The Window for Peace in Ukraine Is Closing: Will Leaders Have the Foresight to Seize It?
I am a pessimist. I aways see the dark side of everything. It’s what I do. I’m “negative.” Yet believe it or not, there is tremendous value in that. Pessimists like me—and perhaps like you—tend to see the storm coming long before anyone else. So it is with that mindset that I wrote the article pasted below. It was my attempt at a roadmap to peace—and not merely for the sake of it, but because I fear that without peace, the war in Ukraine will spiral into absolute chaos, and maybe even nuclear war. Unfortunately, recent events there have forced me to reevaluate my position on the best way to sidestep catastrophe. You see, I figured that Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted to avoid a long and costly quagmire, and therefore, it might be possible to bring him to the negotiating table. Yet now I fear he is not interested in that. Instead, he seems to be playing for all the marbles, and he is not going to back out now. But for today, I still think it is worthwhile to publish my “roadmap to peace” in the vain hope that someone, somewhere will find it compelling. Heck, maybe it isn’t too late. But don’t look for me to tell you that. I am a pessimist.
Obviously, there has been a lot of analysis on Ukraine in recent days. Everyone seems to have their own notion about what is “truly going on” there, and what the U.S., the Ukrainians, the Russians, the Europeans, and perhaps even the Chinese should do about it. Yet amidst such a cavalcade of opinions, it might be worthwhile to simplify the situation to its bare bones. So, in the most basic terms possible, here is what we know:
1.) Russia invaded Ukraine.
2.) NATO opposes Russia’s invasion.
3.) Russia and NATO possess nuclear weapons.
The most important item is Number 3. It indicates that two nuclear powers are in direct conflict with one another. To make matters worse, the shooting has already begun, and once that happens, events become increasingly difficult to predict and control.
In my previous article, I did my best to impart the dangers of nuclear war and how it will spell the end of the human species, despite whatever rose-tinted projections suggest otherwise. Thus, my primary desire is to see the prevention of nuclear war at any cost. That means encouraging others to face harsh realities and accept bitter compromises—an easy and painless thing for me to do, sure, because I’m not Ukrainian. But facing these realities is necessary nonetheless.
So, with that in mind, let’s examine a possible option for peace before it is too late.
On the March 1st episode of Tucker Carlson Tonight (please set aside all biases against Carlson for the moment), retired Colonel Douglas Macgregor offered one of the more clear-eyed assessments of the war I’d heard in recent days. But first, to better understand his analysis, take a look at this map of Ukraine:
Pay attention to the red line and the blue circles. The red line traces the Dnieper River, which splits Ukraine into eastern and western halves. The blue circles denote the major Ukrainian cities that are under heavy attack by Russian forces. Notice their locations. All of the cities are either on, or to the east, of the Dnieper River.
In Colonel Macgregor’s view, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s objective is to take control—either directly or through the installation of friendly regimes—of all the territory east of the Dnieper. That includes Kiev, at least for the moment. Macgregor believes that Putin has no desire to go further west, but instead wants a negotiated settlement wherein a “Ukraine 2.0” with new eastern boarders, formally adopts a position of neutrality between Russia and NATO.
This—undoubtedly—will be an exceptionally bitter pill for the Ukrainians to swallow. After all, if the Russians were invading the United States, I doubt I would be so cavalier as to say, “Sure, take the entire East Coast, why not?”
Nevertheless, the consequences for Ukrainian civilians—as well as potentially the world—could be significantly more severe if they do not.
So, here are some harsh and extremely unpopular realities.
First, Ukraine will not win this war. I don’t care what it does, how hard it fights, or how courageous its people are, it will not win. Russia began its invasion with one hand tied behind its back. Its soldiers were clearly under orders to avoid provoking civilians, minimize civilian casualties, and avoid the destruction of critical infrastructure. Yet now, according to Macgregor, that phase of the war is over. In other words, the gloves are coming off. The Russians have encircled every major city, and from there, they can pound them with long-range artillery and airstrikes until all resistance is obliterated. And make no mistake, there is no scenario in which a plucky resistance expels the Russian military from Ukraine with its tail between its legs. Moscow will do anything to prevent that. So, if it needs to reduce every Ukrainian city to rubble, then that is exactly what it will do.
Second, Ukraine must agree to Russia’s demands immediately, even if those demands involve partitioning the country along the Dnieper River. I understand that such an idea is destined to provoke a visceral reaction from many readers, but keep an eye on the big picture: If the war continues much longer, then on the low end of the spectrum, Ukraine will spiral into a meat grinder of endless sectarian chaos, displacing millions and killing countless thousands; while at the high end of the spectrum, there is World War III and a nuclear holocaust. Given the inevitable carnage in both these options, acquiescing to Russia now—no matter how distasteful—is worth considering. And remember, the more successfully the Ukrainians fight, the more heavy-handed and brutal the Russians will become. This is a war, like most wars, where there is no “winning,” only losing in the least awful way.
