Every Inch of Territorial Concession Incites Future War

What is so fundamentally wrong about any peace argument that involves territorial concessions

11 May 2023

Oleksandra Drik

Future of Ukraine Fellow


Suggestions that Ukraine should make territorial concessions to obtain peace with Russia have been making the rounds since the start of the war.

Interestingly, they have come from parts of the Republican establishment in the United States, with Ron DeSantis, a likely contender for president in 2024, recently calling Russia’s aggression against a sovereign country a “territorial dispute”.

China, an ally of Russia, offered a “peace plan”, obviously favourable to Moscow, while Brazil’s President Lula da Silva has pitched “a G20 for peace in Ukraine”, urging Kyiv to give away Crimea. Essentially every meeting in the African and South American countries that I visited with advocacy trips in the last six months were arriving at the “we favour peace” argument. For some reason, this craving for peace contains a more or less implicit suggestion  that Ukraine cede its territories or make other sovereignty compromises, such as abandoning the desire to join NATO or the EU to placate Moscow

Flawed arguments

Such a “peace at any price” approach is unfortunately widespread in the countries of the Global South. This is partly due to the fact that for those countries, Russia’s aggression is often misrepresented as a proxy war between the West and Russia, giving Ukraine no agency at all. This is partially because Russia has weaponised commodities such as food and fertilisers, blackmailing countries which depend heavily on their supply. It is also possible that from a distance and without historical context, calls to cede territories for the sake of peace may seem superficially attractive, and not only in the Global South.

But what exactly is fundamentally wrong with such calls?

First of all, there are no legal, political or moral reasons why Ukraine should cede territories. More importantly, even if Ukraine did, not only would it not lead to peace, but in fact, cause the opposite.

In most general UN terms, international law understands peace as the absence of illegal threats or the use of force. Ceding the illegally occupied territories or giving other concessions to the aggressor does not diminish such threats but increases them instead.

Here’s a simple way to understand it. Imagine that someone breaks into your house. Kills your wife, rapes your sister, takes your relatives as hostages, takes your child to an unknown location, destroys all the furniture, and says, “this is mine; now let’s make peace.”

Would you ever agree to that? Of course not. You would want them, first, to be out of your house to compensate for the damage that they have caused and make sure that they will be held accountable for the crimes committed. Only then can you negotiate peace in the sense of how to prevent the same people from breaking into your or somebody else’s house and committing all these crimes again? So why would somebody expect or call for Ukraine to want or do something else?

Because this is exactly what Ukrainians want – to have Russian troops out of the territories of Ukraine, to have them compensate the damage they have caused through reparations and UN-backed compensation mechanisms and to have those responsible for the crimes committed (starting with the Russian political and military leadership for the crime of aggression) held accountable. This was, in fact, well reflected in Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s so-called Peace Formula, which he addressed to G19 recently, although the President of Ukraine went further by including aspects of international security that would guarantee the just and long-lasting peace not only in the region but beyond.

Not only is this in line with the UN Charter and international law, but this is also in the interest of every nation for which the concept of sovereignty is important. Because if Ukraine agrees to any concessions, that is essentially letting those who broke into the house stay in one of the rooms with no punishment and security guarantees, it will be only a matter of time before they come back to take control over the entire house. And it will also be a signal to all the other potential criminals around – that concepts of sovereignty and territorial integrity mean nothing and international law cannot protect the states. And there is no remedy unless one possesses a large weaponry arsenal or a nuclear weapon. A conclusion that does not bring us close to the world with the absence of illegal threats or use of force.

No one wants peace more than Ukrainians, but one should never attempt to replace a fight for a just and long-lasting peace with a short-sighted compromise which will benefit no one.

 

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Published as part of our own Future of Ukraine Fellowship programme. Learn more about it here and consider contributing.

Featured image from “Russia Ukraine War – Day 47: Exhumed bod” (CC BY 2.0) by manhhai.

Oleksandra Drik

Future of Ukraine Fellow

Oleksandra Drik (Ukraine) is a Future of Ukraine Fellow at Visegrad Insight and a lawyer, who has been working on accountability reforms in Ukraine since 2014. Since the full-scale Russian invasion in 2022, she has been advocating for a comprehensive international system of accountability for war crimes committed in Ukraine. Oleksandra holds an MA in Global Politics and Law from the University of Sheffield (UK), and two Ukrainian degrees in international relations and law from Kyiv National Taras Shevchenko University, and has 8 years of background in advocating accountability reforms in Ukraine in governmental, non-governmental sectors and EU projects in Ukraine, including positions in the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine, Reforms Delivery office of the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine, EU Anti-corruption Initiative in Ukraine, NGO and media.

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