MOTYL: Dr. Jiri Valenta, you’ve had extensive experience dealing with the Russians during and after the Prague Spring and wrote a seminal work on its tragic denouement, Soviet Intervention in Czechoslovakia, 1968 (Johns Hopkins, 1991). Is there a solution to the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war that would be acceptable to Ukraine, Russia, and the West?

VALENTA: Russian leaders abhor large, endless military campaigns and prolonged, costly wars. Many in Russia believe the war in Afghanistan led to revolutionary change and, in turn, to the 1991 fall of the empire. The Kremlin prefers low-cost interventions as in 1968 Czechoslovakia or bloodless ones as in 2014 Crimea. 

The prerequisite for avoiding future intervention is deterrence: making it too costly for Russia to intervene. Strategists and policy makers should study the advice a Ukrainian general-turned-dissident, Petro Grigorenko, gave Prague Spring leader Alexander Dubček. Grigorenko advised blocking main roads to halt tank armadas and defending aerodromes so as to prevent strategic surprise. Dubček feared bloodshed and refused to follow Grigorenko’s advice. In southeast Ukraine, they did follow it, and Grigorenko’s advice proved to be correct and effective.

MOTYL: What model of security would work best for Ukraine?

VALENTA: Let’s start with what is not acceptable: NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia, as proposed by Zbigniew Brzezinski repeatedly before 2007. As we know from former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the French and Germans would never allow it, so as not to provoke Russia. After the Crimean invasion, Brzezinski turned to Finlandization as a neutrality model for Ukraine. I disagree with Brzezinski. Finland signed a 1948 agreement with Russia that provided for so called “consultations.” As interpreted by the Kremlin, this was a green light to interfere in the domestic affairs of Finland. Stalin vetoed Finland’s participation in the Marshall Plan before the treaty was even signed, while Khrushchev interfered at least twice in Finnish politics. Putin has interfered repeatedly in Ukrainian politics, so the Ukrainians have had a kind of Finlandization already and it hasn’t, and will not, work.

More appropriate for Ukraine is the Swiss neutrality model combined with elements of the Austrian one. But the perpetual neutrality treaty must be based on strong deterrence and well-trained, well-equipped, and professionalized armed forces. Perhaps, as in Switzerland, there should also be a dispersed militia with weapons kept at home. Clearly, the West would have to arm Ukraine with defensive weapons. The army’s budget would have to be increased and supported by Ukraine’s rather impressive defense industry. There should also be fortifications in the Carpathian Mountains as in the Alps. This would signal to the Russians that Ukraine’s army would be prepared to retreat and conduct a guerrilla war in and from the mountains, if necessary. Remember the Ukrainian partisans continued to fight the Russians for a decade after World War II and Putin knows it. An international treaty between Great Powers could be modeled after the agreement the Austrians negotiated in 1955, which provided for the withdrawal of Russian forces, without permitting Russia’s interference in Austria’s internal affairs, as was the case with Finlandization.

MOTYL: Could Ukraine join the European Union in this scenario?

VALENTA: That’s not likely now. An Association Agreement was signed in June 2014. The Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area went into effect on January 1, 2016. Areas regarding political cooperation have been provisionally in effect since November 2014. Tragically for Ukraine, however, the European Union’s cohesion has been under increasing and unrelenting economic and other pressures for nearly a decade. And now the refugee deluge has given Europe’s separatists yet another issue in their efforts to separate from Brussels. President Obama’s neglect of the Syrian conflict has had serious consequences for Europe and Ukraine. Europe is in deep crisis and will have a hard time overcoming it. Poland just closed its borders following Hungary’s lead. Great Britain might withdraw from the EU and the French and the Poles may yet revert to national currencies.

The recent Dutch referendum is a case in point. Some, like Anne Applebaum, claim the vote was “a good example of how Russian influence actually works in a western European election.” But a Dutch government adviser disputed that, suggesting to me privately that the referendum “was primarily a protest vote against the EU and national leaders.” Significantly, the Dutch government, which rallied in favor of the Agreement, currently chairs the 6-month EU presidency.   

Given these EU uncertainties and the evolving crisis—not to mention Ukraine’s array of challenges—it’s unrealistic to think the EU will be adding member states in the foreseeable future. Therefore, I would advise Ukraine to pursue the role of a neutral state, along the lines prescribed by Henry Kissinger, and serve as a trade and communications bridge between Russia and the West rather than a bulwark.

MOTYL: The problem with the bridge image is that most Ukrainians reject it. They say they tried it for 25 years and the result was a Russian invasion. They also say that bridges get trampled upon.

VALENTA: What the Ukrainians tried was a kind of Finlandization, but one not supported by armed, Swiss-type neutrality. It could work, but only if the West finally delivers defensive weapons to the Ukrainians.

MOTYL: Why should Russia agree to any of this?

VALENTA: The most pressing rationale for Russian cooperation with the West is the economic cost of its intervention in Syria and Ukraine and now in the Russo-Turkish proxy war in the Caucasus. The Russian economy is in crisis. Oil prices will remain low for the foreseeable future, and Russia is dependent for 60 percent of its income on oil and gas exports. Think of Russia as a large gas station. Part of the package with Russia should be stronger economic cooperation, gradual reduction of sanctions, and ending the information war. 

