A wounded Ukrainian soldier (Photo by Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Hope for peace in Ukraine

We should all welcome the chance for serious talks

For nine months now, a daily diet of death and destruction from Ukraine has consumed the attention of the world. Just listen to the three occupants of 10 Downing Street in that period. All have cited Ukraine as a root cause of the many crises they faced at home, let alone abroad. Rishi Sunak, like his immediate predecessors, invokes Ukraine, sounding the siren that is both cop-out and cover-all: “Ukraine, due to circumstances beyond our control.”

Yet, as this tragic year and the conflict unfolded, we’ve heard scarcely a word about any search for peace. Until now. At this critical juncture, we are finally watching the major player, the United States, pick up the baton of peace, and quietly start to run with it. So quietly that this one-time correspondent of wars, then a United Nations diplomat working to avoid them, wants to take out a megaphone and shout out loud the goals humanity needs to bring to any peace table.

We no longer have a world with a go-to mediator, given the way Russia has used and abused the United Nations as a forum for peace, alongside a current UN Secretary-General who does not believe it’s his job to negotiate conflict. Suffice it to say his predecessors, from Dag Hammarskjold to Kofi Annan, might be turning in their graves on hearing that.

A dreadful winter on the ground in Ukraine looms

Who can lead on the peace front, if not the United States? And when? Leave aside for the moment the issue of how, bearing in mind the elephant in any conversation: the way Putin has destroyed his neighbour with a ruthlessness bereft of any sense of responsibility, making the Geneva conventions on the rules of war irrelevant and war crimes commonplace. Only Washington, D.C. can still seize the attention of all. In recent days, the Biden administration has shown us that it now believes the time has come to engage both sides. Under the diplomatic cover of needing to de-escalate Putin’s threats to go nuclear, Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan has started a working conversation with Putin’s inner cabinet to pre-empt further talk of nuclear weapons being used on the likes of Kiev and Kherson.

As importantly, Biden’s most experienced hand on foreign policy, his CIA Director Bill Burns, went to Ankara to sit down with his Russian counterpart, exploring everything from de-escalation to peace prospects. “Such negotiations really took place,” said Putin’s spokesman in Moscow, barely concealing surprise. “It happened at the initiative of the American side.”

Shortly afterwards, Ukraine’s President Zelensky delivered a surprise, too — a fundamental change of stance. Since the early days of this war, when Russian atrocities became hard facts, not just accusations, Zelensky had publicly insisted he could never negotiate with Putin. Indeed in October he signed a decree specifying Ukraine would only talk to a Putin successor. 

Now — with the Americans talking to Moscow, and warning Zelensky that his stance risked “Ukraine fatigue among European allies, the phrase used by a White House source — the charismatic President has swallowed hard and accepted diplomatic retreat. Zelensky still insists, as always, on the return of all occupied lands, massive reparations and the prosecution of war crimes, but he omits any mention of that refusal to talk to Putin after the American initiative.

Enter America’s top General, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley, sitting down with the commanders of NATO countries after Zelensky calibrated his agenda. “When there’s an opportunity to negotiate, when peace can be achieved, seize it,” General Milley said, noting of course that Russia’s many failures on the battlefield give Ukraine a strong hand. “You want to negotiate at a time when you’re at your strength, and your opponent is at weakness.”

A dreadful winter on the ground in Ukraine looms, with Putin launching blitzkrieg on the country’s infrastructure, leaving millions without heat or light, whilst retreating in key areas such as Kherson. A missile strike on a maternity ward close to Ukraine’s nuclear facility at Zaporizhzhia, which killed a baby, speaks volumes about what comes next. No end in sight to this war, we conclude. That may yet be the case.

Yet. The ground has been laid, too quietly maybe, by the Biden administration for peace talks. There’s a political clock ticking on the Biden team: early January, when the Republicans take control of the House of Representatives, saying loud and clear “no blank cheque” for Ukraine. Interestingly, Biden himself said much the same the other day.

The war of attrition has become Putin’s calling card

The fear is that Putin’s madness, and Zelensky’s dream of victory against all odds, drive this war through the months, even years ahead — Syria’s horror show revisited. The hope has to be that the Biden administration picks up where its best diplomat and its lead General are clearly pointing. To conversations, then arm-twisting and talks in a third-party venue like Ankara between advisers to Putin and Zelensky. Let’s hope they stop operating in the shadows, and take out that megaphone with messages that can unite us all.

“No” to war without end. 

“No” to war that takes out mums, kids and whomever else at the bus stop, or the train station, or the hospital, as a way of making common folk terrified and in time acquiescent to the madness. 

“No” to destroying a country’s infrastructure, from electricity to food supplies, so you freeze them or starve them into submission. That was Putin’s Syria model, the way he kept the shameful Bashir Al-Assad in power over a murderous decade. Clearly, in recent months, despite Russia’s huge losses and humiliating defeats, the war of attrition has become Putin’s calling card in Ukraine.

As someone who once worked for a UN Secretary-General of passionate belief in his ability to mediate conflict, hope is just alive as this bloody winter looms. That hope rests with an America that can enlist the lead players in Europe: the Germans, the French, the Italians. 

Washington might even read its playing cards. General Milley sounds to me like a man who likes a good, canny hand and could reach out to the Chinese because Beijing seems increasingly disenchanted with Putin’s war. The call of peace echoes across our world at the end of this year. “No” to war without end. Better still perhaps, keep hope alive for some kind of peace.

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