There will come a time for negotiations – but calls to reach a deal with the Kremlin now are more wrong-headed than ever
Timothy Garton Ash
Nov 23, 2022
As we mark the end of the ninth month of the largest, most brutal war in Europe since 1945, the worst thing we can do for peace on our continent is to push for peace negotiations with Vladimir Putin. The best thing we can do for peace is to increase our military, economic and humanitarian support for Ukraine, until one day it can negotiate from a position of strength.
Donald Trump recently hinted that he might be the perfect candidate to practise the art of the deal with Putin. Silvio Berlusconi has also proposed himself as a mediator. What a dream team they would be together – Moscow’s dream team. Putin would like nothing more than to have a ceasefire in Ukraine while these two sit around his Covid-secure long table in the Kremlin. Meanwhile, the Russian dictator’s battered, demoralised armed forces could dig in to defend the still-large expanse of Ukraine they occupy, regroup, rest, rearm, bring in the recently conscripted reinforcements – and then start up the war again, sending a thank-you consignment of vodka to Berlusconi and Trump.
If Russia held on to the Ukrainian territory it currently occupies, which is more than three times the size of Belgium, this could still be claimed by Putin as a historic victory, restoring at least part of the Novorossiya (New Russia)) of Catherine the Great. It would also be a global demonstration that armed aggression pays. Watch out, Taiwan. But Ukrainians would never accept this anyway. Opinion polling shows that they are prepared to pay a very high price, including further military and civilian casualties, to regain their territory. So this would be a recipe not for peace but for an even longer war.
There will come a time for negotiations. A war with Russia, a country that has one of the world’s largest arrays of weapons of mass destruction, and a leader evil and potentially desperate enough to use them, can’t end with unconditional surrender, as of Germany in May 1945. (This situation casts disturbing retrospective light on the question on what might have happened if Nazi Germany, rather than the US, had been first to successfully develop the atom bomb.) The Ukrainian government is already starting to think, together with its western friends, about the security arrangements and other provisions it should seek. Ukraine has an absolute legal and moral right to regain every inch of its sovereign territory, including Crimea. Any compromises it might make at the end of the day – for example, some special arrangements for Crimea – can only be the sovereign decision of Ukraine.
Self-evidently, a peace along these lines would be unacceptable to Putin, especially since he announced that four regions of Ukraine were now part of Russia. Therefore the Russian dictator either has to be compelled to accept it, or the peace deal will have to be made with a Russia no longer controlled by Putin. No one knows when or how change in Moscow will happen, and the moment of change may also be one of increased danger. Nonetheless, this is the best chance we have of eventually getting to a lasting peace after a long war.
In order to get there, the west must step up its support for Ukraine, to enable it to continue winning militarily and to survive through a hard winter. Losing on the battlefield, Russia has turned to cowardly and criminal attacks on the infrastructure supporting civilian life. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), half the country’s energy infrastructure has been damaged or destroyed, 10 million Ukrainians are currently without power and more than 700 medical facilities have been hit. (This week, a new-born baby was reportedly killed when a Russian missile hit a maternity hospital in the Zaporizhzhia region.) Nearly 8 million Ukrainians are displaced outside the country, perhaps about 5 million inside the country, and the WHO expects another 2-3 million to leave their homes “in search of warmth and safety”. Europe has seen nothing like this since 1945.
The most immediate military need is air defence, not least to counter further attacks on civilian infrastructure. Multiple rocket launch systems, such as the US-made Himars, have been key to Ukraine’s military success and more are required to deplete Russia’s still-massive conventional artillery. If Ukraine is to recapture its own territory – and as the Russian-controlled area is reduced in size, the battle will become more concentrated – it must have modern tanks such as the German-made Leopard 2. Beyond this, it also needs generators, engineers to help mend its power stations, medical supplies and a large amount of financial aid just to prevent its economy collapsing.
In the early months of the war, the lion’s share of military support came from a handful of western nations, above all the US, but also the UK, Poland, Estonia and a few others. There have been very few things to be proud of in the record of British governments over the past few years, but this is one of them. The fact that, even in the middle of an economic storm at home, Britain’s new prime minister, Rishi Sunak, thought it essential to travel to Kyiv reflects a broad, cross-party national consensus. As Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, tweeted back to Sunak: “Both of our nations know what it means to stand up for freedom.”
Yet other European nations, with different wartime experiences and more contorted public attitudes, are increasingly pulling their weight as well. Experts of the European Council on Foreign Relations have proposed a “Leopard plan”, under which all the European countries using the Leopard 2 tank would come together to equip a Ukrainian armoured brigade. Similar European consortiums should be considered for air defence, but also for civilian necessities such as energy infrastructure.Wouldn’t Putin escalate in response? He already has. And he may go further, conceivably even across the tactical nuclear threshold. But no course of action in war is without risk. In the long run, the risks that would flow for the entire world from a victory for naked armed aggression would be much greater. The right response is not to rush to negotiation out of fear, as counselled by protesters in countries such as Germany and Italy. It’s to make
detailed contingency planning for every possible eventuality, such as the landing of missiles on Polish soil last week.
There will be no durable peace in Europe while Putin remains in the Kremlin. We cannot remove him, but we can contribute to creating the conditions in which Russians themselves will eventually abandon the self-destructive course on which he has launched their country. In the end, Russia, too, will benefit from a Russian defeat in Ukraine. Or do those protesters think Germany would be better off today if the western allies had sued for peace with a nuclear-armed Hitler?
It seems counterintuitive, perverse, even immoral, to argue that war is the path to peace. But now we have allowed our continent to descend into a major armed conflict, the best road to a lasting peace is to enable the right side to win the war.
Timothy Garton Ash is a Guardian columnist