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Like it or not, ending war in Ukraine requires a compromise with Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Mikhail Klimentyev/Pool Sputnik Kremlin via AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin in a March 25, 2022, photo.

Last week, I wrote that there is an overwhelming need for Ukraine and Russia to compromise to stop the appalling death and devastation that has resulted from their war. I pointed out that compromise would not satisfy hardliners because it would require both sides to forego their maximum demands. Still, short of a victory that neither Russia nor Ukraine has the wherewithal to achieve, compromise is the only way to stop the fighting 

While there were positive reactions, there was also opposition.  I believe it would be instructive to look at the objections and move forward from there. 

Ukraine is winning, so it does not need to compromise. In fact, Ukraine has already won — by not losing. The Ukrainian people have bravely withstood the full force of the Russian military, gained worldwide respect and shown that they will not accept a puppet regime. Nevertheless, the war seems to be headed towards a prolonged stalemate. As a recent study by the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft noted, “History shows that long-term conflicts are highly destructive to the countries in which they are fought, carry great risk of escalation and other unpredictable outcomes, and are not effective in achieving key foreign policy goals.”     


Despite the determination of Ukrainians and the assistance provided by NATO countries, continued fighting is likely to result in Ukraine ceasing to be a viable country. The only way out would seem to be a negotiated agreement in which Ukraine would retain its national independence and Russia would also achieve some of its aims. Otherwise, neither side would be likely to agree. A settlement cannot be all or nothing: To the greatest extent possible, it must be win-win.    

Putin must go. Regime change is not the official position of the United States. However, many people favor it, including — apparently — President Biden, who recently went beyond his prepared speech in Warsaw to say Russian President Vladimir Putin “cannot remain in power.” Biden’s apparent gaffe clearly was heartfelt. Indeed, a strong argument can be made that Putin should not be able to stay in office. Still, a strategy of seeking to oust him would almost certainly be futile. Pursuing it would not only lead to the destruction of Ukraine but would also raise the threat of wider war.   

Compromise will reward Russian aggression. It is true that compromise would have to contain some rewards for Russia. Such is the nature of compromise. However, there is no alternative except war without end. The key would be to reach an agreement that would allow both sides to save face and win something. For Russia, this could include retaining de facto control of Crimea and the Donbas. For Ukraine, Russian recognition of Ukrainian sovereignty over such places might be part of the deal. In addition, Ukraine could renounce the possibility of joining NATO, something that President Zelensky has already indicated he is prepared to do. At the same time, Ukraine might be welcomed into the European Union. Ukraine might also be given a guarantee of its territorial integrity. In any case, meaningful peace talks should be accompanied by a ceasefire. 

Putin must be punished for war crimes. After reading last week’s article, a highly respected human rights leader wrote to me, “I suppose you realize that this proposed settlement imposes no penalty on Russia or any Russians for starting the war, destroying Ukrainian cities, killing and maiming thousands of Ukrainian civilians and forcing millions of Ukrainians to flee their homes, communities and country.” 

This statement is accurate. Unfortunately, imposing punishment, as the Nuremberg Trials did after World War II, is not a feasible option in dealing with a nuclear power such as Russia. Nuremberg was made possible because the Allies were able to achieve total victory over Germany and unconditional defeat of Russia is simply not going to happen. 

As another of my interlocutors stated, this presents an “excruciating dilemma.” Is it worth having Ukraine destroyed to pursue the impossible task of sending Putin to The Hague for trial?  

John Marks was the founder and long-time president of Search for Common Ground, an international non-governmental organization involved in peacebuilding. He currently is the managing director of Confluence International, a peacebuilding group based in Amsterdam.  

Tags Joe Biden Nuremberg Trials peace talks Peacebuilding Ukraine-Russia conflict Vladimir Putin War crimes during the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine

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