Why Isn’t There Peace in Ukraine? A CounterPunch Colloquy in Geneva

The streets of Kharkiv after Russian shelling in October 2022. Photo: Ukrainian Emergency Services.

On the occasion of Professor Richard Falk’s visit to Geneva, Switzerland, in June 2023, Dr. Daniel Warner and Matthew Stevenson sat down with him to discuss why peace is so elusive in the war in Ukraine.

Richard Falk:  Like many good stories, this one has an improbable beginning. Three of us originally met through a common fourth friend here in Geneva, Eugene Schulman [a CounterPunch supporter and writer who died in 2020]. Gene had arranged some very convivial and stimulating lunches that occurred whenever I came to Geneva, which was frequently in those years because I had a six-year appointment at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva between 2008 and 2014, followed by my wife’s similar six-year appointment that required us to be here in the city every few months. Subsequently, we’ve kept in touch, which deepened our friendship. We learned that we each regularly wrote opinion pieces for CounterPunch. By pure coincidence that perhaps has a certain mystery attached to it, four times our pieces were published on the same day addressing quite different topics. Having accidentally converged on this outstanding online progressive venue, we thought it worth the time to discover whether our collective voice added some things of wider interest than our separate musings. This is both an experiment and a test of sorts, which we hope is worth sharing.

Matthew Stevenson: Here I’ll call you Dr. Warner, but after that, I’ll call you Danny. Tell the readers how you and Richard met.

Daniel Warner: Richard used to come frequently to Geneva, and he’s here this time to help us celebrate the 90th birthday of Georges Abi-Saab, who was my thesis advisor and professor at the Graduate Institute. And Richard has come from Turkey to help celebrate Georges’ birthday. They were classmates together at Harvard Law School, more than a couple of decades ago.

Matthew Stevenson: And I met Danny after I moved to Switzerland in the 1990s, through Gene Schulman, who also knew Richard. When Gene first said to me, Danny and I have lunch with Richard all the time, I told them I remembered, when I was a student at Columbia University, being an intern at Foreign Policymagazine in 1977 – 78. When I was given a promotion, I was allowed to walk out to the front door where the distinguished international law professor from Princeton, Richard Falk, would occasionally hand-deliver his copy for the magazine. So while I met Richard, I’m not sure Richard quite remembers to whom he was delivering copy in 1977.

Here the idea is a three-cornered conversation, not a one-on-one interview. We thought we’d start on why there’s not peace today between Ukraine and Russia, at war for more than a year.

Illusive Peace in Ukraine

Matthew Stevenson: Danny, isn’t there peace between Ukraine and Russia?

Daniel Warner: Certain people are trying to get negotiations started, but they haven’t begun in a positive way. There’s a mentality on the Russian side, the Ukrainian side, and certainly on the American side that someone has to win. On the Russian side, it might be that Ukraine gets absorbed into a sphere of influence, as it was within the Soviet Union; from the American point of view and the Ukrainian point of view, they want to have a sovereign, independent country that can join the European Union or NATO or whatever it decides. We have two extreme positions, with neither side seeming to move toward negotiated settlement. There have been attempts in Geneva and other places to have negotiations start. But all sides in the conflict seem to be under the illusion that someone has to win. And if someone wins, then someone’s loses. That way the war continues with the destruction that we’re seeing and the loss of lives.

Matthew Stevenson: What would be the grounds for you to negotiate a peace settlement between Ukraine and Russia?

Daniel Warner: Ukraine has to continue as an independent country, but there has to be some kind of realization that the region such as Donbas is very close to Russia, Russian-speaking and Russian culturally. On the other hand, the notion at the 2008 Bucharest Summit that one day Ukraine will be a member of NATO or a member of the European Union right next to Russia seems to me to something out of the question and cannot be acceptable to the Russians. What I’m looking for is some kind of compromise or consensus that I’m not hearing from either side for the moment.

Matthew Stevenson: Richard, please give the readers a little bit of your personal background, which is a long journey in law, politics, negotiations. I know from our other lunches and meetings you were for forty years a professor of politics and international law at Princeton. But you’ve done many other things than that and written many books. Give a little flavor for the reader who doesn’t quite know all of your work.

Richard Falk: During all those years at Princeton, I was sort of a refugee from law teaching because Princeton had no law school and no law students. I became interested in the connection between law and politics and particularly as they played out in international politics. But among these concerns two primary ones captured my attention for many years. One was the failure after World War II to do more to get rid of nuclear weapons. And the other was my belief that interventions by the Global North in the Global South were consistently regressive and continued the colonial legacy in a manner that was damaging and likely to fail, as happened dramatically in Vietnam. I suppose my political worldview was shaped by my strong opposition to the Vietnam War but also by my contact with the Vietnamese people who taught me, in ways I couldn’t learn in libraries, what it meant to be vulnerable to high-tech military intervention as well as what they were prepared to pay in life and limb in order to achieve national self-determination in struggles against foreign intervening powers. In this instance, France and the United States.

