This is part of a Globe and Mail series marking the anniversary of Russia’s invasion, in which authors from Ukraine, Canada and beyond imagine what could come next.
Michael Ignatieff’s latest book is On Consolation: Finding Solace in Dark Times.
After a year of slaughter in Ukraine, influential people believe the right question to ask now is how to end the war. Henry Kissinger has been saying so since December. “The time is approaching,” he said then, “to build on the strategic changes which have already been accomplished and to integrate them [the Ukrainians] into a new structure towards achieving peace through negotiation.”
You would have thought Mr. Kissinger would know enough about negotiation to know there’s nothing to negotiate now. The battlefield will decide. The Russians will end the war when they achieve their objectives or when the battlefield tells them that they can’t. The Ukrainians will end the war when they repulse the invader or when the battlefield tells them they can’t.
Nobody knows how long this will take. The end of the war will not be decided in Washington or London but in Bakhmut, Zaporizhia and Kherson, in the places where courage, firepower, strategy and tactics will make the difference.
“How to end the war” is more than the wrong question. Right now, it’s a malign diversion. Instead of sticking with the Ukrainians, instead of asking them what they need, we’re asking them what they’ll settle for.
It’s true that, without our supplies and our money, they would have been already crushed, so we do have the right to ask when and how the war will end. But there is a time for everything. Asking it right now tells Ukrainians that we’re looking for a way out. It says we want them to read the writing on the wall, to understand that there’s a limit to what we can do. That we want them to be reasonable, and being reasonable is code for ultimately accepting some peace deal that gives up Crimea and the Donbas but sets them up so they can rebuild the rest of their devastated country.
Wars, experts are telling Ukrainians, often end with bad deals. Korea ended that way and 80 years later, one side is a crazy, bankrupt parody of a dictatorship, while the other is a rich, pluralist free society. If Ukrainians face the facts, says Steve Kotkin of Stanford, they could end up, in a generation, with something that looks like the Korean peninsula: on one side a Russian regime, dictatorial, nuclear, possibly demented but effectively deterred by NATO, and on the other, a prosperous, free and rebuilt Ukraine, belonging to the EU and kept safe with an army of their own, equipped with our best weapons.
With the war currently stalemated, philosophers such as Jurgen Habermas of Germany and policy think tanks like the Rand Corporation are saying it’s time for a compromise that denies the Russians what they’ve taken in the past year but leaves them with Crimea and Donbas. These voices are saying it’s time to be reasonable, because the longer the war goes on, the bloodier it gets and the more likely it will spill over into a direct confrontation between Russia and NATO. The trouble is, nobody willing to sacrifice everything should be told to settle for less.
Why should Ukrainians listen? Didn’t we underestimate their will to fight? We were the ones who thought Kyiv would fall in a week. They thought otherwise. They still believe that with more long-range missiles, Leopard tanks and F-16s, they can win. But that’s precisely what the West does not want.
For all the talk about how Ukraine and the West are fighting the same battle for democracy against tyranny, for the territorial integrity of states against naked aggression, there has always been a deep divide between their ultimate objectives. The West is paying for the war, and the Ukrainians are fighting it, but these allies don’t have the same idea of what it would mean to end the war.
When Western leaders, especially French President Emmanuel Macron, ask the question – how to end the war – they are really saying that they want the war to end before Ukraine wins. Because if Ukraine wins, Russia loses, and if Russia loses, or fears it’s about to, Mr. Putin may use his nuclear weapons. If he does, we are in an even darker world than the one we live in now. We don’t want to go there, so we want Ukraine to survive but not to prevail. No wonder the Ukrainians don’t want to listen. The battlefield will decide if they have to.