As Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine drags on into its fifth month, ever-increasing numbers of western “experts” are calling for an “off-ramp” or a “diplomatic” resolution to the war. The most compelling argument in favor of seeking a negotiated settlement was recently presented by MIT professor Barry Posen in the influential journal Foreign Affairs. His position echoes those of Henry Kissinger, John Mearsheimer, Jonathan Powell, Noam Chomsky, and several others.
In each case, these highly respected intellectuals reject the possibility of a Ukrainian victory on the battlefield. They view the prospect of reconstituting Ukraine’s territorial integrity through military means and/or a significant weakening of Russia’s war machine through sanctions as unrealistic. Therefore, they view the “theory of victory” propounded by the Zelensky administration, and supported (for now) by the political leadership of the U.S., U.K. and most European Union (EU) countries, as a sham.
These analysts – none of whom are Ukraine experts – are rightfully appalled by the destruction caused by Russia’s war in Ukraine and call for a humane cessation of hostilities. Apparently, giving up territory for the sake of peace is an acceptable price for the West to pay in exchange for peace. After-all, the territory to be ceded to Russia would be Ukrainian, and so (apparently) expendable.
Give Russia an inch, it will take a mile
One could repeat the oft mentioned rebuttal to such proposals: that Russian President Vladimir Putin cannot be trusted to keep to a negotiated settlement (and that Russia would inevitably return in strength to fight another day), or that any such deal would amount to a sell-out of Ukraine – a betrayal of the valor shown both by its people and its Armed Forces.
But these arguments are countered with a superficially valid response: better to have peace than to continue the killing of Ukrainians while the world’s economies face food and energy shortages and other disruptions. Giving up territory is seemingly favorable to incurring long-term economic costs and never-ending human losses.
The “land-for-peace” proposals voiced by western analysts are all logical – as well they should be given the stature of their authors. However, each appears to miss one important factor in the current geopolitical equation: the agency of the Ukrainian people.
Any negotiated settlement involving territorial concessions to Russia would have to be accepted by Ukraine’s population. Taking into account the current social mood in Ukraine, even the hypothetical possibility of such a deal is seen as treasonous. Poll results recently published by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology show that 89% of Ukrainians consider the return of all territories to Ukrainian sovereignty (including the Donbas and Crimea) to be the only acceptable scenario for ending the current war.
Even if one ignores the moral dilemma that ceding territory also involves abandoning its inhabitants, the map of Ukraine is a foundational symbol and component of Ukrainians’ identity. Giving up a part of it is simply not politically tenable. Ukraine’s territorial integrity is seen as sacred.
During the past two decades, Ukraine’s elites have learned not to try to force unpopular political decisions onto the Ukrainian electorate. In the past, such attempts have led to mass protests (in 2004 and again in 2013-14) and confrontations that resulted in political leaders’ loss of face (or worse).
Inevitably, any attempt to adopt a negotiated settlement with Russia that might involve anything less than a full reconstitution of Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders will be met with massive popular resistance within Ukraine. Any political leader brave enough to support such a deal will likely not survive (perhaps figuratively; possibly literally). Russia would clearly profit from any such political instability.
Kudos for Zelensky
Since February 2022, Ukraine’s political leaders and diplomats – led heroically by President Volodymyr Zelensky – have been exceptionally successful in making the country’s voice heard on the international stage.
Zelensky understands the need to maintain international backing, but he also understands the importance of domestic support. His nightly addresses to the Ukrainian people testify to his political instincts and savvy. Communication is at the heart of his presidency, and he seems always aware of his approval rating.
In democracies, elite decisions taken without popular approval, or even contrary to the will of the majority, are never legitimate. Those who forget that Ukraine is a democracy do so at their peril. Ukraine’s political elites have learned this lesson well.
And so, despite its apparent attractiveness to some external analysts, in Ukraine’s current domestic environment negotiating a “land-for-peace” deal with Russia would amount to political suicide. If any such arrangement were agreed to (which is highly unlikely), the responsible political leaders would be swept from office quickly and possibly violently, spawning massive political uncertainty within Ukraine and further weakening its ability to defend itself.
No doubt Russia would exploit such weakness to its advantage, likely ordering its troops to invade further into Ukraine. “Land-for-peace” would therefore result in further loss of land and certainly, no peace.