rejected, putting a proposal for a referendum on the table makes this war about the right to self-determination, which ironically both sides claim is on their side.
All of this may seem utterly impractical, particularly to those who do not know their Ukrainian history, which would be almost all of us. In 1991, Ukraine conducted a referendum under the watchful eye of “[h]undreds of foreign observers and correspondents” about whether to become an independent country or remain in a confederation with Russia. While 91 percent of the voters overall cast their ballots for independence, there were significant differences by region. For example, only a slim majority, 54 percent, voted for independence in Crimea, and separate numbers are not available for the Russian-speaking areas in the Donbas.
But equally significant, at least to Putin, the Ukrainian people in that same election also elected a “[f]ormer Communist Party apparatchik” with close ties to Russia as its first president, Leonid Kravchuk. Putin claims the popularly elected but Russian-leaning government was overthrown in a 2014 popular uprising that many Russians see as a U.S.-backed “coup.”
Let’s make sure everyone in the world understands that the people in the contested territories should decide their own future in free and fair elections for all the world to see. Otherwise, as weird as it sounds to us, Russians will continue to believe they are fighting to liberate Russian-speakers in the Donbas and Crimea who have been enslaved and abused by Nazi puppets backed by the West.
The last best hope of mankind to salvage some good from the tragedy in Ukraine would be a referendum that reaffirms the world’s commitment to popular sovereignty and self-determination.