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In Ukraine, a Bad Peace Is Better Than a Good War

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
Mikhail Metzel, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

A negotiated end to the war in Ukraine is imperative, and the sooner the better. However, it will require Ukraine to make certain concessions to the warmongers who invaded their country. Doing so will be a bitter pill for Ukraine to swallow. These concessions are mostly symbolic. It will be distasteful, and morally unsatisfying. But prolonging the war in the hope of a decisive victory over Russia is a strategy fraught with peril and has few if any benefits.


There is no guarantee Ukraine can defeat Russia, and losing on the battlefield will undermine Ukraine’s position. Plus, victory promises scant tangible rewards. Crimea and Donbass will not be recovered. And while the odds of a NATO-Russia war are slim, the potential consequences are terrifying. This war has to stop, with a negotiated settlement, before it spirals out of control, and before more people die needlessly.

It is impossible not to greatly admire Ukraine’s heroic resistance to unprovoked Russian aggression. But the United States has no vital national security interest truly at stake in Ukraine. Ukraine is not a treaty ally of the United States. We have no responsibility to defend Ukraine, and there is no loss of credibility if we do not.

I am skeptical Ukraine can win. They’ve put up a heroic fight so far, absolutely inspiring. But favor is usually on the side of the big battalions. Putin has staked his prestige and political survival on some sort of victory. Starting this war was a huge strategic mistake for Putin. Having begun a war, however, he can’t face the disgrace of defeat. 

And there is a real risk of a nuclear World War III.  Maybe Russian rhetoric about nuclear war is just empty saber rattling. However, I have had Duma members tell me they would be willing to die in a nuclear war, if it also meant the destruction of the United States. 

So, what does Putin want? His core demands are that Ukraine adopt a constitutional amendment to remain neutral in perpetuity, that Ukraine recognize Russia’s (illegal) annexation of Crimea, and also recognize the so-called people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent.


Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy should accede to these demands. Ukraine was unlikely to join the alliance anytime in the foreseeable future. Likewise, there is no prospect of Ukraine recovering Crimea or the Donbass. Agreeing to these demands, Zelenskyy surrenders nothing that is not already lost.

It would be difficult for the Ukrainians to agree to these terms. But it might be better to accept Putin’s minimalist program while such an agreement can be reached than risk military setbacks and Putin’s imposition of his maximalist objectives. These aims may include annexation of Ukraine’s entire Black Sea coast, including the major cities of Odessa, Mykolaiv, and Kherson, as well as the demilitarization of Ukraine.

And what’s the alternative? Maybe with continuing arms supplies, Ukraine can stay in the fight indefinitely. But to what purpose? I see few possibilities for a decisive Ukrainian military victory, only to maybe halt further Russian military advances. There will be no reconquest of Crimea and Donbass.

And let’s dispense with pieties about “a global struggle between democracy and autocracy.” Let's also set aside daydreams of a coup in Moscow. This is a moment to confront hard choices and draw rational conclusions.

It’s a lousy situation, and just like you, I’d love to see Vladimir Putin go down. But as much as that might be emotionally satisfying, it doesn’t resolve the very real dilemma Ukraine faces. Every day this war drags on, people will keep dying. Continuing the war and staying the course offers a) very scant possibilities of genuine gains, and b) runs very real risks of much worse outcomes, even global disaster. What I propose here is perhaps hard to stomach. Nobody much enjoys giving in to bullies or gangsters. But are we really, really willing to die for Kramatorsk?


And what does America really stand to gain from more war on Ukrainian soil? For Washington, the bloodier the war, the more Russia suffers militarily. That is not an unreasonable desire. But it is the Ukrainians who will die to achieve it. A negotiated peace now stops the war. It puts an end to the bombings and shelling of Ukrainian cities and the deaths of Ukrainian civilians and soldiers.  Bad peace, in this case, really is preferable to a good war.  

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