A line of Ukrainian soldiers crouches in line in a field with guns.

Ukrainian soldiers move in line as they take part in infantry training in Donetsk Oblast as the Russia-Ukraine war continues in Ukraine, on August 11, 2023.

(Photo: Diego Herrera Carcedo/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Peace in Ukraine Will Only Happen at a Negotiating Table, Not on the Battlefield

A Response to John Feffer’s “Peace Activists Should Be Clamoring for Peace on Ukrainian Terms.”

John Feffer’s recent article “Peace Activists Should Be Clamoring for Peace on Ukrainian Terms” rests its argument on the delusional premise that the way to end a war you aren’t winning is to demand that the other side surrender. At least, I think the author wants to end the war—maybe not. Maybe some version of “forever war” is the desired goal. It will certainly be the result.

Take Jeddah. The article expresses satisfaction that Russia wasn’t invited to this “peace” conference, intended to bring the Global South more in line with Western goals. What’s worrisome, in terms of a reality check, is that this is either spin or a genuine failure to hear what some major Global South voices were saying.

“If we really want peace,” said the head of Brazil’s delegation, “we must involve Moscow in some way in this process.”

The article appears to fall prey to the fallacy that one must approve of one’s adversary to negotiate with them.

An Indian media outlet, citing its own delegate’s neutral stance, commented, “To believe that a peace plan can be developed without Russia being part of the process and its views and concerns taken into account is illusionary.”

Attendees at Jeddah were asked to get behind a list of demands for Russia resembling those dictated to a vanquished enemy. Meanwhile, the article ignores the appalling carnage that is leaving Ukraine’s armed forces shredded. It disregards that, whatever our own assessment may be, Russia sees this fight as existential—as we might if, say, Mexico decided it wanted to join a Russia-China military alliance that could then put missiles on our border.

The writer points with satisfaction to generalized approval of sovereignty at Jeddah, but what does this even mean? Ukraine is most clearly in jeopardy, but Russia perceives its own as threatened by a hostile military alliance on its doorstep, and what about the people of Crimea and Donbass, who may want a say in their fate? Remember Kosovo? And what does any of this portend for hotspots like Taiwan, where Richard Nixon recognized Chinese sovereignty 50 years ago? Insisting on “my way or the highway,” with jaw dropping inconsistency, will land us to WWIII. There’s so much to be worked out.

The article appears to fall prey to the fallacy that one must approve of one’s adversary to negotiate with them. It brings up Russia’s prosecution of dissidents—certainly deplorable and undemocratic—though, incidentally, it doesn’t note Ukraine’s prosecution of pacifist leader Yurii Sheliazhenko or Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s consolidation of all TV media into one state-run entity and banning of 11 political parties (none of them on the ultra-right). On the other hand, the writer’s disparagement of “erstwhile lovers of diplomacy,” his insistence that any peace agreement be entirely on Ukraine’s terms, and his dark allusions to Hitler—the go-to trope when the U.S. wants war with anyone anywhere—make one wonder whether this whole exercise is about seeking, not a pathway to a just peace, but a forever villain for a forever war—that can end only in a Pax Americana, if at all.

Tellingly, the article omits missed chances for peace over many years, including the Minsk talks that former German Chancellor Angela Merkel and later former French President Francois Hollande publicly admitted were intended by the West, not for full implementation but to buy time for Ukraine to arm for war. Then there was the tentative agreement brokered between Ukraine and Russia one month into the war, which could have seen Russia withdraw to pre-February 2022 lines in return for Ukraine’s neutrality—quietly nixed by the West, where it’s seldom mentioned, although Kyiv’s West-leaning Ukrainian Pravda ran the headline “Possibility of talks Between Zelensky and Putin came to a halt after Johnson’s visit.” That was tens of thousands of lost Ukrainian and Russian lives ago.

Throughout history humanity has too often succumbed to its impulse toward war when fed an un-nuanced version of reality. As a case in point, this article intimates that Russia is solely to blame for cessation of the grain deal—no mention of the West’s failure to uphold its end by freeing up Russia’s fertilizer shipments, blocked by sanctions preventing Russia from using SWIFT to pay shipping insurance. Nor do we hear of Russia’s offer to resume the deal if the West fulfills its side. Without the whole story, we’re susceptible to the kind of good vs. evil narratives that catapult us into war, with our adversary mirroring our anger and suspicion. Russia now sees the West as “not agreement capable.”

Humanity is having trouble not letting its instinct for confrontation lead it to literally blow itself off the face of the Earth. Whatever we think of Russia and its security fears, shouldn’t we work to “avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to a choice of either a humiliating defeat or nuclear war”? No, those aren’t Putin talking points; they’re the words of John F. Kennedy. No wonder the Global South, watching from the sidelines, is nervous.

Significantly, the article barely notes this war’s costs and dangers—in human lives, environmental destruction, money squandered on weapons, world poverty unattended—not to mention risk of nuclear war with repeated escalations. Given the unfolding tragedy, a diplomatic solution for as just a peace as possible is dearly and urgently needed.