How to pick a pathway to peace in Ukraine?

Anton Novoderezhkin/Sputnik/AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin (center) attends a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow after a military parade marking the 77th anniversary of the end of World War II, May 9, 2022.
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Sooner or later, it seems inevitable that the war in Ukraine will come to a negotiated end, whatever the military situation. But what kind of an end?

Two paradigms present themselves: the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I by imposing harsh terms on Germany that contributed to Adolf Hitler’s rise, and the Yalta Conference in 1945, where Josef Stalin, Franklin Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill charted the shape of Europe after World War II, paving the way for Moscow’s domination of Eastern Europe.

Why We Wrote This

When it comes time to make peace in Ukraine, Western allies will have two historic models to learn from – and avoid.

Washington and its NATO partners know they will have to reach a modus vivendi with Russia whatever the war’s outcome, which makes a Versailles-style humiliation unwise. But none of the Western allies, least of all Ukraine, will be in the mood to humor Vladimir Putin’s nostalgia for the old Soviet Union’s influence on the world stage.

That suggests the nature of the West’s dauntingly difficult challenge, whenever the Ukraine war offers the chance for a negotiated peace: to trace a middle path between Versailles and Yalta.

All eyes this week were on Moscow, where Russian President Vladimir Putin presided over a Victory Day parade on Monday with no Ukraine victory to celebrate.

But if America and its Western allies are eventually going to find a way to end the war in Ukraine – in effect talking Mr. Putin down from a ledge of his own making – their attention will be focused not so much on Moscow, or even Kyiv. Rather, they will be mindful of two other points on the map of Europe where events left a fateful imprint.

One of them made its mark more than a century ago, in June 1919. It’s the grand château of Versailles, just outside Paris, where the treaty ending World War I was signed. That document declared Germany’s war guilt, disarmed the country, and prescribed heavy financial reparations. Adolf Hitler portrayed it as a national humiliation, a refrain for the Nazis’ rise to power in the 1930s.

Why We Wrote This

When it comes time to make peace in Ukraine, Western allies will have two historic models to learn from – and avoid.

The other is the Black Sea resort of Yalta. In February 1945, the town hosted a summit that brought together U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, Britain’s Winston Churchill, and Soviet dictator Josef Stalin to chart the shape of Europe after World War II.

It paved the way for the Soviets’ postwar dominance of Eastern Europe – a dominance that, to Mr. Putin’s burning frustration, ended with the collapse of the USSR.

The West’s dauntingly delicate challenge, whenever the Ukraine war offers the chance for a negotiated peace, may well be to trace a middle path between Versailles and Yalta.

The attraction of a “Versailles II” is likely to grow as the war goes on, with each new Russian artillery strike on the civilian population, and each new allegation of war crimes. At a minimum, Ukraine and its allies seem sure to insist that any settlement places the blame for the war squarely on the Russian invaders, that Moscow be made to help foot the bill for reconstruction, and that war crimes be investigated and prosecuted.

But Washington and its NATO partners also know they’ll have to find some postwar modus vivendi with Russia, and are likely to see a cautionary tale in Versailles: the prospect of a settlement so punitive that Mr. Putin would either reject it out of hand, or use the refrain of “humiliation” as fuel for rearmament, further repression, and future aggression.

Allied leaders chat while gathering for negotiations of the Treaty of Versailles, which officially ended World War I, in 1919. They are (left to right) David Lloyd George of Britain, Vittorio Orlando of Italy, Georges Clemenceau of France, and Woodrow Wilson, U.S. president.

Yalta, however, offers a cautionary tale of its own.

There’s no prospect of its providing a direct model for Ukraine. When the summiteers met there three-quarters of a century ago, Stalin had huge leverage. At the cost of millions of lives, the Soviets had beaten back Hitler’s invasion force. His army controlled much of Eastern Europe and was closing in on Berlin.

Mr. Putin, by contrast, if not losing the war in Ukraine, certainly shows no sign yet of winning it.

Still, for the Russian leader, Yalta holds great importance, and not only because memories of the summit feed his nostalgia for the old Soviet Union’s weight on the world stage.

As his Victory Day speech made clear earlier this week, Mr. Putin’s ultimate purpose in invading Ukraine was to recoup some of what Moscow lost with the demise of the Soviet Union, to secure a new European security settlement with the Americans and NATO that would give Russia the kind of superpower sway it enjoyed until 1991. In 1945, for example. 

But the Western allies are not going to be inclined to treat Mr. Putin like Stalin: that would be to validate, if not reward, the invasion of Ukraine.

Steering a course between Versailles and Yalta is likely to prove no easy task.

The exact shape of negotiating terms will depend on the course of the war: how long, and how brutally, the Russian forces keep fighting, whether they make major advances or are pushed back by the highly motivated and increasingly well-armed Ukrainians.

Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, and Josef Stalin meet at the Livadia Palace gardens in Yalta, Feb. 12, 1945, during talks to decide the shape of postwar Europe. Moscow won control of Eastern Europe, enjoying a level of influence that makes today's Russian President Vladimir Putin nostalgic.

As things now stand, opinion in Washington seems to lean toward Versailles. Senior officials have made clear their view that Mr. Putin must pay a price for the invasion, not just in economic terms, but through limitations on Moscow’s capacity to launch further attacks on its neighbors.

Still, President Joe Biden has also said he’s determined to avoid American and NATO forces getting directly involved, warning that such a step would raise the peril of “World War III.” More broadly, U.S. officials are concerned a “cornered” Mr. Putin might lash out and escalate, even perhaps eventually by using a tactical nuclear weapon.

The implication is that a full-on Versailles strategy would be best avoided. And the corollary: Even if nothing resembling Yalta in 1945 is in the cards, some form of diplomatically respectful nod to Russia’s national self-image and security concerns could be in order.

Yet, as things now look, such an approach would carry a heavy, and tragic, dose of irony. The central “concession” to Moscow would likely be that NATO would rule out formal membership for Ukraine.

And as any honest Western diplomat will tell you, such membership was never more than a very remote prospect anyway.

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