This time, we are talking about a proposition to the newly elected US President regarding possible ways of resolving the conflict in Ukraine, which may serve as a basis for building new relations between the USA and Russia.
Perhaps, under any other circumstances, such propositions would not warrant our special attention, much less comments, but today, when the world is being actively restructured, these propositions demand a reaction, regardless of whether they are sincere or deliberately biased.
Furthermore, information of this nature should be carefully analysed by both its addressees and the objects of such discussions.
On November 14, 2016, the National Interest (an American analytical magazine) published an article with a telling and fascinating heading, “A 3-Step Strategy for Trump on Ukraine”
The article was written by Jeffry Burt, James Hitch, Peter Pettibone, and Thomas Shillinglaw. As noted in the magazine, they are, all of them, international lawyers and partners of prominent international law firms, well versed in the matters of Russia and the former Soviet Union. According to the provided background information, the authors spent decades taking part in negotiations and vital disputes in the USSR, Russia, and Ukraine.
In other words, the authors cast themselves as experts on the former Soviet Union, which gives them the right to not only make judgement about the processes occurring here, but also advise the American President-Elect on how to deal with the accumulated problems in the region that need to be solved.
Thus, what message do the esteemed American lawyers send the new Chief Executive of the United States? Does the way the authors identify themselves correspond to the content of their message? Are they truly that conversant with post-Soviet matters and do they sincerely wish to help their newly elected President to cut the Gordian knot of multiple problems the USA face in their foreign policy?
Back to the Future
The article begins with a mostly objective description of the situation in Ukraine brought about by Russia’s actions. The authors then proceed to give the grounds for their propositions. It is here that the first inconsistencies and contradictions of their arguments start to appear.
In effect, the authors advise the new American administration to repent before the Russian President and his cohorts of the actions the Russians themselves regard as a threat to Russia’s vital interests in the area of national security. The authors enumerate the “sins” of the West, starting with the NATO enlargement to the east (from 16 to 29 member states) and including foreign policy initiatives of the previous three administrations (that of Bill Clinton, George Bush Jr., and Barak Obama) that led to operations in Serbia/Kosovo in 1999, Iraq in 2003, and Libya in 2011. The list of “trespasses” ends with the colour revolutions in post-Soviet republics, which the authors believe to have affected the stability of the current Moscow regime either directly or indirectly.
What the lawyers believe was especially worrying Moscow, however, was the prospect of Ukraine’s accession to NATO. By contrast, reputable politicians and experts realised that Ukraine joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation was a prospect so remote that talking about it at the time was considered bad political form. Moreover, according to international law, Ukraine is a sovereign state that has a right to decide which organisations to join under what terms.
In this context, it is especially jarring to see the authors quote the Russian President who tried to justify the annexation of Crimea in his address to the Russian Parliament in March 2014. Vladimir Putin claimed that if Russia had not annexed Crimea, Sevastopol, “the city of the Russian military glory”, would have come under the control of the NATO naval forces, and that would have been a real, not imagined threat to the whole Russian South.
Even back then, in 2014, this statement was regarded as propaganda meant to justify the annexation of foreign territory and targeted solely towards the Russian audience. It contradicted the principles of international law and every high-level agreement signed by Ukraine and Russia.
And yet, two and a half years later, four partners of respected American law firms suddenly unearth this statement and put it into their article as an argument in order to justify Russia’s aggressive actions against NATO and the USA.
It is as if nothing has changed since Putin made this statement. As if the Russian President has never admitted to being ready to use tactical nuclear weapons in Crimea, as if there were no war and no casualties in Eastern Ukraine, as if no cities in Syria were bombed and no innocent people killed. As if the gruelling Minsk Process never happened.
Most importantly, it seems the authors choose to ignore the PACE resolutions 14130 and 14139 (“Political consequences of the conflict in Ukraine” and “Legal remedies for human rights violations on the Ukrainian territories outside the control of the Ukrainian authorities” respectively) passed on October 12, 2016. Similarly, they seem to forget that on November 14, 2016, Fatou Bensouda, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, issued a Report on Preliminary Examination Activities in Ukraine, which states that “the situation in Crimea and Sevastopol” amounts to “an international armed conflict between Ukraine and Russia”.
According to the report, “this international armed conflict began at the latest on February 26 (2014 – author’s note) when the Russian Federation deployed members of its armed forces to gain control over parts of the Ukrainian territory without the consent of the Ukrainian Government”. Moreover, as if in response to the Russian President’s claim which is used in the article as an argument for Russia, the chief prosecutor specifies in paragraph 158 that “it is unnecessary to ascertain the legitimacy of initial intervention that led to occupation”.
In light of all this, the arguments put forward by the lawyers, international lawyers no less, come across as strange, which inadvertently makes us question the origins of these arguments.
Thus, having started with a controversial message, the authors of the article proceed to give advice to the American President.