Matthew Stevenson: Coming to the current conflict in Ukraine, why do you think there’s no peace in Ukraine?

Richard Falk: I think there is probably a multitude of converging and semi-converging reasons for that. I don’t think there’s any one explanation. I think that the various involved governments arrived at misleading understandings of what their interests were and what to do to promote them. And each of the main political leaders had the feeling at various times that, if he persisted, he would prevail. And so the conflict from its outset seemed characterized by gross miscalculations on the part of Russia, Ukraine, and NATO/U.S. Or NATO alone, however one wants to characterize the external or Euro-American response to the Russian attack. I agree with what Danny has been saying about why there have been no negotiations. I would only add that it’s particularly tragic because my sense is that whenever the war comes to an end, it will have the contours of what a reasonable compromise would look like ever since the Russians started the invasion.

Matthew Stevenson: Meaning: we’ll fight the war and get to the point where we could have begun before the war itself had started?

Richard Falk: Well, yes, or at least after the opening days. I think there was a Russian gross miscalculation, maybe based on the Crimean experience or Crimean precedent, that Ukraine was also within the Russian traditional sphere of influence. And that was coupled with this American reaction that thought that if we embolden the Ukrainians enough and give them enough economic and military assistance, they can inflict a strategic defeat on Russia and in the process reinforce the hegemonic global security role of the U.S. This role emerged after the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s. I think that from its outset, the Ukrainian war was about far more than Ukraine. It was above all else about the geopolitical alignment among the U.S., Russia, and China, and particularly U.S. and China. It came to be believed that whichever side prevailed in Ukraine would also control the last phase of the post-Cold War era and initiate a new pattern of geopolitics, likely configured as bipolarity or multipolarity and thereby displacing the unipolarity that emerged in the 1990s after the implosion of the Soviet Union. Many dimensions of international political order are already multipolar, but the war/peace relations of the current great powers remain what I would describe as ‘geopolitics under siege’.

Daniel Warner: I think Richard’s point about “illusion” needs deepening because it’s a very powerful point. In the beginning, if the Russians thought it was going to be as simple as what happened in 2008 in Georgia and 2014 in Crimea, there is now a disillusion. But the reality that has happened after a year has made some fundamental changes not just in terms of loss of life and destruction, but we now see Russia closer to China than it had been before. We see the United States solidifying NATO with Finland and eventually Sweden becoming members. On a larger scale, there is a different reality than what was there in February 2022 when the aggression started.

My question to Richard and Matthew is: At what point are the illusions accepted and at what point are people going to deal with the new reality and try to figure out what this means and how we’re going to live with this? Because if the war continues, Russia is going to become closer to China. We’re going back to a new kind of Cold War, a different one, as you pointed out than the one after the Second World War, but it still is a situation which is far from any kind of world order that can exist.

Kyiv During Maidan

Matthew Stevenson: Danny, I remember meeting up with you in 2014, in what we now call Kyiv [then Kiev]. I came overland with my son Charles. We came from Moscow, Tula, Kursk, Belgorod (now under attack), Kharkiv, and Poltava to Kyiv—to meet you and have dinner there in the midst of the Maidan protests. Coming that way, as if through the back door, into Ukraine, I was initially more sympathetic to the Russian view of Donbas and eastern Ukraine as Russian-speaking, Russian cities, with Russian culture. Yet when the train pulled into Kyiv, and we spent a few days together there in the capital of Ukraine, what struck me very forcefully, and this was then ten years ago, was how much the people that we met didn’t want to be part of the Russian sphere of influence. They didn’t want to be part of whatever legacy of the Warsaw Pact was there. They didn’t want to trade with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. They wanted Apple phones and Starbucks coffee in a crude consumer sense. You could say that western Ukraine—the Polish part of Ukraine, if you want to call it that—is more European, while the east could be more Russian.

Let me ask you both of you: at what point is it the people of Ukraine who themselves should decide whether they want to belong to the East or the West?

Richard Falk: I can start a response, and it’s a very important question, because I think it goes to the issue of what happens when the right of self-determination clashes with the strategic interests of the geopolitical actors.

