After alternately ignoring and vilifying advocates for restraint in Ukraine, the foreign-policy establishment is coming around to … restraint. Over the past few months, American and European diplomats have been urging the Ukrainian government to sue for peace. “The conversations have included very broad outlines of what Ukraine might need to give up to reach a deal,” NBC News reported over the weekend, citing unnamed officials on both sides of the Atlantic. “The discussions are an acknowledgment of the dynamics militarily on the ground in Ukraine and politically in the US and Europe.”
Talk about the Cassandra effect.
For the better part of two years, opponents of escalation called for exactly such a course of action, only to be told that it is immoral, unrealistic, or both. Pro-diplomacy voices have consistently maintained that peace talks and some kind of negotiated settlement would be in the best interests of ordinary Ukrainians and their war-battered country, and that the US government should use its leverage to make that happen. They rolled out a litany of evidence to support the claim that, in the words of Canadian-Ukrainian University of Ottawa professor Ivan Katchanovski, “even a ‘bad’ peace is better than a ‘good’ war.”
Restrainers indicated that while Kiev is certainly justified in defending itself and trying to reclaim territory seized by Russia, the potential costs to Ukraine of a prolonged war would be much worse than the costs of losing territory. They pointed to the conflict’s staggering and unsustainable casualty figures for a country with a prewar population less than a third of Russia’s. They also tallied the profound economic costs of continued warfare, which saw Ukraine’s GDP shrink by 30 percent in just the first year; the country survived on the back of international grants and loans that left it deeper in debt and increasingly at the mercy of its neoliberal creditors.
Restrainers pointed to the risks to Ukraine’s fragile democracy, which the war had further degraded, while accelerating a tendency toward authoritarianism that was present even before the Kremlin launched its invasion. They cited the perils of escalation, warning that Putin—both under pressure from his own hardliners and in the face of a stumbling war effort—could amp up the brutality of an already brutal war.
Through it all, proponents of peace and restraint and many military experts stressed that an outright Ukrainian victory was highly unlikely, given the imbalance of military power between the two states and Russia’s stark advantages in a war of attrition. The country and its people, they warned, could very well wind up bearing all of these enormous costs, only to be forced into some kind of ceasefire or peace deal anyway, and on more unfavorable terms than they would have gotten earlier. The danger was always that, with the American public and politicians weary of funding escalation, Kiev would be forced to negotiate without the leverage of US military backing.
For their efforts, pro-peace and pro-restraint voices were viciously attacked. They were slammed with scurrilous accusations of carrying water for the Kremlin, smeared as propagandists and traitors, charged with secretly supporting Putin’s war, and labeled appeasers no better than Neville Chamberlain in “rewarding” a Hitler-like aggressor. Just recall the hailstorm of invective that rained down upon the group of House progressives who last October issued what one congressional aide accurately called “the world’s softest trial balloon about diplomacy.” “Ukraine will win,” was the incessantly repeated cry justifying this disgraceful behavior, as escalation proponents looked forward to a counteroffensive they were sure would justify this industrial-scale suffering.
Well, it’s now five months since the Ukrainians launched their counteroffensive, and what has been the result? In short, it’s been an unmitigated failure: From Jan. 1 to the end of September, Ukrainian forces had only taken 143 square miles, at the cost of around 50,000 lives, according to US estimates, with Kiev resorting to conscripting older cohorts of men in the face of a dwindling pool of healthy recruits. Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, the commander of Ukraine’s armed forces, recently admitted the war is a “stalemate.” Advisers around Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky are anonymously calling him delusional and convinced of a victory that is simply impossible.
Meanwhile, House Republicans are blocking further military aid to the country, and the Biden administration, underwhelmed by the territorial gains Ukrainian forces have made and distracted by the war in Gaza, has reportedly resolved to wrap up the conflict on terms that are sure to be lousier than what Kiev would have obtained had it entered talks earlier. Ukraine’s entry into the European Union is uncertain, and there is no real prospect it will be admitted into NATO. The population has shrunk, and as a result, Ukraine is facing a demographic crisis, while looking at a reconstruction bill of $411 billion, according to the Wilson Center.
In other words, just as pro-peace voices had warned, Ukraine is now looking at the worst of both worlds: accepting a far inferior peace deal, while having weathered the tremendous human and economic costs of a prolonged conflict. Most perversely, Kiev has been put into this position by those who postured as its most ardent supporters, the hawks who thought of the war as a way of humiliating Russia on the cheap.
Fact is, this war could have been brought to a close at several points earlier, and on identical or more favorable terms for Ukraine. There is now a mountain of corroborating evidence from those involved that peace talks in the earliest weeks of the war were bearing fruit, and that there was a tentative agreement for Russia to withdraw to its pre-February 2022 lines in exchange for Ukraine staying out of NATO. Washington and London scuttled such settlements in favor of a longer conflict that would be more damaging to Russia. Pro-war voices later pointed to the Bucha massacre to explain why these talks fell through, but both Zelensky and Ukrainian public opinion continued to favor negotiations after this atrocity was uncovered.
Zelensky himself was ignored throughout the middle of last year, when he repeatedly and publicly called for talks, and when there were ample signs that Moscow was open to them. Then, after the successful Ukrainian counteroffensive in September 2022—which saw a humiliating Russian retreat and the Ukrainian reconquest of more than 1,000 square miles of territory in six days—this stance changed. Kiev now rejected the Russian offers to negotiate and instead expanded its ambitions. The same Biden administration that had spent a year undercutting Zelensky’s attempts at negotiation now took up the mantle of “Nothing About Ukraine Without Ukraine” and fully backed Zelensky’s hawkish approach.
But it was only after this September decision that Moscow began attacking and destroying Ukrainian infrastructure, Ukraine started losing a reported three-digit number of troops every day in the Bakhmut disaster, and the destruction of the Kakhovka dam caused devastating damage to surrounding areas and Ukraine’s agricultural future. This isn’t even to mention tens of thousands of Ukrainian casualties, nor the fact that, by October, Russia had actually made a net gain of nearly 200 square miles since the start of the year. These disasters could have been entirely avoided had negotiations been supported last year—or at least mitigated, had the Biden administration followed up on Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley’s November call for Ukraine to “seize the moment” and pursue talks.
Instead, both the Biden administration and much of the US media establishment loudly rejected Milley’s plea in favor of maximalist aims on the battlefield. There is no denying that this blinkered mentality has now yielded precisely the disastrous state of affairs warned about. Only months later, with the Ukrainian offensive having gone nowhere, did a US official anonymously (and very quietly) admit to Politico that “Milley had a point.”
Unfortunately, it is too late to undo the terrible consequences that this course of action has produced for Ukraine. But diplomacy and behind-the-scenes US pressure are still preferable solutions to a host of global calamities, from the Israel-Hamas war to the bubbling American confrontation with China to who-knows-what in the future. After what we have seen in Eastern Europe, will the voices who favor such an approach finally be listened to?