A Proposal for Resolving the Conflict with Russia: ‘Helsinki 21’
Even if Ukraine were to militarily win back all of its territories, it would likely do so at a fearsome cost in lives on both sides. Even then, the conflict might be frozen, not ended. Russian leaders – existing or new – might harbour a heightened sense of humiliation and vulnerability. Russia might further align itself with internally repressive and externally aggressive regimes in Iran and China.
Furthermore, even if the situation in Ukraine is resolved, there could be remaining flashpoints in the “Formerstans” outside of Ukraine – areas that used to be part of the Soviet Union that are sympathetic to Russia and wish to either become independent states or outright rejoin Russia, such as Transnistria in Moldova and South Ossetia in Georgia.
What follows is a proposal for achieving a negotiated resolution of the conflict in Ukraine and indeed a wider settlement.
The methodology in formulating it has been to:
• review Russia’s recent official statements of its aspirations and grievances and see what can be reasonably be accommodated. Key Russian statements include the Lavrov letter of December 2021 and the “Russian World” statement of Russian policy in September 2022;
• incorporate principles from earlier international agreements relating to Russia that remain in legal force, even though some are currently being violated;
• aim at a settlement that is comprehensive. It would address boundaries, security issues, trade, and minority rights. It would bind not only Ukraine and Russia, but Europe, Central Asia, Canada and the United States (basically, the parties to the existing OSCE). Counterintuitively, addressing wider issues arising from the break-up of the Soviet Union may be the only way to permanently resolve the two-party conflict between Russia and Ukraine.
A working title for the agreement could be “Helsinki 21”. The Cold War era Helsinki Accords promoted stability and human rights in the long aftermath of the Second World War. Now, in the 21st century, several decades after the break-up of the Soviet Union, there could be a comparable agreement. “Helsinki 21” could draw upon many of the principles and organizational structures that followed directly from the Helskini Accords, including the 1991 Istanbul Charter.
The stated aspirations of Russia include:
• reducing the extent to which Russia feels itself militarily surrounded on its west and threatened by new and emerging Western weapons; and
• recognizing and protecting the Russian and Russian-leaning minorities in the former Soviet Union, as well as their abiding cultural links to Russia.
Established building blocks that could be placed into a comprehensive final agreement including the following:
• The 1991 boundaries of the former Soviet republics should not be altered by force. In, Russia specifically agreed in the 1994 Budapest agreements to recognize the territorial integrity of Ukraine. In a Helsinki 21 final agreement, Russia would agree to withdraw its forces from Ukraine entirely, including from Crimea;
• the rights of national minorities, including Russian cultural minorities, would be expressly affirmed and acknowledged. The Council of Europe Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities could be one starting point;
• the former Soviet republics that have not so far joined NATO, including Ukraine, would pledge to not apply for membership for as long as Russia keeps its side of the overall security arrangements;
• the former Soviet republics would have the right to join economic unions as they freely choose, including the EU or its Russian-centred equivalent;
• there would be progress on arms control. There have been many agreements over the years on reducing or distancing nuclear and conventional weapons, and these provide concepts that could be further developed and worked into the overall settlement;
• Russia would have special rights with respect to the stationing and operation of its Black Sea fleet;
• there would be a fifteen-year “hold” on steps by any party to promote a change in the international law status of any of the Formerstans. It would be a period for respite and confidence building. States could work on securing the rights of their cultural minorities.
Some Formestans might be granted regional autonomy within existing states;
• there would be a general commitment to friendly relations among all the parties, to renewed trade, and to the peaceful resolution of all disputes.
Accompanying Helsinki 21, there might also be a “Marshall plan” package from the West to help Ukraine rebuild and repair some of the infrastructure linking Ukraine and its neighbours Insisting that Russia pay reparations to Ukraine would be a just demand in principle – but likely not a realistic one. The demand might be seen by many Russians as unaffordable and vindictive.
The negotiation would take place in two stages.
First, an initial Framework Agreement setting out the principles would be agreed upon It would define the process for negotiating Helsinki 21 and its guiding principles. It would set a definite timeline (say, three years) for concluding the final negotiations. The first-stage Framework Agreement would require Russia to immediately withdraw its troops (and those of any proxies) to where they stood prior to the start of the 2022 war with Ukraine. Prisoners of war would be exchanged. Perhaps the West could some interim sanction relief as long as Russia continues to negotiate the final agreement in good faith.
Upon the conclusion of Helsinki 21, Russia would withdraw entirely to its 1991 boundaries and economic sanctions against Russia would fully end.
The project proposed here is aimed at achieving not only a prompt end to the bloodshed in Ukraine, but at securing an enduring peace that would reconcile Russia and the West. A Russia that is more secure and constructive in its relationships with the West might then be an essential counterweight to the growing power of China and Iran – rather than becoming both their dependant and enabler. More friendly and secure relationships with the West, moreover, may set the stage for Russia to turn its sight to its own democratic and economic reform.
Israel has strong strategic and humanitarian interests in the achievement of peace and stability in Easter Europe and Central Asia. It has some standing as a partner country – although not a member –with respect to the OSCE. Israel has its own experience with confidential, complex and comprehensive peace negotiations Some have failed, but many have succeeded. Its leadership has lines of direct communication with the leaders of Ukraine, Russia and the United States, and other key players. Israel is also home to many immigrants including experts, who are familiar with the societies involved in the conflict and who speak one or more of the languages. Perhaps, even if behind the scenes, it could make an important contribution to achieving an enduring resolution along the lines proposed here.