Talking peace is not popular in Ukraine right now. Given the context this is understandable. Russia is terrorising Ukrainians in their homes with missiles and drones. Its attacks on Ukraine’s infrastructure – its electricity grid, water and heat systems – threaten millions with a cold, dark winter. This follows the brazen annexation of four Ukrainian regions. No one forgets the Russian military’s war crimes against civilians. Russian officials talk peace because they want to consolidate their territorial gains. Ukraine scorns peace now because it has momentum on the battlefield. It wants the peace of the victorious.
It has always been the case that the more Ukraine wins on the battlefield, the more dangerous this geopolitical crisis becomes. Russian president Vladimir Putin cannot countenance losing and has made nuclear threats that US president Joe Biden, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy and French president Emmanuel Macron acknowledged are serious. Biden was blunt about the danger: “I don’t think there is any such a thing as the ability to easily use a tactical weapon and not end up with Armageddon.” Yet, as we approach this frightening prospect, talking peace has become taboo.
The progressive Democrats were right to call for greater diplomatic work alongside military support. Searching for peace should never be taboo
Last March, Zelenskiy offered to talk directly with Putin. Now, in the wake of Putin’s annexation of yet more Ukrainian territory, Zelenskiy signed a decree banning direct talks with Russia until it has a new leader. Regime change in Russia, it seems, is now a precondition for Ukraine coming to the negotiating table.
Zelenskiy’s stance may be morally justified but it locks Ukraine, and its supporters, into what looks like endless war for perfect peace. Officially the United States, Kyiv’s biggest backer, is content to let the Ukrainians decide if and when negotiations should occur. A senior state department official told the Washington Post recently: “Our job now is to help them be in absolutely the best position militarily on the battlefield . . . for that day when they do choose to go to the diplomatic table.”
The White House reiterated this stance in response to a letter last week by 30 progressive politicians in the US House of Representatives calling on Biden to “seek a realistic framework for a ceasefire”. That letter caught considerable flak from the impassioned Ukraine lobby, and in a highly unusual move, it was retracted and disavowed.
That such a bland letter became controversial indicates how much Ukraine has become a sacred cause in the US and elsewhere. Remember, the Democrats who wrote the letter fully support Biden’s policy of arming Ukraine to defend itself. They simply noted that the catastrophic possibilities of nuclear escalation and miscalculation only increase the longer the war continues. This led them to request “a proactive diplomatic push” alongside financial and military support to Ukraine to seek a ceasefire.
That was too much for Ukraine’s supporters. War is the only acceptable policy in the face of Putin’s evil, and if nuclear war is a risk, then so be it. Giving in to “nuclear blackmail” sets a terrible precedent. Putin is a war criminal who can never be trusted. Negotiations with him are impossible. The path to peace is through battlefield victories and the liberation of all Ukrainian lands. These convictions are declared with fierce fervour. All those who question the costs of moral absolutism, who speak of a ceasefire and peace, are cast as appeasers in league with a diabolical Putin.
Ordinary Ukrainians on the front lines are divided on a ceasefire and negotiations. My Ukrainian colleague Karina Korostelina and I surveyed the attitudes of both residents and displaced persons in three Ukrainian cities close to the southeast battlefields this summer. Almost half agreed it was imperative to seek a ceasefire to stop Russians killing Ukraine’s young men. Slightly more supported negotiations with Russia on a complete ceasefire, with a quarter totally against and a fifth declaring themselves neutral. Respondents were torn when considering whether saving lives or territorial unity were more important to them. Those most touched by the war, namely the internally displaced, were more likely to prioritise saving lives. Other research reveals that those farthest from the battlefields have the most hawkish attitudes.
The parties to the Ukraine war are not sleepwalking to Armageddon but marching there with righteous fervour
The White House seems content to prioritise war over peace. Indeed, the seeming subordination of US foreign policy interests to Ukraine’s wartime needs is remarkable. Historically, Ukraine was never a vital US strategic interest. But today the US and its Nato allies are irredeemably entangled in its war. If Ukraine escalates, the US and its allies are pulled along. Crimea remains the most dangerous place. Last week Zelenskiy told an international audience “we will definitely liberate Crimea”. In contrast to Kherson, such a possible liberation would be more about land than people as most Crimeans see themselves as Russians. Currently, western support enables Ukrainian leaders to hold such maximalist war aims. While support is justifiable, it prioritises war over diplomacy, locking Ukraine and Russia into a zero-sum struggle that could go nuclear.
The parties to the Ukraine war are not sleepwalking to Armageddon but marching there with righteous fervour. In the absence of diplomacy, deepening horrors within Ukraine and beyond are likely, including famine in east Africa given the recent disruption of the grain export agreement. Ukraine will continue to fight for territorial liberation, while Russia will turn to ever more radical measures. The progressive Democrats were right to call for greater diplomatic work alongside military support. Searching for peace should never be taboo.
Gerard Toal is a professor at Virginia Tech in Washington DC and author of Near Abroad: Putin, the West and the Contest over Ukraine and the Caucasus