The Ukraine conflict – referendums as a way out?  Part 2

You can find the first part of the article here.

By Bernd Murawski

The basis for a way out could be the conviction of both parties to the conflict that the citizens are being kept under the power of the opposing side against their will. According to Putin, the aim of the Russian military action is to free Ukrainian citizens from harassment by ultra-nationalist forces. For his part, Zelenskij speaks of the suppression of the civilian population in the conquered areas and accuses them of allegedly deporting them to Russia. Both sides apparently believe that the people affected by the war are behind them.

In this case, a generally recognized plebiscite (referendum) would be obvious. In order for it to be considered representative, thorough preparation is required. A ceasefire is essential, but it presupposes that there is broad agreement on how to proceed. For this purpose, the areas in which referendums are to be held must first be marked. These would be the full Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, as well as the Russian-held regions of Kherson, Zaporozhye and Kharkov oblasts. Crimea should also be included.

A withdrawal of the Russian and Ukrainian troops and their replacement by UN peacekeeping forces would be desirable, but given the widespread distrust, this is unlikely to be feasible. The United Nations would still be the appropriate actor to secure a ceasefire and hold a referendum, as the OSCE has lost credibility as a possible alternative.

The composition of the UN observer team is decisive for the success of the peacekeeping operation. Its representatives should come from states that have geopolitical clout and have remained largely neutral. These include Turkey and India, other candidates would be Mexico and Brazil. Finally, Italy could be included as a representative of the western and Iran as an advocate of the Russian conflict party.

The preparation of a plebiscite would take several months. During this period, the residents of the affected areas should be able to return, and media access to the positions and arguments of both sides should be created. For example, spots of the opponents as well as debates in which the different points of view are revealed could be included in the television program.

Both parties to the conflict must be willing to withdraw their military from areas that have voted for the other side in referendums within a specified period of time. One can speculate about the outcome, but there is a high probability that a majority will decide in favor of the Russian side. Since the results would come under UN supervision, the West could accept them without loss of face. Chancellor Olaf Scholz could withdraw his threat not to recognize a Russian annexation of Ukrainian territory because it would be unfounded.

The question of Ukraine’s future NATO membership remains open. This would still be an option for the Kiev leadership because it would satisfy the need for security guarantees. There would also be no more territorial conflicts, which according to the NATO statute would be an obstacle. A yielding of Russia could happen under two premises. First, the Western Defense Alliance would have to commit to not stationing foreign troops in Ukraine. Secondly, since Russia is explicitly described as an enemy, the pro-Russian oblasts should be able to decide in a referendum whether they want to remain part of the Ukrainian state association after joining NATO.

Lack of trust as a central problem

The biggest problem is probably the lack of trust, for which the Russian side has more important reasons. Not only was Russia’s weakness rigorously exploited by the West after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but since its stabilization under Putin, hate campaign after hate campaign has been launched to humiliate and weaken the country. All those cases – we should mention Magnitsky, Litvinenko, Skripal and Navalny, the doping scandal and the downing of the MH-17, Bucha and Isjum – are characterized by Western accusations that were made before investigations were started, which – if at all – never transparently and by neutral authorities.

But the Russian leadership is not without flaws either. The assumption of Crimea by the Russian state federation contradicted international law and – according to current interpretations – the Budapest Agreement of 1994. However, this was preceded by a breach of trust by the West, which welcomed the Maidan coup and at the same time guaranteed that of Germany, France and Poland Rejected agreement between President Viktor Yanukovych and the opposition. No historian would doubt that Crimea would have remained part of Ukraine had it not been for the violent change of government in Kyiv.

The legally questionable Russian campaign in Ukraine followed the failure of Minsk II, with former President Petro Poroshenko recently saying that the deal was purely to buy time. The Kremlin’s expectation that Germany and France, as guarantor powers, would exert pressure was dissolved in their statement late last year when they questioned the document itself. In addition, after the cancellation or non-ratification of several disarmament agreements, the West was not prepared to allow the “indivisibility of security” on the European continent agreed in the Paris Agreement of 1990 to also apply to Russia.

Although both sides have been accused of breaches of trust, the US and its allies have always taken the first step. The fact that the Kremlin was the reacting party is illustrated by the reduction in diplomatic missions and the counter-sanctions that the Russian side imposed at a later point in time “inversely”.

The Kremlin leadership not only exercised restraint, but also constantly articulated an interest in diplomatic solutions. However, a different tone has been heard from Moscow lately, one that is no longer characterized by consideration and benevolence.

Can Russia trust the West to stick to the agreements? In the compromise proposal presented here, the first stumbling block would be the possible refusal by Kiev to withdraw its troops from Donbass after a majority of citizens voted to join Russia. The risk would be even greater that if the pro-Russian oblasts joined NATO, they would not be offered the chance to leave Ukraine through a referendum.

The West could support Kiev’s position and, contrary to the agreement reached, station NATO troops on Ukrainian soil. In conflict situations, Russia would have no choice but to rely on forces in the West that were willing to detente. Should economic sense experience a renaissance in Western Europe, then there is certainly hope that confidential relations will be restored.

The problem of unilateral referendums

The unilateral referendums planned between September 23 and 27 in the Russian-controlled areas of Ukraine should make it possible to gauge the mood of the population. However, acceptance of the results by the West is not to be expected, and other states are also likely to be reluctant to acknowledge them for the time being. The Ukrainian government will probably do everything in its power to prevent the referenda. She has to reckon with the fact that Russia, after taking over the disputed regions into its state federation, will interpret every attack as being aimed at its own territory.

But there is not only a threat of an intensification of warlike activities. The higher the level of approval for joining Russia, the less willing Kiev is likely to be to repeat the referenda under international supervision so that its own narrative is not jeopardized. Likewise, it is unlikely that the Kremlin will be able to negotiate an agreement with the West to annul the results of the referenda and reverse Russia’s takeover of the affected areas.

The existence of an unresolved territorial conflict and continued Russian military strikes would permanently prevent Ukraine from becoming a member of NATO. However, Russia would have to buy this advantage bitterly. Fighting in Donetsk Oblast is expected to continue for months, killing thousands and destroying numerous settlements, including the major cities of Slaviansk and Kramatorsk. Likewise, Ukrainian shelling of Russian military installations as well as infrastructure and residential areas in the “liberated” areas would continue indefinitely.

By creating a fait accompli with its decision, Moscow is making it more difficult to resolve conflicts together, involving neutral states and forces in the West that are willing to cooperate. Therefore, in its own interest, the EU should work as soon as possible for an internationally recognized referendum instead of the one organized by Russia.

Most likely, the Kremlin would welcome such a proposal and signal concessions. The risk of an escalation of hostilities in Ukraine would be contained and the subsequent supply of gas and other raw materials to the EU economies would be secured. Allowing citizens in the contested areas to make free decisions about their future should actually be in line with Western values.

An agreement between Russia and the EU, based, for example, on the referendum concept proposed here, will undoubtedly bring advantages to both sides. Russia would not have to suffer the immense costs of a strong military engagement and sustained attacks in the border areas with Ukraine. For their part, the EU countries would have access to cheap energy sources and other raw materials, which are an essential prerequisite for their global competitiveness. The alternative of a competition about who can better cope with the current burdens over a longer period of time is hardly desirable.

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Source: RT

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J. A. Allen

Author, blogger, freelance writer. Hater of spiders. Drinker of wine. Mother of hellions.

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