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Peace conferences — and the folly of them all

Peace conferences — and the folly of them all

Any future deal for Ukraine must learn from the failures of previous settlements

Analysis | Europe

In 1874, the British magazine “Punch” published a cartoon showing a conversation between a young girl and her mother:

“Mamma, shall you allow me to go to the Wilkinsons’ ball?”

“No, darling,” the mother responded

“You’ve been to a great many balls, mama?”

“Yes darling – and I have seen the folly of them all,” she said.

“Mightn’t I just be allowed the folly of one, mamma?”

This comic, which may have reminded readers of the one-sided settlement of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, would have a lasting resonance. Over the course of the 20th century, European and American leaders imposed harsh terms on their vanquished enemies in the grand peace conferences that formally ended World War I, World War II, and the Cold War.

In each case, the winner excelled in sowing the seeds for the next conflict. Those who seek a peaceful Europe should keep these lessons in mind when the time finally comes to end the war in Ukraine.

In 1871, Prussia chose the Chateau de Versailles — the masterpiece and symbol of French might — as the ideal place to proclaim the German Empire. The provinces of Alsace and Lorraine were incorporated into the new German polity despite the majority of the population feeling French.

WWI ended with a German defeat in November 1918, after which the victors dictated peace terms to Germany and left it no option but to sign. Alsace and Lorraine reverted to France. Germany found itself too weak to protest the terms but too proud to bear their consequences.

The opportunity for revenge came in 1939. Adolf Hitler’s hubris led him to attack Poland. Ultimately Germany lost WWII to a grand coalition of Britain, France, the U.S., and the Soviet Union.

The winners chose to carve out almost all of the province of Prussia and give it to Poland. The rest morphed into the Federal Republic of Germany, which chose the Western camp, and the German Democratic Republic, which joined the Soviet system. Germany today bears no resemblance to the Germany of 1871 to1945 and is still struggling to find an identity.

Fast forward to 1991, when the victors of the Cold War rather unceremoniously stamped their mark on a new global power balance.The Warsaw Pact, established in 1955 as a counterweight to NATO, was immediately dissolved. NATO, for its part, gradually expanded to include ten countries that were formerly either a part of the Soviet Union or a member of the Warsaw Pact.

Russia, as the successor state to the Soviet Union, was left without the “buffer zone” of Eastern European states that had been vital for the Czars and the communist leader Josef Stalin. Russian rulers had long deemed this area imperative due to their lack of natural geographical defenses like north-south rivers or mountains.

For centuries many Central and Eastern European countries were compulsorily included in the Czarist and Communist Empire. Not surprisingly, they do not trust Russia and are not willing to grant it influence on their choice of security. Russia and Central and Eastern European countries are each impinging on what the other party considers to be its vital interests.

Russia was too weak to block the role assigned to it by the victors but too strong to be kept down for long — a picture sorely reminiscent of Germany in 1919.

Now, Moscow hopes to rescind what it perceives as the wrongs of history by reintegrating Ukraine in its sphere of interest or even as a part of the Russian Federation. Ukraine’s vigorous defense illustrates Kyiv’s defiance in the face of this unilateral attempt to resuscitate Russian power and global role. Ukraine has ferociously defended its independence after several hundreds of years in a Russian empire. Russia and Ukraine, then, are each impinging on what the other party considers to be its vital interests.

Russia has the largest resources, including manpower, but mobilizing them comes at a cost. Western observers have estimated that Russian troops have suffered about 300,000 casualties. And even if the economy is doing relatively well despite sanctions, this pressure comes at a cost.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said earlier this month that peace would come when Russia’s war aims had been achieved, reiterating that he sought Ukraine’s denazification, demilitarization, and neutrality. He didn’t lift the veil much, which gives him room to maneuver without hinting at how he might contemplate using it. President Putin speaks exclusively to the Russians – and the Russian voters — so Western observers should be reluctant to interpret it.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has been fairly intransigent when it comes to peace talks, which is necessary to rally the troops. He addresses both the domestic and foreign audience, which also complicates any rash interpretation. There are – unsubstantiated – inklings that inside his close circle opinions may differ. Allegedly, some argue time is not on Ukraine’s side. The summer 2023 offensive did not play out as hoped. Ukraine is dependent on Western aid, and no one knows for sure how solid the commitment is.

The European Union laid down a marker December 14 by formally deciding to open accession negotiations with Ukraine. It now seeks ways to continue financial aid by overcoming Hungarian opposition.

It is conventional thinking that a President Trump, if elected in 2024, will close shop vis-à-vis Ukraine. He has indeed declined to commit to continued military assistance, saying only that he would get a deal done in a day and warning both sides of consequences if that doesn’t come to pass.

The rest of the world should remind both sides that they need to be cognizant of history and not try to use demands to crush or humiliate the other side so as to sow the seeds of the next conflict. A sore point is obviously territory, where outside parties should be wary about voicing strong views. It must be done in a way that closes the chapter once and for all. Otherwise, the risk is that Donetsk and Luhansk could go the way of Alsace and Lorraine.

The Russian attack on Ukraine may be perceived as an isolated and regional conflict, but it isn’t. The Western world should realize that the background for the war is, to a large extent, about Russian feelings of insecurity and dissatisfaction with the world order. This feeling is widespread outside the Western camp and helps explain China’s stance.

Only a genuine attempt to produce a global power balance that takes into account how the world looks today can bring about lasting peace and stability — not only in Ukraine but in other hot spots around the world.

A Peace Conference at the Quai d'Orsay (William Orpen/ Public Domain)

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