Alex Lo
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Alex Lo
My Take
by Alex Lo

Macron and Kissinger are right about Ukraine

  • Ukraine is not Taiwan; nor is it Afghanistan, which defeated Soviet Russia and then the United States. The fatal and foolish fantasy of many Western politicians, especially those in the US, is to think that it is both

Belligerence and self-righteousness are a deadly combination to bring to a geopolitical conflict. But that is precisely what the West has brought to the war in Ukraine. After the initial orgy of self-congratulation and celebration of unity and moral purpose, though, many are now predictably having second thoughts. Only in March, victory was all about deposing Vladimir Putin, bringing Russia to its knees, and restoring all of Ukraine’s territories and then some. Now, not losing counts as winning.

Consider some random news headlines lately: “After a unified start, are cracks showing in the West’s support for Ukraine?”, from ABC News; “Divisions in the west threaten Ukraine”, from the Financial Times; and “‘The war in Ukraine awakens different wounds and approaches among European countries”, from Le Monde. Addressing an audience at Davos, Volodymyr Zelensky complained that the West lacks “unity” over the Ukraine war, and that it must step up its support.

Unfortunately, along the successive stages of grief, Brussels and Washington are still stuck at denial and anger. They have some way to go before reaching bargaining and acceptance.

Just witness the recent humiliating public treatment of Emmanuel Macron and Henry Kissinger effectively being booed and shouted down. In fact, both men have merely spelled out the most likely outcome in Ukraine. The basis of a realistic peace process can start now to limit further bloodshed. Or it can be reached much later when enough blood is shed; unfortunately, most likely the latter.

Kissinger: Status quo or status quo ante?

The nonagenarian statesman was perhaps speaking from bitter experience, via weblink at Davos. As a Harvard professor before joining Richard Nixon’s White House, he made a brief tour of Vietnam. Afterwards, he filed a highly accurate memo pointing out all the mistakes the United States had made and what needed to be done to bring an end to the war. Once he joined Nixon, the pair repeated the same mistakes and even added to them. They could have achieved peace at the start of the presidency rather than in 1975, in much more humiliating circumstances and with many more body bags.

As an observer, perhaps it’s easy for him to point out that the West is repeating the same mistake by needlessly prolonging the war and internationalising it.

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“Negotiations need to begin in the next two months before it creates upheavals and tensions that will not be easily overcome,” he said. “Ideally, the dividing line should be a return to the status quo ante,” he said, “Pursuing the war beyond that point would not be about the freedom of Ukraine, but a new war against Russia itself.”

The further isolation of Russia would only mean dire long-term consequences for stability in Europe, he added. Those of us from Asia can add that it has meant pushing Russia irreversibly into the embrace of China, an alliance that covers the world’s largest land mass, across Eurasia. The Western fantasies that Putin would be deposed and it was in China’s own interest to join the West and abandon Russia have, remarkably, been taken as “serious opinion”.

It’s unclear what Kissinger meant by “the status quo ante”. No doubt he was deliberately ambiguous, but that didn’t save him from denunciations raining down on him. If he had meant the “status quo ante bellum”, that is, the restoration of Ukraine’s borders before the war started in late February, that seems unrealistic.

The Russians are already establishing the proverbial “facts on the ground” in eastern Donbas. Many Western military observers now say the Ukrainian army has stalled in the East, if not losing. Demanding “the status quo ante bellum”, as Zelensky and many of his Western cheerleaders do, would needlessly prolong the war with no possibility of winning without direct Nato and/or US military intervention.

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Most likely, Kissinger actually meant the status quo as the basis of negotiation. That would mean conceding Ukrainian territories and acquiescing to some Russian war aims. That was indeed how most of Kissinger’s critics interpreted him and immediately rebuked him for.

“It’s a pity that the former US secretary of state believes that giving up on part of the sovereign territory is a way for peace for any country!” tweeted Inna Sovsun, a Ukrainian legislator.

It’s hard to see, though, how that could be avoided without sacrificing an entire generation of Ukrainian men.

Macron and “Finlandisation”

An American wit once quipped a gaffe is what happens when a politician accidentally tells the truth. French President Emmanuel Macron has done it twice over Ukraine, the first time before the Russian invasion, and the second, more recently.

In February, shortly before meeting Putin to try to avert a war, he reportedly advised Kyiv to consider “Finlandisation”. He subsequently denied ever using the controversial term, with its connotation of appeasement, even though it actually means avoid being seen as hostile, in Ukraine’s case, to Russia. (Of course, the term is now obsolete, as even the long-neutral Finns want to join Nato.) But it was clear that was exactly what he meant, that is, for Ukraine to stay neutral and to stay away from joining Nato or even voicing the idea. Perfectly sensible, given Ukraine’s history and geography, but it was already too late!

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More recently, he said, “We must not humiliate Russia so that when the fighting stops, we can build a way out through diplomatic channels … I am convinced that France’s role is that of a mediating power.”

And then, addressing the European Parliament in Strasbourg, Macron repeated the Kissingerian theme – to lay the groundwork for realistic negotiations, Russia must not be further isolated and humiliated. He was almost universally denounced across Europe and in the US.

The inevitable end

It’s been said, wisely in my opinion, that Ukraine is not Taiwan; nor is it Afghanistan, which defeated Soviet Russia and then the US. The fatal and foolish mistake of many Western politicians, especially those in the US, is to think: Ukraine is Taiwan for China, and Afghanistan for Putin’s Russia.

It’s a highly unpalatable thought, but it’s hard to see it could be avoided. Putin has made serious tactical errors but not with his long-term strategic goals.

It’s better for the West to cut Ukrainian losses, accept some Russian territorial gains and then guarantee the rest of Ukraine’s security with Nato but without offering its membership.

Or we can continue what amounts to the calvary of Ukraine, with its economic fallouts dragging down the rest of the world with it.