War can be ended, but peace would be tough for Ukraine to swallow

Defeating Putin in long run means accepting face-saving Russian ‘victory’ in immediate term

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shaken the world and unleashed geopolitical nightmares.

Already the war has produced the fastest and largest refugee crisis in Europe since the second World War. More than 2½ million Ukrainian refugees have fled the country, half of whom are reportedly children. The United Nations expects at least two million more. This is to say nothing of the large number of internally displaced people who have fled the fighting. Every day of war in Ukraine is another day of death and destruction for Ukrainians: thousands have already died.

Russian president Vladimir Putin’s war has sucked his military into a quagmire, with an estimated two to four thousand soldiers killed already. Wars of indiscriminate destruction approved by Putin in Chechnya and Syria inform how Russia now fights in Ukraine. Thus, Russia targets people it claims are part of its nation and destroys cities it considers central to its history. Such are the contradictions of Putin’s rescue fantasy in Ukraine: destruction in the name of salvation.

Horrible as this is, there are even worse scenarios, much worse. The invasion could spread into Moldova. A few days after Belarus served as a staging ground for Russia’s drive to seize Kyiv, President Lukashenko appeared on Belarussian television instructing his military in front of a map showing Russian lines of attack from the Ukrainian port city of Odessa into Transnistria, a Russian supported separatist region within Moldova.

This move is logical if Putin’s goal is to redraw post-Soviet space by force, gathering historic Russian lands into a new 21st century Russian empire. The vision is radical, to create by military force a new “Russian world” buffer zone comprising a Ukrainian puppet state, Lukashenko ’s Belarus, and “independent” separatist statelets like Transnistria and the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. Those that actively resist this imperial project are to be killed and driven out. Territories without troubling people: this is Putin’s cartographic fantasy in Russia’s near abroad.

Escalation entrepreneurs are everywhere in the West striking righteous hawkish poses

The war, of course, could also spread into Nato member states. This possibility is heightened by the brutality of the invasion. The urge within Nato states to intervene is overwhelming. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s plea for a no-fly zone, for fighter jets, advanced lethal weaponry, and punitive sanctions against the Russian economy, are understandable but they are calls for a wider war, for Nato to come to the rescue.

Escalation entrepreneurs are everywhere in the West striking righteous hawkish poses. Nuclear weapons were part of Russia’s war rhetoric from the start. Military escalation involving Nato will consolidate Putin’s paranoia. Already he has described the West’s economic sanctions as an “act of war” against Russia. It is never a good idea to back an embattled dictator into a corner, especially one with an arsenal of nuclear missiles at his disposal.

The war must be stopped, and quickly. To do so requires that Ukraine’s government, and its friends in the West, face a difficult paradox. To defeat Putin in the long run requires accepting a face-saving Russian victory in Ukraine in the immediate term. The outlines of a negotiated settlement, with Russia and Ukraine as the main parties, and the European Union, Nato and other actors as supporting stakeholders, are broadly visible. Here are some of its potential terms.

  • Russia and Ukraine sign a treaty of neutrality. In return for Ukraine committing to become a neutral state with a defensive military, Russia supports Ukraine's bid for membership in the European Union as a neutral state, like Ireland, Austria and Finland. The EU, for its part, commits itself to accelerate the membership process for Ukraine in return for it radically restructuring its legal and economic governance structures to address endemic corruption and state capture.
  • Russia and Ukraine agree to allow the United Nations establish and administer self-determination referendums in Crimea and the Donbas to decide the territorial destiny of these disputed regions. Those displaced from these areas by violence should be allowed to vote alongside current residents. Those who lost property should be fully compensated. The Donbas referendum should be held on the territory of the pre-war Donetsk and Luhansk regions and allow three status options: returning to Ukraine; independence; or joining Russia. Russia and Ukraine would commit to respect results of the referendums and to allow dual citizenship and an open border regime in these areas.
  • Ukraine commits to dissolve any far-right armed groups on its territory. It also commits to refrain from any official state glorification of Ukrainian fighters involved in mass killing events during the second World War. Russia and Ukraine commit to commemorate events in their joint history with tolerance and respect for the views of the other.
  • In a phased process, contingent on positive progress on the points above, the United States and the EU agree to drop sanctions against the Russian economy.
  • Nato and the Russian Federation commit to negotiate a new military security order in Europe. This would involve a series of arms control treaties governing the deployment of conventional military forces, short- and medium-range nuclear weapons, military aircraft, naval forces and cyber capabilities. It would also involve an explicit freeze on geopolitical competition over the six countries located in between Russia and the EU: Armenia; Azerbaijan; Belarus; Georgia; Moldova; and Ukraine. Nato's open door, in other words, needs to be firmly shut towards these states.

These proposals address the alleged security concerns expressed by Putin and involve painful compromise on the part of Ukraine, other neighbouring states of Russia and Euro-Atlantic institutions.

The brutality and violence of the war, however, has made compromise much more difficult. Faced, like other invading crusaders, with his illusions exposed by reality, Putin has chosen to double down. The day after the invasion he branded Ukraine’s leadership a “gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis”. Radicalised by resentments and social isolation, Putin is in a dark place emotionally, an embattled leader with a messiah complex and nuclear weapons. A week into the war he told French president Emmanuel Macron he still wanted to control all of Ukraine and to “de-Nazify” it to the end.

By contrast, the courage and sacrifice of ordinary Ukrainians under fire has been admirable and deeply moving. President Zelenskiy’s leadership is brave and inspiring. Through adept use of communication technologies, he has rallied Euro-Atlantic opinion and power to Ukraine’s side. But he risks becoming escalator-in-chief for a greater war that cannot be won.

The emotional wave of support for Ukraine across Europe and north America has largely brought out the best in us. Passionate commitment to Ukraine, however, makes compromise more difficult to accept. Those inflating the crisis as a showdown between democracy and autocracy are making a negotiated settlement harder too. Why not meet the moment, escalate the stakes, and push for civilisational victory over this tyrant? Why not, in effect, roll the nuclear dice?

Russia has already lost Ukraine and will not recover economically until Putin departs

We need to be clear about the dangers of such thinking. Crusades and civilizational struggles are enduring features of human history. But ever since 1945, nuclear weapons are also part of that history. Attractive as “good vs evil” thinking is right now, it is the enemy of de-escalation and the ugly compromises needed to give this war’s victims a good enough peace, an opportunity to return home quickly, to mourn, and rebuild.

Russia has already lost Ukraine and will not recover economically until Putin departs. Dark uncertain days lie ahead there. This criminal war has changed Europe and the world. It has revealed with clarity what needs to be done on collective security, democratic resilience, and energy transition. Its consequences will be with us for decades. The price of peace in Ukraine will be high but higher still is the price of its endurance and escalation.

Ending the war is paramount. We build from there.