Feeding the crocodile: If we allow Russia any more territorial wins, it will soon go for more

28 May, 05:30 PM
Russian soldiers march during the military parade in Moscow on May 9 (Photo:REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov)

Russian soldiers march during the military parade in Moscow on May 9 (Photo:REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov)

You might easily be considered an elitist if you read the Financial Times on a daily basis, are in the habit of having a macchiato on Saturday mornings, or if you attend the World Economic Forum in Davos each year.

I had my own experience of visiting Davos, a picturesque Swiss village where most participants come to discuss global economic agenda, while Russian business people mostly search for latest models of Breguet watches at local jewelry shops.

This year, Davos had some extra special visitors, I’d say. That was appearance of Henry Kissinger, a seasoned U.S. diplomat who is probably the world’s most famous nonagenarian, along with George Soros and Warren Buffett.

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These persons are from a generation that still remembers World War II and its rules. Their war lessons were less about the human side of events, but more about realpolitik. Basically, the rule was: you decided who was your enemy, and you destroyed them. That’s what happened to Nazi Germany – the Western allies just destroyed it, having a military agreement with the Soviet Union.

But the post-war global political situation showed that outside the direct military confrontations you can’t easily decide who your enemy is. You have to take into consideration plenty of things: trade, business deals, cross-border relationships. That’s where Western diplomacy, including American tradition, learned its lessons about reaching all kinds of agreements and compromises.

Kissinger in his Davos speech offered an idea that Ukraine should cede some of its territories to stop the war that Russia started on Feb. 24 with a full-scale invasion.

“Kissinger is a man who cares more about a substance than a style,” Niall Ferguson, a popular writer and author of globally read books on capitalism, once told me.

Obviously, Kissinger could have prepared his message in a more camouflaged way, but in the twilight stage of his diplomatic career, it’s a little bit like the words from the well-known Jon Bon Jovi song: “It’s my life, and it’s now or never.” So Kissinger just said at the forum in Davos what he truly thinks about Ukraine and its situation.

He didn’t go into great detail, but, assuming he’s well aware of how the map of Russian occupation looks like, the famous diplomat might be implying something like: let Vladimir Putin’s Russia take over the Donbas and Kherson – and end the ongoing war.

Of course, all the Western countries have experienced the implications of the Russia’s war against Ukraine. That’s inflation, shortage of energy resources, supply chain problems and all kinds of geopolitical uncertainty which could potentially lead to things like Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

Balancing all the rights and wrongs, Kissinger probably thought that trading some Ukrainian territories for having all these things – from global inflation to Chinese operation in Taiwan – calmed down, is a worthy venture.

However, he’s wrong on this. Kissinger has a proven track record of accomplishing things, but if you take a closer look at his views on the war in Vietnam, on the war in Bangladesh, on Israel – you might notice that he’s always been very controversial.

Take Israel. Kissinger completely ignored the Palestine issue and didn’t like the local policy of attracting emigrants from the Soviet Union who were bringing their own worldview to this Middle Eastern country. Of course, Soviet influence wasn’t supposed to be welcome in Israel, but given that thousands of people in the Soviet Union considered themselves Jews, you couldn’t pretend that Israel didn’t have an obligation to welcome those people to place where they felt they belonged.

Whenever Kissinger says that Ukraine should agree to territorial concessions, here in Kyiv we feel like we’ve been betrayed by this old tradition of American diplomacy. Which is wrong.

Kissinger was always trying to ease the flow of the global diplomatic dialogue, but with his inability or rather unwillingness to face the nature of the international conflicts, he couldn’t achieve much. The same with Ukraine.

I’m not one who likes to talk much about the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, when the U.S., U.K. and Russia provided security guarantees for Ukraine’s territorial integrity after Ukraine agreed to give up its own arsenal of nuclear weapons.

Well, the common logic goes: this was an agreement that was important at that particular stage of Ukraine’s history, but its mathematics were based on Russia’s good will.

However, Russia’s good will disappeared in 2000, when Vladimir Putin became this country’s president.

Moreover, Bill Clinton, who was the U.S. president back then, clearly underestimated Ukraine and its ability to become an important force for change in Eastern Europe. The Baltic countries – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – had a much better political dynamic at that time, which is why the Clinton administration thought that it should be the Baltics, not Ukraine, that did the important job of turning the post-Soviet states in modern democracies.

Okay, let’s forget about the Budapest Memorandum for now. Things were different back then. But let’s take into account Ukraine’s 1996 Constitution. It clearly lists the number of territories that are part of independent Ukraine: Donetsk, Luhansk, Crimea, Kherson – all of these territories belong to Ukraine.

If Ukrainian diplomacy makes an attempt to negotiate the nation’s territorial integrity – it will create a major resistance movement within Ukrainian society. This would be a hugely unpopular move leading to all kinds of protests. People won’t buy this elitist approach about Russia’s war, where you would want to trade territories for calming down the global inflation and repairing the supply chains.

Ukraine’s Constitution doesn’t allow any territories to be ceded to any country, whether it’s Russia or someone else. Ignoring the Constitution might ruin the rule of law in this country forever.

Then let’s take into account the historical argument. The 1992 Russian invasion of Transnistria in eastern Moldova went largely ignored by the West, including by the Clinton administration. No sanctions were introduced against Russia back then, though this was a clear violation of international law.

The 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia went unpunished as well. No major sanctions, but quite soon afterwards – handshaking between U.S. president Barack Obama and Russia’s then-leader Dmitriy Medvedev.

Their talk about relaunching U.S.-Russia relationship was really uncomfortable for this part of the world, where Russia was trying to dominate pretty much everything. In Ukraine, Russia in early 2010s dominated local energy market, local banking sector and media. That was enough for Vladimir Putin to think of Ukraine as an easy target for invasion.

