We should support Ukraine, not pressure it to make concessions

Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via Associated Press - Thomas Peter/Pool Photo via AP

Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger made news recently by insisting that Ukraine should be forced to make territorial concessions to Russia in the interests of European “stability.” Kissinger has a history of both scoffing at, and trying to profit from, Ukrainian independence. Among his previous efforts to promote “stability” were the bloody overthrow of Chile’s elected government, which led to horrific human rights abuses, decades of instability, and the junta killing two people with a car bomb in Washington, D.C.

Others, too, have periodically suggested that the West should give Russian President Vladimir Putin an “off-ramp,” a face-saving way to claim victory in the war he launched. This is madness

Rewarding aggressors — and punishing those who resist them — creates not stability but more aggression.

Ukraine tried precisely what Kissinger is proposing in 2014, agreeing to a ceasefire, with Russia controlling large portions of its territory in Crimea and the Donbas. The result was extensive human rights violations against Ukrainians in the occupied territories, on-going shelling and ground assaults against unoccupied Ukrainian territory, and ultimately the current invasion.

We have no justification asking the Ukrainians once again to pursue a strategy that has so horrendously failed them already. 

Nor is the problem with appeasing Russian bullying unique to Ukraine. Russia seized two parts of the Republic of Georgia after the split-up of the Soviet Union, nominally as separatist republics. The West mumbled complaints and sought negotiations, which Russia ignored. In 2008, Russia seized additional land in both areas and continues to disrupt Georgia. 

A favorite example of those demanding that Ukraine appease its Russian invaders yet again is the Soviet invasion of Finland. On close examination, however, this comparison is deeply flawed. Stalin, like Putin, was seeking to reclaim control of lands formerly conquered by the Russian Empire. Because Finland, like Ukraine, had once succumbed to the tsars’ armies, he felt entitled to destroy Finnish statehood. 

Stalin’s initial attack in the Winter War of 1939-40, was a disaster, with Finnish snipers cutting to pieces Stalin’s ill-prepared invaders. Stalin reorganized his army and relaunched the invasion a few months later, taking much more Finnish land. The international community condemned the Soviet Union, but provided insufficient practical help. Ultimately, Finland ceded about 9 percent of its land to Russia. 

It is true that Stalin did not come back for more — but only because in the meantime the Soviet Union was invaded by Nazi Germany. If Stalin’s pact with Hitler had held up, there is no reason to think that he would not have come back to take the rest of Finland after putting his army in better order. 

The Ukrainians’ courageous and gritty defense has turned Putin’s current invasion into the equivalent of Stalin’s initial attack during the Winter War. Unlike Stalin, however, Putin has yet to accept his folly and withdraw. If outside pressure forces a premature ceasefire, Putin has given every indication he will reorganize his army, replenish his supplies, and attack again. Even if Putin promised not to do so, there is no reason to believe him: He has already disregarded repeated pledges to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

The U.S. recognizes the dangers of premature ceasefires in its treatment of Israel. We never press Israel to stop fighting until it has dealt heavy blows to its opponents. In the Yom Kippur War, we waited until Israeli armored columns were moving virtually unopposed toward Damascus and Cairo to intervene

Just as Israel’s population and economy are vastly smaller than those of its neighbors, with proper support the courageous Ukrainians can show Russia that they are a smaller country that is still too dangerous to attack. Concern about Ukrainian casualties are well-taken, but the proper response is not to make their sacrifices be in vain but rather to send Ukraine enough rocket launchers, modern jets, and other weapons that allow them to defend themselves without exposing themselves directly to Russian fire.

Stability in international affairs is, of course, a positive thing — but it can only be achieved if all parties adhere to implicit rules of conduct, and first among those is the rule against invading one’s neighbors. Nineteenth Century Europe, which Kissinger continually holds up as a model, achieved its stability only by punishing the transgressions of Napoleon — who was given an “off-ramp” to exile on St. Helena Island.  

Russia is likely to remain a destabilizing force until it abandons its imperial ambitions and tackles the corruption that burdens its economy. Germany’s economic growth over the last three decades would have been impossible had it maintained designs on its neighbors’ territory. 

As Kissinger knows better than most, when great powers find they have overreached in a war with a smaller country, territorial concessions are not routine. When President Nixon realized that the U.S. could not win the Vietnam War, he directed Kissinger to negotiate a face-saving exit. Kissinger covered it over as best he could, but essentially the Paris Peace Accords provided that we would leave Vietnam and that the North Vietnamese would let us leave. Everyone knew that the South Vietnamese regime was too corrupt and brutal to maintain much popular loyalty and would quickly fall — as it did. The U.S. saved face. 

The agreement with the Taliban, which President Trump negotiated and President Biden implemented, was very much the same sort of graceful capitulation. 

Once the brave Ukrainians and western sanctions have weakened Russia enough that even Putin — or his successor — has to admit the war is unwinnable, it should be easy enough to negotiate an agreement under which Russia agrees to leave, and Ukraine agrees to let them leave. With absolute control over the Russian media and a pliant parliament, Putin should have little difficulty spinning any peace as a total victory even without territorial concessions. 

Most simply, Putin can just announce that the “Nazi” presence in Ukraine is minimal — in fact, it always was — and therefore Russia has no further work to do there. And if he claims to have won “special guarantees” of an unspecified type, the Russian people will be all too happy to have their soldiers out of harm’s way without worrying about how “special” those guarantees might be. After all, his “special military operation” has not turned out to be so special, either.

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

Tags Appeasement broken promises Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances ceasefire countering Putin Crimea Donbas Foreign policy of Vladimir Putin Henry Kissinger Kissinger military aid to Ukraine Minsk agreement occupied territory Reactions to the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine rewarding aggression Russian aggression Russian invasion of Ukraine Russian irredentism Ukrainian victory Vladimir Putin

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