An appeasement of Vladimir Putin will not create lasting peace, as our partner portal The Economist analyzes.
Margaret Thatcher is said to be George H.W. Bush once admonished that this was “no time to waver” as the two leaders discussed their response to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. If she were alive today, she would most likely want to repeat that warning.
The war in Ukraine has entered its fourth month, and Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked aggression has provoked reactions few would have thought possible – especially the courageous Ukrainians, but also the West, which is supporting the country politically, economically and materially Has. Russia’s large but inept army was pushed back from the north of the country after failing to capture the capital, Kyiv.
She was also expelled from Kharkiv, the second largest city in north-eastern Ukraine. The army nonetheless claims significant gains in the eastern Donbass region and in the south, where it has seized the “land bridge” linking the previously occupied Crimean peninsula to Russia itself. As the resistance continues, cautious optimism prevails in Ukraine. Arms are pouring in from the West, and Congress recently approved a $40 billion aid package.
Still, voices are growing among Europeans and some Americans that it is time to explore options for a ceasefire and peace talks. Some believe the war would be ended more quickly if Putin were given a “fallback option” that would allow him to win some kind of victory at home. Such considerations encounter an emotional interest. Nobody wants an eternal war. The longer it lasts, the greater the death toll, the devastation of homes, the damage to Ukraine’s economy, and the risk of global grain supplies coming to a standstill. If Putin can save face to save lives, what’s wrong with that?
But it would be naïve to believe that Putin is prepared to sign a peace agreement. This week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned that talks would only buy Russia more time (as in the past) to entrench and regroup before attacking again. It is still Ukraine’s goal to “regain its entire territory,” according to Zelenskyy. He appealed to the West, as he has repeatedly done since the war began, to send more and better weapons so his country could repel the invasion. He also expressed concern about the lack of unity in the West in its support for Ukraine.
He is right on all counts. The world faces grave dangers if Putin’s aggression is rewarded; if he is allowed to keep the land he occupies. Recall the events of 2014. With little concrete Western support, Ukraine had to watch as Russia annexed Crimea and then backed a separatist takeover of the eastern part of the Donbass. After eight years, still nothing had been returned. Emboldened by the weak response, Putin decided to take a second, far larger bite out of a country he has repeatedly dubbed a 20th-century administrative invention.
What would happen if the West backed away from Zelenskyy and pressured him into premature talks? Most likely, Russia would consolidate its gains; that it would withdraw any agreements made; and that Putin’s position at home would be further strengthened by his victory. After all, this has already happened in the past. And at some point he might succumb to a third attempt in Ukraine or in another country like Georgia, Moldova or even one of the Baltic States.
Other despots in other parts of the world would also conclude that warmongering pays off if you stick with it long enough. Faced with discontent at home, they would seek military glory abroad to distract their people. In doing so, they could count on short-lived resistance from the democratic world.
No solution can be imposed on Ukraine without the consent of the Ukrainian people. Zelenskyy is unlikely to remain in office if he pre-emptively cedes territory in a rash attempt to placate his rapacious neighbor. Nor would the inhabitants of the affected territories humbly yield to the repressive Russian rule; rather, it would result in a guerrilla war that could drag on for years.
The situation on site is still uncertain at the moment. The Russians have withdrawn from the north and north-east and increased the pace of their attacks in the east. Their attack is aimed at the Ukrainian-held city of Severodonetsk in the Donbass. With this they intend to cut off the Ukrainian forces and advance to Sloviansk and Kramatorsk in order to secure the entire region.
How far Putin will go is unclear, but until he can be trounced, he will stop at nothing to harm Ukraine. An open, western-facing democracy is on its doorstep. For him, it represents a challenge to the encapsulated autocracy he has imposed on Russia. Since he does not allow Ukrainians to live in peace, they have no choice but to oppose him. The West must help them until their task is complete.
The article first appeared in The Economist under the title “Ukraine needs support, not timorous advice” and was translated by Cornelia Zink.