Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is an inspiring figure. And it is hard not to admire the courageous spirit of the Ukrainian army in their unequal fight against the much more powerful Russian military. But the time has come to seek a negotiated conclusion to the war in Ukraine. And the U.S. must encourage President Zelensky to take seriously the opportunity he has to bring a halt to this bloody conflict.
Otherwise, this war will grind on without end, tens of thousands more innocent civilians will die, and there is a real risk that events spiral out of control with the United States and Russia going to war. Wise leaders in Washington must avert this impending disaster.
Perhaps flush with battlefield successes in March and April, Zelensky has expanded his war aims. No longer content with defending Kiev and Kharkov, he has announced his intention to reconquer Crimea and Donbas. This is a dangerous and provocative escalation of Ukrainian military and political objectives. In fact, it is madness.
Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, arguably a violation of international law. But we must recognize the facts on the ground. Ninety-three percent of Crimean residents voted in favor of annexation. The vast majority of the population is ethnically Russian, and historically Crimea was an integral part of Russia. The people of Crimea would resist a Ukrainian invasion. And Russia would certainly never allow such an invasion to proceed.
Likewise, the people of Donetsk and Lugansk are resolutely opposed to any forcible reunification with Ukraine. Any attempt to reconquer these territories is futile, a mere fantasy and a foolhardy delusion.
Time is not on Ukraine’s side. It is holding on tenaciously on the Eastern battlefield, but slowly losing more and more ground. NATO and the U.S. are supplying weaponry, but not men. Eventually, losses of personnel will leave the Ukrainian army in a dire predicament, tons of military material but not enough soldiers to deploy them. Prolonging the war will likely result in more Ukrainian losses.
And what are the real American national interests in seeing this war continue? The real motive behind American policy is obvious: there is a war party in Washington whose sole objective is killing Russians. That may sound somehow like a benefit, but is it an objective worth tens of billions of taxpayer money and the risks of war with Russia? (Incidentally, billions of American aid have gone missing, unfortunately Ukrainian state corruption has not ceased just because a war is on.)
So how might a negotiated peace be accomplished? By concessions from both Ukraine and Russia.
Zelensky has proclaimed loudly that he will not consider any territorial concessions to Russia. But he seems not to realize that Crimea and Donbas are already irretrievably lost. Recognizing Crimea as Russian and the two Donbas republics as independent costs Ukraine nothing.
Two months ago, I recommended Ukraine enter negotiations to end the war, while its prospects had a brighter shine. That was sound advice, as now Kiev’s position is notably weaker. The reality is that the stronger its battlefield position, the more Moscow will demand and the less it will concede.
If Russia manages to take the critical Black Sea port of Odessa, it may not willingly give it up. Losing Odessa would be a major blow for Ukraine’s export-driven economy. It seems to me reckless to lose such a vitally important city in the hope that somehow, against all odds, a relatively unimportant town like Severodonetsk can be reclaimed.
In fact, if the fortunes of war, always unpredictable, turn against Ukraine, it risks losing its very sovereignty. If Kiev is surrendered, Moscow will impose its own regime and demand Ukrainian disarmament. By concluding peace now, Ukraine retains its essential independence and its own military.
By recognizing reality, Zelensky has a chance to remake Ukraine a stronger and better country. By reaching a peace deal with Russia, he can pivot to rebuilding Ukraine’s economy and making his country more prosperous. Imagine if the billions of U.S. and European aid flowing into Ukraine were devoted to economic development and investment instead of military supplies.
Meanwhile, sanctions seem to be hurting the U.S. and Europe as much as they are hurting Russia. And day by day, the risks are rising that we stumble into a shooting war with a nuclear armed adversary.
The Biden administration seems hell-bent on fighting Russia, if necessary to the last Ukrainian. But the Germans and the French are already tiring of this war and are looking for an exit. President Biden should wake up, see the writing on the wall, and start looking for a diplomatic solution.
In Ukraine, a bad peace truly is better than a good war. The sooner this war can be stopped, the better for the Ukrainian people, and the better for the United States and its true national interests.