NATION
Op-Ed

Ukraine should put Russia to the test

Kiev should let Crimea and Donbas go, and let Russia foot the bill to keep them afloat economically

Ukraine is now strong enough to seize the initiative to create a lasting cease-fire in its Donbas Rust Belt, currently occupied by Russia and its proxies. And Russia may be weak enough to be receptive. It is in Kiev's interest to do so. A state of permanent war with Russia would damage Ukraine's democracy, economy and security.

Almost imperceptibly, the tide seems to have turned in Ukraine's favor. The Ukrainian army has been able to withstand daily attacks by Russian troops. Ukraine's October parliamentary elections produced a pro-Western majority, and its technocratic government appears poised for radical reforms.

By contrast, the Russian economy is in deep trouble from plummeting oil prices and the bite of sanctions. Many Russians have died fighting in the Donbas enclave. And Russian President Vladimir Putin is increasingly isolated internationally.

Western pundits debate whether Russia's troubles make it more amenable to a political settlement in Ukraine or more aggressive. This question won't be resolved in argument. Russian intentions need to be put to the test.

Ukraine can devise such a test in a way that enables it to retain the political high ground while strengthening its security and prospects for economic reform. But first, Kiev must accept some uncomfortable realities.

Neither Crimea nor the two separatist pro-Russia republics in the Donbas area will return to Ukraine's fold anytime soon, if ever. Ukraine lacks the military and financial resources to retake them, and any move to do so would not get Western backing and could even erode American and European support for Ukraine.

Kiev should therefore act as if these breakaway eastern regions are no longer part of Ukraine. It's starting to do just that, as seen in its recent decision to end subsidies, pensions, veterans' benefits and postal and banking services to the Donbas statelets.

However, Kiev should not recognize these regions as belonging to Russia. That would be political suicide for a nascent government facing multiple challenges and it would be a needless gift to Moscow. Nor should Kiev say anything definitive about the territories' final status. Instead, Ukraine should keep its future options open while ceding responsibility for their economic upkeep to Russia.

Disengaging itself from Crimea and the Donbas enclave benefits Ukraine. These regions have been anti-reform, anti-Western, pro-Russia bastions since Ukraine's independence. Their detachment makes radical reform in Ukraine possible and deprives Russia of an important means for meddling in Ukrainian politics. So what looks like a loss is in fact a gain.

Moreover, industrial production in the Donbas enclave has fallen 80%, and coal mines, factories and infrastructure have been severely damaged. Kiev would be wise to let Russia bear the burden of repairing the region's economy.

Once Kiev bites the bullet on Crimea and Donbas, it should present Russia with a workable peace plan for the latter region, where the continuing conflict could still spawn a wider war. The plan would have four components:

The creation of a 30-mile “no-forces zone,” half of it west and half of it east of the current line of fighting.

The introduction of third-party peacekeepers and observers to patrol the zone. The composition of the peacekeeping forces should be decided by the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, with Ukraine and the separatist republics participating in the selection process.

The announcement of a symbolic pullback in certain areas — one that would not surrender any important assets but would demonstrate Ukraine's seriousness.

A pledge — lasting five years — to not apply to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

If the plan is accepted and works, the gains for Ukraine are obvious. It reduces the chances of an escalation in hostilities in the east. Russia's bona fides on peace would be tested. It creates an environment more conducive to economic reform.

The renunciation of NATO membership would make the plan particularly attractive to Russia without sacrificing anything of value to Kiev. The alliance won't admit Ukraine anytime soon, if at all, and its willingness to defend Ukraine is open to doubt.

Russia, and particularly Putin, would also benefit. Russia can ill afford another round of war as it faces a deep recession. More casualties — Russia may have lost as many as 4,000 soldiers in the last few months — would do no good for Putin's legitimacy or popularity. Cooperating with Ukraine would diminish Russia's isolation in the world.

Critics may charge that such an initiative is a cave-in to Putin's power plays and rewards Russian aggression. Nothing could be further from the truth. Ukraine would not be surrendering Crimea and Donbas, but merely acknowledging the current reality.

Ukraine needs peace if it is to initiate and sustain economic reforms, some of which will be painful. A permanent condition of war over territories that it lacks the wherewithal to regain and a preoccupation with membership in a security alliance that fears a military conflict with Russia makes no sense. Worse, war mortgages the well-being of 40 million Ukrainian citizens for the sake of a rhetorical, and presently undeliverable, commitment to the liberation of the 5 million in territories now under Russian control.

Ukraine has a unique opportunity to save itself. It should boldly seize it, test Russia's oft-proclaimed interest in peace and offer Putin a face-saving solution to his own woes.

Rajan Menon is a professor of political science in the Powell School at City College of New York and a senior research fellow at Columbia's Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies. He is coauthor of "Ukraine in Conflict," to be published in February. Alexander Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. His weekly blog, Ukraine's Orange Blues, appears on http://www.worldaffairsjournal.org.

Follow the Opinion section on Twitter @latimesopinion

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
79°