Nicholas Goldberg: Is it time to end the war in Ukraine and start peace talks?

There was a lot of edifying, we’re about to win it, language that was used recently about the Ukraine war. The message being sent is that the United States is committed to the long term and its friends will not be left to a brutal aggressor like Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It’s a moving show of solidarity, including Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s visit to the White House last week — especially amid 100,000 Ukrainian soldiers and 40,000 civilians killed or wounded, according to the Pentagon, since Russia invaded Ukraine in February is .

“We will stay with you as long as it takes,” President Biden told Zelenskyy.

But is he serious? And even if he does, can the US be counted on to pull it off?

Stipple style portrait illustration by Nicholas Goldberg

opinion columnist

Nicholas Goldberg

Nicholas Goldberg was the editorial page editor for 11 years and is a former editor of the Op-Ed page and the Sunday Opinion column.

As for that should are we promoting the war indefinitely and helping Ukraine prolong its struggle in hopes of a decisive military victory?

The war in Ukraine raises complicated questions. Of course, we want to support our allies who are fighting fiercely to protect their lands and territorial integrity from foreign invaders. But it’s by no means clear how long “as long as it takes” will last, or whether the US government and its NATO allies will actually hold out.

Ukraine – against all odds and expectations – has held out for nearly a year, spurring some hopes that they can actually make their mark on the battlefield. She pushed back the Russians, who undoubtedly foresaw an easy victory, from Kyiv, from the Kharkiv region and the city of Kherson.

But what’s next? Some analysts believe Ukraine can and will drive Russia out of Ukraine entirely. Others fear that the cost in dollars and lives will become unacceptably high, that there is a growing risk of a dangerous military escalation, or that the Russians could turn the tide of the war.

The latter group believes it is time to seriously consider peace negotiations.

I’m torn like a lot of people. I totally agree that Putin is dangerous and irresponsible and I would like to see his army driven out. The violent occupation of another country’s territory is unacceptable. And I’m not deaf to the argument that if the world allows such behavior today, Putin will be emboldened to go further and others to emulate him.

The ideal message is that we are united in our irrevocable commitment to oppose Russian atrocities and imperial conquest.

But I know us.

It’s all very nice for Biden to say we’re with you “while it lasts,” but Biden is in no position to make such a promise; he faces re-election in 2024. Moreover, history suggests Americans are a notice inclined to meddle in distant crises indefinitely when the costs become too great.

The Republicans, who take over the House of Representatives next week, are already complaining that Ukraine should not get a “blank check.” (With the signing of the budget law this week, US aid to Ukraine will top $100 billion since February.)

NATO allies in Europe could also falter as the costs of the war mount, petrol prices soar in the winter and millions of refugees pour in.

For Ukraine and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization supporters, deciding when to go to the negotiating table to try to end the military phase of the conflict is a matter of pragmatism, strategy and timing.

Many factors need to be considered. Which side is in the stronger battlefield position? What benefits from a continuation of the fighting? Is a crucial Ukrainian victory possible or could things turn around? Could the war spread geographically or escalate from conventional to nuclear weapons? How committed is NATO? How long will Ukrainians be willing to keep fighting if casualties mount? Will Russia negotiate seriously and can it be trusted to keep its word?

And are there any terms of comparison that would meet the minimum requirements of both sides?

Charles A. Kupchan, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and professor of international affairs at Georgetown University, says it’s time to seriously consider what a negotiated endgame might look like, even if we help Ukraine.

“So far the administration has done everything right: give the Ukrainians the weapons they need to defend themselves, hit the Russians hard with sanctions and strengthen NATO’s eastern flank,” he says. “But I think that the prospect of a war going on indefinitely carries the risk of escalation because you just don’t know what the Russians are going to do.”

(On Monday, Ukraine launched its third strike of the month deep into Russian territory, apparently unconcerned about the possibility of escalation.)

Kupchan says a Russian withdrawal from every inch of Ukrainian territory — including Crimea, which occupied it for eight years prior to February’s invasion — is not a realistic or necessary starting point for negotiations. And he thinks Ukraine should consider dropping its bid for NATO membership.

Apparently there have been no significant negotiations for months, and Ukrainian officials said this week there will be none until Moscow withdraws its troops and faces a war crimes tribunal. Russian officials, including Putin over the weekend, insist they are open to talks. But Russia has seen inadequate terms – including accepting its illegal annexation of four Ukrainian territories in late September – and US officials doubt they would negotiate in good faith.

The world has a terrible status quo. Ukraine is fighting fiercely as if the war – and the aid of allies – would go on forever. Russia continues to demolish Ukrainian cities and may be plotting a new revival, with few signs of a dent in Putin’s power.

We are looking – so far in vain – for offramps, de-escalators and mutually acceptable compromises that will end the carnage and secure a free, independent Ukraine. It is not time to cut our support for Ukraine, but it is time for both sides to start laying the groundwork for talks.


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