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Could Vladimir Putin give peace a chance in Ukraine and beyond?

A volunteer stands on guard with official security guards outside the Ukranian parliament in Kiev July 3, 2014.

By John Lloyd

WHAT would it take for Russia to walk a way from violence and seek peaceful coexistence with its neighbours? It’s certainly hard to see a way out right now.

The dogs of war in the east have been let slip again. On Monday, Petro Poroshenko, the recently elected Ukrainian president, said a 10-day unilateral truce with the separatist, pro-Russian forces in the eastern part of his country had ended: Force would now be required to “free our lands”.

Ukrainian units were moved in to try to bring the cities and areas controlled by the heavily armed separatists under control. By Tuesday morning, the Ukrainian military was reporting air and artillery strikes.

“Jaw jaw,” said Winston Churchill, “is always better than war war.” “Jaw” – including a phone call in which Poroshenko took part with the leaders of France, Germany and Russia over the weekend, aimed at prolonging the truce – has again given way to war. Poroshenko justifies it on existential grounds: Armed men are seeking to take control of parts of a sovereign state, fundamentally challenging the monopoly of force any state must strive to maintain. His position, if difficult, is clear.

But what will President Vladimir Putin of Russia choose? Peace or war?

Presently, he’s committed to the latter path. After the easy taking of Crimea in March, Putin first encouraged and then discouraged the pro-Russian forces rebelling against Kiev’s rule.

The weaponry and some of the insurgents taking part in the revolt are from Russia, but are deniable. Ambiguity is the Kremlin’s friend. To be open is to court harsher sanctions, as the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schauble, made clear earlier this week.

But Putin is being pushed by events beyond his control. His strategy for strengthening a “Eurasian Union” in competition with the European Union is now gravely compromised. The former Soviet states of Georgia on the Black Sea and Moldova, whose western border is with the EU member state Romania, joined with Ukraine last week to sign partnership agreements with the EU. In all these states, Russia has sponsored or grabbed breakaway territories – Transdnestr in Moldova, Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, Crimea in Ukraine, all now garrisoned by Russian troops.

The pacts the three countries have made will mean that their trade, economies and ultimately politics will lean to the European west, not to the Russian east. It’s the most radical of challenges: Putin has blasted the EU for forcing a choice – between Russia and Europe – on Ukraine..But what he means is that Ukraine should stick by the decision of its ousted government and choose Russia. If the Russian president continues to fight the westward drift, he’s likely to provoke, or even actually take part in, conflicts that will become increasingly widespread civil wars.

What’s his alternative? To take a game-changing course not just for Russia but for the world.

Putin could renounce all plans for a reconstitution of even a part of the Russian, or Soviet, empire. He could declare that Russia, within its present (vast) borders, wants only good relations with its many neighbours, and that the only power it would project would be of the soft kind.

This couldn’t come all at once (most observers of Putin would say that it couldn’t come at all). Rather, it would be a gradual weaning away of Russians from beliefs that are widely and often deeply held, though self-destructive.

These beliefs include one that says Ukrainians, whether ethnically Russian or not, are really the same as Russians – and that Ukraine, whose capital, Kiev, was the birthplace of Russian Orthodox Christianity – is “our (common) land”.

It is genuinely hard for most Russians to see Ukraine, and the neighbouring Slav state of Belarus, as separate national entities – as difficult, perhaps, as it was for most British (and certainly the British monarchy) to see the American colonies, in the 1770s, as the basis of a new state, independent of the country that had founded them.

Ukraine is not again going to be part of Russia – any more than the embryonic American states were (in spite of many loyalists who remained pro-British) to be part again of Britain. Common ancestry, religion, origins, language are not enough. Once the desire for, and an apparatus of, a new state emerges, the old empire’s best course is to gracefully withdraw.

While that certainly didn’t happen in 1776, eventually an alliance grew, which meant that when the United States overtook the United Kingdom as the world’s economic powerhouse in the late 19th century, there was grumbling and regret on one side and pride on the other, but no return to enmity.

Is that pie in the sky for Russia? Yes, for the moment; not, we must hope, for the future. Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine are far from ideal states. The latter two have had governments that were a byword for corruption. Georgia’s independence 25 years ago was accompanied by threats to its minorities, which pushed them into the arms of Russia. Ukraine has had a succession of terrible leaders.

But as sovereign states, they must now find their own place in the world. For the present, that place, or at least that destination, is the European Union, which, in spite of its many problems and deficiencies, offers a prospect not just of relative wealth (which must be earned) but of clean government, stability and the rule of law. Russia’s challenge is to offer the same. Its present preference for threat does great harm, most deeply to itself.


John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is Director of Journalism. Lloyd has written several books, including “What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics” (2004). He is also a contributing editor at FT and the founder of FT Magazine.

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