And that invasion became a reality in 2014. The nature of the U.S. and EU sanctions in response to Russia’s operation in Donbas and Crimea was different than now. Back then, the consensus was that Vladimir Putin is simply a thief who wants to have billions on his banking accounts.

Therefore, if you sanction his inner circle of oligarchs, cutting their access to London Stock Exchange and all other financial infrastructure – they would stop.

But Putin turned out to be a different person. After enjoying all the material comfort that he wanted – summerhouses, yachts, luxurious watches – he proved his point: resurrecting the Soviet Union is a much more important goal for him than buying another mansion for Alina Kabayeva, who is believed to be his partner and a mother of three of his children, in Switzerland.

So whenever anyone talks about Ukraine ceding its territories to Russia – he or she implies that the Soviet Union has a legal right to be resurrected. 

This is important: not only Russian flags but red Soviet flags as well are appearing on the streets of Ukrainian cities and villages that the Russian army invades. During the May 9 parade in Moscow, some Russian troops had Soviet insignia – and that tells us a lot.

Back in 1989, when Francis Fukuyama wrote his “End of History” text, most Russia-watchers thought that official collapse of the Soviet Union would turn this part of the world into an environment where liberal democracy would thrive.

But the Soviet Union didn’t cease to exist in 1991. It kept on living in the minds of Kremlin strategists, in the minds of ordinary Russians, in the minds of all the people in former Soviet republics who had some sort of nostalgia for communist realities.

Then, come the humanitarian issues. Just imagine, you’re a person living in Kherson who has a serious health condition – like cancer at a late stage. Russian occupation has cut all the supplies of innovative Western medicines to this city – and now you have only headache pills, digestion pills and sleeping pills for your needs at local pharmacies. In Vladimir Putin’s mathematics, people like this just don’t matter – they can easily be sacrificed for the “great purpose” of resurrecting the Soviet Union.

If you need to kill 10, 20, 50, 100 civilians in a particular location to prove that the Russian rule would be better for Ukraine – do it. That’s the logic of Vladimir Putin, who promotes it within the groups of Russian generals and officers who plan and command the military operations in Ukraine.

Moreover, Russian soldiers don’t really have a story to tell the residents of Ukrainian cities and villages they invade. No one believes in their narrative of “liberating Ukraine of Nazis”. There are no “Nazis” in Ukraine. Ukraine is a peaceful and independent nation that wants to pursue its path of development, joining the EU and NATO.

Overall, the Russian Federation is a less developed country than Ukraine. It might have had larger financial reserves prior to invasion, given the vast oil and gas business, but Russia’s banking sector return on equity clearly lagged behind what Ukrainian banks had, while the digitalization of Russian economy wasn’t even close to the dynamic that Ukraine had.

Now, when a territorial defense fighter stops you on the street in Kyiv and asks you for an ID, you may just show him your iPhone with Diya mobile app. In Russia, that would be impossible and you would have to carry your paper passport for all the situations that might occur on the streets.

When the army of the Roman Empire invaded Scythia, an ancient state on the territory of modern Ukraine, it had a narrative to tell: We’re bringing you Roman legal tradition, Roman political rule, Roman defensive capabilities, Roman trade infrastructure. That sounded quite persuasive since Scythia had its own seaports back then that needed to have a substantial trade turnover.

But Russia doesn’t look like the Roman Empire at all. Its army is not able to bring neither ruler of law, nor any serious economic opportunities to Ukraine. Ukraine is much better off trading with the EU and China than doing all kinds of bilateral business with the Russian Federation.

Moreover, Ukrainian army is doing an excellent job on the battlefields. With all the newest military equipment form the West – which now includes the latest models of U.S.-made artillery prepared for the digital age combat – it would be a grave mistake to move on to territorial concessions while still having all these defensive capabilities.

The future fate of Kherson, Zaporizhzhya, Donetsk and Luhansk should depend not on obsolete geopolitical ideas about realpolitik, but on the amounts of Western military supplies. We can win this war together – that’s the message that we tell each other here in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital city.

Losing any of the Ukrainian territories would create a dangerous precedent, after which Russian would first want a part of Latvia, then a little bit of Lithuania and maybe even a piece of Poland. This way, by the end of the century Russian Federation might include the bigger part of the countries that joined the EU in 2004.

The Ukrainian army is fighting not solely for our country’s territorial integrity. Ukraine’s Armed Forces want to push Russians into understanding that their country is not as strong as their state-funded propaganda tells them. Ukrainian army wants to create opportunities for all of Russia’s neighbors – like Armenia or Kazakhstan – t0 develop independently from what Kremlin wants.

Before the Russian 2022 invasion of Ukraine, most of the Eastern European governments had to put Vladimir Putin’s requests into their political thinking. No more.

It’s not that here in Ukraine we are happy with fighting the war. As all of the European nations, Ukrainians have a profound intention to leave a peaceful life and enjoy all the opportunities that modern economy might bring them and their families. It would be much better if Russia hadn’t invaded in the first place.

But if the Kremlin made a decision to invade, it’s up to us whether we make Kremlin regret it or not. If we allow Russia to have any territorial wins – it will go for more. It will do another invasion next year, or in 2027, or in 2032. The Ukrainian cause it to make Russia think differently. It’s about helping Russia to understand that you can’t break the international law. And, which is important, it’s about having respect for all those Ukrainians who experienced severe losses during the war.

The next time you hear a seasoned diplomat talking about territorial concessions, take a look at a photo of a Ukrainian teen who lost his father in the combat. His eyes will explain you much more than their geopolitical arguments are able to.

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