A clear Ukrainian victory is the only route to lasting peace
“The true definition of madness,” Einstein reportedly said, “is repeating the same action, over and over, hoping for a different result.” Unfortunately, many proposals for ending the war on Ukraine ask the Ukrainians to repeat the same actions they have tried over and over with disastrous results. Those advocating for trying these approaches yet again bear a heavy burden of explaining why this time would be different.
Many outcomes that may sound plausible to those uninformed about Putin’s history quite rightly look disastrous to Ukrainians. For example, Putin has said he wants a neutral, “demilitarized” Ukraine. Russia had that beginning in 1994, when Ukraine surrendered the nuclear weapons it inherited from the Soviet Union in exchange for guarantees of its existing boundaries from Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom.
Rather than allow this neutral, demilitarized Ukraine to live in peace within the longstanding boundaries Russia pledged to guarantee, Putin exploited Ukraine’s weakness to intervene in its politics and fix a presidential election for his deeply corrupt crony. When the Ukrainian people overthrew Putin’s puppet, Putin again took advantage of Ukraine’s weakness by seizing Crimea and a large part of Ukraine’s industrial heartland in the East.
At some point, outsiders may tell the Ukrainians that they should accept a ceasefire at any price, even if it leaves Russian forces in their country. Ukraine did this after Russian’s 2008 invasion, with the promise of peace talks.
Russia responded by stalling, shelling unoccupied parts of Ukraine, setting up two corrupt puppet regimes in its occupied territories — one of which shot down a Malaysian civilian airplane — and ultimately disavowing its agreement, to invade yet again.
Nor are these isolated intrusions. Throughout the region, Russia has repeatedly seized parts of its neighbors’ territory, agreed to a ceasefire, and then continued its occupation without serious negotiations. It has occupied two regions of Georgia and one in Moldova for decades. Ukrainians know these “frozen conflicts” mean an indefinite loss of sovereignty, the indefinite subjugation of Ukrainians to Russian misrule, and a constant source of instability draining the country’s human and financial resources.
Some go so far as to suggest that Ukrainians should simply accept Russian rule. Russian officials insist, after all, that Ukraine is somehow intrinsically part of the Russian nation. Remarkably, some of those in the West taking this view have the temerity to claim to be anti-imperialists.
Leaving aside the cultural and historical ignorance these claims depend upon, Russia has made abundantly clear that, in any union, Ukraine would be little more than a tool to advance Russia’s interests rather than its own. When the Russian-dominated Soviet Union ruled Ukraine, it left roughly 4 million to starve to death in 1932-33 when it seized most of Ukraine’s harvest. This seizure, and the grain’s subsequent sale to the U.S., simultaneously funded the industrialization of Russia and crushed efforts to revive open expressions of Ukrainian culture. Few Ukrainians do not have relatives who suffered or died during this period.
Russia’s reliance on cluster bombs and its wanton destruction of residential areas and economic infrastructure show complete disinterest in governing those areas for the well-being of the people there. Little that Russia has done in its eight years of rule over Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk suggests any serious interest in economic development or meeting the people’s needs there.
The U.S. and other western powers may feel tempted to accept a “Yalta II”, recreating the 1945 conference in a small Crimean town where American, British, and Soviet leaders re-drew the map of Europe and imposed the result on the peoples affected. We have no right to do this because we will not be the ones to suffer under the next Russian invasion.
Anyone promoting any such settlement should have a plausible answer when the Ukrainians rightly ask: “What will prevent another invasion in a few years?” Russia has repeatedly broken its promises to pursue its malign nationalism. NATO membership might deter future Russian aggression, but we have taken that off the table for now. Prolonged, devastating sanctions might eventually degrade Russia’s ability to make war, but neither we nor the Europeans have much credibility on maintaining sanctions. The only other alternative is a sufficiently humiliating Russian defeat to scare off Putin and his successors from future military adventures.
Unless Russia agrees to withdraw from all Ukrainian territory, how long to continue fighting will be a difficult decision that only the Ukrainians can make. They have done well, at an egregious cost, so far. They may falter, especially if we skimp on provisioning them, but our record of predicting Russian triumphs is flawed. Russia’s overconfidence, the corruption and brutality that have rotted out its military, and Ukrainians’ determination to have a better life, have allowed Ukraine to do far better than almost anyone expected. If this war stops short of a conclusion, however, Russia will surely repair and reorganize its military and strike again, quite possibly with far greater success.
The casualties the Ukrainians have already inflicted on Russia, and the command, weapons, and logistical failures Russia has suffered, make this the best chance the world is likely to get to frustrate a Russian invasion and change the political calculus within that country. We should give the Ukrainians what they need to make this invasion an abject failure that future Russian leaders will be loath to emulate.
Nobody could possibly loathe this war more than the Ukrainians. But with such overwhelming evidence of Russia’s implacable hostility, and with the repeated failure of the supposedly “reasonable” approaches outsiders commonly recommend, the Ukrainians can quite properly press on to secure lasting security for themselves, for their children, and for the rest of Europe. If the Ukrainians seek to take back their occupied territory now rather than giving Russia a do-over, we should give them our full support.
David A. Super is a professor of law at Georgetown Law. He also served for several years as the general counsel for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Follow him on Twitter @DavidASuper1