Stop the war

The devil is dancing again in Europe, and I fear he will kill us all. It is time to stop the war in Ukraine and arrive at a negotiated settlement. Now. Yesterday.

There was and is no question who was to blame for the decision to pursue a maximalist invasion of a sovereign neighbor. Vladimir Putin is the aggressor. Over the longer term the story may be complicated. Questions of how we came to find ourselves in the circumstances under which Putin made his horrible choice — over the past few years, since 2014, since the 1990s, since 1917 — are sharply contested. There are accounts that would center Putin’s nationalism and revanchist imperialism, and also accounts that hold choices of the United States and the broad West substantially to blame. I lack the background adjudicate those contesting stories. Even among experts working in good faith, I think there would be no consensus on the truth of these matters.

The present is much clearer. In the run-up to the war, I favored the threat of strong sanctions in hopes that it would deter the invasion. When this long telegraphed war began, I expected, as most observers expected, quick Russian domination. I feared that sanctions would be too weak, that a divided, corrupted, and commercially entangled West would fail to impose sufficient consequence for Putin’s horrible choice, as it had failed to following Putin’s annexation of Crimea and fomenting of separatists in 2014. Like so many Western observers, I viewed the situation through the lens of Munich, the infamous appeasement of Hitler widely blamed for inviting the catastrophe of World War II. Putin’s domination of Ukraine might not be avoidable, but then it must at least be costly. Even though sanctions are terrible, they should be strong since they are the only consequence available. If arming the Ukrainian government could increase the cost of the invasion, that action, also ugly, might be justifiable as well. The key objective was that Putin should not imagine that his aggression had come cheaply, or that further aggression would not be fiercely resisted.

Both war and sanctions have gone very differently than I expected. The sanctions, both as formal state action and informal isolation by risk averse or publicity sensitive firms, have been profound. After a wobbly start, public outrage pushed politicians and businesses to spare no effort or instrument that might harm the aggressor’s economy. Freezing the reserves of Russia’s Central Bank, an extraordinarily severe intervention that had not been widely discussed in the run-up to the invasion, went from an unlikely “what if” to a fait accompli in a matter of days. Major Western multinationals abandoned their commerce in Russia overnight. Firms foundational to modern international commerce, like the shipping giant Maersk, announced they would not serve Russia, so the imports Russians rely upon for ordinary life may become scarce. Russian planes were forbidden from most European and North American airspace, planes’ leases were canceled, Boeing and Airbus announced they would not supply parts to Russia, international ticketing networks quickly excluded Russia’s flagship Aeroflot. Civil aviation to and within the country may quickly be crippled.

With the help of arms from Western powers, the war also has not gone as expected. I cannot judge whether Ukrainians’ fierce resistance has truly turned the tide of the war, or delayed what remains militarily inevitable. But it has imposed huge costs, in materiel and in blood. The apparent errors and unpreparedness of the invaders have been a public humiliation of Russia’s armed forces.

The most important costs of the war have not, of course, been borne by Russia, but by the people of Ukraine, whose homes have been bombed, who have been forced to flee by the million, who are giving birth in basements to infants without diapers, hot water, formula. In the moral calculus of the war, the suffering Russia has imposed upon Ukraine far overshadows the costs Russia has borne on battlefields and in pocketbooks. But suffering does not salve suffering. It all just compounds. The suffering of a Ukrainian mother mourning a child caught in the shelling and a Russian mother mourning her conscript son who had no idea he was going to war feel very much the same. This war is hideous, a monstrosity, for everyone touched by it.

Before the war, it was right to be concerned that Russia would win its blood-soaked prize without paying a sufficient price to deter further aggression. That concern has been addressed. Russia has paid a high cost in blood already, and its citizens will pay an extraordinary cost in deprivation until the sanctions are reversed. Yet the focus of the Western world remains how to make it hurt more, both economically and militarily. That may be reasonable while the aggression continues. But we should all be very clear that the goal now is to stop the aggression and limit the suffering of all parties. In my view, the outside world is focused far too heavily on vicariously fighting an inspiring fight and far too little on ending the misery and negotiating a peace. The Ukrainian resistance has been inspiring. But don’t mistake an inspiring fight for a good fight. War is evil. With every battle won so much more is lost. Every soldier left to rot on the battlefield is an eternity of tears. This is not a football game. There is no glory.

