We live in an accelerated age. World War II was fully three years old when the tide began to turn, in the Soviet Union and in North Africa. Even at that point, amid glimmers of optimism, Churchill was clear and careful not to get ahead of events. In October of 1942, he said “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
We are now, perhaps, at the end of the beginning in Russian president Putin’s war on Ukraine. Today the war is four weeks old. The Russian and Ukrainian forces seem to be approaching stalemate, and Ukraine reportedly has recaptured bits of territory around Kyiv; however, the deaths on both sides continue to mount, especially in surrounded cities like Mariupol, and the flood of refugees from Ukraine, mainly women and children, now exceeds three million. And as Russia’s original plan to subdue Ukraine quickly by capturing its major cities apparently has failed, Russia seems to have shifted to a siege approach: its forces outside those cities rain death and destruction on the inhabitants, even targeting streams of refugees. With Russia’s conventional forces stalled, the use of chemical and biological weapons is very much on the table.
At this juncture, our instinctive wish is that the slaughter, the violence, the displacement and the heartbreak cease, and cease now. That urge should be resisted.
This past Sunday in my town, local groups organized a “Peace Vigil” at a park, and many in the community came together there. I did not attend. I could not support a gathering so labeled. If Ukraine merely wants peace, that is achievable at any time by uttering two words: “we surrender.” Peace, without more, is not the goal; only on certain terms is peace acceptable and sustainable.
Such terms cannot be achieved at this moment. In recent negotiations, Russia has proposed, among other things, that Ukraine be demilitarized. That would set the clock ticking on the next invasion, one that would end badly, either in Ukraine’s defenseless surrender or the West’s massive intervention. The only peace worth seeking will come with Ukraine’s victory, or at least a sufficiently dominant position on the ground that Ukraine would be able to impose terms that do not reward Russia’s aggression or invite future aggression.
What are the minimum acceptable terms? Ukraine must retain full sovereignty, including the right to defend itself. It must retain its full territory as of the start of this war, including the two eastern ‘separatist’ provinces. Ukraine likely would have to tolerate Russia’s de facto control of Crimea established in 2014, but (on the Korean model) should not have to formally recognize Russian ownership. In return, Ukraine could forgo application for NATO membership, but that promise should be time-limited even if long-term, e.g., 20 or even 99 years. Russian control over Crimea would be acknowledged de facto by Ukraine and NATO. All economic sanctions against Russia would be dropped by the EU and NATO nations and their partners. Ukraine also could provide Russia face-saving measures such as agreeing to prohibit neo-Nazi political parties, and agreeing to enact anti-discrimination laws with respect to its ethnic Russian minority.
Such a treaty is hypothetically achievable among reasonable parties. It is doubtful in reality. As noted, to bring Putin to such terms, Ukraine would first have to have more battlefield success. But if that began to develop, Putin doubtless would escalate rather than negotiate. Putin’s control over Russian policy does not (yet) appear threatened to the point of diverting him from his chosen course of war. He will first bet that increased force, more targeted to interrupt NATO’s military resupply of Ukraine, and the use of more destructive weapons on the civilian population, will shift the West’s and Ukraine’s thinking before his own military or economic losses compel him to shift his own. In this he is likely correct with regard to the West’s determination, if not that of Ukraine itself.
Faced with the continued appalling humanitarian toll and likely the more difficult delivery of supplies to Ukraine, the West will find peace talks increasingly attractive. Ukraine will resist concessions, but that will get harder if the West’s military support wanes.
As leaders of the NATO nations meet today, they should discuss, frankly and privately, the crossroads they now face. Ukrainians’ resistance to date has, for the moment, saved their country, but it will not be sufficient to defeat the coming Russian escalation. That escalation, either by re-focused tactics or by weapons of mass destruction, or both, will force NATO’s members to a choice: a markedly more vigorous response (beyond increased economic sanctions, which are necessary but insufficient) or more pressure upon Ukraine in the peace talks.
Can the West override their instincts and their last 75 years’ history, which are peace-loving, risk-averse, gradualist, economic- and diplomacy-centered, in the face of a committed aggressor? NATO needs to take decisions soon; this week would be nice. Postponement is itself a decision, and not a helpful one.
Do we move forward in a horrible struggle, or step back from it? There is some merit to either course, but I would rather things got worse before they get better, than the other way ‘round. Ukraine’s future likely rests on what NATO decides. Even if the steps taken do not bear fruit for weeks or months, we will eventually harvest what is sown now.