Such clarity and integrity (by both Solomon and the mother) is wonderful for such teaching stories, but finds rare application in the real world of modern geopolitical diplomacy. What is more common is hard-fought negotiation both as between the governments involved, each wrapped up in recursive theories of power and appearance, and intense politics within each state as various bureaucratic and political groups demand priority for their particular concerns. In the last 150 years or so, the lawyers have gotten heavily involved, leading to a lot more verbiage. One example of strategic clarity can be found on a napkin on which Winston Churchill scrawled out the allocation of influence between the British and the Russians over the various countries of central Europe in the aftermath of WWII. Stalin famously looked over Churchill’s proposal and put a big check mark on it and, as they say, “that was that.”
This all happened at a bilateral summit in late 1944 in Moscow. A year later, after V-E Da, it was implemented and, a year after that, Churchill went on to decry the impact of what he was the first to call the “Iron Curtain” which had “descended over Europe. (Unlike the mother standing before Solomon, he was quick to disown his parentage.)
I mention all this because regardless of the outcome of the current Ukrainian offensive, it is unlikely that they will retake all the territory which Russia has seized since 2014 (including Crimea). And yet, for many reasons, the war must come to an end.
Of course, everyone involved—the fighters, their allies, and the commentariat—is busy taking a position on what the shape of the peace should be; almost all of which is more a reflection of each one’s desired public perception at this point in time or an expression of hopes and fears, rather than an indicator of the ultimate shape of the peace agreement. As is seemingly inevitable in these circumstances, all sorts of historical precedents are being trotted out (nationalist claims, geopolitical history, the ever-popular appeasement trope, noble claims of the priority of freedom, etc.), almost none of which tells us anything about how to handle this situation.
While I am a supporter of Ukraine’s efforts, I am sufficiently far from the front so as not to claim the right to an opinion on what President Zelenksyy should do. Regardless of his decision, the second-guessing will go on for some years.
Of all the scenarios being bandied about, it’s hard to envision a wholesale collapse of the Putin regime, followed by an abject apology and a fully compensatory peace treaty. The last time the Russians sued for peace was in 1917 when, in the aftermath of the Soviet Revolution, Lenin agreed to give up 34% of the population and thousands of square miles to the Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey and their allies. It didn’t end well and laid down a precedent the echoes of which would be hard for any 21C Russian government to avoid. It’s a nice dream, nonetheless.
Much more likely is some armistice and the acknowledgment by Ukraine that Russia will control some of the territory heretofore considered Ukrainian. I say “heretofore” advisedly, since the borders in this part of the world have been pretty fluid over the past several hundred years and their relative stability from 1921 (after the Russian Civil War) until recently has been unusual and deceptive. Indeed, Crimea was part of Russia until 1954, when it was transferred to the Ukrainian SSR.
All of which is to say that facts on the ground in the 2020s will determine where borders are drawn; not history, not ideals, not “principles.” It will be interesting to see if Zelenskyy (or Putin for that matter) has the moral clarity of the mother in the Biblical story. Or, put another way, the geopolitical clarity of Churchill, who wrote off much of central Europe in 1944, understanding that there was no means by which—principles and sacrifice notwithstanding—Britain or the US was in a position to do anything about Russian dominance of that region; and he salvaged what he could.
“Realpolitik” has a bad reputation for disregarding morality, justice, affinity, and principle. But teeth-gnashing and hand-wringing don’t win wars (otherwise MSNBC and Fox would conquer the world). I suspect that Russia will, in fact, collapse, but later rather than sooner; a victim, as Lenin would have said, of its internal contradictions. There will be further ebb and flow of power and control over this region (as most others) over the longer term. Sweden and Lithuania were once great powers in this part of the world. Russia has had an extraordinary run of 300 years at the upper levels of the global pecking order. Few these days pay attention to the decline of Sweden or Lithuania. Chinese historians of the 22C will likely pay similar levels of attention to Russia of the early 21C.