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Is Henry Kissinger proposing to divide Ukraine?

During the recent Davos meeting, Henry Kissinger, one of the world’s most influential political scientists, who led the US State Department in the 1970s, had some unpleasant advice for the Ukrainian government under Russian attack. 

“Negotiations need to begin in the next two months before it creates upheavals and tensions that will not be easily overcome. Ideally, the dividing line should be a return to the status quo ante,” said Kissinger, one of the most powerful defenders of realism, a school of thought, which advocates that national interests overcome moral concerns in international politics. 

Returning to “the status quo ante” refers to the pre-Russian attack conditions in which pro-Moscow separatist groups controlled significant territories in eastern Ukraine. As a result, Kissinger suggested that Ukraine should better accept ceding those eastern territories to Russia to cease hostilities between Moscow and Kiev. 

Eastern Ukraine, which has a significant Russian-speaking population rich with natural resources like coal, has long been a boiling point between Moscow and Kiev. 

After Ukraine’s 2014 Maidan Revolution, which overthrew the pro-Russian government, Moscow annexed the Crimean Peninsula as pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine rebelled against Kiev and created their own breakaway regions. Since then, there has been a bloody conflict in the region, claiming more than 13,000 lives. 

There were international efforts like the Minsk process to address the Ukraine conflict before Russia’s February attack. The Minsk agreement, initiated by France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine, helped decrease hostilities, but fighting continued regardless. 

According to the agreement, Ukraine should be decentralised, giving the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic “special status.” Ukraine did not implement those changes.

Kissinger,a longtime confidant of Vladimir Putin, also issued a stark warning to both the Ukrainian government and its Western allies saying that “Pursuing the war beyond that point would not be about the freedom of Ukraine, but a new war against Russia itself.”

To Kissinger, this kind of approach might risk a lot for both the Western alliance and Russia, pushing Moscow to form a permanent alliance with China and escalating global tensions further. 

Ukrainian reaction

Kissinger’s advice based on his realpolitik thinking to the Kiev government on ceding eastern Ukraine to Russia is not received well by the top Ukrainian leadership. Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the Ukrainian president who is a Jew like Kissinger, reminded him how the former US secretary of state, who is now 98, escaped from Nazi Germany back in the day. 

“By the way, in the real year 1938, when Mr. Kissinger’s family was fleeing Nazi Germany, he was 15 years old, and he understood everything perfectly. And nobody heard from him then that it was necessary to adapt to the Nazis instead of fleeing them or fighting them,” Zelenskyy said, pointing out the fact that principles and moral concerns matter for every individual including Kissinger at some point. 

“Those who advise Ukraine to give something to Russia, these ‘great geopolitical figures,’ never see ordinary people, ordinary Ukrainians, millions living on the territory they are proposing to exchange for an illusory peace. You must always see people,” Zelenskyy shot back to Kissinger, one of the rare Westerners, who is a frequent visitorto the Kremlin. 

While the Russian attack has made millions of Ukrainians leave their country, seeking refuge in neighbouring countries, Kissinger, a realist and a member of the American political establishment, has a long tendency to downplay feelings of ordinary people to reach political compromises. 

Kissinger has long believed that politics and intelligence should go side by side to conduct a wise policy across the international arena. 

The first time Kissinger met Putin in the 1990s, when the Russian president was a young intelligence officer, they had an interesting conversation in which Putin disclosed his job description. “All decent people got their start in intelligence. I did, too,” Kissinger responded to Putin, indicating his appreciation of practical knowledge over theoretical arguments. 

During the Davos meeting, his sheer realist approach was so clear once again. “I hope the Ukrainians will match the heroism they have shown with wisdom,” Kissinger said, during the meeting, referring to Ukrainian resistance against the Russian attack. 

But Ukrainians do not appear to buy that argument much. 

According to recent surveys, more than 80 percent of Ukrainians reject giving up any territory to Kiev. The Ukrainian leadership has already signalled to accept to be a neutral state permanently, but the overwhelming view in Kiev continues to be defending the entire Ukrainian territory and not cede any territory to Moscow. 

Is the US favouring the division of Ukraine? 

Among Western political elites, Kissinger is not alone in advising Ukrainians to cede some of their territories to Russia while the US government continues to back and arm Ukraine to resist Russia. David Ignatius, a Washington insider and a columnist at the Washington Post, who is a regular in Davos meetings, also expressed similar thoughts to Kissinger.  

According to Ignatius, for many upcoming years, Ukraine will “be a partially divided country, with Russian troops across what’s likely to be a hot cease-fire line.” 

As a result, for their future nation-building, Ukrainians “should consider the examples of South Korea and West Germany”, Ignatius wrote two weeks ago, suggesting that a division of Ukraine should be acceptable to both Kiev and the Western alliance. 

While the Ukrainian “stalemate and separation would be cruel”, Ignatius believes the division will favour Kiev in the long run as it favoured West Germany over East Germany at the end of the Cold War. 

A recent New York Times editorial also evoked similar suggestions, talking about the necessity of “the hard decisions” of Kiev related to possible Ukrainian territorial losses. 

“If the conflict does lead to real negotiations, it will be Ukrainian leaders who will have to make the painful territorial decisions that any compromise will demand,” said the NYT editorial.

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