Russians opposed to Putin have no place to go. Opposing Putin during a hot war makes members of the Russian opposition adverse to their troops in the field and, therefore, it exposes them to charges of disloyalty, if not worse.
Likewise, Putin has no place to go. If he loses the war and fails to take and hold Ukrainian territory, he will lose power. And those who take power out of his hands might not intend or want a peaceful transfer of power. In these circumstances, Putin has little to lose and everything to gain by extending the war, risking escalation, and, indeed, using tactical nuclear weapons. Such an escalation might cause his own death, as it may cause millions of other deaths. But Putin may not be like you and me. He may draw comfort from pulling down everyone else’s home if his own political future is in the process of being destroyed.
What is to be done?
Give Putin, his Russian opposition, and Ukraine a desirable place to go. What place is that? It is a place everyone in Russia and Ukraine, from oligarch to worker on the factory floor, wishes to gain access. That place is: the European Union. Indeed, overtures by the EU and NATO suggesting membership for Ukraine (and only Ukraine) were some of the ill-advised decisions that led us to today’s terrible status quo. Those overtures might have been the wrong thing for the West to have done, but might not modifying those decisions be today’s path to peace? Let the European Union offer Russia AND Ukraine a deal—that is, total withdrawal of all troops to borders as they stood prior to Russia’s February 2022 invasion, and if done within 30 days, then both Russia and Ukraine would be granted immediate EU membership.
If the offer is accepted and then put into effect, then the hot war is over. That is a good result. Putin will find it easier to end the war if he has something in-hand that his people will value. And I suggest the average Russian, as well as every Russian oligarch, would value EU citizenship, travel rights, and the right to work across the EU; indeed, they would value those intangible legal rights much more than they would value Russian troops’ holding Ukrainian territory and its sunflower oil supply.
If the offer is rejected, then Putin and his political allies will hold even less popular support because the Russian voter will know that Putin’s incompetence (in war) and his intransigence (in making peace) cost them EU citizenship with all that it entails. Making Putin less popular, in this fashion, is also a good result.
For Ukraine, there is no downside. If the plan succeeds: the war ends, and Ukraine gets EU membership. Ukraine would be mad to reject the offer, and they could continue to make overtures in international fora for the return of Crimea and their eastern territories. If Putin rejects the offer, but Ukraine accepts it, then Ukraine will lose nothing consequential, and it will enjoy much additional good will from the international community.
The downside (such as it is) of the EU’s making this offer is that it will be accepted, and then the EU Parliament (and other EU institutions) will have to accommodate Russian and Ukrainian nationalists. That will be tricky, especially as it will undoubtedly come with money laundering, fraud, and subversive intelligence activities. But we, in the West, are not without defences against such wrongdoing. And such wrongdoing, which is surely regrettable, is much more manageable, then a hot war risking escalation, along with the outflow of millions more migrants’ escaping conflict and military conscription.
It may be the EU and its member states have the means to end this war. Let us encourage them all to risk making peace.
Seth Barrett Tillman, Associate Professor
Maynooth University School of Law and Criminology
Scoil an Dlí agus na Coireolaíochta Ollscoil Mhá Nuad
(academic title & affiliation for identification purposes only)
Seth Barrett Tillman, ‘A Simple Plan for Ending the War in Ukraine,’ New Reform Club (Oct. 9, 2022, 10:03 AM), <https://reformclub.blogspot.com/2022/10/a-simple-plan-for-ending-war-in-ukraine.html>;
Seth Barrett Tillman, ‘To End Putin’s War, Offer Both Ukraine and Russia EU Membership,’ Newsweek (Oct. 25, 2022, 4:32 PM EDT), <https://www.newsweek.com/end-putins-war-offer-both-ukraine-russia-eu-membership-opinion-1754644>, <https://ssrn.com/abstract=4258072>;