I don’t think Russia or China or the U.S. has given up the idea of spheres of influence. [United States Secretary of State] Antony Blinken talks about the spheres of influence being in the dustbin of history, but that doesn’t seem to be the case for the U.S. when it comes to Cuba or Venezuela and, generally, Latin America and even other places in the world—the Middle East, various parts of Asia—so the notion that self-determination is the primary norm is an illusion somewhat popular among international lawyers and human rights activists, but it doesn’t describe the existential nature of world order which somehow exhibits an unstable tension between geopolitics and self-determination. The countries of East Europe would have given similar feedback to the Ukrainians about preferring McDonald’s and Starbucks to living under a Soviet shadow. But, in fact, probably the geopolitical fault lines that were ‘agreed upon’ at Yalta and Potsdam prevented World War III. In other words, thwarting the self determination of East European countries was a very unpleasant experience for those national societies. But it would have been more unpleasant to have had a nuclear war spiral out of an effort to contain Soviet influence in what they felt was one of the fruits of their victory and defense in World War II, and was the centerpiece of their future security. I think that same collision of ideas is present in Ukraine but without Potsdam and Yalta to create geopolitical fault lines that might have established ‘no go’ zones for geopolitical rivals in the Caucuses and Central Asia.

Matthew Stevenson: Might I ask you, Richard, before we turn the mic over to Danny, would you accept a partition of Ukraine along, say, the Dnipro River between West and East, roughly, if that would reestablish boundaries in Europe that would keep West and East from lobbing nuclear weapons in each other’s direction?

Richard Falk: Well, if it indeed would keep the peace—I don’t know the reality sufficiently to give a dogmatic answer to the question—because in this situation, the views of the Ukrainians do have some bearing on what they’re expected to swallow. I think that one can expect Ukrainian leaders to renounce the prospect of NATO membership, but I’m uncertain whether one could expect them to accept the partition of their country. Ukraine might be prepared to accept or made to accept a kind of UN peacekeeping force between Donbas and the western part of Ukraine. I don’t know.

Daniel Warner: Matthew, your question about dividing Ukraine is a very geopolitical comment about territory and borders. After all, if we’re looking at the world today with the Internet and artificial intelligence, it’s interesting that we’re going back to some very basic concepts of territory and a politics of place. But we are here in Geneva, we are in Switzerland, which is a loose confederation of four national languages: German, French, Italian, and Romansh. Is it inconceivable to see Ukraine, which could be similar to Switzerland, in a loose confederation where part of the country in the eastern part can speak Russian while in the western part they can speak Ukrainian? There can be a central government. Switzerland has a central government, but it also has very strong decentralized cantonal governments. So the question of a decentralized Ukraine which could be neutral, not necessarily a member of NATO or the European Union, seems to me something that could be negotiated as far as the Russians are concerned, including the importance of Crimea as well as the importance of Sebastopol as their only access to a warm water port. That seems to me to be something that also has to be taken into consideration.

When I discuss the war, I always say, what is the view for Moscow? And the view for Moscow, in terms of sphere of influence, is to accept that the United States has not abandoned the Monroe Doctrine. It certainly hasn’t. There has to be a certain reality from NATO’s position. If you view NATO from Russia’s position, you can’t have NATO troops on its border. What would we [i.e., the U.S.] do if there were Chinese troops on the border of the United States, Canada or Mexico? I think there’s an issue that the aggression has been so outrageous that it’s difficult to say that the Russians may have certain valid interests which we have to take into consideration to wind up with some kind of compromise and solution.

Lines in the Steppe

Matthew Stevenson: But, Danny, isn’t it also possible that drawing lines—not in the sand, but on the mountainous or rolling terrain and rivers in eastern Ukraine—is an attempt to recreate Yalta? But Yalta failed because both sides heard what they wanted to hear there. Stalin left Yalta saying: “I’ve been given the ability to extend Russian power pretty much to Vienna.” Roosevelt believed: “I get the United Nations” and Churchill heard: “I can save the British Empire.” They all were negotiating for different interests. They all left, saying “we did the best we could”, but none of them achieved anything. And it fell apart within a year or two.

Richard Falk: I don’t quite share that view, Matthew, because the West respected the divisions of Europe all through the Cold War. This was so even in response to the Hungarian intervention of 1956, the subsequent East German intervention and the [1968] Czech Spring. In each instance, there was an admittedly reluctant willingness in the West to forego a sense that these Soviet provocations were something that should have been treated as part of the containment doctrine. Containment didn’t attempt to confine Soviet coercive influence to the (Russian) Soviet border. Containment took account of the borders and fault lines agreed upon at Yalta and Potsdam. So I don’t think it’s reasonable to say that from Stalin’s point of view, Yalta was altogether a failure, or more generally from a war prevention perspective. The post-WW II disappointments you brought to our attention were real, but secondary in my view to the overriding effort to avoid a third world war.

