Nina L. Khrushcheva is a professor of international affairs at The New School and the co-author of In Putin’s Footsteps: Searching for the Soul of an Empire Across Russia’s Eleven Time Zones.
“Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus of Nazareth tells his followers in the Sermon on the Mount, “for they shall be called sons of God.” Whether those who dare end brutal conflicts enjoy great rewards in heaven, as the sermon promises, is impossible to know. What is clear is that, here on Earth, peacemakers often pay a heavy price – often their lives – for their efforts.
The examples are both numerous and illustrious. In December, 1921, Michael Collins, a leader in Ireland’s struggle for independence from the United Kingdom, signed the controversial Anglo-Irish Treaty, which created the Irish Free State with King George V as its head of state. A bloody civil war ensued, and Collins was assassinated, though pro-treaty forces ultimately prevailed.
In November, 1977 – just four years after the Yom Kippur War – Egyptian president Anwar el-Sadat became the first Arab leader to visit Israel, where he delivered a speech that defied all expectations. “I come to you today on solid ground,” he told Israeli lawmakers, “to shape a new life, to establish peace.” That visit paved the way for the 1978 Camp David Accords and, in turn, the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty. But anti-Israel sentiment remained potent, and in 1981, fundamentalist Egyptian army officers opened fire on Sadat at a military parade, killing him instantly – but not the peace that he had initiated.
In September, 1995, Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo II Accord – a crucial step toward a comprehensive peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians. Less than two months later, an assassin’s bullet cut him down. But this time, the peace process did not survive the loss of the peacemaker; today, the two sides seem as far away from an agreement as they have ever been.
The list goes on. Weimar Germany’s Walther Rathenau was assassinated for negotiating the Rapallo Treaty with the Soviet Union. Mahatma Gandhi was shot dead by a Hindu nationalist fanatic who objected to his philosophy of tolerance toward Muslims. Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi was blown up by a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber soon after ending India’s military intervention in Sri Lanka’s civil war.
The message is clear: A leader who compromises for the sake of peace may well end up dying for the cause. It is a reality of which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky must be acutely aware.
Ukraine’s three decades of independence have been marked by savage political infighting, and the months leading up to Russia’s invasion were no different. The then-unpopular Mr. Zelensky even went as far as having treason charges filed against his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko. The Russian invasion changed everything, with Ukraine demonstrating a level of unity that has astonished and, in many ways, inspired the world.
Politically, Mr. Zelensky failed to establish the national unity government that his one-time rival, former prime minister Yuliya Tymoshenko, called for in the run-up to the war. But his policy of total resistance – including his demand that Russia withdraw completely from Ukrainian territory before any peace process begins – has won support from Ukraine’s opposition parties on the left and right, as well as its typically unruly oligarchs.
The only reports of frictions among Ukraine’s leadership involve the generals leading the fight. Some members of Mr. Zelensky’s inner circle allegedly fear that military leaders – who enjoy tremendous popularity among the Ukrainian public – might challenge the President in the next election.
This suggests that for now Ukrainians may be unified less behind Mr. Zelensky himself than behind his uncompromising stance on negotiations with Russia. So, if he succumbs to growing international pressure to soften his position, Ukrainians may not follow his lead. After the heroic fight they have waged, many may feel betrayed, even enraged. And if history is any guide, violence may well ensue, targeting Mr. Zelensky above all.
Many of those urging Mr. Zelensky to negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin are doing so because they genuinely want to end the bloodshed. If Mr. Zelensky is to be persuaded to grant concessions to a regime that has decimated his country’s infrastructure and annexed more of its territory, those encouraging him must devise a plan – and be willing to stand by it for years to come – that mitigates any and all offensive threats from Russia.
“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you,” Jesus proclaimed. Should Mr. Zelensky and his allies conclude that a peace deal is Ukraine’s best option, one must hope that evil goes no further than just a deluge of insults.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023. www.project-syndicate.org