Ukraine Doesn’t Need All Its Territory to Defeat Putin

The new report in The New York Times that Russia is quietly signaling a readiness to freeze the war in Ukraine is both suspicious and tantalizing.

The caveats are many: An armistice would leave Vladimir Putin in control of about a fifth of Ukrainian territory. He is not trustworthy; he could use prolonged negotiations to bolster his forces for a renewed push, or to lull Western lawmakers into cutting aid for Ukraine; he may be stalling in the hope that Donald Trump, his preferred choice for president, will return to the White House and stiff Ukraine.

But if Mr. Putin turns out to be serious, Ukraine should not pass up an opportunity to end the bloodshed. Recovered territory is not the only measure of victory in this war.

A painful reality check shows the 600-mile-long Ukrainian-Russian front in a figurative and literal freeze, draining Ukrainian resources and lives without much prospect for change in the foreseeable future. The much-anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive of the past six months exacted a huge cost in casualties and materiel, but barely nudged the front lines. Ukraine’s top military commander has said the fight is at a “stalemate” — a notion deemed taboo not long ago — and only an unlikely technological breakthrough by one side or the other could break it. As the year draws to an end, lawmakers in the United States and Europe have separately held up critically needed aid packages for Ukraine, and there’s no certainty how they will fare in the New Year.

The conflict could still take an unexpected turn, as it has before. But the prospect at this juncture is of a long war of attrition, inflicting ever more damage on Ukraine, sacrificing ever more lives and spreading instability over Europe. The way things are going, “Ukraine will for the foreseeable future harbor Europe’s most dangerous geopolitical fault line,” argues Michael Kimmage, author of “Collisions,” a new history of the war. He foresees an endless conflict that would deepen Russia’s alienation from the West, enshrine Putinism and delay Ukraine’s integration into Europe.

That, at least, is the bleak prognosis if victory in the war continues to be defined in territorial terms, specifically the goal of driving Russia out of all the Ukrainian lands it occupied in 2014 and over the past 22 months, including Crimea and a thick wedge of southeastern Ukraine, altogether about a fifth of Ukraine’s sovereign territory.

But regaining territory is the wrong way to imagine the best outcome. True victory for Ukraine is to rise from the hell of the war as a strong, independent, prosperous and secure state, firmly planted in the West. It would be exactly what Mr. Putin most feared from a neighboring state with deep historical ties to Russia, and would be a testament to what Russia promised to become in 1991, when both countries broke free of the Soviet Union, before Mr. Putin entered the Kremlin and succumbed to grievance and the lure of dictatorial power and imperial illusion.

Any talk of armistice is understandably difficult for Volodymyr Zelensky, the intrepid Ukrainian president who has steadfastly sought to project a morale bolstering picture of steady battlefield successes. It would be very painful, and politically very difficult, for him to halt the fighting without punishing Russia and leaving it in control of so much Ukrainian land. After his senior military commander, Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, described the true state of affairs as a stalemate in an interview with The Economist in November, Mr. Zelensky bristled at what he perceived as defeatism.

But to explore an armistice is not to walk away. On the contrary, the fight must go on, even when talks begin, to maintain the military and economic pressure on Russia. Those people who are resisting continued aid to Ukraine, whether some Republicans in Congress or Viktor Orban in Hungary, must not be allowed to abandon the Ukrainians at this juncture. If Mr. Putin is seriously looking for a cease-fire, he is doing so on the presumption that the alternative is a continued slaughter of his soldiers, and that there is nothing more he can achieve through destruction, violence or bluster.

And stopping the fight is not to grant Mr. Putin a victory, however loudly he may claim one. Ukraine and much of the world will not accept his annexation of any Ukrainian territory. Russia’s army has been mauled and humiliated and the country’s economy has been severed from the West. Mr. Putin launched the invasion 22 months ago convinced that it really would be a “special military operation” — that the Ukrainian government would promptly cave, that the West would prove impotent, and that a Moscow-installed quisling would ensure Ukraine never became independent, successful, free or joined to the European Union.

Instead, Russia was forced into a chaotic retreat from Kyiv and plunged into a terribly costly war with a stalwart Ukraine backed by billions of dollars worth of American and European arms and funds. It took Russian forces, led by mercenaries, more than a year and massive casualties to capture one city, Bakhmut; another key town, Avdiivka, is still in Ukrainian hands despite wave after wave of soldiers, many of them ill-prepared reservists and conscripted convicts thrown against it.

Untold thousands of Russian soldiers have been sent to their slaughter and untold thousands more of Russia’s best and brightest have fled the country, whether to avoid the war or imprisonment for opposing it. Mismanagement of the war prompted a short-lived mutiny by the head of the mercenary Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, followed by his death in a plane crash almost certainly engineered by the Kremlin.

Crushing sanctions have put an end to nearly all business with the West and have fueled spiraling inflation, although Mr. Putin has found ways for his cronies to profit nonetheless. And while the Russian economy got a short-term boost from feeding the military machine and filling the gaps left by sanctions, long-term prospects are bleak.

In many ways, Mr. Putin has achieved the opposite of what he set out to do. The Ukrainian nation whose existence he pooh-poohed has been steeled in fire, and on Dec. 14, the European Union formally agreed to open accession negotiations with Ukraine — the very westward shift Mr. Putin went to war to block. Finland has joined NATO and Sweden is edging closer to membership. These are not the elements of victory.

They are also no reason for false hopes. After his visit to Washington, Mr. Zelensky should have no illusion that the American spigot is wide open, especially if Donald Trump returns to the White House. At his joint news conference with Mr. Zelensky, President Biden, whose mantra had long been to support Ukraine for “as long as it takes,” rephrased the pledge to read “as long as we can.”In the European Union, Mr. Orban, the Hungarian prime minister and an admirer of Mr. Putin and Mr. Trump, has tied up approval of another 50 billion euros for Ukraine.

It is understandable that the prospect of pumping endless resources into a stalled military operation would incur resistance. It would be harder for the skeptics to question additional aid if there was a prospect of an end to the fighting and a shift to the reconstruction of Ukraine.

An armistice would not be easy to achieve or to police. But conversations and writings about various potential models have been quietly circulating in government and think tank circles. The authors of the most recent one, Samuel Charap of the RAND Corporation and Jeremy Shapiro of the European Council on Foreign Relations, argued that however dim the prospect of peace, the war “will probably end through some sort of negotiation.”

The first stage of talks, they proposed, would be focused on agreeing to stop hostilities, disengaging the forces and installing a third-party monitoring mission. The next hurdle would be to devise a security arrangement that would give Ukraine the assurances it needs while taking account of Russia’s opposition to a full NATO member on its eastern border. Many other issues would enter into the mix — Russian war crimes, reparations, sanctions. And any armistice would be far short of a final settlement.

But the only way to find out if Mr. Putin is serious about a cease-fire, and whether one can be worked out, is to give it a try.

Halting Russia well short of its goals and turning to the reconstruction and modernization of the country would be lasting tribute to the Ukrainians who have made the ultimate sacrifice to preserve the existence of their nation. And no temporary armistice would forever preclude Ukraine from recovering all its land.

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