In Ukraine, Resistance Must Be Balanced With Appeasement

Analysis by Clive Crook |

February 25, 2023

In judging Vladimir Putin’s reckless invasion of Ukraine, moral fundamentalism is entirely appropriate. What he’s done is evil. Judging what to do in response has always been more complicated — and, as the war enters its second year, still is.

America’s hawks like to say the war presents the US and its partners with two options: appeasement (cowardly and doomed to fail) and resistance (noble and, with Western help, leading to a Ukrainian victory). This is a false choice. From the outset, the US and Europe have both appeased and resisted, and rightly so. The challenge now, as throughout, is to swallow one’s disgust at striking such a balance, and to think it through.

The idea that the US and Europe have appeased the Russians might seem odd, because appeasement is generally taken to mean surrender, which the West clearly hasn’t done. Stripped of performative baggage, however, appeasement means accommodation or conciliation — of which there’s been plenty.

Many supporters of Ukraine frame the conflict as an existential fight between democracy and tyranny, one that the West simply cannot afford to lose. Yet the US and its partners are not yet at war with Russia. They’ve applied sanctions to Russia, provided economic support to Ukraine, and sent weapons in vast quantities — but much more slowly than Ukraine would like. They haven’t supplied the most lethal arms. They’ve decided to confine the fighting and destruction and death to Ukraine. Russian cities aren’t being bombed, and US and European soldiers aren’t laying down their lives alongside Ukraine’s heroes.

Measured against “whatever it takes,” this qualifies as appeasement. It belies the claim that we’re all in this together. And, crucially, these accommodations make it thinkable that Russia, having wrecked Ukraine and destroyed countless lives, might in the end prevail.

And yet: Hard as it may be to accept, some such appeasement is not just rational but also morally defensible — hence the rhetorical camouflage. Outright war with Russia might well escalate to nuclear conflict. The notion that “most analysts think it is unlikely that Russia would use tactical nuclear weapons,” as one columnist reported, is hardly reassuring. (When it comes to avoiding Armageddon, I would prefer something more solid than what most analysts deem unlikely.) I also notice that even those who set the risk of nuclear war at or close to zero, and/or believe that Putin will start a wider war of imperial conquest if he’s allowed to win this time, aren’t saying the US should send its forces right now to fight Russia in a conventional war. Why is that?

Western leaders are surely right to weigh the human costs of escalation — to say nothing of a possible nuclear war — in their calculations. A concern I’ve had from the outset, however, is that US and European support for Ukraine’s resistance gives too little weight to the costs we’re urging Ukraine to bear. To be sure, Ukraine has been extraordinarily brave and wants all the support it can get. Even so, a policy that sustains its resistance — and the suffering it entails, without fully committing to the swiftest possible Ukrainian victory — is not beyond reproach.

These dilemmas can be disguised but not resolved by repeating, “There’s no real choice,” or “There’s no turning back,” and so forth. The awful challenge is how to calibrate the balance of appeasement and resistance.

There’s a good case for more of both. When Russia’s initial invasion was crushed, there was a chance to build an off-ramp for Putin, involving some combination of limited territorial concessions and lifted sanctions (appeasement) and guarantees of Ukraine’s future security (resistance). Neither side wanted it, and the US and its partners — wrongly in my view — didn’t press for it. Now they want it even less. War hardens mutual enmity and strengthens the resolve to show that its losses haven’t been in vain. 

The off-ramp is still worth exploring — though the terms, given the hardening of positions, would need to change. Unfortunately, China’s new position paper on a cease-fire and political settlement is useless as a blueprint because it’s almost entirely devoid of content. A plausible settlement proposal can’t just call for peace. It has to advance Ukrainian and Russian interests such that neither side believes it has lost.

One such settlement could give Ukraine not just security “guarantees” but immediate full membership of NATO, plus close economic partnership with the EU and conspicuously generous aid for reconstruction and development. Russia would be granted some territorial gains, no sanctions, no demand for reparations and restoration of limited economic relations.

If they chose to promote such a deal, the US and its partners would also need to accelerate the supply of arms to Ukraine, including F-16s, and quietly let Russia understand that they might soon be unable to restrain Ukraine’s desire to take the fight to Russian territory. NATO members would commit, in any event, to spend more on defense and make it clear that this settlement would not be celebrated as “peace in our time.” NATO’s members would need to understand that, even if the war on Ukraine ends, war on Putin’s Russia might well be in their future, and they have to be ready.

It’s clear to me, at least, that such an agreement would stop the killing and leave all parties better off than they can expect to be if this war keeps going. But the question of whether it would work may be premature. The question for the US and its partners right now is whether an agreement of this kind is worth a try.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Clive Crook is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and member of the editorial board covering economics. Previously, he was deputy editor of the Economist and chief Washington commentator for the Financial Times.

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  1. Note: this is the article referred to by focusser yesterday. F1 said :

    “Just saw this headline on an article in Bloomberg. I can’t access the article it’s behind a paywall, but some US companies really need to get in the real world.”

    “In Ukraine, Resistance Must Be Balanced With Appeasement

    As the war in Ukraine enters its second year, a negotiated settlement remains as repugnant — and necessary — as ever.”

  2. Clive Crook says :

    “Russia would be granted some territorial gains, no sanctions, no demand for reparations and restoration of limited economic relations.”

    NO, NO, NO, and NO.

    Fascist murder gangs must never profit from their hate, destruction, terror, lies, torture, rape, theft, dismemberment, and genocide.
    The absurd and vile blood libel : “Kyiv is run by nazis” alone should cost these bastards $1 trillion.

    • That’s what I was thinking too. Some people speak and write about Russia with a dash of nostalgia and perhaps sorrow for their losses. Russia isn’t a country and never has been. They are at best a mafia regime for centuries and should be treated as such. Until they shed their monkey costumes.

  3. Ukraine chose a path towards NATO and economic integration with the EU. Why, now, should they have to forfeit territory (and likely stolen children) to take that path when legally it was there for them all along.

    Sanctions should never be lifted against Russia for as long as they hold Ukrainian territory and kidnapped people.

    Yes, due to Russian nuclear power there is no choice but to appease them. This means we won’t be able to try and force regime change or march on Moscow. It does not mean we should let anyone with nuclear weapons take what land they want.

  4. I absolutely disagree to any sort of appeasement. We’ve appeased this criminal gang for 8 years and longer before this full-scale war was started. What did appeasement get us? That’s right, the same thing appeasing Adolf Hitler got us; a full-scale war.
    I’ve come to the conclusion that some people simply will never learn, or cannot ever learn, or don’t ever want to learn, from past, gross, terrible historic mistakes. The question is if these same people choose to be stupid, were born stupid, or were made stupid in some mysterious way (propaganda, drug consumption, alcoholism, a hit upside the skull, brain eating disease, lobotomy).

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