To End Ukraine War, Run Elections in Disputed Territories

Matthew R. Bishop
5 min readJun 1, 2022

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Ukrainian military operations in eastern Ukraine. Photo by Ukrainian Ministry of Defense. CC-SA 2.0.

Matthew R. Bishop — June 1, 2022

The ongoing fighting in Ukraine has reached an impasse. Ukrainian gains and Russian gains have offset one another into a stalemate, with Ukrainian forces reaching all the way to the Russian border in some places, but with Russian forces making gains into Ukraine only miles away. This impasse presents us with two opportunities: First, we can allow this conflict to descend into some kind of long, drawn-out conflict, a mixture of Syria, Afghanistan and the World Wars— or, alternatively, we can channel the frustration of this impasse into a peace agreement and seek to end the war for good.

In this article, I’ll argue for the second position, and present a brief overview of the steps I believe the international community should take as soon as possible in order to see that the frustration of this moment is channeled into peace instead of war.

Neither Russia nor the United States — nor Ukraine itself — has the capacity to end this war directly and outright. Half the world is suspect of Russia’s motives, while the other half is suspect of US motives. It was precisely this kind of situation that the United Nations was created to resolve, and it is now time for the United Nations to step forward and do so before Ukraine becomes the next Syria.

There are a number of obstacles preventing a peace agreement, and those are the obstacles the United Nations should focus on: Who gets the Donbas? Who gets Crimea? What shall be the state of armament/disarmament in both of these territories — and in Ukraine, and in Russia itself?

Russia, of course, will never freely or willingly cede Crimea or the Donbas, and neither will Ukraine. Thus neither party is capable of resolving this conflict in a peaceful manner. Only a third-party mediator is capable of achieving peace. As half the world distrusts Russia, while the other half distrusts the United States, the only apparent eligible mediator appears to be the United Nations itself.

The only fair, transparent, legal, equitable way to end this war is to consult the people of Crimea and the Donbas itself, along with the people of whatever other territories might come into dispute. Neither Ukraine, nor Russia, nor Europe, nor the United States can unilaterally determine the outcome of this war. The question must be put to the people of the disputed territories themselves.

This should be done through at least two public referenda, one each for the Donbas and Crimea. These referenda should present three straightforward options for the people to vote on. First, they can return to Ukraine. Second, they can opt to formally join Russia. Third, they can vote to secede and become autonomous, sovereign states of their own, in which case neither Ukraine nor Russia can claim the territories.

Depending on the outcome, we should expect that either Ukraine or Russia will reject the vote. If the people vote to form their own nation, we might even see a situation where both Russia and Ukraine reject the vote. The international community, therefore, will need to be prepared to intervene with armed force in order to guarantee the outcome of the vote whatever it may be.

The voting process should be organized, conducted and reviewed directly through the United Nations. United Nations Peacekeepers should be deployed to physically guard all voting sites, while UN and UN-affiliate civilian officers oversee the voting itself. Given the level of interest that the global community has in this conflict, it should not be difficult to dispatch such a force. Each nation might have its own bias — in favor of Russia, the EU or the US — but each of those nations also has an objective interest in discerning this final truth: What do the people of the disputed territories themselves want? In the end, this is the only way to resolve modern territorial disputes fairly and peacefully.

The process will take months, during which time a full ceasefire should be enforced. If a ceasefire cannot be arranged for, then the global community must at least guarantee the physical safety of the voting locations and their local environs, so as to ensure that the population is not violently coerced into voting one way or the other (or the third, to the dismay of both parties).

When the ballots are counted and the ruling is issued, we should not expect that the conflict will end. Russia and Ukraine are both likely to reject any unfavorable outcome. The global community must prepare accordingly for all three scenarios — and that includes the logistical planning of Peacekeeping and other multinational forces in the event of an ongoing Syria-type civil war.

And yet we must also recognize that peace is simply impossible for as long as the people of the disputed territories themselves are left out of the process. To envision peace, we must place those people at the very center of the peace process, and then begin to work backwards from that goal.

If the people of the disputed territories choose to formally join Russia, then the United States should make it clear to Ukraine that they will not support any military planning or activity which encroaches on those territories. If they choose to formally rejoin Ukraine, the United States should escalate its campaign to ensure that they can do so as freely and efficiently as possible.

If they choose secede from both parties and form new sovereign nations, then the United Nations should be prepared to admit them as member states as soon as a functional, independent government can be formed. The United States should lend its weight behind the United Nations, but it is the United Nations alone which can help form a new bipartisan government, with pro-Ukrainian candidates and pro-Russian candidates competing nonviolently against each other, in the newly independent states.

Whichever party loses is likely to claim that the election is a fraud, and might refuse the offer of a ceasefire. But if the United Nations itself conducts and verifies the election, with the full oversight of the entire global community, the losing party will find that they have no real ground on which to base their dissent. The opinion of the world will already be decided, and the future of the disputed territories will be made clear. Time, indeed, makes more converts than reason, and we can expect that — over time — the verdict of history will turn in favor of whatever the outcome of these referenda might be.

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Matthew R. Bishop

Matt is an author, journalist, international affairs writer, and a federal civilian crisis responder for the United States.