by Raymond F. Smith
When, whether and under what conditions to enter into negotiations to end the war in Ukraine is one of the thorniest international issues of the moment. My objective in this article is to look briefly at the role diplomacy has played, or not played, in ending several of the most destructive wars in European history and then to explore what role it might play in ending the war in Ukraine.
Napoleon and Hitler: Capitulation, not Negotiation
It is a truism that all wars end. But they do not all end in the same way. Some end by negotiation; others by capitulation. An accurate understanding of the opponent’s motivations dictates whether negotiation or military victory is the rational policy choice. Against an opponent whose thirst for conquest is unquenchable, those who do not wish to be conquered must force capitulation. Napoleon’s opponents found this to be the case in the nineteenth century. Hitler’s opponents found it to be the case in the twentieth. Capitulation in those cases included military occupation and regime change. There is little role for diplomacy during a war in which the other side’s capitulation is required. Yet even in requiring capitulation, the victors can in subsequent negotiations set terms whose relative harshness or generosity shape the future of relations with the capitulating country. In Vienna, the victors over Napoleon accepted that the legitimacy of the new European security system they were creating required the participation of a restructured French regime. France rewarded that participation by becoming a supporter rather than an opponent of the system created. The long history of European peace that followed owed much to that initial decision.
Hitler’s opponents had no intention of being so generous with a capitulating Germany. Their agreed war aims, known as the 5 D’s, called for Germany’s denazification, demilitarization, deindustrialization, decentralization and democratization. Of these five objectives, only the first and the last had points in common with the terms of capitulation forced upon Napoleon’s France. The other three resembled far more the terms forced upon Germany at the end of World War I.
A century passed after the Napoleonic wars before another continent-wide war engulfed Europe. Two decades after the treaty ending World War I, the parties involved were once again fighting for their survival. No doubt factors other than the terms of settlement were involved in these differing outcomes, but there also seems little doubt that the terms of settlement significantly impacted the outcomes. Negotiated ends to war do not necessarily yield better outcomes than capitulation.
Happily, for Germany and for the continent, conflicts among the victors after 1945 led them to treat the capitulating power more leniently than they had intended. The Western allies soon came to view the Soviet Union as the primary threat and their occupied areas of Germany as a potential ally. Instead of decentralizing, deindustrializing and demilitarizing it, they unified their areas; created the Federal Republic of Germany; included it in the Marshall Plan, thereby assisting its eventual emergence as an economic powerhouse; admitted it as a full partner in key European institutions; and, with its admission into NATO, encouraged it to rebuild its armed forces. While the Soviet Union’s treatment of the area of Germany it occupied was initially harsher, it came to see the People’s Republic of Germany as a useful ally and reliable supplier of higher-quality industrial products than it could obtain elsewhere or, in many cases, produce itself.
Ukraine: Capitulation or Negotiation?
Which brings us back to Ukraine and to how considerations of motivation impact the terms on which wars end. If Putin’s thirst for conquest is analogous to that of Napoleon or Hitler, then there can be no peace in Europe as long as he leads Russia. The argument that Russia must be decisively defeated in Ukraine stems at least in part from acceptance of this analogy. If Putin is able to occupy Ukraine or, at a minimum, reduce it to satellite status, he will be encouraged to invade the Baltics and then, if successful, the eastern European states that formerly constituted the Warsaw Pact. Ukraine, in this view, becomes analogous to Czechoslovakia in 1938, when European pusillanimity let pass an opportunity to stop Hitler in his tracks.
The evidence for this ranges from psychoanalytic studies of Putin’s character, through his KGB background, to analysis of what he has said and written over the years.
In the pages of this journal, we have had an American diplomat who dealt with him in St. Petersburg during the 1990s recount Putin’s view that his country should regain its great power status, including asserting a sphere of influence over the countries that had formerly been in the Soviet Union. (Another American diplomat who worked with Putin during the same period has described his outlook much differently.) And, of course, the 2005 speech in which he supposedly asserted that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical calamity of the twentieth century (arguably, this translation of what he said is inaccurate) has been referred to endlessly. Also frequently referred to is his 2021 cultural/historical “analysis” concluding that Ukraine and Russia are fated to be together.
The contrary view that Putin’s aims are not unlimited stems more from an analysis of him as a defender of Russia’s interests than of his character. In one form it argues that by its errors of omission and commission since the end of the Cold War, the United States provoked Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The “provocation” argument is indeed provocative, since it can easily be construed, or misconstrued, as placing the blame for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the United States. A less tendentious approach argues that the United States repeatedly ignored or dismissed Russian assertions that NATO expansion eastward, and particularly into the countries of the former Soviet Union, threatened its vital interests. The United States missed opportunities for diplomatic engagement that might have satisfied Russia’s vital interests without infringing on Ukraine’s right to make its own sovereign decisions. There can be no doubt that Russia’s concerns about NATO expansion were known to US policymakers and foreign policy analysts. Perhaps most often referred to in this context are George Kennan’s 1997 fateful error letter to the NY Times, and current CIA director and then US ambassador to Moscow William Burns’ 2008 “brightest of all red lines” message to the State Department.