Matthew Stevenson: I think you’re looking at it post-Churchill’s speech in Fulton, Missouri in 1947. I’m thinking a little bit more between 1945 and 1947, when there was the hope that the Russians, the Americans, the British, the Security Council, so to speak, would arbitrate global peace, which was dispelled at some point early on in what you call a containment world—that the containment world worked. I don’t think that was the intention of what they were negotiating at Yalta. I don’t think either side knew that the other would draw such firm barriers across Europe.

Richard Falk: I still am somewhat in disagreement because I think all three of these political actors had foreign policy elites that were political realists, and they never placed their trust in the collective management of world security, including the peaceful resolution of inter-state conflict, including the U.S. Despite FDR—and I agree, Roosevelt apparently believed that since these countries had effectively cooperated against fascism, there was no reason they couldn’t cooperate to keep the peace. But I think the entourage around the leadership in all three of these countries was distrustful of anything that seemed law-oriented or looked towards some kind of permanent peace based on collective security mechanisms, whether situated within the UN or elsewhere.

Matthew Stevenson: The reason I think it matters, Richard, and I’m not disagreeing with your concept, but I think it matters in this sense—that after 1991, there was a replay of Yalta. We thought Russia and the West together might be more harmonious than they came to be. That was not to be with Putin into the aughts and that peaceful coexistence fell away, for whatever reasons. I would argue that the same reaction on both sides—of shock and horror—with Russia responding, ‘how could NATO want Ukraine as one of its members’? And the West saying: ‘how can Russia treat the world as Stalin did in 1956?’ It’s one of the reasons why there’s a war on in Ukraine today. But let’s get Danny involved in this.

Daniel Warner: Matthew, two points: Number one, I would question Richard. He had a project, a very ambitious one called the World Order Models Project. It seems to me that the Ukraine-Russia conflict has called into question human rights, humanitarian law, the role of the United Nations, and the role of negotiation. International public law has certainly taken a huge blow in this conflict. The second point, to Matthew. Around 1991, I happened to be an advisor to NATO at that moment and help open offices of NATO in Kiev and Moscow. There was a small attempt to include Russia in a European security community. And [Russian President Dimitri] Medvedev did come up with a plan for a European security community. It didn’t last very long, but it does seem to me that there was a certain euphoria at the end of the Cold War—with all the “bound to lead” and the United States as “the indispensable country”. That euphoria “we won, we won” led to the humiliation of Russia. It seems to me that a lot of what Putin is doing is a backlash against that euphoria.

Richard Falk: If I can respond, I don’t share the view that the end of the Cold War brought about a sense that Russia and the U.S. or the West could work together. I think what it brought was a hierarchical arrangement in which the U.S. won the Cold War and Russia lost the Cold War and was prepared, and perhaps reconciled to being a subordinate international actor after 1991 and only began breaking out of that kind of temporary consensus with the Crimea in 2014, and more timidly earlier in Georgia (2008). And in that sense, it explains partly Gorbachev’s unpopularity and Putin’s popularity in Russia. Putin is seen as restoring or seeking to restore the great power status of Russia. Therefore, it’s important to distinguish a cooperative relationship based on mutual interests from a hierarchical relationship.

Daniel Warner: Which is subordination.

Richard Falk: Yes, which subordinates one side, and is coercively maintained by the dominant side.

Between East and West

Matthew Stevenson: Let me go back to the map of Ukraine and Russia and pick up with you, Richard, and your bipolar, more peaceful, coexistence world. Do you think that if a line was drawn somewhere in Ukraine—I can’t say I know where it would be, we can imagine that—would that somehow restore some kind of status quo ante to European relations or not?

Richard Falk: It would depend on how the public discourse accompanying that peace arrangement was handled and perceived. I think it’s very hard to predict whether it would be viewed as a betrayal of Ukraine or as a reasonable accommodation to the various interests at stake. And one shouldn’t forget that the primary preoccupation with China and Taiwan remains to be resolved, making it important how the Ukraine settlement is perceived in Beijing as well as in Washington in relation to the future of that relationship. In other words, if the Ukraine settlement meant embarking on a different structure of world order in which one had a more multipolar system of restraints and prudence and was less hegemonic and less militarized, then it would be a very positive outcome. But I don’t see that as being part of how the U.S. internally justifies its heavy investment in achieving ‘victory’ in Ukraine, and even the case for continuing the high peacetime military budget in the face of funding pressures to address domestic societal decline and international issues. This is all part of the Ukraine problematique at this time, it seems to me.

