Peace or Punishment in Ukraine? US Should Seek To End the Conflict

The Russo-Ukrainian war continues. Moscow’s progress is slow, with its ability to maintain its offensive uncertain. Russia’s forces look inadequate to conquer and occupy the entire country.

However, the surprisingly effective Ukrainian resistance is but a negative achievement, limiting the casualties inflicted and damage wreaked. With millions of refugees in flight, major cities occupied or surrounded, territory captured, and life disrupted, the Ukrainian people are suffering greatly despite their relative success.

Of course, the conflict remains early. Decisive outcomes are still possible. The Russian armed forces might regroup, harness their great firepower, and manage a large-scale breakthrough. On the other hand, inadequate replacements, poor logistics, and deteriorating morale might enfeeble Russian units, inflating desertions and losses and forcing withdrawal.

However, as long as Moscow’s forces outnumber and out-muscle those of Kyiv, though without the significant margin normally necessary for rapid offensive operations, a deadlock or ponderous Russian advance looks more likely. With a conflict that seems ever more purposeless, both sides will lose the longer the fighting continues. The only solution is an end to combat and negotiated settlement.

Both sides should make such an outcome their top priority. Although the temptation might be to go for broke, the price of failure would be great.

For instance, a stalemate or even slow-motion Russian advance threatens more than failure for Moscow. Irregular resistance is likely to rise over time, bleeding Russia’s armed forces. Much of Moscow’s effective forces have been committed, logistics will remain difficult, a continuing stream of casualties will create discontent at home, and harsh Western sanctions will inhibit military resupply. Even victory isn’t likely to seem like one to the long-suffering Russian people. President Vladimir Putin’s own political future might grow uncertain: his regime, like that of Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu, looks solid today, but his chief lieutenants might eventually fear going down with him.

Ukraine is no less at risk. A slow and intermittent Russian advance would leave a sizable and increasing amount of territory occupied, several major cities threatened by bombardment and with capture, economy and society disrupted, millions of people displaced, dependence on other nations for military and financial support, and persistent possibility of battlefield defeat. Moscow could effectively disable the Ukrainian state without fully occupying the country. The remainder would be but a shadow of its former self.

Kyiv’s hope to use insurgent attacks to break Moscow’s will to fight might ultimately succeed, but at horrific cost. Afghanistan went through nearly a half century of foreign invasion, domestic insurgency, and civil war. The chief victims were the Afghan people. Ukraine does not want to suffer through a similar experience, with a distant, difficult recovery ahead.

Moreover, the longer the conflict runs, the greater the damage that will be inflicted and the more difficult it will be to settle without a definitive result. Anger, bitterness, and hatred will only increase, encouraging both sides to demand more out of the conflict.

Nor will extended combat radicalize only the combatants. Even more likely will those involved vicariously press for a decisive outcome. Indeed, allied involvement was driven by an unusual degree by public outrage, social media, and raw emotion. People who pay no attention to brutal aggression and mass killing backed by the West, such as Yemen, are organizing boycotts of Russian athletes, conductors, singers, goods, and music. These fair-weather foreign policy enthusiasts might be more likely to demand punishment than peace. Bankrupt Moscow, oust Putin, arrest war criminals, and reorder Russia.

Strategist Tanner Greer warned that "The maximalist language emanating from some Western capitals is a natural, if unwise, response to this sort of atrocity." Exhibiting precisely this characteristic is David Rothkopf, variously government official, journalist, and academic, who tweeted: "To those who have called for an ‘off-ramp’ for Putin, I have just one question. Don’t you feel ashamed of yourselves?" It would be better to ask that question of policymakers who recklessly expanded NATO and shamelessly lied to Kyiv about bringing it into the alliance, doing so much to cause today’s war. And who today cheer on Ukrainians from a safe distance, watching them die and their country suffer.

Although Kyiv has gloried in its ability rally much of the global community to its side, it should remember the clear limits to the West’s commitment. The US and its allies spent 14 years promising Ukraine membership in NATO, but never delivered. This refusal to make a deal with Moscow encouraged Ukraine to stand firm. Now Ukrainians are paying a high price for a war that was preventable. Kyiv should beware a reprise, with Western opposition to a deal that could deliver peace, stability, and reconstruction. The allies appear perfectly prepared to spend months or even years applauding as Ukraine suffers through conflict and division.

American and European support for peace is critical. Russia might refuse to end the war unless the allies agree to lift sanctions. The latter might see doing so as allowing Moscow to profit from unprovoked aggression. Although this would be deeply dissatisfying to many, it also would be the best policy – for Ukrainians in the first instance, as well as the rest of us.

Warned Greer: "Refusal to settle on the part of the Ukrainians or their Western backers will likely lead the Russians to commit to the permanent occupation of the territory they’ve taken. This is the most probable outcome of any policy predicated on inflexible Western ultimatums. In this scenario, sanctions would stay in place for decades. A new iron curtain would fall across Europe, separating Belarus, Russia and occupied Ukraine from the West."

The costs and risks of the West from this course would also be significant. The US and allies would need to provide long-term military and economic support for Ukraine. The global economic impact of a permanent sanctions regime would only increase. So long as the Ukrainian conflict burns it could expand, intentionally or inadvertently, to the US and NATO. A desperate Russia could turn the conflict nuclear. We tried punishing the defeated in World War I, and it turned out very badly. Creating a new Cold War and Iron Curtain would mean a much more dangerous European security environment. Pressure would increase on the US to revert to a garrison state to fortify both Europe and Asia.

Ukrainians need the war to stop. So do the Russians. The earlier combat is halted the better the chance to negotiate a reasonable settlement. Both sides will have to give. Moscow still has legitimate security needs which, if left unsatisfied, could trigger a future conflict. Afterward Russia should be welcomed back into polite company. Sanctions hurt the West as well as Moscow. Moreover, punishing the Russian people for the crimes of their rulers risks inflaming nationalism and pushing them closer to their government. There is better hope for a post-Putin era if Russo-Western contacts are revived.

Although Russia is directly responsible for its invasion of Ukraine, Washington, and Europe bear significant blame for the current conflict. After the Soviet Union collapsed the West gloried in Russian weakness and ruthlessly dismissed its security interests. The West also misled Ukraine into thinking that it would find NATO at the end of the rainbow. The result is now a bitter conventional war in Europe, with manifold global ramifications. Those dying on both sides are doing so in part because of US recklessness and hubris.

It is in the interests of all parties to halt the conflict. Kyiv and Moscow will need to compromise. Washington and its allies should use their considerable clout to push peace. Much depends on the outcome. For once American policymakers should insist that failure is not an option when it comes to restoring peace rather than making war.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.