Not discretion, but clarity is the better part of valour. Ukraine has courageously resisted the imperialist assault on its sovereignty by Russia, whose most important war aim is to reach back to Peter the Great. Russia wants access to warm-water ports, and buffers against invasion to its West and North. Whatever the successes of Russia’s incursion into Ukraine, these aims have all been tainted in one way or another.
Russia is saddled with enormous cost overruns, countless impactful sanctions, domestic unrest, enormous losses of military hardware, and estimates of fallen servicemen that run as high as 38,000. Exports of natural gas, and transnational pipelines, once provided Russia with its border security with Europe, but that is long gone. Russia stands accused of horrible war crimes; Eastern European and Baltic states fear its ambitions; and, most dramatically, Finland and Sweden now wish to join NATO, which President Joseph Biden has almost single-handedly raised from the dead.
The Ukrainian undertaking has resulted in much that President Vladimir Putin wanted to avoid – and perhaps he is now willing to strike a deal. For all that, however, things are not that bad for him. Dissent is being crushed at home and Russian citizens are adapting to the shortages and the sanctions. The Donbas is ready to fall. Major Ukrainian cities are being encircled. Russia now blocks coveted warm-water ports such as Mariupol, Odesa, and Kherson; and it has secured a land corridor that connects Russia with Crimea.
Ukraine is on the defensive. Russia is advancing on its targets slowly but surely. Mariupol and Bucha have experienced mass executions, systematic rape, and the torture of civilians. Shelters and evacuation routes have been bombed. Deportations have taken place. Starvation is setting in. Ukraine’s infrastructure has been demolished. Health services are unavailable. Homelessness is rampant And capital has fled the country. Moreover, the $1 trillion in Western military aid will turn what remains of a civilised nation into a military camp. Ukraine has already experienced enough suffering. There is much more in store if Russia employs increasingly lethal missiles, biological warfare, and nuclear arms.
None of this can be ruled out, and the conflict between Russia and Ukraine can spill over to other nations at any time. No Western government that wishes to stay in power can afford to send troops to Ukraine, and the idea of sending biological or nuclear weapons of mass destruction is barbaric. The reality is that Western aid is reaching its limits and Ukraine is running out of options. Citizens of NATO countries are already grumbling about rising gas prices, growing food shortages, and inflation sparked by the war. Ukrainian sovereignty now rests on rubble.
‘Take Back and Strengthen’ is the new slogan, and Russia will surely keep its sights set on Moldova, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Putin still dreams of re-establishing the Soviet Empire. It is impossible to predict the future. Nevertheless, it would defy logic for Russia to invade any of these nations, at least while licking its wounds from the losses suffered in Ukraine.
In spite of media chatter about ‘appeasement’, however, it might be more worthwhile to consider what might be learned from the Spanish Civil War. With the battle of Barcelona in 1937, the war was clearly lost, though the final treaty was only signed in 1939. How many brave anti-fascist partisans were sacrificed in the years in between?
Pragmatic political actors hope for the best, prepare for the worst, and work for a policy somewhere in between. The best outcome is a Ukrainian victory and the worst is a Ukrainian defeat. Either way, a weakened David will still need to contend with a wounded Goliath. The most probable outcome, however, is neither an unmitigated triumph by Ukraine nor a thoroughly pyrrhic victory by Russia, but a war of attrition, some version of trench warfare, which cost the lives of countless infantrymen on both sides. Is stalemate worth the cost?
Toward the end of the Vietnam War in 1971, testifying in front of a Senate panel, a young serviceman who later became US Secretary of State, John Kerry, asked: “How can one ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” The Ukrainian self-defence against the Russian invasion was no mistake. But there is a point when valour turns into senseless sacrifice. For the all-knowing media pundits, and those comfortably watching Ukraine’s tragedy unfold in their living rooms, it’s easy to insist upon continuing the struggle. In the face of likely defeat or stalemate, however, is that more realistic or ethical than officially calling not merely for a ceasefire, but an end to the fighting?
Difficult treaties are made between enemies, not between friends, and cessation of hostilities will reflect the reigning imbalance of power. Ukraine will have to surrender significant territory and only the most naïve optimist can expect Russia to rebuild its enemy, or allow the West to do so, without compensation. Negotiations on this point will prove difficult. Any new multi-national or bi-national treaty, moreover, must speak to the security concerns of both nations. It should guarantee Ukraine’s neutral and non-nuclear status and perhaps its right to join the European Union, if not NATO, in exchange for lifting the sanctions on Russia.
Any peace deal between Russia and Ukraine can only prove speculative at this point. But this much is clear: any meaningful treaty must prioritise humanitarian efforts to evacuate civilians, assist the wounded, collect the bodies of the dead, and search for those missing in action. Peace will probably result less in a ‘win-win’ than a ‘lose-lose’ situation. Under such circumstances, the prime task for the global community is not to secure a Ukrainian victory, but rather to avoid a result in which a brave nation is faced with ongoing losses under increasingly hopeless conditions.
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