Daniel Warner: Richard, I want to come back to my comment and to ask you about the role of human rights, international humanitarian law and international law in general in terms of what’s going on in this conflict.

Richard Falk: Well, when you made that point, which I think is a widely shared one, about the suffering of international public law and human rights as a result of the Russian attack on Ukraine, I immediately thought that we [the U.S.] did more or less the same thing in Iraq twenty years earlier. And you might remember that [President] George W. Bush, after the UN failed to give in to the U.S. appeal for support, given that the Security Council failed to authorize the attack, Bush reacted by saying that ‘this shows the irrelevance of the UN’. I mean, he said, if the UN wants to be relevant, it cannot oppose this kind of geopolitical priority undertaking. So I wouldn’t say that from the perspective of Western public perception what you say is correct. But I think the whole post-Vietnam reality and post-Vietnam international diplomacy shows a disregard of international law and human rights whenever these norms clashed with the geopolitical interests of the P-2 (USA and USSR) at that point during the Cold War and after the Cold War, the P-1 (USA). And we can only wonder about what geopolitical configuration will emerge out of the eventual resolution of the Ukraine conflict, but we can be reasonably sure that its international law and human rights features will be rhetorically prominent but distinctly secondary in relation to the diplomatic search for a livable compromise.

Matthew Stevenson: Richard, is Ukraine a Russian payback for Iraq, for Afghanistan, for Libya, for Kosovo, for all the Western aggression against Russia’s spheres of influence? Is Ukraine finally the Russian psyche snapping against the West to redress the imbalance that they felt during the years from 1991 to say 2020. How do you reset that plot so that post-conflict in Ukraine, Europe can feel that in Russia it has an ally or partner or a neighbor with which it can exist?

Richard Falk: I think the adjustment has to be more than Russia. I don’t think the attack on Ukraine was so much a payback. Russia took advantage of precedents set by the West—the precedents of Kosovo and Iraq seem most relevant—to the effect that when the strategic interests of a great power are challenged, its behavior is not subject to international law or the authority of the UN. This disregard wasn’t a novel development as a result of the Russian attack on Ukraine. It was a continuation of what I view and many other international law people view as a steady regressive trend that has emerged in the last fifty years or so, and arguably was integral to the design of the UN, taking the principal form of the veto.

Daniel Warner: It is true, and I completely agree with Richard, that at a certain moment it was agreed in the 1975 Helsinki Accords that there would be no changes of borders. So when the Swiss jumped on recognizing Kosovo, I did point out to people in the Swiss government that Moscow was going to use this as a precedent. And Putin continually says: if you change the borders there, you can’t complain about us changing other borders. I think Richard’s general point is that it’s not just hypocrisy, but it’s really bad diplomacy for the United States and other countries to start pointing their fingers when their own acts have been exactly the same thing that they’re complaining about. I also think Richard’s point about upholding a certain world order based on human rights and the rule of law is worth questioning. We know that in the Global South many people consider international public law to be an arm of the Northern and Western states. In the General Assembly resolution that condemned Russia for its aggression, thirty-five countries in the Global South abstained.

I agree with Richard’s point that we’re dealing with a fundamental change in the international system as it has existed. What that will mean, we don’t know. But certainly the traditional way it has been after the Second World War is not going to continue.

Richard Falk: Well, I essentially agree with what Danny has just said, and I think it’s unfortunate that we have this pattern. And it’s doubly unfortunate when a government acts, and more dangerously, as if only your adversary is responsible for serious violations of international law. In other words, double standards turn international law and human rights into a policy tool of state propaganda rather than serving as regulative principles of order because the norms at stake only apply to the enemy. It doesn’t apply to yourself, and therefore undercuts third party respect for international law. Why should a country respect international law when its leaders see the most powerful countries manipulate it for their own foreign policy and strategic advantage? And I think that kind of critique of the behavior of the principal geopolitical actors is something that should receive a lot of attention, along with whether China is something new and different on the performing geopolitical theater stage. Is China, as some people have been saying, the only adult in the room, or is it just using its instruments of power in a way that causes less overt friction, but achieves at less risk and expense to itself comparable encroachment on the sovereignty of other weaker countries?

Russia in Decline?

Matthew Stevenson: I want to ask both of you: Is Russia an ascendant power or a declining power? I base this question on this: just before the war broke out in summer of 2021, I took my bicycle to Moscow, rode around Moscow for three or four days, took the train to Volgograd [formerly Stalingrad], and from Volgograd I worked my way down to Simferopol, Sevastopol, and Yalta—so all the way down into Crimea.

