By Serge Schmemann
The new report in The New York Times that Russia is quietly signaling a readiness to freeze the war in Ukraine is both suspicious and tantalizing.
The caveats are many: An armistice would leave Vladimir Putin in control of about a fifth of Ukrainian territory. He is not trustworthy; he could use prolonged negotiations to bolster his forces for a renewed push, or to lull Western lawmakers into cutting aid for Ukraine; he may be stalling in the hope that Donald Trump, his preferred choice for president, will return to the White House and stiff Ukraine.
But if Putin turns out to be serious, Ukraine should not pass up an opportunity to end the bloodshed. Recovered territory is not the only measure of victory in this war.
A painful reality check shows the 600-mile-long Ukrainian-Russian front in a figurative and literal freeze, draining Ukrainian resources and lives without much prospect for change in the foreseeable future. The much-anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive of the past six months exacted a huge cost in casualties and materiel, but barely nudged the front lines. Ukraine’s top military commander has said the fight is at a “stalemate” — a notion deemed taboo not long ago — and only an unlikely technological breakthrough by one side or the other could break it. As the year draws to an end, lawmakers in the United States and Europe have separately held up critically needed aid packages for Ukraine, and there’s no certainty how they will fare in the new year.
The conflict could still take an unexpected turn, as it has before. But the prospect at this juncture is of a long war of attrition, inflicting ever more damage on Ukraine, sacrificing ever more lives and spreading instability over Europe. The way things are going, “Ukraine will for the foreseeable future harbor Europe’s most dangerous geopolitical fault line,” argues Michael Kimmage, author of “Collisions,” a new history of the war. He foresees an endless conflict that deepens Russia’s alienation from the West, enshrines Putinism and delays Ukraine’s integration into Europe.
That, at least, is the bleak prognosis if victory in the war continues to be defined in territorial terms, specifically the goal of driving Russia out of all the Ukrainian lands it occupied in 2014 and over the past 22 months, including Crimea and a thick wedge of southeastern Ukraine, altogether about a fifth of Ukraine’s sovereign territory.
But regaining territory is the wrong way to imagine the best outcome. True victory for Ukraine is to rise from the hell of the war as a strong, independent, prosperous and secure state, firmly planted in the West. It would be exactly what Putin most feared from a neighboring state with deep historical ties to Russia, and it would be a testament to what Russia promised to become in 1991, when both countries broke free of the Soviet Union, before Putin entered the Kremlin and succumbed to grievance and the lure of dictatorial power and imperial illusion.
Any talk of armistice is understandably difficult for Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the intrepid Ukrainian president who has steadfastly sought to project a morale bolstering picture of steady battlefield successes. It would be very painful, and politically very difficult for him, to halt the fighting without punishing Russia and by leaving it in control of so much Ukrainian land. After his senior military commander, Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, described the true state of affairs as a stalemate in an interview with The Economist in November, Zelenskyy bristled at what he perceived as defeatism.
But to explore an armistice is not to walk away. On the contrary, the fight must go on, even when talks begin, to maintain the military and economic pressure on Russia. Those people who are resisting continued aid to Ukraine, whether some Republicans in Congress or Viktor Orban in Hungary, must not be allowed to abandon the Ukrainians now. If Putin is seriously looking for a cease-fire, he is doing so on the presumption that the alternative is a continued slaughter of his soldiers, and that there is nothing more he can achieve through destruction, violence or bluster.
And stopping the fight is not to grant Putin a victory, however loudly he may claim one. Ukraine and much of the world will not accept his annexation of any Ukrainian territory. Russia’s army has been mauled and humiliated, and the country’s economy has been severed from the West.
An armistice would not be easy to achieve or to police. But conversations and writings about various potential models have been quietly circulating in government and think tank circles. The authors of the most recent one, Samuel Charap of the Rand Corp. and Jeremy Shapiro of the European Council on Foreign Relations, argued that however dim the prospect of peace, the war “will probably end through some sort of negotiation.”
The first stage of talks, they proposed, would be focused on agreeing to stop hostilities, disengaging the forces and installing a third-party monitoring mission. The next hurdle would be to devise a security arrangement that would give Ukraine the assurances it needs while taking account of Russia’s opposition to a full NATO member on its western border. Many other issues would enter into the mix — Russian war crimes, reparations, sanctions. And any armistice would be far short of a final settlement.
But the only way to find out if Putin is serious about a cease-fire, and whether one can be worked out, is to give it a try.
Halting Russia well short of its goals and turning to the reconstruction and modernization of Ukraine would be lasting tributes to the Ukrainians who have made the ultimate sacrifice to preserve the existence of their nation. And no temporary armistice would forever preclude Ukraine from recovering all its land.