Walking in Circles
They offer a strategy that comprises three steps.
First, Russia and the West should “agree to disagree” on the status of Crimea for an indefinite period of time. As an example, the authors point to the Baltic states that were viewed this way since 1940 and up to the dissolution of the USSR.
This proposition is obviously untenable. First of all, has anyone considered Ukraine’s reaction? Was it even taken into account? If not, then we get the distinct impression that these international lawyers advise their own President to return to the period of standoff between blocs. Secondly, drawing comparisons between 1940 and 2016 in not only incorrect, but also dangerous. Back then, in the mid-20th century, Europe had been engulfed in World War II for almost a year. The international community had neither time nor desire to respond to such “trivial” matters as the annexation of the Baltic states by the Soviet Union. All the major international actors were far too busy with their own, much more important issues. For its part, Moscow viewed the annexation as a compensation of sorts for its defeat in the Winter War against Finland in autumn and winter of 1939. Thirdly, no matter who are the original authors of the proposed strategy, they seem to view Russia as a temporary state formation (as was the case with the USSR), after the dissolution of which, Crimea will return to Ukraine. However, while the Baltic states joined the USSR as separate nations, instantly turning into Soviet Republics, Crimea is an integral part of the sovereign state of Ukraine, a vital component of its political and economic systems (with the latter being especially important during these difficult times). The annexation of Crimea continues to cause severe damage to the Ukrainian economy. What is the solution to this problem?
Second, the parties should agree to preserve the status quo of Donbass as part of Ukraine, with an effective ceasefire. There is no particular need to comment this step. As part of the Minsk Process, the issue of returning the occupied territories to Ukraine has been discussed so thoroughly that it there is virtually nothing left to add.
The third step involves the joint creation of an economic recovery package for Ukraine by the United States, Europe, Russia and Ukraine. The author propose this step on the grounds that all parties, including Russia, will benefit in the long term from a politically and economically viable Ukraine. This is fundamentally incorrect. If Russia were interested in a viable Ukraine, it would not have resorted to aggression.
The authors saved their most interesting thoughts for last. Aware that it will be difficult to use Russian money to implement the third step, they suggest that Ukraine view it as an “indirect reparation” or an equivalent of such for the annexation of Crimea and the destruction suffered by Eastern Ukraine.
However, if we read the definition of the term “reparation” (what “indirect reparation” means is totally unclear), we will see that it means a full or partial compensation for the damage inflicted by a nation that started a war of aggression. In other words, reparation is paid by the defeated party. Is Russia ready to admit defeat? Secondly, such a deal would essentially mean that Ukraine indirectly agrees to the occupation of Crimea by Russia. Thirdly, any Ukrainian politician agreeing to such a deal might as well consider him or herself a political corpse. Ukrainian society has paid too high a price for the military and political “antics” of its northern neighbour.
The authors of the article must have felt they went too far, since they went on to balance out Russia’s position by offering it an even stranger arrangement. They suggest that Russia view this “indirect reparation” as a means of turning Ukraine into a reliable trading partner that will cooperate with Russia instead of the European Union. Meanwhile, establishing closer relations between the EU and Ukraine can wait. In other words, the American international lawyers propose to turn back time all the way before the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius in November 2013. What is this, the authors’ personal naiveté or the overconfidence of those who helped them write the article? We would hate to think that reputable lawyers have so low an opinion of their addressee’s intellect. Unless, perhaps, their addressee is elsewhere?
In any case, the fact is that a group of respectable international lawyers representing major international law firms offer the newly elected US President their own views on the relations between the USA and Russia and recommend possible ways to improve them using the Russia-initiated conflict with Ukraine.
As mentioned above, the authorship of the article is doubtful. Nevertheless, we did not set out to determine the real masterminds behind the three-step strategy, but to direct all parties’ attention to the possible consequences of implementing this strategy without careful examination of its flaws.
The status of the three-step strategy should have been elevated by the fact that it was published in a magazine held in high esteem by analysts, moreover, a magazine founded back in 1985 that has former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger as its honorary chairman. Nevertheless, careful analysis of the article raises more questions than it answers, and grave questions at that.
To reiterate, such an in-depth review of the three-step strategy was, perhaps, unnecessary. However, as we postulated in our previous material mentioned at the beginning of this article, “the Republican Party and the American President will face more challenging problems in the area of international relations”. Consequently, there will be plenty of experts willing to help Donald Trump’s administration with a mass of foreign policy issues, sincerely or otherwise. Thus, in case of a political force majeure, one of such strategies might come into play at the worst possible moment for both the USA and the object of the strategy.
Therefore, both parties have to be very careful. It is common knowledge that at the moment, the international sanctions are Moscow’s main problem. It is highly unlikely that the Kremlin will miss the opportunity to force its own agenda on the new American administration using all its previous international “achievements”, including the conflict in Ukraine.