Several observations, other than that biking in Russia is a bit of an acquired taste: one is that all the money in Russia is in Moscow. It’s not in Krasnodar; it’s not in Simferopol; it’s not in Bakhchysarai [a Tatar city in Crimea]; it isn’t even in Sevastopol, despite its naval base. It’s a one-city country with the wealth, the oligarchic wealth, piled up in Moscow. And outside of Moscow, Russia doesn’t look like Russia or the Soviet Union, this somehow egalitarian country.

So I’m asking myself: is Russia itself at risk of falling apart? Is the West, in backing Ukraine, taking advantage of a declining power, in this case Russia with a fairly unequal economic system, all the money sticking in Moscow? And is this the West basically doing what empires have done since the Mongols and before, taking advantage of Russian weakness and trying to slam its nose into the door? Is that possible?

Richard Falk: Can I ask you just one quick clarifying question, which is how then do you account for the popularity that Putin seems to enjoy with the Russian people if the country, except for Moscow, seems on the verge of collapse.

Matthew Stevenson: I wasn’t conducting political polling when I was there. That Putin is popular or not popular, I would say, is a little hard to tell just because it is a one-man state. The elections for the Duma don’t mean anything. Some of the opposition members that I read about, thought about, followed a little bit, were in prison, poisoned, or dead. So I would say, whether the average Russian may or may not back Putin is a little hard to tell. Especially since to speak out in Russia could put you in prison, so that if there was an ability to be a member of a legal opposition there, we might have a better idea of the extent of his popularity. It’s possible he’s very popular. It’s possible people resent him, but I just can’t say because I really don’t know.

Daniel Warner: Matthew, I think your point about wealth is economic-based on extraction. We can’t ignore that Russia is a military power. We can argue about the performance of the military in Ukraine with poor weapons or the fact that Putin has to get people out of prison to fight. But Putin still has nuclear weapons. And that’s the elephant in the room in all of this. As the war escalates, from Leopard 2 tanks to F-16s planes, Putin has said that at the last resort he could eventually use nuclear weapons. That seems to me to be a problem we can’t ignore. Whether or not he’s crazy, some psychologists may know, but I think historically declining empires have not gone out easily.

I give great credit to the British  They seem to have managed to deal with the fact that their empire is now only a Commonwealth. The problem will be the question of Russian pride. I do say that there was a certain humiliation that took place. I called it a moment of euphoria with Joe Nye’s book, Bound to Lead, and Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man. Putin represents something to the people of Russia. So whether Russia is economically declining or whether there’s a poor distribution of wealth, the military might use nuclear weapons. They are there. That problem has not been solved.

Richard Falk: Yes, well, I fully agree with that. And I think the issue of how the West dealt with the end of the Cold War and missed opportunities to strengthen the normative side of world order is one of the failures, great failures of U.S. leadership. It contrasts with the generally wise leadership after 1945, when I think the U.S. basically was a constructive force in economic and political reconstruction and stability and so on. So I don’t know what one should expect in Ukraine, except to keep in mind that it is very dangerous to push a nuclear power to the point where it has the choices of surrender or recourse to nuclear weapons. And I think there are some people who are influential, at least in the U.S. and probably in NATO overall, who are prepared to take that risk to achieve strategic victory in Ukraine.

Of Putin and Trump

Matthew Stevenson: I can’t help but try to think provocatively. Let’s talk about President Donald Trump’s foreign policy. Wasn’t it the most pro-Russian foreign policy the United States has had since—you pick the president—maybe it was Andrew Johnson and William Seward buying Alaska? Trump bent over backwards to accommodate Putin, to not be provocative, to not object to anything Putin suggested or otherwise, and to the point of denying military aid to Ukraine. How then does Putin’s current foreign policy align with what you’re describing about how the West is always pushing Russia into a corner?

Richard Falk: Well, it’s hard to evaluate Trump’s foreign policy, or any aspect of Trump’s policy for that matter. And there are all kinds of stories circulating that he was himself personally compromised by either financial or personal vulnerability. And therefore, Trump should be perceived as pursuing a highly personalistic politics rather than geopolitics as conventionally understood. But given that, I think that there is a substantial case, despite what you said about the uncertainty of the polls, my impression from talking with Russians, including anti-Putin Russians, was that compared to Gorbachev, Putin is very popular and that Gorbachev is a hero only in the West. And we don’t understand that this kind of strong autocratic leadership as something that is more traditional, and even legitimate within Russian political culture.

Daniel Warner: I think there are two dreams going on, or illusions in the West. One is that Putin will either die or be overthrown. The second is that the person who will replace him will be more democratic and more open. I think those are really dreams. He does seem to be popular. It is impressive that one person can be that strong, having lost hundreds of thousands of people in the fight, having to call up all kinds of civilians to fight, with the military not performing as a top military should. And yet we don’t see any indications of Putin’s failing. Matthew, you can’t say that everyone in the streets all over this huge country are afraid of being put in prison. He must be doing something right, and that’s something that we don’t take into consideration.