Yet on a side note, I would like to clarify that I do not like writing what I am writing. To me, my suggestion of Ukrainian acquiescence feels cowardly and shameful. I understand the impulse to fight, and I understand the revulsion to surrender. So, if nuclear weapons didn’t exist, then I would be writing a very different article. I’d be writing about why Putin needs to be stopped right now, otherwise his westward expansion will only continue. (Which it probably will until we come up with a more clever way than outright war to stop it.) I would be advocating maximum assistance to Ukraine, and if a bipartisan majority supported it, then I’d advocate for American boots on the ground to help the Ukrainians blast the Russians from their country. In fact, I’d love to write that article even now—it’s incredibly tempting.
But that is not the world we live in. Nuclear weapons do exist. Russia has thousands of them. So does the United States. If the two ever went to war, it would be the last war humans ever fought. So as much as I hate to say it, there is a time to be brave and a time to be smart. Right now is a time to be smart. Any analogies to Hitler at the onset of World War II, and how a strategy of “appeasement” will only invite further aggression, does not apply to the current situation, and for one simple reason: Hitler did not have nukes. The game is different now, and the lessons learned from the past could very well steer us into the apocalypse.
So, with that being said, is there any ray of hope? The way I see it, there is one.
The first thing to do is hold a formal peace summit between President Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Obviously, the meeting would occur on neutral ground, yet in my opinion, the best and most prestigious location would be Washington D.C. (Think Arafat and Rabin hosted by Clinton for Oslo I.) The most important thing is that the meeting is seen as a meeting between equals. Zelensky will then agree to Russian control of Crimea and the Donbas Region at a minimum, and if necessary, all territory east of the Dnieper. However, he will retain Kiev as the Ukrainian capital, as well as maintain possession of the country’s main shipping hub, Odessa. That, in addition to the city of Lviv in the far west, will give the new Ukraine a chance to rebuild what’s left of its economy. However, Zelensky will also agree to write an amendment into the Ukrainian constitution to remain neutral between Russia and the West. Thus, his country will never seek membership in the European Union, nor will it ever join NATO—neither of which was likely to happen anyway.
The key, however, is that Zelensky remains popular amongst Ukrainians. He is already a rockstar for staying in Kiev to rally his people in defense of their country. And now, as odd as it might seem, he is well-placed to assume a position of neutrality. Recall that on March 1st, Zelensky delivered an impassioned plea to the European Parliament to grant Ukraine immediate E.U. membership. His speech earned him a standing ovation—yet despite this outward display of solidarity, I would bet money that many of those parliamentarians were privately miffed that Zelensky had put them on the spot. Already, several prominent Europeans have gently rebuffed the idea. Germany’s foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, stated, “Joining the E.U. is not something that can be done in a few months ... it involves an intensive and far-reaching transformation process.” In other words: No. You can’t join the E.U. right now. Plus, the E.U.’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said that Ukrainian membership could still take “a lot of years.”
This genteel—and distinctly European—form of rejection gives Zelensky an opportunity for neutrality. He can claim that in Ukraine’s darkest hour, the E.U. abandoned it. He can say—somewhat truthfully—that all the E.U. really wanted from Ukraine was the lives of Ukrainians as they held the line against Russian expansionism. This narrative will land a death blow to Ukraine’s desire to join Europe.
Meanwhile, Zelensky will appear as though he forced Putin to the negotiating table, and once the agreement between them is signed, he will remain the Ukrainian president. As such, he will be viewed as a nationalist hero, and not a mere “puppet” of Moscow. (Whereas any other leader installed in his place would.)
As for Putin, he can tell the Russian people that his “special military operation” was a success and that he cleared out the “Neo-Nazi” elements from Eastern Ukraine—likely referring to groups like the Azov Battalion—and that he also safeguarded the ethnic Russians in the Donbas. Thus, if the peace talks are framed in the right way, then it can be viewed as a win-win for everyone. Russia saves face. Ukraine avoids the meat grinder. The world lives to fight another day.
I understand that this “road to peace” is thoroughly flawed. I understand that it demands exceptional sacrifices, and in many ways, it runs contrary to human nature. Russia invaded a sovereign country. It has displaced over a million people. It has killed hundreds, if not more. Ukraine stands at the brink of chaos. So, in a perfect world, a leader like Vladimir Putin would get what’s coming to him, and the good guys would win. But as we all know—often through painful experience—this is not a perfect world. The best we can do is keep the horror at bay for as long as possible. And I fear that if the war in Ukraine continues much longer, the entire world may soon discover the true meaning of misery.
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