The other reason is Islamic terrorism. With a new American president in 2017, we can hopefully convince the Russians it is in their interest to work with the West against ISIS, because it is. There are still more than 4,000 fighters from the North Caucasus in Syria. Some will surely attempt to return home and build a caliphate there.

Putin is hoping for the outcome of American elections to be good for Russia. Not surprisingly, he praised Donald Trump during the primaries, because of Trump’s strategy of wanting a limited partnership with Russia against the Islamic threat.

MOTYL: Are you also suggesting that the United States offer Russia great-power status in the Middle East?

VALENTA: We must get rid of our Cold War view that Russia cannot have a naval and air force base in Syria. We have bases in the Mediterranean. Why shouldn’t the Russians have one in Syria? The Israelis understand this better and have worked out an agreement with Russia. We live in a different era, and our cooperation on Syria with Russia could eventually bring peace to that country and could impact positively on Ukraine.  

MOTYL: Who would broker a neutrality agreement?

VALENTA: It must be the United States, still the indispensable power. It could definitely not be Chancellor Angela Merkel. Because of the immigration crisis, Merkel’s party has already lost several regional elections and it seems unlikely she will remain in power for much longer. The Europeans will be spending most of their time and money building border walls, controlling immigration, and moving Muslims back to the Middle East. Ukrainians should have no illusions that the EU can help them too much.

MOTYL: Can you really imagine a President Trump brokering such an agreement? His statements suggest he’s more likely to ignore Ukraine.

VALENTA: Trump is not sufficiently briefed on the importance of conflict avoidance over Ukraine. He still has several months to learn and hire the right people. On Russia, he has someone who specializes in economic investment. He still needs a genuine expert. To have a limited partnership with Russia on terrorism and energy, he needs to resolve the source of potential conflict with NATO: Russian interventionism in Ukraine. 

MOTYL: How do Crimea and the occupied Donbas fit into your scheme?

VALENTA: A special clause for the autonomy of the Donbas could be included in the final “Swiss-Austrian-like” neutrality treaty, supportive of economic intercourse between Russia and the industrial southeastern Ukraine. One thing is certain: Moscow will not give up Sevastopol, the home of its Black Sea Fleet, which links Russia with the Middle East. The invasion of Crimea was not just retaliation for revolution in Kyiv, but a long-planned measure to ensure the continued use of this port. 

In future negotiations, the US could treat Crimea as it did the Baltics after the Soviet “liberation” in 1945. We didn’t recognize the Russian annexation de jure, but we lived with it de facto until the Balts regained their independence in 1991. Meanwhile, Ukraine and Russia might agree on some confidence building measures involving economic cooperation.

MOTYL: Cooperation is highly unlikely as long as Russia continues to maintain 35,000 armed thugs in eastern Ukraine.

VALENTA:  Agreed.

MOTYL: You seem to be proposing a quid pro quo: Russia ceases its aggression, while Ukraine acquiesces in the Russian annexation of Crimea and the eastern Donbas. The problem is that Kyiv cannot accept Russia’s word on anything until Ukraine has the capacity to defend itself against another Russian attack—which may be several years from now. Moreover, won’t international acceptance of Russia’s invasion of Crimea just encourage Putin to make other border adjustments in, say, Estonia or Kazakhstan?

VALENTA: I am not proposing the annexation of the eastern Donbas. It must stay part of Ukraine. I am proposing an equitable and realistic solution for both parties. The new US President (hopefully one the Russians will respect) can provide arms to Ukraine quickly while also negotiating with the Kremlin. Putin must know that any attack on a NATO member like Estonia or Turkey will lead to general war. He’s much too busy to invade Kazakhstan: he must deal with the existing war in eastern Ukraine and the emerging proxy war with Turkey in the Caucasus. After 21 years of peace, war has again erupted between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. Putin backs Armenia. The Turkish president says he will support Azerbaijan “to the end.” A ceasefire is unlikely to be permanent.  

As the prominent Russian analyst, Andrei Kortunov, warned the Kremlin, the attempt of “any exalted politicians” to punish Turkey is fraught with danger because of Turkey’s ability to support the Turkic peoples in the Crimea, Syria, and Azerbaijan.

MOTYL: Should Ukraine pursue an alliance with Turkey?

VALENTA: Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko recently met with President Erdogan for what they called “strategic cooperation,” presumably with respect to intelligence sharing and small arms transfer. But there is little Turkey can do to prevent a Russian intervention in the direction of Mariupol, nor can Ukraine counter Russia’s strategic encirclement of Turkey. The key is in Putin’s hands, in America’s providing Kyiv with defensive arms, and in America’s ability to successfully engage in preventive diplomacy.

As the world appears to be slipping into regional and, God forbid, global conflict, the West needs to be more active in its pursuit of equitable, diplomatic resolutions of multiple crises. Brokerage between Turkey and Russia by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi is another possibility. He is friendly with both leaders.


Meanwhile, whoever wins the US election has to realize that America must resume its historic role as leader of the free world. It must both deter and negotiate with Russia to prevent these crises from reaching critical mass.

Alexander J. Motyl's blog

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