What Russian Capitulation Would Look Like
For those convinced that Putin’s (or Russia’s) appetite for conquest is insatiable and that capitulation must therefore be the objective of the war in Ukraine, what would Russian capitulation look like? In its most extreme form it would involve, in addition to the expulsion of the Russian military from all Ukrainian territory, regime change, reparations, war crimes trials, demilitarization, and dismemberment, as well as Russian acquiescence to Ukrainian membership in NATO. This would not look like the capitulation of Napoleon’s France or Hitler’s Germany since Russia would not be occupied and regime change could not be forced upon it. Rather, it would resemble the negotiated capitulation forced upon Germany after World War I. Russia would have been militarily defeated and driven back to Ukraine’s pre—2014 borders. Subsequently, it would be forced to acquiesce to Ukraine’s membership in NATO. While regime change would not have been forced upon it, the likelihood that Putin could continue in power under these circumstances is low.
Neither Russian history nor the history of major countries upon whom harsh victory conditions have been imposed make it likely that a successor regime would be more democratically inclined or more friendly to the West. Rather, the probability is that Russia, or what remained of it would be a hostile nuclear superpower with an anemic conventional military capability and the possibility of viable alliances only with countries antagonistic to what they see as American hegemony, including such states as China, Iran and North Korea. Note that two of those states are nuclear powers and the third has the capability of becoming one. Combined, the four countries could have a nuclear arsenal double that of the United States in a few years.
The Alternative of Negotiations
For those, like me, who believe that such an international system would not serve US interests, the question of alternatives arises. What elements of this conflict might be negotiable if the assumption of insatiability is dropped? Regime change is obviously not negotiable for the regime in power in Russia; the demand for Putin’s removal should be negotiable for Ukraine. Ukraine will demand reparations and Russia will refuse them. That need not be an insurmountable obstacle. Statesmen and diplomats will have to find ways to change this from an issue of principle to one of money. Principles are not fungible; money is. Russian dismemberment is not the stated policy of any country, except perhaps Ukraine. A way can be found in negotiations to acknowledge the established international principle that states have the right to regulate their internal affairs without external interference. This is, after all, the principle underlying Western support for Ukraine. War crimes trials are not necessarily in the US interest, since it has not has not ratified the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court, in part because its military actions in sovereign countries might expose its citizens to similar charges.
Those are the easier issues to negotiate. The harder ones are Ukrainian territorial integrity and NATO membership. The first of these involves a principle of international behavior, albeit one that has been violated not just by Russia, but also by Western states. The second does not involve a principle, although it has mistakenly been presented as one—the principle that a sovereign country has the right to decide which security alliances it wants to affiliate with. That is not a principle; it is another truism. While a country may have the right to seek membership in a security alliance, it does not have the right to be granted that membership. Deciding on membership is the right of the members of the alliance, a decision presumably grounded in their assessment of their national interests.
The alternative of an armistice, however desirable that might be in limiting the human and material costs of the war, would not resolve the parties’ security or territorial conflicts. While that may turn out to be the least bad short-term solution, higher priority should be given to attempting to negotiate a settlement that would satisfy both Ukrainian and Russian security concerns and resolve their territorial dispute, if not optimally for either side, at least sufficiently to be preferable to further warfare. If one hypothesizes that Russia’s alarm about potential membership for Ukraine in NATO led it to seize Ukrainian territory to protect its own security, the most promising avenue for diplomatic progress is to explore means other than NATO membership to meet both countries’ security concerns, thereby obviating any perceived Russian security need to illegally occupy Ukrainian land. There is no lack of proposals for how to satisfy Ukrainian security concerns short of NATO membership. Probably the most promising is a combination of internationally recognized neutrality and a military sufficiently robust in defensive capacity to deter any further claims on its territory. The most difficult territorial issue to resolve is, of course, Crimea. Both warring countries will enter negotiations with seemingly irreconcilable claims on sovereignty over the territory. For diplomacy to function, it is not necessary for either country to preemptively retreat from its claims. Ambiguity may be necessary for negotiations to begin. Warfare does sometimes resolve territorial issues. If warfare is unsuccessful or undesirable, negotiation is the other way.
Diplomacy does not always succeed. A negotiated agreement to end a war may be so flawed that it sets the stage for further conflict. But it is the job of diplomats to seek to end conflicts through negotiation rather than violence. While it is true that leaders may arise whose appetites for conquest make any resolution short of their capitulation impossible, whether or not Putin is such a leader can be tested at the negotiating table.
Raymond Smith spent more than 30 years at the State Department, retiring from the Senior Foreign Service as a Minister Counselor and then serving as a senior advisor to the Department’s Nonproliferation and Disarmament Fund. He spent six years at the U.S. embassy in Moscow, serving as political counselor from 1988-91, a period that included stints as Acting Deputy Chief of Mission and Chargé d’Affaires. He has a doctorate in international relations from Northwestern University and has authored two books, Negotiating with the Soviets and The Craft of Political Analysis for Diplomats, as well as numerous articles.