Skip to main content
opinion

Timothy Garton Ash is professor of European studies at Oxford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His new book, Homelands: A Personal History in Europe, will be published next spring.

As we mark the end of the ninth month of the largest, most brutal war in Europe since 1945, the worst thing we can do for peace on our continent is to push for peace negotiations with Vladimir Putin now. The best thing we can do is to increase our military, economic and humanitarian support for Ukraine, until one day it can negotiate from a position of strength.

If Russia held on to the Ukrainian territory it currently occupies, which is more than three times the size of Belgium, this could still be claimed by Mr. Putin as a historic victory, restoring at least part of the Novorossiya (New Russia) of Catherine the Great. It would also be a global demonstration that armed aggression pays. (Watch out, Taiwan.) But Ukrainians would never accept this anyway. This would be a recipe not for peace, but for an even longer war.

There will come a time for negotiations. A war with Russia, a country having one of the world’s largest arrays of weapons of mass destruction, and a leader evil and potentially desperate enough to use them, can’t end with unconditional surrender, as war with Germany did in May, 1945. The Ukrainian government is already starting to think, together with its Western friends, about the security arrangements and other provisions it should seek. Ukraine has an absolute legal and moral right to regain every inch of its sovereign territory, including Crimea. Any compromises it might make at the end of the day – for example, some special arrangements for Crimea – can only be the sovereign decision of Ukraine.

Self-evidently, a peace along these lines would be unacceptable to Mr. Putin. Therefore the Russian dictator either has to be compelled to accept it, or the peace deal will have to be made with a Russia no longer controlled by Mr. Putin. No one knows when or how change in Moscow will happen, and the moment of change may also be one of increased danger – but nonetheless, this is the best chance we have of eventually getting to a lasting peace after a long war. In order to get there, the West must step up its support for Ukraine, to enable it both to continue winning militarily and to survive a hard winter.

The most immediate military need is air defence, not least to counter further attacks on civilian infrastructure. Multiple rocket launch systems like the U.S.-made HIMARS have been a key to Ukraine’s military success, and more are required to deplete Russia’s still massive conventional artillery. If Ukraine is to recapture its own territory – and as the Russian-controlled area is reduced in size, the battle will become more concentrated – it must have modern tanks like the German-made Leopard 2. Beyond this, it also needs generators, engineers to help mend its power stations, medical supplies, and a large amount of financial aid just to prevent its economy from collapsing.

In the early months of the war, the lion’s share of military support came from a handful of Western nations, above all the U.S., but also the U.K., Poland, Estonia and a few others. There are very few things to be proud of in the record of British governments over the last few years, but this is one of them.

Yet other European nations, with different wartime experiences and more contorted public attitudes, are increasingly pulling their weight as well. Experts of the European Council on Foreign Relations have proposed a “Leopard plan,” under which all the European countries using the Leopard 2 tank would come together to equip a Ukrainian armoured brigade. Similar European consortia should be considered for air defence, but also for civilian necessities such as energy infrastructure.

Wouldn’t Mr. Putin escalate in response? He already has. And he might go further, conceivably even across the tactical nuclear threshold. But no course of action in war is without risk. In the long run, the risks that would flow for the entire world from a victory for naked armed aggression would be much greater. The right response is not to rush to negotiation out of fear, as counselled by protesters in countries such as Germany and Italy. It’s to make detailed contingency planning for every possible eventuality, such as the landing of missiles on Polish soil last week.

There will be no durable peace in Europe while Mr. Putin remains in the Kremlin. We cannot remove him, but we can contribute to creating the conditions in which Russians themselves will eventually abandon the self-destructive course on which he has launched their country. In the end, Russia, too, will benefit from a Russian defeat in Ukraine. Or do those protesters think Germany would be better off today if the Western allies had sued for peace with a nuclear-armed Hitler?

It seems counterintuitive, perverse, even immoral, to argue that war is the path to peace. But now that we have (culpably) allowed our continent to descend into a major armed conflict, the best road to a lasting peace is to enable the right side to win the war.