After all the shelling and bombing, the decimation and carnage, the final humiliation is that Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy will in all likelihood be required to assent to a Donbas agreement minimally satisfactory to Russian president Vladimir Putin.

The Donbas, once an industrial center, has been in decline, even ruin since the separatists with Moscow’s support took it along with Crimea in 2014. Its industries were uncompetitive globally even before 2014 and are now destroyed or barely operative. Most of its young and economically productive residents have migrated west to the Ukrainian heartland, if only “temporarily” as many originally hoped. The old, the immobile, and the sick who are left have little if any real source of income other than their pensions which have been difficult to collect from Kyiv and impossible to collect from Moscow. There is no longer much in those areas to covet let alone to fight over while risking the rest of the country. Yet no country is prepared except under duress to endure the amputation of a limb, however limp, especially by invasion and seizure. At stake is not objectivity but dignity, honor, and national identity.

Is the Donbas worth the protraction of this horrible devastation, desolation, and death? Zelenskyy himself has recently hinted that the effective borders of 2014 and prior to February 2022 might be acceptable on the eastern side but with ironclad guarantees that any such arrangement, however repulsive, would be guaranteed—not an interim step toward more aggression.

In the longer term, any forced confiscation by Russia of the Donbas will merely cement the animosity of Ukrainians toward Russia resulting from Putin’s assault. It wasn’t always so, in fact, quite the opposite. All Ukrainians speak Russian. Residents in the eastern part of the country use it as their first, and for some only, language. Language tensions simmered, occasionally boiling over, between the eastern, primarily Russian-speaking, and the western, primarily Ukrainian-speaking parts of the country. Even those Russian speakers who felt discriminated against after independence began to speak Ukrainian more frequently. Putin has now sealed that fate with his onslaught. If Ukrainians were Russia’s “little brothers” in his mind, they are completely estranged from the family now. Fratricide would be more likely. So, any territory ceded in negotiations under coercion now will linger for generations in the active minds, memories, and animosities of Ukrainians toward Russia (although perhaps not for the Russian people). They will hunger for the return of those territories and given any opportunity they will seize it back. Crimea and the Donbas could easily become the Alsace Lorraine of the twenty-first century.

Ultimately, to end the slaughter, the two sides will need to reach some kind of agreement, if only a tacit modus vivendi. Almost certainly that settlement will mean some de facto if not de jure control of Ukrainian territory by Russia or its proxies. Ukrainians cannot possibly forget. It will be a red blistering rash on the sides of the relationship and live in the active memory of Ukrainians for generations to come. But if it is inevitable, why not reach that arrangement sooner rather than later and avoid more devastation, carnage, and death? Wouldn’t Ukraine be well-advised to settle for that sacrifice, however agonizing? And notwithstanding Zelenskyy’s refusal to give up even “a single piece” of Ukraine? He would likely pay a substantial political price at the next election, but he will have saved more cities, towns, crops, industries, housing, schools, hospitals, emigration, and hundreds or thousands of lives and limbs. It will necessarily and appropriately be a Ukrainian decision but the NATO allies, including the United States, should encourage or at least not attempt to dissuade Zelensky from reaching it.


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