In 1943, progressives had a moral duty to dismiss calls for a negotiated settlement with Hitler. Cutting a deal with the Nazis to end the carnage would have been unforgivable. Civilized people had only one option: to keep fighting until Allied troops stood over Hitler’s Berlin bunker. Today, by contrast, it would be a grave error to aim for a final military victory over Russia and to dismiss those of us calling for an immediate negotiated peace.
In 1943, the countries gunning for final victory had skin in the game, with Allied troops and, in many cases, civilian populations, on the frontline. Today, the West acts like the United States did before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor: standing on the sidelines, arming and cheering those who are doing the actual fighting. Under the circumstances, urging Ukrainians to deliver a final victory against Russia, when NATO is not even thinking of putting boots on the ground or warplanes in the air, is both hypocritical and irresponsible.
Given that cornering Putin in some Moscow bunker cannot sensibly be the West’s endgame, what would a final victory for Ukraine look like? Understandably, Ukrainians dream of pushing Russian troops at least back to where they were before February 24 – a tall order despite the huge ongoing airlift of state-of-the-art US weaponry. What is far more likely is that, after having dug in on Ukraine’s Black Sea coast and in the eastern Donbas region, Putin will call for a ceasefire. In that case, a slow-burning war of attrition – a cross between Syria and Cyprus – would become the most likely outcome.
But, even in the unlikely event that Ukrainian fighters succeed in pushing Russian troops all the way back, a wounded Russian regime would always find ways to impede Ukraine’s path to a semblance of normalcy. Only regime change in Moscow, of a very particular type, is consistent with the notion of a final Ukrainian victory. How likely is such a serendipitous outcome for Ukraine and NATO? And how reasonable is it to wager Ukraine’s future on it, especially in view of the West’s sorry track record on attempts at regime change?
In fact, most evidence points in the opposite direction. While the war is going badly for Putin, the economic war is working rather nicely for him. Granted, underprivileged Russians are suffering, skilled workers are fleeing, and many industries are running out of parts. Even so, according to Robin Brooks of the Institute of International Finance, a gigantic current-account surplus is in the making (projected to reach $200-250 billion in 2022, up from $95.8 billion in April). No wonder the ruble has recovered fully.
This massive windfall allows Putin’s regime easily to finance a long-term war of attrition in Ukraine. Many Russians will be impoverished, and their economy will be condemned to long-term stagnation. But on Putin’s chessboard, ordinary Russians are mere pawns whose sacrifice is acceptable, if not necessary, to inflict long-term damage on Ukraine while waiting for ruptures to appear within NATO – especially once the fickle Western media turn their attention to other matters.
In this context, calls for a final Ukrainian victory gravitate toward a wholesale defeat for everyone – except perhaps arms dealers and the fossil-fuel industry, whose fortunes the war has mightily revived. Prospects of a Ukrainian economic miracle funded by the European Union will wither. Europe is already suffering economically, and the developing world is in the early stages of a spiral of hunger and forced migration, triggered by the disruption of grain and fertilizer imports normally sourced in Ukraine and Russia. Only a negotiated peace can snatch victory – defined as better outcomes for Ukraine, Europe, and humanity – from the jaws of multiple defeats.
It is at this point that charges of “Westsplaining” – or, worse, of “doing Putin’s bidding” – are hurled at those of us cautioning against the narrative of a final Ukrainian victory. “Who are you to tell Ukrainians what to do?” is a common refrain. Respectful of their agency, I shall leave the question unanswered and, instead, focus on how best to support Ukrainians now.
We know that those caught up in war must economize on offers of negotiations, lest they be branded weak. Nonetheless, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky confirmed earlier this month that the war cannot end without negotiations: “Despite the fact that they are destroying our bridges,” he said, “I believe that not all bridges have been destroyed yet.” It should be the job of those of us not directly involved in the war to help the combatants envisage what a negotiated peace may look like – and to say the things that they cannot afford to say before the negotiations begin.
A fair deal, we must agree, should leave everyone somewhat dissatisfied, while constituting a great improvement over every feasible alternative. Both sides must make gains that far exceed their losses, without losing face. To honor the Ukrainians’ aspirations and valiant resistance to Putin’s aggression, the envisaged peace treaty must decree that Russian troops withdraw to their pre-February 24 bases. To deal with sectarian clashes in the Donbas and surrounding areas, the Good Friday Agreement (which ended the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland) can offer tangible guidance on conflict resolution and governance. And, to assuage fear of military re-engagement, a wide demilitarized buffer zone around the Russian-Ukrainian border ought to be included.
Would Putin agree? Possibly, if the treaty offers him three things. Putin will want most sanctions lifted. He will also want the issue of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 to be kicked into the long grass, to be resolved at some undefined time in the future. And he will want security guarantees that only the US can provide, including the lure of a seat at the top table where new security arrangements in Europe must be hammered out. Ukraine needs similar security guarantees from both the US and Russia, so Ukraine’s friends should be planning such arrangements, under the auspices of the United Nations, and involving the US and the EU.
There are, of course, no guarantees that a negotiated peace will work. What is certain is that not trying, owing to the delusion of a final victory, would be unforgivable.
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