The Art of the Deal: How Donald Trump Should Handle Russia and Ukraine

Ukrainian, U.S. and EU flags
National flags of Ukraine, the EU and the U.S. fly in central Kiev, Ukraine, January 12. Gleb Garanich/Reuters

The imminent changes in Washington have inspired a lot of discussions in world capitals. Both hope and concern are high in Eastern Europe—an area still shaken by the war between Russia and Ukraine. Trump has claimed he alone can strike the sort of arrangements in business and politics that benefit his side the most and keep all parties happy. But what kind of deal will he make with Vladimir Putin? This deal would surely define the order of things in Europe and might settle the bloody and inconvenient conflict between the West and Russia. But what sacrifices would all sides make to seal it?

Influential Ukrainian tycoon Victor Pinchuk made a huge splash in his country when he suggested in the American media that the U.S. administration must find a compromise between the U.S., Russia and Ukraine. He suggested the latter abandon plans for European and Euroatlantic integration, forget about Crimea and focus on its economic development instead. The two “superpowers” in return will establish peace and guarantee Ukraine's territorial integrity (or what is left of it after the aggression).

Being the only member of Russian parliament to oppose the invasion of Crimea in 2014, I have had to remain outside Russia and spend a lot of time in Kiev. I have engaged in everyday work to show Ukraine to be an example of how prosperous its neighbor, my homeland, Russia could become, if only we rejected Vladimir Putin’s kleptocracy and rejoin the European family of nations. My main opposition is the underhanded union between the oligarchies of Moscow and Kiev, supported by the Kremlin’s siloviki, the infamous faction of ex-spooks and strongmen behind Putin. I believe that this alliance of tycoons is interested only in safeguarding its property in Ukraine. Their priority is to return to business as usual: keeping the country closed to outsiders and maintaining power by maneuvering between Moscow, Brussels, and Washington, stuffing their coffers by switching sides indefinitely. The ruling circles in Kiev are ready to forget about the war and give up on the Euromaidan Revolution of Dignity and its achievements in order to enrich themselves.

It was no surprise that the Ukrainian public was outraged at Pinchuk‘s suggestion and branded him traitorous, rejecting even his more rational arguments because of the unacceptable conclusion. What is good for the Ukrainian “elite” is not necessarily good for the Ukrainian people. As Vladimir Lenin once wrote: “there are compromises and there are compromises.”

Related: Barack Obama warns Donald Trump to keep Russia sanctions and nuclear talks separate

The fear of potential betrayal at Ukraine’s helm is growing in Kiev, and in the opposition circles in Moscow. People compare the current situation with the one before the beginning of World War II, when a “Realpolitik” peace treaty became the prologue for the full-scale aggression. Winston Churchill said then, right after Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned from signing the Munich pact in 1938, which allowed the annexation of the Czech Sudetenland by Nazi Germany: “England has been offered a choice between war and shame. She has chosen shame, and will get war.”

Syria of today, like Czechoslovakia of 1939, is not the end game for the aggressor. Compromise with Russia and sacrifice Ukraine to resolve the conflict in the Middle East, and prepare to repeat the exercise elsewhere. The West’s best intentions in the 1930s led humanity into an explosion of totalitarianism and autocracy as well as global conflict; and we are witnessing the same process once again.

I am Russian. My compatriots, including Putin, know very well the price of compromise; we know what war is, what it costs and where it starts. Populism always eventually evolves into militarism and rearmament, justified by false invocations of patriotism and defending “national interests.” And, as it is in the great Anton Chekhov’s dramas, when a gun is hung on the wall, it is a matter of time before someone takes it down and opens fire.

Ordinary Russians, like Ukrainians, want a stable and long lasting peace, shared between the family of European nations, a family that shares a platform of ethics and justice stemming from the age of enlightenment. That’s why any deal Donald Trump does should not only be practical, but be based on the same values. Peace is not reachable if aggression and violence are considered tolerable. This peace is the true national interest of all our countries, and issues of NATO reinforcement or war against terror are just the instruments to achieve it.

Russia has long felt that with the beginning of the Iraq campaign, and later during the Arab Spring and Syrian conflict, the West not only ignored, but hurt its economic interests in the Middle East. It also seemed for us in Moscow that expansion of NATO was not based upon rational thinking but rather to demonstrate the West’s unilateral strength after the Cold War, and to exploit the rightful desire of Eastern Europeans to become militarily protected. Alas, it happened at the expense of long-term U.S.-Russian relations.

But no mistakes or even the crimes of others can justify Russian aggression in Ukraine. Any deals made should enforce the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, under which the U.S., U.K. and Russia guaranteed Ukraine’s territorial integrity in return for its non-nuclear status. If one deal is not followed, why should we expect another to stand?

It is my deep conviction that the main reason why Putin is so popular in Russia is the failure of liberal reforms in 1990s. There was a pretence that they were led by Western advisors, and the majority of Russians that were impoverished by the changes blame America. I am now witnessing the same process in Kiev. If the West continues its current policies, Ukrainian officials in power will blame their own incompetence and corruption on these foreigners, and you will see some Ukrainian version of Putin in office sooner rather than later, presiding over yet another anti-liberal kleptocracy in Europe. This has already happened in Moldova.

To achieve the contrary, the West must make Ukraine successful, prove the superiority of a free and open society over state capitalism, and Russians will remove Putin from the Kremlin themselves. Russians should have the right to elect and overthrow their president and the government. And if they see Ukraine benefit from doing so, this will happen in Russia too, without outside interference, but with the choice and conviction of the Russian people themselves. The same right of Ukrainians should be honored and protected by the international community, no matter whether we like their choice or not.

The Obama administration’s mistake was to say all the right words while doing little; it always tried to avoid the problem by ignoring it, letting it develop to the proportions it is now. The EU made a mistake in proposing “association agreements” to Ukraine, Moldova and others as a substitute to a proper roadmap to membership, which led to conflict with Russia and annexation of Crimea.

Limited international reaction to this act of aggression led to invasion in eastern Ukraine’s Donbass and the tragic downing of the MH17 airliner. Failure by the West to assume the responsibility for the war in Ukraine prompted Putin to engage in Syria with the objective to forcefully return America to the negotiations table.

Now the new administration in the White House should recognize the necessity to attend the cause of all this mischief: the world needs new rules of the game that would replace the old Yalta arrangements after WWII, not a patchwork in the Middle East.

To reach such deal the West should play its advantage and target the economy through technologies and investment. U.S. businesses are the agents of change: their entry and success in Eastern Europe is the best tool to pressure Putin and his cronies. The Obama administration made them play on Putin’s side by applying sanctions that made little sense; it is time to get them back into action to promote what is in most demand in our part of the world: rule of law and the Western way of doing business. I see many potential investors both from U.S. and Russia, who are ready to come to make Ukraine successful, if the political situation is more predictable and agreements are honored. Ukraine is just one step away from energy and technology independence, and the brain drain from Russia is already happening that will prove helpful.

It is not yet clear who will have the privilege to be the top negotiator of the deal. Nevertheless, it is clear that the future is in the hands of those adept at “Realpolitik” with a readiness to trade long-term principles for short-term benefits. I hope we will be able to jointly forge relations that will bring stability and security in Europe. It is especially symbolic that it will happen in the year of hundredth anniversary of Russia’s October Revolution. I hope we will finally learn something from our joint history and will move forward—together.

Ilya V. Ponomarev is an entrepreneur and investor and member of the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian Parliament, from 2007-2016, who now lives in Washington D.C.