Pro-Ukraine demonstration

On West’s Response to Russia in Ukraine: Confrontation Has Risks, but So Does Appeasement

June 09, 2022
Melinda Haring

Below are the author’s responses to propositions made by former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and billionaire philanthropist George Soros at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. They are part of a debate inspired by the two men’s opposing viewpoints on Russia’s war in Ukraine and how the West should respond to it.

1. Kissinger has long said Ukraine should have some form of neutrality in order to be a "bridge between Russia and Europe"; at Davos he said that, while "that opportunity ... does not now exist in the same manner, ... it could still be conceived as an ultimate objective."

Ukrainians ought to decide their geopolitical orientation, not a former secretary of state or the Russian president. Ukraine’s “ultimate objective” is easy: to control its own borders and be at peace with its neighbors. This does not preclude neutrality. Kyiv already offered it as a concession in March 2022.

Generations of U.S. foreign policy, including policies pursued during administrations in which Henry Kissinger served, have supported the right of European nations to determine their geopolitical orientation.

2. Soros said at Davos that Russia's invasion of Ukraine "may have been the beginning of the Third World War and our civilization may not survive it."

Confrontation has risks, but so does appeasement. We have a dangerous European war right now, but if Putin’s ambitions aren’t checked, we are likely to end up in a much worse situation that could easily bring about a third world war. If Ukraine were to attempt to retake Crimea, Russia would likely use nuclear weapons, which could draw in the West. 

3. Kissinger said at Davos that "negotiations on peace need to begin in the next two months," implying that otherwise the war could spill over into other parts of Europe; "ideally," he said, "the dividing line [between Ukraine and Russia] should return the status quo ante," i.e. with Moscow exercising de facto control over Crimea and parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

Of course, Kissinger wants to bully the Ukrainians to the negotiating table as Moscow begins to make some gains in the Donbas. The former secretary of state favors backroom deals with great powers to the detriment of other sovereign nations. The reality is that neither side is willing to negotiate at this point. Russian President Vladimir Putin refuses to meet face to face with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Both sides claim Crimea and the Donbas and neither side is willing to give an inch. Why should Kyiv after the alleged war crimes in Bucha and the indiscriminate shelling of Mariupol? A recent poll from the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology found that 82% of Ukrainians polled say that Kyiv should not concede any territory even if that prolongs the war or threatens the country’s territorial independence.

4. Kissinger cautioned against turning the war into a battle "against Russia itself," rather than for "the freedom of Ukraine," because "Russia has been, for 400 years, an essential part of Europe," critical to maintaining a "European balance." The West's policies, he said, "should keep in mind [that] the restoration of this role is important to develop, so that Russia is not driven into a permanent alliance with China."

Kissinger’s statement doesn’t pass the laugh test. No one is turning a war that Russia started—an unprovoked war—into a battle “against Russia itself.” If Russia wants to be an “essential part of Europe,” it must live up to its international commitments, embrace international law and stop attacking its peaceful neighbors. There’s no way that Russia and China will enter into a permanent alliance; their interests are far too different, as Dr. Harley Balzer has documented in an Atlantic Council report.

5. Soros said that "we must mobilize all our resources to bring the war to an early end. The best and perhaps only way to preserve our civilization is to defeat Putin as soon as possible."

Spot on. The longer the war drags on, the more needless human suffering we will see around the world. Russia’s war on Ukraine has caused 8 million Ukrainians to leave their homes and seek shelter within the country and 6.5 million Ukrainians have fled to Europe or elsewhere. It’s the largest refugee crisis since World War II. The UNDP estimates that nine of 10 Ukrainians will be poor by the end of the year if the war continues to drag on. But if human suffering in Ukraine isn’t enough to move you, Putin’s war has caused massive instability in global fuel prices and threatens a global famine if Ukraine’s grain cannot be delivered. 

The longer the war drags on, the more likely it is that Moscow will win. Moscow is a master at manipulating frozen conflicts. The West will grow weary of the war and distracted by its own problems while the American people will begin to question why Congress is spending so much money on a country 5,000 miles away. While the world’s sympathies lie with Kyiv and Ukraine has the military momentum behind them, Washington must send planes, additional long range rocket launchers with higher-range artillery and anti-aircraft systems without delay.

Defeating Putin means that Russia’s imperial game is over. Moscow no longer attacks its peaceful neighbors. Specifically, it means pushing Russia out of the Donbas completely, bringing Russia’s war criminals to justice using any and all legal mechanisms and forcing Moscow to pay for the damages it has caused.   

Moscow continues to bluster and protest as Washington sends more and serious heavy weapons, but there’s no reason to take its protests seriously. Putin has a history of threatening to use nuclear weapons but never following through. I agree with Amb. Alexander Vershbow, former U.S. ambassador to Russia and former deputy secretary general of NATO, that the likelihood of Putin using nuclear weapons is “not zero, but less than 5%.” The Russian president’s bluster is meant to deter Western countries from sending weapons.


Melinda Haring

Melinda Haring is the deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center.

The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author. Pixabay image free for use.