There is no such thing as a perfect peace. Wars produce misery and destruction, resolve some dangers and problems, and create others. Those voices in the West who are urging Ukrainians to fight on to victory over Russia, or who are recommending Western moves — such as a no-fly zone — that will likely extend or widen the war are playing with fire. The “unconditional surrender” of Vladimir Putin and his trial as a war criminal is not a viable peace option, however emotionally satisfying it may sound. The best possible outcome of this war is for Ukraine to maintain its independence and most of its territorial integrity while meeting some of Russia’s demands for its non-alignment with Western powers.
Mitchell notes that after the Napoleonic Wars, Switzerland and Belgium accepted neutral status, and after World War II, Finland and Austria were also neutral.
Such a proposal has been put forth in Foreign Affairs by A. Wess Mitchell, who served as President Trump’s Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia from 2017 to 2019, and who has authored insightful books on history, diplomacy, grand strategy, and geopolitics. In 2016, Mitchell coauthored (with Jakub Grygiel) The Unquiet Frontier, which identified Russia as one of three Eurasian powers (China and Iran are the others) that are “revisionist” countries intent on overturning the U.S.-led maritime world order, and called Russia’s western border (which includes Ukraine) a “contested geopolitical fault line.” America’s key allies in that region, Mitchell wrote, were the Baltic states, Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary (all NATO allies) — not Ukraine.
Two years later, Mitchell wrote The Grand Strategy of the Habsburg Empire, a brilliant study of Habsburg geopolitics that exemplified what he described as “an acute sense of the transience and fragility of all human accomplishment” and a “weary wisdom anchored in the humility that comes from the realization that geopolitical problems can rarely be solved, only managed.” The principal lesson that he derived from studying Habsburg foreign policy over several centuries is “an acceptance that the task of enlightened statecraft in all generations is to build the sturdiest bulwarks … against the old chaos of war and geopolitics, even if they last only for a season.”
Mitchell believes that while a peace settlement based on Ukrainian neutrality would carry risks, it is likely the best outcome of the current war. “The key to making neutrality work for Ukraine,” he writes, “is shaping it in a way that ensures that renunciation of NATO membership does not come at the expense of the country’s self-defense or its prospects for an economic and political future in the West.”
Looking to history, Mitchell notes that after the Napoleonic Wars, Switzerland and Belgium accepted neutral status, and after World War II, Finland and Austria were also neutral. Ukraine, he writes, could forge a “fortified neutrality” by maintaining a “strong military in a perpetual state of readiness.” Ukraine’s army — which has demonstrated an ability to inflict harm on the Russian invaders and slowed their advance — would need to be large, well-trained, and supplied with Western weapons. He suggests — though this may be a stumbling block to a peace settlement — that Ukraine could eventually join the European Union (EU). Mitchell rightly notes that the EU “is not an international security alliance” like NATO.
Mitchell’s proposed peace terms include accepting Russia’s control of Crimea and granting autonomy to Luhansk and Donetsk. He suggests that the U.S. and EU lift economic sanctions on Russia if Russia withdraws its military forces from all territories it has occupied during the war. He also proposes that Western powers provide “long-term reconstruction aid” so that the country can quickly recover from the devastation caused by Russia’s invasion.
Fortified neutrality, Mitchell argues, is a better option for Ukraine than absorption into the Russian empire, and it will only work if the West provides Ukraine with “weapons, money, and diplomatic support.”
Why would Putin accept such an arrangement? Because, as Mitchell points out, Russia has suffered unexpected setbacks in the war and has thus far proved “incapable of securing its objectives on the battlefield.” Mitchell’s proposal is also quite similar to what Russian spokesmen have said they would accept. And he believes such an arrangement can be successfully negotiated if a person trusted by both sides — he mentions Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett — assumes the task of mediator.
Mitchell makes clear, however, that Putin’s willingness to negotiate a settlement that maintains Ukraine’s independence will only last as long as he fails to achieve his military objectives at an acceptable cost. And that means that the Western powers should continue their economic sanctions against Russia and continue to provide weapons and supplies to Ukraine — just as the Soviet Union and China aided North Korea and North Vietnam against U.S. military forces, and just as the United States and some of its allies aided the Afghan rebels against the Soviet army.
What Mitchell is proposing is what Richard Nixon called “real peace.” Nixon, in his book by that name, described real peace as “a continuing process for managing and containing conflict between competing nations, competing systems, and competing international ambitions.” “Peace,” Nixon explained, “is not an end to conflict but rather a means of living with conflict, and once established it requires constant attention or it will not survive.” “Perfect peace,” Nixon continued, “… has no practical meaning in a world in which conflict among men is persistent and pervasive. If real peace is to exist, it must exist along with men’s ambitions, their pride, and their hatreds. A peace that fails to take these things into account will not last.” It is that kind of peace that is achievable in this current war.
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