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Elon Musk Is Right, The Russia-Ukraine War Needs To End

Musk understands what many commentators don’t: The war will end in a negotiated settlement or it will escalate, possibly into nuclear war.

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As if to burnish his reputation as a super-villain in the eyes of the corporate press, Elon Musk this week floated an idea on Twitter for a possible resolution of the Russo-Ukrainian war. For his trouble, he was swiftly accused of being a pro-Putin stooge by guardians of the Official Narrative. His suggested peace plan was dismissed out of hand as “Russia-friendly” and, as The Washington Post’s Olivier Knox put it, “designed to lock in Russian territorial gains.”

But Musk’s idea shouldn’t be so quickly dismissed, not least because it has the virtue of being grounded in reality, but also because broadly speaking the billionaire mogul is right: It’s time for the war in Ukraine to come to an end. One need not be “Russia-friendly” to recognize that this war will most likely end in one of two ways. Either there will be a negotiated political settlement, in which both Russia and Ukraine get some of what they vitally need, or the thing will escalate into a worldwide nuclear war.

Given the options, the responsible thing to do is think through how a settlement might be reached — something our political leaders and media elites, wedded as they are to a maximalist Ukraine policy that seeks the total defeat of Russian forces and regime change in Moscow, have thus far been incapable of doing.

Musk proposed a four-part deal: Re-do the elections in the recently annexed areas of eastern Ukraine, this time under United Nations supervision; leave Crimea as part of Russia; assure a water supply to Crimea; Ukraine agrees to remain neutral.

The plan isn’t perfect, obviously, but it’s a far cry from Kremlin propaganda. It recognizes something that sharp observers of the conflict could see even before Russia’s invasion in late February: With its current borders, Ukraine can have territorial integrity or political independence, but it can’t have both. 

My friend Mario Loyola made precisely that argument in these pages weeks before the war began, noting that Ukraine’s present-day borders date from 1954, when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev “gave” Ukraine nominal control over strategic swaths of territory that had not been traditionally considered part of Ukraine, such as the Crimean Peninsula, along with a formidable Soviet nuclear arsenal. The point was to make it seem like the Warsaw Pact was something other than a Soviet concoction designed to give Moscow more seats in the U.N. General Assembly.

But those borders were never meant to be “real.” When the Soviet Union collapsed decades later, the United States recognized the situation was untenable and helped arrange for the return of Ukraine’s nuclear arsenal to Moscow and broker an agreement for Russia to retain access to its Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol. But even these adjustments didn’t create a stable situation, as Loyola writes:

A glance at the map of 1991 should have made people wonder whether Ukraine, in these artificially enlarged borders, could even be a viable state. It wasn’t at all clear that Ukraine would be strong enough to maintain both political independence and territorial integrity given the weight of vital Russian interests involved.“Russia is never as strong as she looks, Russia is never as weak as she looks,” the saying goes, and the map of 1991 reflected a state of Russian weakness that was bound to prove fleeting.

Ukraine had no problem controlling the territory as long as it accepted Moscow’s control. But the moment it definitively broke away from Moscow in 2014, it immediately lost control of those areas that were most vital to Russian interests, and nobody with an even minimal sense of Russian and Ukrainian history can pretend to have been taken by surprise.  

All of that to say, freezing Ukraine’s 1991 border in place all but guaranteed a future conflict, which is now upon us. The Biden administration could have responded by insisting that Ukraine and Russia work out a negotiated settlement that addressed the territorial problems everyone knew had been festering for decades. Instead, Biden opted to throw our lot in with Ukraine to the tune of $67 billion and counting, making Ukraine a de facto member of NATO and guaranteeing that the war can grind on indefinitely — or escalate into a wider, possibly nuclear war.

Certainly, absent U.S. funding and support, Ukraine would have long ago negotiated a political settlement that involved some adjustment of its borders or some assurances of its neutrality. Indeed, negotiations early on in the war, back in March, brokered by Israel and Turkey were predicated on just such an exchange: In return for guarantees of Ukrainian neutrality (meaning Ukraine would never join NATO), Russian forces would withdraw from Ukraine. Those talks broke down in early April around the time then-British Prime Minister Boris Johnson made a surprise visit to Kyiv and met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Now, more than seven months into the fighting, the Biden administration seems intent on closing down any possible remaining off-ramps that could bring about an end to the war. We can’t know for certain that the U.S. was behind the sabotage of the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines (although it makes more sense than assuming Russia did it), but the attack is just the sort of thing that risks widening the war beyond Ukraine and rendering a bilateral negotiated settlement impossible.

Is it possible Biden doesn’t want this war to end in a compromise between Moscow and Kyiv? Is the view expressed back in March by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, that the war will continue until Russian forces are driven from a totally intact and politically independent Ukraine, the end state that the White House is working toward? If so, it would suggest that a negotiated peace isn’t really what the Biden administration wants out of this, but rather something more like regime change in Moscow, which is exactly what Blinken’s scenario would portend.

If that’s the goal, then something along the lines of Musk’s peace plan is exactly what you wouldn’t want. It’s the sort of thing you’d want to denigrate as Kremlin propaganda or the rantings of a deranged billionaire. You certainly wouldn’t want anyone to take it seriously, because then ordinary people might get the idea that there’s a way out of this war that doesn’t involve escalation and that prevents the U.S. from getting drawn in deeper than we already are.

But if your goal was for something other than regime change in Moscow, say, for an end to the fighting and a settlement that both Ukraine and Russia could live with, then you’d want to start thinking about what such a settlement might entail. And it might end up looking a lot like what Musk threw out there, to the immediate consternation and fury of the corporate press. Imagine that.


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