Justin Ling is a freelance journalist and author of the Bug-Eyed And Shameless newsletter.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, addressing the Halifax International Security Forum from Kyiv, suggested the attendees ask “a more precise question: How to restore real and just peace?”
As Mr. Zelensky spoke, millions of his citizens sat in the dark, fending off the creeping winter cold, as his state rushed to reconnect electricity knocked out by a barrage of Russian missiles.
“Simply the end of the war doesn’t guarantee peace,” Mr. Zelensky continued. “Russia is now looking for a short truce, a respite to regain strength. Someone may call this the war’s end, but such a respite will only worsen the situation.”
Mr. Zelensky laid out his own vision for peace: total withdrawal of Russian troops from all of Ukraine’s land, the prosecution of war crimes, and concrete security assurances to prevent future conflict.
It was a sobering address, and a plain-spoken rebuke of those who have tried to push Ukraine into the trap of Russian-dictated peace negotiations or, worse yet, powers who would negotiate peace on Ukraine’s behalf. In recent weeks, senior U.S. officials have reportedly been pushing Mr. Zelensky to the negotiating table. Opiners in the West have bloviated that Ukraine has no real chance of success, or that arming the Ukrainian Armed Forces could do more harm than good.
Those assembled in Halifax over the weekend – NATO generals, an American congressional delegation, democracy activists from Russia, Belarus and Iran – were joined by more than a dozen Ukrainian officials and soldiers. They made clear that Ukraine, and only Ukraine, can understand what is at stake.
“Any trade in terms of justice mechanism toward Russia is a no go scenario,” Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Olha Stefanishyna told reporters. “Because every family in Ukraine has been subjected to a Russian war crime. In every family, somebody they knew died. Somebody has been tortured, raped or left without their houses.”
As for Ukraine’s chances on the battlefield, the skeptics expose themselves as painfully uninformed. Few of the armchair generals anticipated that Ukraine would be able to liberate Kharkiv, nor that they would push Russian forces from Kherson. As to where Ukraine may liberate next, Ms. Stefanishyna offered only a Cheshire smile when asked.
Western weapons, training and support have been instrumental – from anti-aircraft systems that have knocked hundreds of those very expensive Russian rockets from the skies; to the Canadian light-armoured vehicles that have begun arriving this fall; to hand-knitted camouflage which adorned the hallways of the Halifax forum this weekend, shipped to Ukraine and used to hide civilian infrastructure from air strikes.
“To end this war we need to negotiate with Russia,” former president Petro Poroshenko said onstage in Halifax. “This negotiation is led by the Ukrainian Armed Forces.”
Few people are as well-equipped to understand the risks of taking Russia’s Vladimir Putin at his word than Mr. Poroshenko, who was president when Mr. Putin launched his initial incursion into Ukraine last decade. It was Mr. Poroshenko who first sat at a negotiating table with Mr. Putin, who insisted that he wanted to “stop the bloodshed,” and to let Ukraine rebuild its critical infrastructure to “help the region to prepare for the winter.” Those were lies. Russia signed two ceasefire deals in 2014 and 2015, and ignored them. Russian continued sending soldiers in eastern Ukraine, shelling civilian positions, and arming terrorist militias.
Mr. Zelensky won the presidency on a pledge to negotiate: “I’ll ask what Russia wants and what Ukraine wants and we’ll meet in the middle.” Washington was relieved, with one official complaining to The Washington Post about “Ukraine fatigue.”
After Mr. Zelensky’s victory, he did go to the negotiating table. But he discovered earlier this year that Mr. Putin does not want peace.
After a stunning victory, Mr. Zelensky made good on his word: He met face to face with Mr. Putin to sign some limited agreements in 2020. But Mr. Putin’s aims are imperialist, and no number of deaths will dissuade him.
A ceasefire today will mean more war tomorrow. Letting Mr. Putin rebuild his war machine will not only lead to a more brutal campaign in Ukraine in the spring, but it also will see more brutality from Russian contractors in the Middle East and Sahel; it will mean more money and supplies for the Mullahs in Iran as they crack down on dissidents at home and in Kurdistan; it will continue to feed North Korea’s aggression; it will be a green light for Xi Jinping’s ambitions in Taiwan.
“I assure you peace is possible,” Mr. Zelensky said. “But for peace to exist, we must make impossible Russian aggression in all of its elements.”