There was a whole menu of peaceful ways the war in Ukraine could have been prevented. NATO could have kept its promise and not expanded east to Russia’s borders and across its long advertized “brightest of all red lines,” as now CIA Director and then Ambassador to Russia William Buns called Ukraine in 2008. Ukraine could have implemented the Minsk Agreement in 2015, and Germany, France and the US could have provided the necessary pressure and support. The US could have come to the table instead of clearing the table when Russia demanded negotiations over security concerns on December 17, 2021. Instead, all three sides, Russia, Ukraine and the US, chose the military option.
Russia, of course, chose the military option. Feeling they had tried all the diplomatic options and having “come to the point when we have no room to retreat,” Russia chose to introduce the military ultimatum: provide us with “legally binding guarantees” on our security concerns, no NATO membership for Ukraine and no deployment of weapons or troops to Ukraine, or we will respond with “military-technical means.” When the US responded that negotiating NATO expansion to Ukraine was never even on the table, having chosen to introduce the ultimatum, Russia chose the military option.
The US made the same choice. When Russia presented the ultimatum, the US could have kept its three decades old promise not to expand NATO east and heeded the quarter of a century of warnings from its most knowledgeable and experienced officials—from William Burns to Jack Matlock, George Kennen, Richard Davies, Colin Powell and even Joe Biden in 1997—and simply agreed to close the NATO door to Ukraine. Instead, when presented with the choice, the US chose the military option.
Ukraine, and its European allies, chose the military option when they deceived and failed to implement the Minsk Agreement. Ukraine actually chose the military option even prior to the Minsk Agreement. In May 2014, when the Donetsk and Lugansk regions of Donbas voted in favor of sovereignty, newly elected Ukrainian President Pyotr Poroshenko initiated negotiations for a peaceful settlement with rebel leaders in Donbas. The talks were promising, and, by the end of the next month, a formula for peacefully keeping Donbas in Ukraine had been found. At this point, on June 24, the Russian parliament rescinded the authority to use troops abroad. A peaceful solution was on the horizon.
But instead of seeing Putin’s decision to withdraw troops as a peace offering, Poroshenko saw it as a new advantage and an opportunity. Instead of staying on the track of the peace formula, Poroshenko ordered the launch of attacks to recapture Donbas militarily. Badly defeated, Poroshenko was forced to retreat back to negotiations. The betrayal of that peace process necessitated the signing of the Minsk Agreement. Poroshenko, with help from his European partners would betray that agreement too.
The Minsk agreements were negotiated by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ukrainian President Pyotr Poroshenko, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande. Recently, each of Putin’s partners has revealed that the Minsk negotiations were a deliberate deception to lull Russia into a ceasefire with the promise of a peaceful settlement while buying Ukraine the time to build up an armed forces capable of achieving a military solution.
In May 2022, Poroshenko told the Financial Times that Ukraine “didn’t have an armed forces at all” and that the “great diplomatic achievement” of the Minsk Agreement was that “we kept Russia away from our borders – not from our borders, but away from a full-sized war.” The agreement bought Ukraine time to build its army. Poroshenko told the Ukrainian media and other news outlets that “We had achieved everything we wanted. Our goal was to, first, stop the threat, or at least to delay the war – to secure eight years to restore economic growth and create powerful armed forces.”
Merkel and Hollande have confirmed that the Minsk deception was intended to buy time for a military solution. In December 2022, Merkel said that “during the Minsk talks, she was able to buy the time Ukraine needed to better fend off the Russian attack. She says it is now a strong, well-fortified country” and that “[T]he 2014 Minsk agreement was an attempt to give Ukraine time,” and that they “used this time to get stronger, as you can see today. The Ukraine of 2014/15 is not the Ukraine of today.”
Further confirmation of the choice of the military option over the available diplomatic option comes from Hollande who said, “Yes, Angela Merkel is right on this point. . . . Since 2014, Ukraine has strengthened its military posture. . . . It is the merit of the Minsk agreements to have given the Ukrainian army this opportunity.”
Truthfully or not, Zelensky has made the similar claim that he never intended to implement the Minsk Agreement. And former Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin, Nicolai Petro reports, has said that “Ukraine’s sole objective in signing Minsk-2 was to rebuild the Ukrainian army and strengthen the international coalition against Russia. He then adds, reinforcing the deception, that “That was understood from the very first day.”
Ukraine had the Minsk option. But they chose the military option.
Russia, Ukraine, the US and Europe all chose the military option. And that’s what they got. On February 24, 2022, Russia took the “military-technical means” and invaded Ukraine. Once the war began, given the choice between diplomacy and war, the US, once again, chose the military option.
Only three days after the war had begun, and before the escalation, death and destruction, there was, once again, a diplomatic option. Zelensky and Putin were both willing to negotiate an end to the war on terms that satisfied both of their goals. That would happen again in Istanbul and was on its way to happening in talks mediated by Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. But the US and the UK put a stop to the peace talks, telling Zelensky that Putin “should be pressured, not negotiated with” and that, even if Ukraine was ready to sign some agreements with Russia, “the West was not.” On each occasion, the US “blocked” the diplomatic option because they “want[ed] the war to continue.” Since then, the US has frequently repeated that these “are not the conditions for real diplomacy” and that “we don’t support calls for a ceasefire right now.”
Before the war dangerously escalated and caused horrific amounts of death and destruction, there was a viable diplomatic option. But the US, again, chose the military option.
From long before the war began to long after the war had begun, every side–Russia, Ukraine, the US and Europe—when faced with a diplomatic option or a military option, has, either at key moments or consistently, chosen the military option.
Ted Snider is a regular columnist on US foreign policy and history at Antiwar.com and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets.