Munich redux? Biden to push Ukraine into Donbas "autonomy"

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Will this be Peace In Our Time, 2021 edition? Joe Biden plans to tell Ukraine to grant “autonomy” to its occupied Donbas territory as the price of getting Vladimir Putin to de-escalate, the Associated Press reports. Kyiv will have to “accept some of the facts on the ground,” according to administration officials:

Administration officials have suggested that the U.S. will press Ukraine to formally cede a measure of autonomy to eastern Ukrainian lands now controlled by Russia-backed separatists who rose up against Kyiv in 2014. An undefined “special status” for those areas was laid out in an ambiguous, European-brokered peace deal in 2015, but it has never taken hold.

Biden also will have to finesse Ukraine’s desire to join NATO. The U.S. and NATO reject Putin’s demands that they guarantee Ukraine won’t be admitted to the Western military alliance.

But senior State Department officials have told Ukraine that NATO membership is unlikely to be approved in the next decade, according to a person familiar with those private talks who spoke on condition of anonymity.

For Biden, the challenge will be encouraging Kyiv to accept some of the facts on the ground in eastern Ukraine, without appearing to cave to Putin — a perception that could embolden the Russian leader and unleash a fresh line of condemnations by Republicans as Biden’s popularity is already in decline.

Ukraine may be asked “can you make some step forward on these areas,” said Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. That could include measures such as allowing the Russia-allied Donbas region to control its own health care, police and schools, he said.

If that smells like Munich 1938 to readers, you’re not alone. Our former colleague Noah Rothman skewers it as well. Noah repurposes Neville Chamberlain’s infamous assurance on returning from the Munich conference with Adolf Hitler after carving out the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia:

In fairness, Biden has a different and bigger problem in Ukraine than Chamberlain did in Czechoslovakia. For one thing, Russia’s already in the Donbas, which is a significant “fact on the ground” in terms of negotiating position. The issue of containment has already been mooted, in Ukraine and in Georgia, by Barack Obama. The most galling point on Czechoslovakia is that the European powers specifically invested in the Central European country as way to contain a resurgent Germany, and then abandoned it at the first moment when it actually mattered. In Ukraine, the issue is more of a containment strategy that backfired with NATO’s wooing of Ukraine as a means to establish itself directly on the Russian frontier.

Even with those caveats, the asks here are still breathtaking, and not just because of the all-but-official partition Biden wants to get Ukraine to swallow. Allowing the “canton” in Donbas to control health care in their region is probably not much of an issue for Kyiv. Having the Russia-backed rebels controlling the police is a far different problem. If Ukraine can’t control the police throughout its sovereign territory and maintain that monopoly on force, then that territory isn’t sovereign at all.

That makes this statement from Pifer ludicrous:

“But I don’t see Washington pushing the Ukrainians to take steps that would compromise their sovereignty or the ability of the national government when it came to making decisions,” Pifer said.

How long after this non-partition partition will it be before the new Donbas authority welcomes Putin’s troops back into position? Or “votes” for Putin’s version of Anschluss, which is clearly his goal for the entirety of Ukraine? Putin has based this aggression on very similar grounds as Hitler did, citing a duty to protect Russian ethnic minorities in the Donbas just as Hitler did with ethnic Germans in the Sudetenland. And that’s not an argument limited to Ukraine; Putin has also rattled his saber over ethnic minorities in the Baltic states, a leftover from forty years of Soviet occupation. The Donbas is clearly not the last of Putin’s territorial ambitions in Europe.

If Biden goes ahead with this plan, criticism from the GOP will be the least of his worries.