Anti-war demonstrators carry a sign saying, "No war" in the colors of the Ukrainian flag.

Anti-war demonstrators and Ukrainians living in the U.S. protest against Russia's military operation in Ukraine in Lafayette Park on February 24, 2022, in Washington, D.C.

(Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

New Diplomacy to End the Russian-Ukrainian War

Greater cooperation between the superpowers could lead them to exercise equitable pressure on Ukraine and Russia to negotiate in earnest.

Germany’s “Iron Chancellor” Otto von Bismarck coined the famous phrase that “politics is the art of the possible.” Political realism rests on that assumption. But the possible is not always self-evident. As with the Russo-Ukraine War, clarifying it requires a bit of imagination. Ukraine’s long-awaited counteroffensive has produced only modest territorial gains at considerable expense. Its military has been depleted by 14%, 70,000 soldiers have been killed, 100-120,000 have been wounded, and 10,000 civilians have died.

Russian losses amount to roughly 120,000 dead and 170-180,000 wounded. Billions have been lost on military hardware, with economic and environmental costs on both sides. Drones are bombing cities in both nations, and ferocious trench warfare is taking place in which fighting results in only a few yards gained and lost. The drain on soldiers and material resources is inestimable. Nevertheless, peace between Ukraine and Russia will not automatically result from “exhaustion” or a “stalemate”: Things don’t work that way.

President Joe Biden is surely correct in believing that only negotiations can end the war. However, initiating them is complicated. Back-channel talks are already being held between various political participants of the conflict. None of the combatants will admit that, however. President Vladimir Putin of Russia and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine have staked their reputations on winning this war, not securing a tie, and certainly not by admitting military collapse. It is a mistake to assume that their interests, and that of their governments, are identical with those of civil society and the citizenry.

The war is becoming an ever more lethal global crisis that requires an orchestrated response by its foreign participants.

Both leaders have made serious strategic blunders. Russia underestimated Ukraine’s resilience, and the resolve of its Western benefactors. NATO and the E.U. poked the bear by opening their doors to Ukraine, but Russia clumsily tried to use that incitement as a justification for invading its neighbor. Most of the world correctly saw it as a pretext for an attempt to annex territory and restore Russian control over its former sphere of influence. Ukraine underestimated Russia’s economy, overestimated the likelihood of economic collapse, and misjudged the level of disillusionment it would produce among the citizenry. Putin’s popular support remains strong, and the destabilizing impact of the failed coup led by “Wagner” mercenaries was vastly exaggerated. Moreover, Russia did not become the international pariah that Ukraine and the West thought it would; it is instead supported by well over 30 nations.

Black-and-white presentations of the conflict by mass media have contributed to the mess. Russia has undoubtedly turned into a neofascist state. For all his charisma, Zelenskyy is no saint. Western media have been irresponsible in essentially ignoring the repression of dissidents, squandering of resources, disarray among military leaders, and rank corruption that characterize his illiberal regime. Ukraine is currently under martial law. Its president’s statement that elections planned for 2024 might be suspended unless allies extend “help,” to the tune of $5 billion, amounts to an extortion that plays on loyalty. On both sides, critics feel threatened, innovative proposals are dismissed, compromise is made more difficult, and the cause of peace is being hindered.

Some in the United States insist that solving the crisis rests on inviting the two presidents to just “sit down at a table and negotiate,” which is worse than naive. Official negotiations without prior back-channel agreements usually result in endless squabbling over details, and they can actually prolong the conflict. Talks prove fruitful only if they are carried on in good faith. Besides, Zelenskyy and Putin have already expressed their willingness to talk—but with preconditions. The Ukrainian president has stated that he must first verify that all Russian troops have been withdrawn from Ukrainian soil. As for the Russian leader, he first needs assurances that all Russian territorial and security concerns have been met. In other words, the two leaders are ready to negotiate once their mutually exclusive demands have been met.

Negotiations only make sense if there is prior consensus on their outcome. This means that both Putin and Zelenskyy need an “exit strategy” that will leave them with their honor, more or less, intact as they agree to the compromises that come with peace. Securing an exit strategy and the necessary consensus prior to official talks taking place calls for deft diplomacy by allies of both nations. Any future peace will call upon Ukraine to cede Crimea, which is 82% Russian, and explore options on the fate of the Donbass. Addressing the security needs of both nations would probably call upon Ukraine to withdraw its applications to join NATO in exchange for accelerated admission to the European Union. These are complex matters that require allies to use the carrot and the stick—and negotiate with one another.

Ex-President Donald Trump’s claims that he could end the war in a day are absurd. But his threat to withdraw from NATO, should he again become president, creates a looming threat. There is a chance that he will win; polls suggest that Trump and Biden are virtually tied for the lead in the election of 2024. His obviously pro-Putin stance has been embraced by his extremist followers in Congress and the Senate. In favor of ending aid to Ukraine, insisting that it is not in America’s national interest, they are echoed by many on the left. Of course, there are also radical “hawks” in both of America’s major parties intent on challenging Russia, and reigniting the Cold War, by providing Ukraine with ever more lethal military hardware. Shipping “cluster bombs” to Ukraine illustrates their political influence. It is a mistake. Not only does this type of “aid” violate certain international conventions and raise the possibility of being charged with war crimes, but it contradicts the purported humanitarian purposes of America’s role in the conflict.

The United States has supplied $135 billion, and Europe $77 billion, in aid to Ukraine since the war began. Such amounts cannot continue indefinitely. Nor are Russia’s resources infinite. It is a mistake to rely on unstinting support from allies, such as China or Iran, whose interests are purely geopolitical. Whatever the short-run benefits, Ukraine and Russia stand in danger of compromising their sovereignty by incurring colossal financial and military debts from other, more powerful, nations. The United States and Europe must exploit that eventuality in forging a third path, based neither on maintaining outrageous levels of aid, and sending ever more lethal military hardware, nor simply leaving Ukraine to its own devices. Casting a plague on both houses, and standing above the fray, is not a policy. The war is becoming an ever more lethal global crisis that requires an orchestrated response by its foreign participants. North Korea’s new agreements on military trade with Russia might serve as a point of departure. China and the West have a common interest in limiting North Korea’s nuclear capabilities and its geopolitical role in East Asia.

Greater cooperation between the superpowers could lead them to exercise equitable pressure on Ukraine and Russia to negotiate in earnest. Rekindling talks on the nuclear treaty between Iran and the United States, previously dismantled by Trump, might contribute to setting the stage for tying aid and easing sanctions to tempering hostilities, compromising on issues, and furthering peace. True: There is a sense in which this means indirectly imposing peace. However, given the global dangers and the immaturity of the Ukrainian and Russian governments, there may be no other choice.

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