Matthew Stevenson: You make it sound like somehow Putin is this wildly popular figure. When was the last election that Putin had to stand for? I think it was about 2001, wasn’t it? I don’t think we know. But then, whether he’s popular or not—from an international law standpoint, when you invade another country… it’s one thing to say in 2008 in Bucharest that maybe someday Georgia and Ukraine would be part of NATO. But it’s another thing to invade another country and launch missiles into apartment buildings.

Daniel Warner: No. I am strongly against launching drones and bombs into apartment buildings, hospitals, dams, and schools. There’s no argument there. On the other hand, from his perspective, and I’m always trying to empathize with the other, as I think Richard would agree, Ukraine is not another country for him; Ukraine is part of Russia, part of the Soviet Union until 1954. Whatever Khrushchev did, many Russians consider Ukraine still part of Russia.

Matthew Stevenson: Turn it the other way around, say all of Russia is Ukrainian if you want…but come on… When Ukraine gave up its nuclear missiles in that treaty done between Kiev and Moscow, Russia agreed to respect the borders of Ukraine as they existed. You agree with that, don’t you?

Daniel Warner: No, but on the other hand, again, you’re making me give the Russian arguments. The Russians will say that Gorbachev was promised that NATO would not expand eastward, so you broke that promise. Now, if you broke that promise, don’t hold us to something else.

Richard Falk: And beyond this, influential and informed public figures like George Kennan, principal architect of the containment doctrine and the last American ambassador to the Soviet Union, [Jack Foust] Matlock Jr.—both warned that if NATO attempted to include Ukraine in the alliance, it would lead not necessarily to an invasion, but it would produce severe tensions with a high risk of hostilities.

Some Peace Plans Considered

Matthew Stevenson: Let’s go back to where we started, and we’ll go around the table. I’ll draw straws and pick Danny’s first. You can impose peace on Ukraine. Tell me what the Warner Peace Settlement looks like.

Daniel Warner: Well, it does seem to me that Ukraine is not going to be a member of NATO. Whether Ukraine can be a member of the European Union is something else. If Ukraine is going to maintain itself as a sovereign country, some kind of loose confederation has to include Donbas and Crimea, without them asking for autonomy or being part of Russia.

Matthew Stevenson: Sorry, just to clarify: you’re saying Crimea has to be part of Ukraine in a loose federation in some way? Confederation, confederate, not part of Russia. So you’re taking it away from Russia and giving it to Ukraine—is that what you’re doing?

Daniel Warner: Yes.

The question of reconstruction of Ukraine must not only be a Western activity; it has to be a global activity and Russia has to be included. We have had enormous difficulty at the end of the Cold War including Russia in whatever discussions took place. And we know that there’s a history of tension between China and Russia, and we force them in one way or another to get closer together as we force Russia out of their European heritage. So somehow it has to be a joint venture involving Russia instead of humiliating them again and saying that you lost and we won this war.

Matthew Stevenson: To summarize, you’re saying Ukraine would not be part of NATO— it would be a confederation as in the Swiss model with cantons in places like Donbas, Donetsk, Crimea, the Sea of Azov, those areas. Richard, is there a Falk peace plan?

Richard Falk: No, I basically share Danny’s view but I am skeptical about whether it is prudent to insist on restoring Ukrainian sovereignty in Crimea. The war initially was not about Crimea and it seems to me the Russians will be less likely to accept a confederation if it includes Crimea, given their traditional dependence on its warm water port. But other than that, I think that there is the foundation of a compromise that would include a credible way to assure the human rights of Donbas inhabitants without leaving them at the mercy of Kyiv. We haven’t talked about what happened in Donbas between 2014 and the Russian attack on February 24, 2022. We need to factor in the experience of the Russian-oriented people of Donbas who endured a massacres and other abuses associated with Kyiv’s general suppression of human rights in Eastern Ukraine.

Matthew Stevenson: This is the part of Donbas that was controlled by the Russians or the…

Richard Falk: Controlled by Ukraine, controlled by the Ukrainians living under the authority of the Zelensky government.

Matthew Stevenson: So this is west of the line? This is somewhere between the Dnipro River and the Russian line of occupation. You’re saying, in some of those Ukrainian villages, towns where Russians had a population, there were massacres and abuse and…

Richard Falk: The Ukrainian government refused to uphold the 2014 Minsk agreements which were designed to create protection for Russians concentrated in the Donbas area.