Suffering is bad. It is remembered. Sometimes it is avenged. Peace is the essential foundation of human flourishing. But a cold peace is a fragile peace. That was the lesson of Versaille, and now it is also a lesson of the Cold War. After World War II, the victorious powers wisely constructed a warm peace in Europe. Arguably the greatest period of human flourishing in all of history was the result. We need a warm peace now, one that encompasses and reconciles Ukraine, Russia, and their neighbors. The worse the suffering, the longer it endures, the more difficult it will be to build a modus vivendi that serves us all.

I do not like Vladimir Putin. I wish death upon no one, but my preference would be he retire from power, perhaps live out his days like Idi Amin somewhere. But it makes no sense, it is profoundly a bad idea, to sustain the war in hopes some backlash provokes his departure. That is at best a speculative enterprise paid for in others’ blood and misery. It is also a very reckless gamble. L’etat, c’est moi is not an unusual sentiment among autocrats. The circumstance most likely to provoke nuclear war is existential threat to l’etat. It would be great, fantastic, if the Russian Federation undergoes an orderly succession of leadership. But that is their business, no one else’s, to encourage or impose. While Mr. Putin is Russia’s leader, we shall have to build a warm peace with the Russia that Mr. Putin leads. Isolating states whose leadership we dislike is a tried and true tactic of the United States, see Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, Cuba. These are not success stories. We engaged with China, from the 1990s until 2016. It didn’t become a liberal democracy, as many hoped, but we did enjoy a warm partnership during that period, before we adopted a more adversarial tone under the Trump administration. Our relationship with China was bad for us, economically. But that was because we failed to look after our own interests, despite having every necessary tool to do so. We should go back to building a warm partnership with China, but do a better job of looking after our economic interests. Building a warm peace with Russia does not preclude carefully attending to both states’ security interests. On the contrary, it is prerequisite.

It is extraordinarily reckless for Western powers to be abetting a conflict this destructive, this intimate, with a nuclear superpower. My son is eight years old. He is everything, the only thing. I am very unsure now that he will see his ninth. I agree that it was necessary, when Putin resolved to invade Ukraine, to make sure that the action would be costly, so he would not be emboldened to a new imperialism. That objective will be accomplished. It is time for the parties, Ukraine and Russia, along with the EU and United States, to negotiate a settlement that nobody loves but everyone can live with. Stop the atrocity, stop the bloodletting, stop this war. Now.


12 Responses to “Stop the war”

  1. Nicholas Weininger writes:

    That we must continually offer realistic off-ramps to avoid further escalation that might go nuclear, I completely agree. That a “warm peace” is a realistic outcome of taking such an offramp, I’m not sure. The post-1945 warm peace of Europe was built on the total victory of the Allies and the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany. Could it really have been built on, say, a negotiated armistice agreed in 1943 or 1944 to cut short the horrors of WWII while leaving the German regime in place? Would the result of such a peace still have been such great postwar human flourishing?

    I honestly don’t know, and I don’t know that we can know. If I’d been alive in ’43 or ’44 I might well have advocated a negotiated peace too. But let’s not minimize our uncertainties or set our expectations too high.

  2. Sam writes:

    It is not up to us to determine when Ukrainian suffering is too great to compensate for their loss of sovereignty; that is a decision for the people of Ukraine. It’s not for us to call for a negotiation which you clearly believe will end in that loss because a week is too much. To say “now you must lay down your arms and give up your home because I am scared for my family“ makes it seem as though you don’t understand that they are scared, too, are facing the same dilemma for their homes and children but with a great deal more immediacy. As much at it is possible to tell through the fog of propaganda, they are not choosing to give up yet, and they are more intimately acquainted than we are with both their own suffering and what they stand to lose.

  3. Mario writes:

    I applaud the sentiment, but it’s entirely clear that the US is willing to fight to the last Ukrainian. There would have been no war to start with otherwise. Ukraine is the battleground US chose for the confrontation for Russia, why should they change their minds now when they got what they wanted?

    This war will probably prove a mistake for Russia, and it’s a danger for the world, but more than anything it’s a tragedy for Ukraine. They did try to avoid this fate: Zelenskiy was elected on the platform of peace with Russia. That didn’t help because since 2014 and probably before the US controls Ukraine’s military and security, as they do in so many other countries around the world. Nobody else plays the Deep State game so well.

