A Democratic End to Ukraine’s War?

Photograph Source: Mil.gov.ua – CC BY 4.0

Notably absent until now from the Western narrative regarding the current war in Ukraine and how it might end has been any suggestion that the wishes of the people who lived prior to February 24, 2022 in the four eastern and southern oblasts whose sovereignty has since September 2022 been formally contested between Russia and Ukraine might be of any conceivable relevance.

Realistically, there are only two ways for this sovereignty dispute to be decided: (i) by further and potentially intensified deaths and destruction until one side of the other achieves “victory”, however defined, in a war which neither Russia nor the United States believes it can afford to lose or (ii) by the votes of a majority of those resident in each oblast prior to February 24, 2022 in referendums organized by the United Nations or another agreed international organization, with both sides committed to accept the referendum results.

The vast majority of mankind, whose only interest in this war is that it should end, would certainly prefer the second way. Unfortunately, the leaders on both sides, who have expended massive investments of resources, prestige and ego toward “winning” this war, currently appear to be dead-set and hell-bent on continuing to pursue the first way.

While one may speculate as to Russia’s territorial ambitions when it launched its invasion, its inability so far to establish full control over the territories of the four oblasts as to which it has since claimed sovereignty and where virtually all ground combat has been pursued in recent months strongly suggests that its territorial ambitions today do not extend beyond them and, in the absence of a radical escalation by the other side, are unlikely to do so in the future.

If it were possible to “shrink” the public conceptions of the objectives of both sides in the conflict and of the issues at stake in it to a dispute over sovereignty over these four Russian-majority oblasts and if either side or another credible state actor were to propose publicly to stop the fighting and let the people choose, the leaderships of both sides would be offered an essential face-saving “off-ramp”.

Opting for a democratic choice would not require any politicians themselves to agree to relinquish their sovereignty claims, for which they could expect, at a minimum, to be harshly criticized. Notwithstanding the overwhelming results of the September referendums, which were rushed, were held only in the portions of these oblasts then under Russian control and understandably attracted few voters who were not pro-Russian, the results of new, internationally organized referendums would be genuinely uncertain. Politicians on both sides could express complete confidence that the people would vote “their way”. If, months after the fighting ended, some or all of them did not, at least the war would have ended.

If Western leaders believe that a majority of those who were living prior to February 24, 2022 in any of these four oblasts would prefer their oblasts to be part of Ukraine, they should call promptly for a ceasefire and internationally organized referendums to choose democratically between the two claimants, rationally viewing such an approach as offering vastly better possibilities for restoring the greatest possible degree of territorial integrity for Ukraine than the current approach of perpetuating the appalling deaths and destruction in Ukraine and the worldwide collateral damage “for as long as it takes”.

Furthermore, if the West were to propose an armistice and potential peace on this basis, if Ukraine were to accept the proposal (as would presumably be assured in advance) and if Russia were to reject it, Russia would be effectively telling the world that it fears that a majority of the people in one or more of these oblasts would prefer their oblast to be part of Ukraine and that it therefore prefers to seek to enforce its sovereignty claim by military force rather than to let the issue be decided democratically by the people most directly concerned. In this event, the current tolerance of governments representing the vast majority of mankind for Russia’s “special military operation” would be seriously compromised.

If, faced with such a Solomonic choice, Russia were to accept the proposal, which is not inconceivable, the conflict would end with the proclaimed struggle between democracy and authoritarianism being resolved through exercises of democratic choice.

Unless Western leaders accept the Russian contention that a majority of the people in all four oblasts genuinely prefer that their oblasts be part of Russia and view this potential popular choice as intolerable, what is the West waiting for?

Western governments which are currently trumpeting the absolute and universal applicability of the principle of the territorial integrity of states had no problem with supporting and prioritizing the principle of the self-determination of peoples in Eritrea, East Timor, South Sudan and, with a heavy helping hand from 78 days of NATO bombing in flagrant violation of international law, Kosovo.

In all these cases, the self-determination choice of the people was confirmed by internationally organized referendums. Of course, in these four instances, the results of the referendums were never in doubt, whereas no one can be certain of the results of internationally organized referendums in these four contested oblasts. This distinction should not make the self-determination referendum precedent less relevant. Indeed, it should make it more relevant and promising for those genuinely seeking a face-saving way for the relevant politicians to end this war.

Those on either side of this conflict who prefer to decide the sovereignty issue with respect to these four oblasts by yet more deaths and destruction in Ukraine, necessarily entailing yet more worldwide collateral damage, with no guarantee of their eventual “victory” and with a genuine risk of escalation to nuclear war if either Russia or the United States felt itself to be facing a humiliating defeat, rather than by the democratic choices of the people most concerned should be obligated to explain and try to justify their preference.


John V. Whitbeck is a Paris-based international lawyer.