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How to end the war in Ukraine

Neither territorial concessions nor unrealistic dreams of toppling Putin can secure lasting peace

Wars end either through brute force or negotiation. Vladimir Putin’s attempt at brute force, his inept, rapacious lunge into Ukraine, has met strong resistance. But though Ukraine, aided by western arms, intelligence, sanctions and supply, thwarted the initial onslaught, the fighting and Russia’s atrocities continue with no clear end in sight. Russia is now seizing incremental gains, attempting to apply more concentrated and overwhelming force. Thus far, neither the aggressor nor the defenders have been strong enough to prevail. 

This deadlock calls forth rival western visions of how the war should end. Ukraine’s war aims are its decision, but the west is deeply involved and should decide what war aims it will support. There remains sharp disagreement about how to end it, and what’s at stake.

Recently, western observers have offered two seductive visions of how the war ought to end. The doyen of realpolitik, Henry Kissinger, urges Ukraine to trade land for peace. As he argues, Kyiv ought to return to the status quo before February 2022, and possibly cede the contested Donbas territories, to buy off Russia’s invasion, lest the crisis worsens and Russia is driven permanently into the arms of Beijing.

By contrast, “maximalists” such as Anne Applebaum and Eliot Cohen call for victory without compromise. Only the decisive defeat of Putin’s regime, followed by Ukraine joining Nato, will effectively end the war and deter another one. Cohen draws hope from the history of underdogs repelling larger invaders, whether Israel against the Arab coalition in 1948, or Vietnam against France and the United States. 

Applebaum goes further, calling for the humiliation of Russia, followed by revolution. To extinguish the threat of imperial conquest from the East, she says, Russia’s flight should be followed by a benign uprising in Moscow and a reckoning with its historic wrongdoing.

Both visions offer emotional satisfaction. Inspired by the memory of his artful diplomacy in brokering the compromise peace that ended the Yom Kippur War of 1973, Kissinger’s formula promises what many westerners want, cutting a deal to purchase an escape from a dangerous impasse. Applebaum and Cohen offer the noble prospect of a righteous military victory through moral courage and endurance. 

Both, however, are flawed. Neither land for peace, nor mere coercion will move the crisis from where it is to where it should be. 

This war is a test: of capacity and endurance, but above all of judgement

The maximalist position rests upon ideal, best-case expectations, mistaking wishes for facts. It presumes much of Ukraine’s capacity for successful protracted war, when Ukraine too is depleted. It underestimates the resilience even of beleaguered states when they are fighting for first-order interests. Russia’s concern for its interests in Ukraine is more intense than France’s towards Vietnam, or the Arab League’s towards Palestine. Using war and sanctions to break a state’s will is hard, as the smaller nations Iran, Cuba and North Korea have shown.

Moreover, if a maximalist strategy were to begin succeeding, an emboldened Kyiv might enlarge its war aims to include the expulsion of Russia from Crimea, risking making a ruthless, nuclear-armed enemy desperate. Enlarged war aims, such as the prospect of Ukraine joining Nato, will further incentivise Russia to fight on. It’s possible, of course, that a maximalist war would make Russia’s bloodied forces collapse. It might even ignite a benign coup in Moscow, with its citizens agreeing under coercion to repudiate the country’s great power ambitions and their imperial past. But none of that is a plan.

As for Kissinger’s plan, it would raise the risks of the conflict re-igniting later. Ceding territory and people to Russia would be too much of a gain for Putin, allowing Moscow to believe aggressive war worked. It would provide a land platform for further predation. The purpose should not just be to get Russia out, but keep it out. And most Ukrainians oppose the further dismemberment of their country. The Donbas for them is not the expendable Sinai to Israel. To succeed, any war-ending settlement must carry opinion on all sides.

Short of one side suddenly collapsing, there is no military or diplomatic trump card that will swiftly resolve the struggle. The more plausible path is politically painful. Ukraine with western help must inflict battlefield coercion on Russia. This is partly to deter Moscow trying invasion again, making whatever gains it pockets too expensive. And there needs to be further fighting to force Russia to further reduce its war aims. Then, if the parties wish to avoid a dead-end stalemate, they will have to compromise over Ukraine’s place in the European security order, addressing the dispute which precipitated the war in the first place. 

So the fighting should facilitate meaningful talking. After all, the Zelenskyy government, too, states that there will have to eventually be negotiation to terminate the conflict. Russia must abandon its bid to make Ukraine a supplicant client state. Ukraine and the west will be best served by the country adopting fortified neutrality, accepting Russia’s earlier theft of Crimea as harsh reality (or postponing the question), and preparing for détente with a post-Putin Russia. As ever, this war is a test: of capacity and endurance, but above all of judgement.

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