  4. Sergej writes:

    The only possible settlement here is for Russia to withdraw. What else is there to negotiate? And Putin is hell bent on pushing forward, not even thinking of withdrawing. Stop being disillusioned. This Putin’s nightmare should end and it should end with him personally being gone, one way or the other. You are in a typical liberal manner worry about 140m+40m people and ignore another 7.5bn people on this planet. I do care at least for the 40m, but I care also for the 7.5bn. And the 140m are free to decide on their own.

  5. reason writes:

    Mario you should read what Sam wrote. This war is not the United State’s doing regardless of how badly it has behaved in the past. You are ignoring the obvious agency of the Ukrainian people in this not to mention the agency of Russself.

    This is as bad as the MSM always couching story’s in terms of only the Democratic Party has agency and ignoring the actions of the Republicans.

  6. Mario writes:

    > Mario you should read what Sam wrote.

    You should read what I wrote. The Ukrainian people do have agency, and they expressed it by electing a president with the platform of peace with Russia. What they got instead was more NATO advisers and armaments, repudiation of signed peace agreements, and preparations to retake Donbas by force. If you think United States had nothing to do with this, do offer an alternative explanation.

  7. Detroit Dan writes:

    Thanks Steve. I always appreciate your humanist perspective and constructive suggestions. Some good news today in that Zelensky says he has ‘cooled’ on joining NATO and is open to discussions about control of Russian-backed separatist regions. Nothing is set in stone and win-win resolution may still be possible.

  8. reason writes:

    OK Mario,
    I’m sorry, I thought you were not talking about a fantasy narrative. Russia and the Ukraine are the actors here. The US is not responsible for everything. “Advisor” means advisor, and every escalation has come from the Russian side as is now absolutely clear.

  9. Mario writes:

    Hi “reason”,

    No country is an island. The US and EU have poured an awful lot of money into Ukraine. They may call it “promotion of democracy” but who pays the piper calls the tune. And note the $5 billion is from *before* the 2014 coup/regime-change/revolution/whateveryouwishtocallit, there’s just no leaked information since but the tempo could have only increased. What do you imagine military “advisors” do?

  10. Unanimous writes:

    Mario. You’ve linked to an article debunking your claim. You might like to read it to discover you are wrong.

    Also, during this same period Russia has shot, poisoned,and threatened the families of numerous leaders in numerous countries including Ukraine.

    Other claims such as that NATO has expanded are also stupid. NATO exapnding is just countries freely chosing to join a group for mutual defence. NATO would never spotaneuosly invade or attack any country including Russia. NATO is not any equivalent to an empire conqering countries.

    If Russia had sufficient rule of law so that it’s internationsl treaties were credible, it could join NATO to cheaply gurantee it’s own defence. Instead it is run by a classic dictator with a stupid understanding of the world who will cling to power for its own sake.

  11. Unanimous writes:

    As long as Ukrainians want to fight, let’s help them in every way short of spreading the war to other countries. If they change their minds and want to stop, let’s help them do that too.

  12. Mario writes:

    > Mario. You’ve linked to an article debunking your claim. You might like to read it to discover you are wrong.

    Oh I’ve read it, have you?

    The reason I’ve linked to this particular article rather than one of the myriad other ones that looks with the same $5 billion fact and concludes the obvious is that you’d just claim the source is biased and not worth reading. Furthermore you’d be right.

    In a heavily propagandized conflict like this, there’s no reason ever to trust or even to take note of the claims of the combatants (and NATO countries *are* combatants in the information war), *except* when they admit the claims of the other side. So there would be no point to link a pro-Russia source with pro-Russia claims, nor a pro-NATO source with pro-NATO claims. The particular article I’ve linked ends with a “pant on fire” judgement on the strawman “$5 billion paying Ukrainians to riot and dismantle their democratically elected government” claim, but in the process admits that US has indeed poured that amount of money into Ukraine – it’ just that nobody can track where exactly it went and therefore the strawman claim is unprovable.

    The $5 billion BTW originates from the mouth of Victoria Nuland (do you not trust a State Department official?), which has proven a gift that keeps on giving. Beside her recent shooting off her mouth about the US-funded biological weapon labs in Ukraine, she’s also the one who named the then-future prime-minister of Ukraine in 2014. Does picking the prime minister count as influence in your book?