Ukraine's civil war just marked a grim milestone. Almost 8,000 soldiers, civilians, and rebels have died in the 17-month old conflict, according to a brand new report from the United Nations.  

Thousands of those have been killed since a much-ignored February truce.  To help stave off future rebel attacks, the Obama administration could send weapons to Kiev's embattled military.


That's a dangerous idea. Neither arms shipments nor sanctions will end the conflict in Ukraine.  In fact, arms shipments and sanctions are a formula for escalation that will turn Ukraine into the Somalia of Europe. To avoid further bloodshed, the United States must negotiate directly with Russia. It's the only way to achieve lasting peace, and keep Ukraine as a sovereign country.

In early 2014, pro-Western Ukrainians protested and overthrew Russian-backed president Viktor Yanukovych thanks to extensive financial and political support from Ukraine's uber-rich oligarchs. These business tycoons feared that Yanukovych would jeopardize their lucrative industrial empires by joining the Eurasian Customs Union -- the Russian-dominated equivalent of the European Union.

But the presence of far-right Ukrainian ultranationalists within the protestors' ranks frightened many ethnic Russians in the eastern areas of the country. Encouraged by Russia and in fear of being marginalized by Kiev, these regions tried to break away from the central government in Kiev. The resulting conflict has claimed the lives of over 6,000 Ukrainians and displaced more than a million others.

Russia and former Ukrainian politicians have supported the rebellion with thousands of troops, heavy weapons, and millions in supplies and financing. It's easy to see why -- the former superpower believes a rebel defeat would endanger its own national and economic standing.

Carving a pro-Russian border state out of the rebel-held provinces, from the Kremlin's viewpoint, is an effective way to prevent a strong, unified Ukraine from posing a military and economic threat. While Ukraine alone is no match for Russia, NATO is.

Ukraine has already expressed an interest in joining the western military alliance. Russia will expend every possible effort to stop the possibility of NATO armies establishing outposts in Ukraine, where they could threaten Russia's vitally important Caucasus gas and oil fields.

Those energy resources further explain Russia's involvement in the conflict. The Russian economy depends greatly on exporting oil and gas, mostly to European buyers. Close to 40 percent of Russian gas exports reach the European Union via Ukrainian pipelines.  Russia can't afford to let a Western-allied Ukrainian government hold its energy revenues hostage.

Furthermore, Russia has strong cultural ties to Ukraine. Kiev was once the capital of the state that grew into modern Russia. The Slavic strain of Orthodox Christianity -- the religion of 75 percent of Russians -- was founded in Ukraine. Ukraine was a key republic in the Soviet empire.

Simply put, Russia isn't going to let the Ukrainian government regain control of the breakaway regions. No amount of U.S. arms will defeat the separatists, who are backed by Russian troops and local business leaders. The Kremlin has already proved it will step up its own military commitment to the conflict whenever the rebels have neared collapse.

Likewise, American and European sanctions have battered the Russian economy but produced no measurable change in Russian policy. In fact, the sanctions may have even strengthened Russia's resolve to persevere. Earlier this year, Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov boasted Russians were "united as never before" in the face of economic hardship. President Vladimir Putin's popularity has actually risen during the crisis -- clear evidence of a "rally-round-the-flag" effect.

America should rely on its deal making skills -- not weapons or sanctions -- to end the conflict.  The United States rightly wants a peaceful, prosperous Ukraine that's open to the West. Russia understandably wants to protect its strategic, economic, and cultural interests in Ukraine. Those goals aren't mutually exclusive.

There are a few obvious starting points for negotiations. Talks should take place within the framework of a joint U.S.-Russian or U.S.-E.U-Russian commission that has specific decision-making powers and is held to firmly enforced timelines. The rebellious regions should be offered significant degrees of autonomy within Ukraine. The West should promise not to incorporate Ukraine into NATO in the future. And, in return, Russia must end its support of the separatists and force them to disarm.

Negotiations are the only way to ensure a peaceful solution in Ukraine. The alternative is more bloodshed and the possibility of a failed state in the heart of Eurasia.

Vanetik is a Lincoln fellow at the Claremont Institute and serves on the national board of Gen Next.