Andreas Kluth explores historical mirrors for Ukraine’s future – Not German nor Israeli, but Korean

Andreas Kluth examines three historical analogies for the Ukrainian conflict’s potential future: West Germany in the 1950s, Israel starting in the 1970s, and the Korean Peninsula since the 1950s. As pundits and leaders search for solutions amidst unimaginable human suffering, Kluth contends that these models offer insights but ultimately fall short due to the unique complexities of the situation. Drawing lessons from these cases, he advocates for a simultaneous approach of fighting and negotiating to reach an armistice, recognising that the time has come for the horror to end.

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Ukraine’s Future Isn’t German or Israeli But Korean

By Andreas Kluth

(Bloomberg Opinion) — It seems increasingly likely that the Ukrainians won’t be able to drive out the Russian invaders, and that the Russians won’t succeed in swallowing any more of Ukraine either. What, aside from unimaginable human misery, comes next?

As they’ve done since the start of this invasion, pundits and leaders instinctively grasp for historical analogies to guide their thinking, and three stand out. One “model” for Ukraine is West Germany in the 1950s, another is Israel starting in the 1970s, and a third is the Korean peninsula, also since the 1950s. 

People citing the case of West Germany argue that NATO should accept the unoccupied part of Ukraine into the Western alliance as soon as possible. That would deter Russia from any additional land grabs and allow free Ukraine to rebuild itself into a prosperous democracy, as West Germany did during the Cold War. 

Embracing just the free part of Ukraine into the NATO fold, this reasoning goes, should be feasible legally, politically and strategically, since that’s roughly what NATO did with West Germany in 1955. Germany at the time was divided and occupied by the Allied victors of World War II. Nonetheless, NATO extended Article 5 — the one which says that an attack against one is an attack against all — just to West Germany, the entity that represented the zones of the three Western Allies — the US, UK and France — but not to East Germany, which lay in the Soviet sector.

That collective guarantee deterred the Soviet Union from attacking for the remainder of the Cold War, the argument continues. And eventually Germany reunited peacefully, as Ukraine too might do one day. Conclusion: Let the Ukrainians join NATO, with whatever territory they control now. 

Others point to Israel as a better model. That country never joined any collective alliance. Starting in the 1970s, however, the US formalized its security guarantees and armed the Israelis to the teeth. As an undefeatable warrior nation and American ally, Israel too prospered until it eventually started making peace with its Arab enemies from a position of strength. Give the Ukrainians the same bilateral assurances, money and weapons, the argument goes, and Russia will understand that it’ll never win.

A third group counters that the frontline in Ukraine most closely resembles that on the Korean peninsula from about 1952. Neither side seems able to make big gains anymore, even as both are incurring unsustainable or unconscionable casualties and costs. The longer all sides — belligerents and their supporters — refuse to talk, the longer this dying and suffering continues, without changing the overall situation. The only way out, as in Korea in 1953, is therefore to fight and negotiate at the same time, with a view to signing not a peace treaty but an armistice that leaves insoluble questions open but makes the guns fall silent.

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Kyiv isn’t Bonn

The West German analogy seems tempting, but is off target. True, Bonn governed only one part of a nation that it still claimed in theory to represent as a whole. But under American, British and French auspices, the West Germans had constituted a new country, the Federal Republic, with fixed borders that all four Allies, including the Soviets, accepted. At the time of NATO accession, there was no fighting. 

Moreover, West Germany’s chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, formally accepted his country’s division as indefinite in return for integrating it into the West. This earned him dire acrimony from the opposition, which wanted to hold out for reunification in return for neutrality — the path that Austria (which had also been part of the Third Reich) took at the time. 

In all these ways, Ukraine differs from West Germany in 1955. Its internal borders demarcating Russian control are neither recognized nor fixed. NATO would constantly have to decide whether Article 5 extends to the same town even when it changes control (Bakhmut for much of the past year, say). Eventually the allies would either have to enter the fray and shoot at Russians (risking World War III) or dilute their vaunted mutual-defense clause. But then Article 5 would lose its deterrent effect, putting the whole alliance at risk.

Alternatively, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy could channel Adenauer and formally say goodbye to the five Ukrainian regions his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, claims to have annexed — the equivalent of East Germany in this analogy. But Kyiv wants all of its territory back. Neither Zelenskiy nor any other Ukrainian leader can drop that war aim as of today.

Even hoping for eventual and peaceful reunification à la 1990 doesn’t stack up. The Soviets during the 45 years in which they ran East Germany never attempted to ethnically cleanse or Russify the local population. In Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, Zaporizhzhia and Crimea the Russians have been doing so this entire time.

How many more? Photographer: Roman Pilipey/Getty Images

Warrior nation in the making

The analogy with Israel may therefore seem more apt, but a closer look reveals equally gaping holes. The American security guarantee became formal only after Israel had already won four wars against its Arab enemies. Rather than fighting the foes on its own soil, as Ukraine is doing, Israel was by the 1970s waging war on theirs. Around that same time, it also built its own nuclear weapons — although it has never confirmed this arsenal. To this day, none of its Arab foes has nukes. (Iran, which isn’t Arabic but close to going nuclear, is another matter.)

The Ukrainians are therefore in the opposite situation from Israel’s in the 1970s. They’ve never trounced the Russians, even if they held them at bay in the Donbas region between 2014 and 2022. Nor do they have nukes — they surrendered their own Soviet-era stocks in the 1990s in return for security guarantees from Moscow, of all places. 

So the Israelis, at the time they became US allies, were already victors and had a nuclear deterrent, whereas their enemies were vanquished and had no atom bombs. It’s out of that situation that Israel became a thriving economy and society. But the Ukrainians are fighting without nukes for their existence against an enemy, Putin, who constantly rattles his nuclear saber. 

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Ceasefire without peace

What about the Korean analogy, then? While also imperfect, it may be the best available. Then as now, Moscow and Beijing backed the side of the aggressor (North Korea in 1950), while the US led an international coalition in defense of the victim. In Korea as in Ukraine, a kinetic opening phase gave way, from mid-1951, to a grinding and bloody stalemate. By that time, both the US and the Soviet Union had nukes.

Even then, however, the main antagonists weren’t ready to talk yet. Pyongyang and Beijing entertained the idea, but Joseph Stalin in Moscow was rigid. On the US side, President Harry Truman and his successor, Dwight Eisenhower, had to worry about domestic politics and looking weak on communism. South Korea pursued its own interests, which weren’t aligned. President Syngman Rhee wanted the whole peninsula and took his American allies aback with abrupt gestures such as a mass prisoner release.

And yet, after much delay, negotiations eventually began, even as the killing continued. That’s one lesson of Korea, according to Carter Malkasian at the Naval Postgraduate School: You have to be prepared to talk and fight at the same time.

And still the negotiations kept failing. Even when they picked up again after Stalin died in March of 1953, they led to a result that satisfied nobody. In effect, the armistice recognized the frontline as it had been for two years. It settled nothing else of consequence, merely freezing the conflict. But the ceasefire holds to this day. And in the intervening seven decades South Korea has become a bustling and prosperous democracy.

If Korea is the right model, the lesson is that combatants take far too long to begin talking even after it’s obvious that neither side can win militarily, and then far too long to silence the guns once it’s clear that the outcome won’t change, and that the only parameter left is how many people will unnecessarily die until that’s acknowledged.

None of this is about who’s right; history will record that one man, Vladimir Putin, is guilty of the disaster unfolding in Ukraine. But the wisdom of the past suggests that the time has come to fight and talk at the same time — not in the hope of scoring any sort of victory, but in the resignation that, somehow, this horror must end.

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