Is a ceasefire realistic between Russia and Ukraine?
It might be wise to weigh compromises that might give Putin the kind of option that a rational dictator might be tempted to accept
It is amazing how seriously people (or at least other journalists) take The New York Times editorial board, but it cannot be denied. As it published an editorial calling for moves toward a ceasefire in the ruinous war between Russia and Ukraine, I found myself asked on TV whether such a thing is realistic.
The answer depends on what is going on in the mind of President Vladimir Putin, which no one can know without visiting the parallel universe he appears to inhabit. Until someone does know , we are left wondering whether Putin might use nuclear weapons. That we do requires either Putin to be insane or to have successfully pretended; and shockingly enough, this is where we are.
A more helpful discussion may be held about Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian leader who lives in our universe and is quickly becoming one of its most interesting characters (his old show Servant of the People is something of a must-see). Widely expected to flee at the first sound of artillery, he has instead come to personify steadfast resistance. Though he insists on victory over Russia and his deputies rule out territorial concessions, Zelensky does actually seem quite sane.
While no one can know what Putin might accept to lay down arms, the editorial urged President Joe Biden to advise Zelensky that Western assistance is not without limits (unlike Putin’s willingness to turn Ukraine into smoldering ruins and a generation of Russians into cannon fodder).
Given that, it might be wise to weigh compromises that might give Putin the kind of option that a rational dictator might be tempted to accept. And what that mainly means is that Russia would be allowed to keep some of the territory it has coveted and has seized, especially parts of eastern Ukraine populated by Russian speakers.
Without a doubt, it would be annoying to reward aggression and dangerous if perceived as appeasement. But, life includes tradeoffs and balances and many in the West calculate that such an outcome may be the less bad option compared to war with a nuclear power managed by a desperate war criminal willing to scorch the earth.
And part of the equation is that land transfers aren’t completely illogical because the internal borders of the Soviet Union, which became today’s international borders in 1991, were not just imperfect but specifically designed to cause trouble by scrambling different and sometimes hostile ethnic populations.
Granted, it is not clear that these Russian speakers would be as eager to welcome the Russian invaders as the people in Crimea seemingly were in 2014 – because in the eight years since Putin has transformed Russia into a truly heinous dictatorship, moving the proposition beyond ethnic affiliations; life in Russia is likely to be a nightmare for some time. Perhaps freedom lovers from Donbas might be invited to move to Lviv, Kharkiv or Kyiv.
The other possible concession could involve a prolonged moratorium on Ukraine joining NATO. This is especially painful to contemplate days after Biden held the door so gallantly for Sweden and Finland, who seek to join the alliance, as well. The specter of Neville Chamberlain, who gave a bad name to appeasement, looms large.
One consolation might be that NATO membership is more declarative than is commonly perceived. It is true that Article V views an attack on one member as an attack on all, as Biden noted Thursday. He received the Nordic leaders at the White House, but that does not explicitly obligate a specific response. The rest is politics.
If Russia invades Finland, NATO could be expected to intervene – even before the accession process is completed – at least as much as the United States has intervened in Ukraine. Indeed, the US has (perhaps unwisely) positively crowed about its role in Ukraine’s military successes. It is not certain what more NATO would do if Ukraine were a member. Probably more, but not necessarily so. We cannot know.
Biden, flanked by Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and Finnish President Sauli Niinisto, proudly noted that after the September 11 attacks, NATO members stood by the US. Implicit was that this was the passing of a test as opposed to the carrying out of a legal obligation. Moreover, they backed the US (providing personnel support in some cases) in attacking the Taliban in Afghanistan. That does not resemble joining a war against a nuclear superpower.
The West may not end up in hot war with Russia, no matter who joins NATO. But, an economic war is a different story and it is one in which there is an interesting Israeli angle.
Israel has hardly covered itself with glory with its reluctance to join the international sanctions against Russia (it might learn from Japan, which despite an interest in appeasing Russia – for it hopes to recover the southern Kuril Islands – has been fully supportive of putting the squeeze on Moscow).
Many are skeptical about sanctions, which have not brought about the collapse of the awful regime in Tehran, but the Russia case may be different. Europe’s desire to not be dependent on Russian natural gas is profound and may be permanent, certainly for as long as Putin is around, as it is clear he has ripped up the international rule book, cannot be trusted and certainly should be punished.
Israel’s natural gas reserves are estimated at around 1,500 billion cubic meters, which is at least three times more than it needs for itself over the next quarter century. Europe’s annual gas consumption is about a third of that - of which Russia supplied some 40% last year. So, it looks like Israel’s surplus – which currently goes to Egypt and Jordan – could be put to use in Europe.
Getting the gas to Europe could involve building a pipeline, maybe with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, perhaps through Cyprus – but that would take years. A simpler alternative is liquefying it for transport on tankers and the most practical way of doing that may be through facilities that exist in Egypt.
Everything is connected if you look closely enough. Putin’s war on Ukraine may deepen the peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors - something finally should.
(Article appeared originally in the Jerusalem Post)