A Ukrainian-Russian border plebiscite? Anyone got a better idea?

Tom Gallagher
7 min readApr 23, 2024



“Billions for defense but not one cent for diplomacy!” So far as I know, no one in Washington has actually spoken these words, but they do seem to pretty well sum up the US approach to the current war in Europe (excepting the Republican faction that supports neither in this case). In the more than two years since Russia launched its all out attack on Ukraine, virtually no one has suggested any alternative to both sides continuing to come up with soldiers and weapons — until one of them doesn’t. So, here’s one — how about a vote? Yes — a plebiscite. Unlikely? To be sure. An extreme longshot? Yes, but is it really any less likely to come to pass than either of the current propositions on the table: Ukraine recovering all of its territory, or Russia conquering all of Ukraine?

If nothing else, the idea would seem to have a ready made constituency among the substantial number of Americans who think our country spends far too much money on the military, deploys it in way too many places, and thereby exists in a permanent state of war — even if many of its citizens may be unaware of that fact. At the moment, though, this is a group that finds itself in the unusual and uncomfortable position of quietly acquiescing to Washington’s huge weapons shipments because Ukraine remains under an attack that — while perhaps explicable to those who care to know the history — is certainly not defensible. Now largely rendered mute, many such people would likely prefer to have something more and better to offer.

While we all know that in the end it will be entirely up to the two governments at war to make the decision to stop pulling the triggers, is that really all there is to say on the matter? We might suppose that our State Department is actually all over the case, privately engaging in creative peace mongering in our name — right now, as I write these words or you read them. But even if we could believe that, history suggests that simply relying on the progress, or even the existence of behind-closed-doors government negotiations rarely leads to optimal outcomes. And in the mean time we now see stories of Ukraine’s tenacious defense of small bits of battlefront land in the interest of “national morale” — in other words, soldiers dying for appearance sake.

At the least, attempting to set foot into the diplomacy breach would be a sign that there are people outside the Marjorie Taylor Greene faction who have something to say on the matter beyond, “Pass the appropriations bill, please.” And, while diminutive to be sure, the possibility of success is probably something greater than zero. There is, in fact, actually some reasonable precedent in the not-too-distant past.

In 1999, Indonesian President B. J. Habibie shocked the world by asking the United Nations to conduct a referendum allowing the populace of East Timor to choose between remaining in Indonesia, with a status of increased autonomy — and independence. Habibie had ascended from the vice presidency the prior year when President Suharto resigned after thirty-two years in office, and such things were not expected of the new president. After all it was Suharto who had ordered the 1975 invasion of East Timor that ultimately resulted in the death of an estimated ten percent of the once and future independent nation’s population — and it was Suharto who had chosen Habibie as his running mate. So when Habibie made the unexpected offer, the UN jumped at it and began implementation at breakneck speed.

The situation had a complicated history, as such situations generally do — Ukraine included. East Timor had not been originally been a part of Indonesia — as the western part of the island was — by an accident of colonialism. While the rest of Indonesia had been a Dutch colony, East Timor had been claimed by Portugal. When the Netherlands divested itself of its colonies after World War II, Indonesia was created. Portugal, however, did not release its colonies until the 1974 Carnation Revolution had brought down a dictatorship severely weakened by fighting colonial independence movements, primarily in its African colonies of Angola, Guinea-Bissau, and Mozambique. At that point, much as Vladimir Putin now claims that Ukraine is legitimately part of Russia, Suharto decided that East Timor should be part of Indonesia and invaded. Although Suharto had sounded out the possibility of the invasion with then US President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger beforehand and met no opposition, the subsequent annexation of East Timor was never recognized by the UN.

The result of the hastily put-together, UN-organized “popular consultation” was a 78.5% pro-independence vote. Unfortunately, the days that followed were not so peaceful as the voting process had been — the sorely disappointed pro-Indonesian side killed another 2,500 people and displaced a hundred times that many. But after a UN-authorized military intervention led by Australia — which had actually been the first nation to recognize the Indonesian annexation — order was established and the pro-independence leader Xanana Gusmao became the new nation’s first president three years later.

The situation in Ukraine and Russia being markedly different, any plebiscite that we might imagine taking place in the border region would likewise be quite different. While Putin’s claim that Ukraine is part of Russia may be dismissed as Tsarist-era nostalgia, the fact is that the two countries spent most of the twentieth century as part of the same larger multi-national country, the Soviet Union. As a result of that history, along with the natural admixture of the two populations, it’s widely recognized that the larger country’s dissolution left people on both sides of the new border wishing they were on the other. Just as was the case with Slobodan Milosevic and other nationalist political leaders during the breakup of the multinational state of Yugoslavia, while the underlying ethnic tensions don’t justify Putin’s actions, it is the fact that they pre-existed him. And in both cases genuine issues were exploited to ignoble ends because, among other things, no one else could come up with an alternative to a military approach.

What specifically might the Russian/Ukranian population vote on? Perhaps to which country their oblast — a basic political entity in both countries that is on the order of a state in the US or Germany — should belong. Presumably any such vote would be held in oblasts on both sides of the original border. Or perhaps the question should be determined in smaller subdivisions. These sorts of details are not the point here — although they would naturally assume immense importance were such a scenario to ever actually play out. If that can be imagined, there will be no shortage of resources to actualize it. In fact, in addition to both belonging to the UN, Russia and Ukraine actually share membership in another organization well practiced in conducting votes under contentious circumstances.

In 1977, during a Cold War thaw, the US-aligned North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Soviet-aligned Warsaw Pact nations signed onto an agreement called the Helsinki Accords. This effort to de-escalate their conflicts created an organization called the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe. In the subsequent Warsaw Pact-dissolution and NATO-expansion era, that entity morphed into the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. In 1997, the new group’s first major undertaking involved organizing the first post-Yugoslavian Civil War elections in Bosnia. While in this case the new borders of the once united, later belligerent, and now independent nations had been settled in the 1995 Dayton Accords, the election process encompassed dealing with any number of tense situations and interactions between people recently at war with one another. In subsequent years the organization has monitored numerous elections with missions both large — in former Soviet and Yugoslavian nations, and small — in its other member nations (including the US, where its critiques are generally incisive — and ignored). There is no doubt that over the years Russian and Ukrainian observers have actually worked side by side in a number of these frequently tense electoral circumstances.

To be clear, you’d have to give me astronomical odds to get me to bet on the possibility of a Ukraine-Russia border vote actually happening. In fact, you’d have to give me those kind of odds to bet that anyone in any kind of position of power would even consider such an approach. My point here is that if we can’t even imagine and articulate methods of settling border disputes that don’t involve tanks and drones we’re in even more trouble than we thought. Governmental institutions often deal with things they call “shelf legislation” — proposed laws to be enacted only if and when future circumstances allow for their passage. Difficult as it may be to envision an end to the Russia-Ukraine war at the moment, it is a certainty that it will end — some day, some how. We might think of this sort of referendum as shelf legislation for a future peace treaty.

So, a Ukrainian-Russian border plebiscite? You got a better idea? Then by all means, let’s hear it!