(Ця стаття також доступна українською мовою тут.)

The war in Ukraine, or rather Russia’s unjustified attack on Ukraine, has been going on for over one month now, and shows no sign of a quick or easy conclusion. Almost from the beginning, many have reasonably asked how it can be ended as soon as possible. This is, of course, the goal: to end as early as can be managed the suffering of the Ukrainian people and the death toll increasingly being visited on both sides. Russia’s irresponsible nuclear threats add to the urgency of finding a path toward peace. A lasting solution requires keeping the best interests of the Ukrainian people in mind, something that could take many more months or longer to accomplish. There are risks that attempting a fast conclusion could prolong the suffering it would be meant to alleviate.

The two sides’ positions – and the ongoing revelations about Russian atrocities in areas its forces vacated — make an immediate ceasefire unlikely. Ukraine, understandably, wants an end to Russia’s aggression, rejects any form of Russian occupation of Ukrainian territory, and refuses to accept Moscow dictating how it should arrange its relations with the West. Although Ukraine has offered not to seek NATO membership, this has not proved a catalyst for progress, suggesting that the argument of wanting to prevent this from happening was a red herring all along. Despite the well-documented atrocities, the Zelenskyy government remains open to talks. Russia has not engaged seriously, likely awaiting military success to negotiate from a position of strength. Moscow sees a western-oriented Ukraine as an existential threat and will not tolerate a government in Kyiv that could decide to move Ukraine closer to NATO and the European Union.

Think about what this would mean to Putin. A potentially prosperous, democratic Ukraine would stand in strong contrast to a struggling, authoritarian Russia next door and give the lie to the doctrine of Russian exceptionalism on which Putin has relied to maintain power.  Russia’s dependence on fossil fuel exports makes its prospects even more uncertain as others increasingly turn toward renewable energy.  Even China, Russia’s biggest energy market outside Europe, is going green. “Losing” Ukraine at this point would be a direct threat to Putinism, the idea that Russian peoples (including Ukrainians) require authoritarian government, therefore Putin is willing to go to almost any lengths to avoid this fate. This includes the use of cruel, barbaric, and criminal tactics to terrorize civilian populations and seek another government’s submission – a playbook Russia has used before, when less vital interests were at stake, and seems committed to following.

Ukraine feels, if anything, more strongly that Russian victory would be a de facto end of its nationhood, making it unlikely to give up. Russian brutality is reinforcing this perception and underlining the future that awaits as a vassal of Moscow.

The war has imposed high costs on both parties, which will only increase with time, so it is possible that positions may soften. On March 24, High Representative Josep Borrell stated that Russia showed “no interest” in negotiation until it could do so from a position of military strength and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said April 5, after Russian forces began a retreat from Kyiv, that “Moscow is not giving up its ambitions in Ukraine.”

In the meantime, unless western powers change their position on risking a military confrontation with Russia that could lead to nuclear war (a highly unlikely path), the rest of the world can only wait until conditions become favorable for a negotiated settlement. Looking ahead, there are at least two reasons for caution, lest the desire to do the right thing have inadvertent negative consequences.

First, it is possible that the two sides will grow tired of bloodshed and agree to a “ceasefire,” similar to that which shakily prevailed in the Donbas since 2014. The difficulty with such an arrangement, would be that both sides would still live under the conditions that led to Russian aggression, and both would assume that another war was in the future, leading them to prepare for even greater levels of violence. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, there have been frozen conflicts in Moldova, Georgia and Azerbaijan, to the detriment of all those countries. Freezing the Ukraine conflict could prove even worse in the long term, especially since Russia would have threatened to use nuclear weapons and still come out ahead, adding value to the continued possession of nuclear weapons.

Additionally, there is the question of how a cease fire would come about. Already, well-meaning commentators have urged an end to the fighting, but have stated that there should be a “face-saving” way out for Putin, generally some piece of Ukraine for peace. Leaving aside the absurdity of rewarding a dictator for aggression, such a “solution” could ignore the wishes of the Ukrainian people.

Therein lies the danger.

Russia disdains dealing directly with the Ukrainian government at high levels but, should its military remain stalled, could agree to a third party suggestion of a general ceasefire with military units remaining in place, likely coupled with a demand for the resignation of the Ukrainian government.  Although such an arrangement would fall short of Russia’s war aims, it would both allow Putin to claim victory and set a negative example of rewarding military aggression. In reality, however, it would serve as a negotiation tactic, enabling Putin to claim he was making a concession should the democratically-elected Zelenskyy retain his position. U.S. and major European leaders, with visions of Nobels dancing in their heads, could decide to back such a package and pressure Ukraine to accept. The urgency imparted by the possibility, however small, of the use of a nuclear weapon would serve to motivate further a quick fix. For both Washington and Brussels, the importance of stopping, or at least diminishing the humanitarian effects could lead to support for such a move at the cost of rewarding aggression. In essence, though, the fate of Ukraine could be taken out of the hands of the Ukrainian people and decided in Washington and/or Brussels.

Short of a definitive end to hostilities, with the war going badly for Russia, it is also possible that the Kremlin will float ideas for freezing hostilities to allow Russia to consolidate what it has gained for tactical advantage and give a break to exhausted fighters, perhaps backed up by further threats of nuclear consequences should the fighting continue. It would be well to proceed cautiously.

When faced nightly with images of Russian atrocities, including mass graves and civilians laying dead in the streets of Bucha, sexual violence, not to mention bombed hospitals, millions of refugees and the use of high explosives near nuclear power plants, it is reasonable to want to end the violence as rapidly as possible and in whatever way might be possible. Doing so, however, should not ignore the wishes of those that have suffered most: the people of Ukraine.

While it would be reprehensible for Western leaders to seek to fight the war to the last drop of Ukrainian blood, they must seek a balance between wanting to conclude, or at least scale back, the violence and possibly adding to Ukraine’s long term anguish.

This is a messy war. Ending it will not be easy, but a starting point should be understanding the wishes and interests of the Ukrainian victims, especially with Russian leaders refusing to rule out the use of nuclear weapons. This should include restoration of Ukrainian sovereignty over occupied areas and the release of Ukrainian civic leaders kidnapped by Russian forces, and the return of Ukrainian civilians forcibly transferred to Russian territory. The question of security guarantees will come into question, although given Russian disregard for such guarantees in the past, it is difficult to imagine how these could be credible. Ukraine will ultimately have to rely on a strong defense and closer ties to the West – exactly the scenario Russia would hope to avoid. Western governments should be prepared to strengthen sanctions against the Russian government to give Ukraine negotiating leverage, and to ease sanctions promptly should Putin take real steps to end the violence.

Ensuring that the interests of Ukraine and its government take precedence at the negotiating table will provide the best prospect for an enduring peace.  It is part of the real tragedy of Ukraine that an easy fix might not be the best course of action.

Image: Getty