On 29 December, one of Ukraine’s most influential figures, Viktor Pinchuk, declared that pre-emptive and ‘painful’ compromises would be needed to forestall a US-Russian bargain ‘over the heads of more than 40 million Ukrainians’. The path of compromise is hardly new for Pinchuk, son-in-law of Ukraine’s second president, Leonid Kuchma, a prominent philanthropist and one of the richest people in Ukraine, with long-standing business ties to Russia. Unlike some other prominent figures, it is rare to find Pinchuk accused of being a front man for Russia’s interests. Nevertheless, he has been a consistent proponent of a conciliatory course: a policy hospitable towards the West, respectful of Russian red lines and critical of those who believe that Ukraine must choose between one side and the other.
But despite Pinchuk’s laudable goals – preserving ‘Ukraine’s right to choose its own way, safeguard its territorial integrity and build a successful country’ – his solutions effectively abandon them. They call for ‘temporarily’ renouncing the goal of EU membership, pursuing ‘for now’ an ‘alternative security arrangement’ to NATO and perhaps most controversially, holding local elections in occupied areas before ‘conditions for fair elections exist’. Such compromises are the stuff of the ‘grand bargain’ that ‘realists’ usually talk about. But even in Donald Trump’s world of deal-making, few would consign Ukraine to Russia’s embrace without qualifications and safeguards, however illusory these might be. Pinchuk’s ‘realists’ are not real characters but rhetorical foils that appear designed to give credence to his proposals.
In substance, those proposals suffer from the very flaw that dogs all such ideas: they are unworkable. If temporary arrangements are instituted to end a confrontation, how can they be terminated without relaunching it? Once agreed, such arrangements create a new reality. They sap existing relationships (Ukraine-EU, Ukraine-NATO) of their vitality, substance and much of their purpose. They also create a new dynamic which Russia can be expected to use in order to secure Ukraine’s subordination, first de facto and then de jure. There is no reason to think that any unilateral concession offered will deflect Russia from these ends, which it pursued doggedly even when Ukraine was a ‘non-bloc’ (i.e. non-aligned) state.
Like agreements, elections confer legitimacy, but they should never do so under occupation by brigands or foreign armies. What will the OSCE conclude if Ukraine accepts Pinchuk’s advice to let down ‘Ukrainians from the east who have suffered enormously’, after three years of work dedicated to an outcome consistent with their interests and the OSCE’s own principles? There could be no better way of rebuffing those in Ukraine who have sacrificed lives and sustenance for these principles and those in the West who have stood by them.
Even if held, elections in themselves would not satisfy Moscow or its proxies in Donetsk and Luhansk. The latter govern only four per cent of Ukraine’s territory. That is why the Minsk-II agreement stipulates, at Russia’s insistence, that a regime of ‘special status’ precede elections. From the start, the separatist leaders in Donbas have insisted that such a status confer absolute autonomy and a unitary veto on Ukraine’s external course. On these points, Pinchuk’s article is silent.
Whether Pinchuk is driven by patriotism or defeatism, his forebodings are premature and possibly misplaced. However ignominious, the Yalta agreement of 1945 was consistent with geopolitical reality; the ‘Yalta-II’ of Putin’s aspirations is not. Its presumptive subject, Ukraine, is not a ruin, but a vigorous political entity, more consolidated than at any time in its history. Ukraine is not in somebody else’s gift. Should Trump believe otherwise, he can expect opposition at home and inside NATO as well as in Ukraine. Trump and Putin might conclude a bargain that is damaging to Ukraine and eastern and central Europe, but they are unlikely to decide Ukraine’s fate.
To sacrifice key interests because of what others might do is not only unsound in principle. It can make it easier for them to do it. The risks ahead demand absolute clarity on the part of Ukraine. If others seek to disregard its rights as an independent state, then let them take the responsibility and the blame. Such work should not be done with Ukrainian hands.
James Sherr is an associate fellow and former head of the Russia and Eurasia programme (2008-11).