Comment: Until Ukrainians say so, now not time for peace talks

A negotiated ‘peace’ provides no guarantee that Putin won’t rebuild for a later attempt at taking Ukraine.

By Leonid Bershidsky / Bloomberg Opinion

Suddenly — or perhaps not so suddenly, after a year of this century’s bloodiest fighting — peace in Ukraine is being talked up by the most diverse actors. But since any peace deal at this point would require territorial concessions from Ukraine, only a string of decisive — and utterly unfeasible — Russian battlefield victories could lead the parties to the negotiating table.

The Chinese government’s 12-point proposal involves a cessation of hostilities in exchange for an end to “unilateral sanctions” and refers, rather vaguely, to upholding the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries. German left-wing politician Sahra Wagenknecht staged a rally in Berlin last weekend where between 13,000 and 50,000 people, according to different estimates, demanded an end to weapons deliveries for Ukraine and the start of negotiations with Russia to prevent further escalation of the conflict, perhaps even to nuclear war. Speakers at the gathering, which attracted supporters of both the extreme left and the hard right, as well as some pacifist centrists, declared that the defeat of a nuclear power such as Russia on the battlefield was impossible, so diplomacy was the only path forward.

“Ukraine must understand: There is no other way but a peace agreement now, without any preconditions,” Belarussian dictator Alexander Lukashenko declared in an interview with Chinese journalists published on Monday. Either that, he added, or Russia will militarize its economy and become unstoppable.

It’s easy to dismiss China and Belarus as Russia’s allies and Wagenknecht and the other worried Germans as Russian influence agents and useful idiots. But even some serious Western scholars who cannot be accused of being Putin sympathizers have been gently suggesting that it might be time to talk peace. The eminent U.S. historian Stephen Kotkin, who has been firmly on Ukraine’s side ever since Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale invasion and who has supported increased supplies of Western weapons to Ukraine, recently told New Yorker editor David Remnick, himself an old Russia hand, that while Ukrainians deserve a chance at a battlefield victory, the endgame is clear:

“Each side has to sit down and make unpleasant concessions, and you have to sit down across from representatives of your murderer, and you’ve got to do a deal where your murderer takes some of the stuff he has stolen; and killed your people in the process. That’s a terrible outcome. But that’s an outcome which may not be the worst outcome. The point being that, if you get EU accession, it balances the concessions you have to make.”

Kotkin argues that giving up some territory but gaining European Union membership would qualify as a Ukrainian victory; likely the only kind the country can count on.

Even French President Emmanuel Macron, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz have reportedly urged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to start peace talks with Russia, dangling before him the possibility of a defense pact with NATO as a post-war security guarantee. The three supposedly doubt that Ukraine can sustain fighting at the current level indefinitely; something they never say publicly, perhaps because Joe Biden’s administration in the U.S. rarely strays from the most militant rhetoric possible.

There is, then, an entire spectrum of people, from European politicians such as Scholz and Macron to nuanced, well-informed thinkers such as Kotkin to German pacifists instinctively rebelling against violence to long-time Putin-verstehers and allies to Chinese politicians worried that the sharp polarization caused by the war would unsettle their country’s international standing and hurt it economically. While many of them admire Ukrainians’ heroism, their thinking — Sunak’s as much as Lukashenko’s — is rooted in skepticism, even pessimism, about David’s chances against Goliath. The war, after all, is raging in Ukrainian territory; how much destruction can the Ukrainian people take for the sake of a full military victory that many see as a pipe dream, anyway?

You can even be optimistic about Ukrainians’ military prowess but believe that Russia would rather start a nuclear war than lose; a justified fear given Putin’s advanced age and emotional state.

Personally, I have avoided the subject of a compromise in the dozens of columns I have written about the war; not just because I’m Russian and thus, in the modern world, immediately suspect. There are two better reasons not to call for peace talks as soon as possible.

The first is that ultimately, only Ukrainians can decide that they’ve fought enough and can fight no more; and so far, Ukrainian politicians have no mandate from the nation to give up anything. I know war fatigue is setting in among many Ukrainian civilians and many of the refugees do not plan to come back once the war is over, one way or another. But Ukrainians have always been relatively quick to rebel against leaders who lost touch with society’s mood and aspirations. Ukraine’s civil society and media are still very much alive; and they are not sending pacifist signals to Zelensky.

They are not doing so because fighting and dying on the battlefield — or fleeing to safety while the war makes neighboring countries receptive — is preferable to living under Putin’s rule. Putin’s Russia is not only unfree, it is callously, cruelly oppressive to its own people; even at home, the Putin regime behaves like an occupying power. Living under it as part of a conquered population is a potential nightmare that I wouldn’t wish on anyone but my worst enemies. In that sense, for many Ukrainians the idea of a compromise-based peace can be worse than war: At war you can at least fight back with a weapon in hand.

I also know Ukrainians who don’t care much under what flag they live and who don’t think living under Putin would be worse than under one of Ukraine’s famously corrupt and inept governments. They are, however, politically passive by definition; and many of them were the first to flee, to Russia and to Europe.

The other kind of Ukrainians — the active ones — fought when barely any Western weaponry was available and when few in the West believed they could hold out for more than a few days, and they managed to push the invading Russian troops back from Kyiv, Sumy and Chernihiv. Even if the weapons supplies start drying up, they will find ways to fight on, whether as a regular army or as guerillas.

The second reason is that a negotiated ending to the current war that doesn’t hand complete control over Ukraine to Putin probably will only put off another invasion. We were here before: In 2015, when the Minsk agreements left Russia in de facto control of parts of eastern Ukraine, not to mention Crimea. It was not enough: Putin wanted more territory and a Ukraine politically subjugated to Moscow, so he struck when he thought his military was ready (it wasn’t, quite). If the current war ends with Russia in possession of more Ukrainian land but an even more firmly anti-Russian government in Kyiv, this will be more unfinished business for Putin and any similarly imperialist successor.

Knowing what the Putin regime is like for those who live under it and having closely watched the “Minsk process” and its aftermath, I cannot in good faith hold that Ukrainians would be better off compromising with Putin. Their sacrifice is not blind; they would likely gain nothing by bending. While there is any hope of even a partial military victory — of retaking more territory if not all that has been lost — continued resistance and further losses are acceptable to Ukraine’s society. That hope still exists, in part thanks to Western aid but mainly because of the proven ineptitude of Russian commanders, who, unlike their Ukrainian adversaries, haven’t shown even a flash of strategic brilliance in twelve months of fighting. Goliath is huge but dumb.

Perhaps Kotkin is right and Ukraine eventually will have to sit down with its “murderers” and negotiate from a position of relative weakness. But not yet.

Leonid Bershidsky, formerly Bloomberg Opinion’s Europe columnist, is a member of the Bloomberg News Automation Team. He recently published Russian translations of George Orwell’s “1984” and Franz Kafka’s “The Trial.”

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