Matthew Stevenson: So under the Falk plan, Russia continues to control Crimea? Yes? It’s not given back to Ukraine?

Richard Falk: Yes. Crimea should not be part of the peace negotiation following a ceasefire in Ukraine. If the status of Crimea is to be addressed it should be dealt with separately, perhaps as part of a post-Ukraine effort to achieve a geopolitical accommodation with Russia, and possibly also with China.

Matthew Stevenson: So you’re saying Crimea is part of Russia. What about along the Sea of Azov, Mariupol, and the land bridge? Would you give that back to Ukraine or would you let Russia keep that?

Richard Falk: I don’t have an opinion…

Matthew Stevenson: How about Donbas, which is now currently occupied by the Russians?

Richard Falk: Ideally the compromise should include the withdrawal of all Russian troops but that may be difficult without having a robust international peacekeeping presence of the sort that exists in southern Lebanon, but with an additional mandate to be human rights defenders.

Matthew Stevenson: Sorry to be map-centric. You say to the Russians who are now in Donetsk and some of that area all the way down to Crimea, they withdraw from that, that becomes sovereign territory of the Ukraine with the exception of Crimea, which remains part of Russia and in the buffer zone between East and West there are UN peacekeeping troops?

Richard Falk: Yes, that is the main idea. The peacekeeping border mission should be complemented by a duty to uphold the human rights of Donetsk and other areas currently occupied by. Russian troops. In other words, no withdrawal without protection.

Matthew Stevenson: Ukraine doesn’t join NATO. Does it join the European Union under the Falk plan?

Richard Falk: It seems certainly desirable to allow Ukraine into the EU provided the commitment to stay out of NATO is firm and fully implemented…

Daniel Warner: It will be difficult for them to fulfill all the obligations.

Matthew Stevenson: But if then you’re saying to the Ukrainians, sorry, you don’t get into NATO, you don’t get into the European Union, you don’t get Crimea—are they going to stop fighting? That becomes the issue. What’s in it for them?

Daniel Warner: First, they stop getting bombed. Second, they maintain themselves as a sovereign, independent country.

Matthew Stevenson: I’ll give you the third option, which says: you fight until you’ve pushed the Russians back as far as you think you can push them, wherever that might be. I don’t think that’s to Rostov. I don’t even think you get Donetsk if you push that far. You might be able to break the land bridge, between the Donbas and Crimea; that’s possible.

And then you have to decide who has the better claim to Crimea. I would argue the best claim to Crimea isn’t Russia or Ukraine. It’s probably Turkey since historically it was more Ottoman lands than Russian or certainly Ukrainian. Or you could give it to Greece. If you didn’t want to give it to Turkey, you could partition it.

Would it make sense in any kind of way to make Crimea a demilitarized zone? Not a Russian naval base? Not a Ukrainian naval base.

Richard Falk: My own preference would be to seek a separate negotiating framework for Crimea and not make it part of the Ukraine peace settlement because I think it will greatly complicate and likely undermine the possibilities of a Ukrainian peace.

Matthew Stevenson: So you would just not even include it in any negotiations?

Let me then push you a little bit. Where is the fault line? We had a Curzon Line in Eastern Europe after World War I, now we’re going to have a Falk Line. Where is the Falk Line between Russia and the West?

Richard Falk: Ukraine as of 2022 on the date when the invasion took place.That strikes me as the appropriate status quo ante for all parties. This not only refers to the national boundaries that existed, but also envisions the withdrawal of Russian troops that were occupying Ukrainian territory at that time, as well as any NATO advisory and training personnel in Ukraine before the attack or during the subsequent period of warfare.

Matthew Stevenson: Under the Warner plan, that line is Moldova and Poland—Ukraine is not in NATO. It’s neutral Switzerland in Eastern Europe.

Daniel Warner: That’s right.

Matthew Stevenson: So the line isn’t in eastern Ukraine, it’s the Polish border. Ukraine is no man’s land, so to speak?

Daniel Warner: But there are limits to what they can do, and there are limits to where NATO troops can go.

Richard Falk is Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University, Chair of Global law, Queen Mary University London, and Research Associate, Orfalea Center of Global Studies, UCSB. He is the author of numerous books, including Public Intellectual: Memoir of a Citizen Pilgrim and This Endangered Planet. He divides his time between the United States and Turkey.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva, where he served for many years as Deputy to the Director of the Graduate Institute. He lives in Geneva. 

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, and The Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. A recent book, about traveling in France and the Franco-Prussian wars, is entitled Biking with Bismarck. His new book is: Our Man in Iran. He lives outside Geneva.