Ukraine's Least Terrible Option

It beats the alternative.

Photographer: Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images

It is with low expectations that German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande have gone to Moscow to secure a settlement for eastern Ukraine. And rightly so, because compromise in this conflict is obstructed by a hard historical truth: Both sides know that once Russian troops have established control over a piece of neighboring territory, it is lost for good.

Since the early 1990s, Russia has controlled Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, and Transnistria in Moldova -- after battles were won by a mix of locals, genuine Russian volunteers, and regulars sent to fight an unacknowledged foreign war. These so-called frozen conflicts have crippled those two countries ever since.

Standoff in Ukraine

Ukraine is determined that any peace deal should undermine Russia's ability to repeat that experience on its territory. Russian President Vladimir Putin, by contrast, has a strong interest in ensuring a frozen conflict; it weakens his neighbors, gives him permanent leverage over them, and makes them indigestible for Western institutions such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union.

Putin's most recent offer to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko reportedly amounted to expanding the separatist borders agreed to in the Sept. 5 Minsk Protocol, then turning the region into just such a frozen conflict. The only twist is that the onus for funding the separatist territory would be on Ukraine.

Even if Ukraine were to accept such an arrangement, however, Putin might well continue to stir trouble in other parts of the country. The only alternative that might get him to stop is one in which the separatist regions remain within a radically federalized structure and wield effective veto power over major foreign policy decisions made in Kiev.

For Ukraine, this could make an already weak and divided country ungovernable. Even so, it's probably the least bad alternative -- because it might get Russia to verifiably remove all troops and weapons from Ukraine. Then, international and Ukrainian border guards, installed as part of the settlement, could ensure nothing gets back in.

With Ukraine's border assured and no Russian troops inside, there would at least be hope that stability would return and, over time, that the disputed provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk could be reintegrated. NATO membership would remain off the table, but that prospect is unrealistic in any case, as Hollande pointed out yesterday.

The worst possible outcome is that neither side is willing to compromise. Then the war will continue, and Putin will have little incentive to stop expanding the territory under his control. In that case, the U.S. might go ahead and arm Ukraine, but Putin could then hope this forces a split between the U.S. and the EU. American arms would also give him the excuse back home to claim that Mother Russia is under attack and turn his covert war into a full-blown invasion of southern and eastern Ukraine.

Merkel and Hollande have gone to Moscow despite the poor prospects for a deal, because they understand how pivotal this moment could prove to be. All viable options are bad for Ukraine. The longer the war goes on, however, the worse they will become.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.