The Question of Peace in Ukraine

Photo Courtesy: Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images

By David R. Marples on January 20, 2024


As Russia’s war in Ukraine would enter its third year, the threat of a protracted stalemate looms large. With Ukraine’s summer offensive stalled, Russia’s forces digging in, and the West wavering on financial and military aid, the Biden administration now faces difficult choices. Should Washington pursue peace negotiations with Moscow now, or would such efforts be premature and counterproductive?

The Center for the National Interest invites you to a virtual debate on this important question featuring two leading Eurasia experts: Anatol Lieven (in favor) and Andrew Kuchins (against). The debate will take place on Tuesday, January 23 at 4:00 p.m. EST.

I received this message in my mailbox the other day. I also recently read former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s scurrilous vent entitled “Why Ukraine is dangerous for its residents, which included the following comments, as cited by the Meduza website on January 17, and extracted from the original article on Telegram.

Medvedev argued that from now on, any independent state that lies on “historical Russian territories” will serve as a “pretext for renewed hostilities” for as long as it exists. “By no means am I only referring to the current state, the Banderite political regime. I’m talking about any version of Ukraine whatsoever,” he stressed. Calling Ukraine a “cancerous growth,” the former Russian President insisted that the war-ravaged country will always be illegitimate from a legal perspective, no matter who its leader is.

Medvedev has also posted on X (formerly Twitter) a photograph of Kyiv’s main Independence Square (Maidan), with the comment that it will soon be known as Rossiya Square, and advocated the use of nuclear weapons against the neighbouring state. 

The two examples above should suffice to answer each other. How can there be negotiations to end the war as long as the objective of the aggressor–Russia–is to destroy the country it has invaded–Ukraine?

Perhaps one can dismiss Medvedev as one who writes rashly and without forethought, and who is no longer at the pinnacle of power. But he is Deputy Chairman of the Russian Security Council, a position of some authority and very much at the center of the Putin administration. 

Ukrainians today are fighting for their existence. They make no territorial claims other than to regain the borders of their state that were recognized both nationally and internationally in 1991. They have been at war for ten years against a more powerful and more numerous neighbor, and for two years in a broader war that began with a failed attack on their capital city. 

Moreover, Vladimir Putin has always maintained that any negotiations must accept as a premise that Ukraine cede four of its regions (Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia) to Russia, in addition to Crimea. Two of these territories are only under partial Russian occupation. All were within the borders of Ukraine accepted by Russia in the treaties of 1997 and 2004

On what grounds does Putin claim them? The answer is that they were formerly part of the Russian Empire that collapsed in February 1917. 

It is plain that acquisition of territory is a prime goal of Putin, and that Putin in general adheres to the same views as Medvedev, i.e., that there should be no state of Ukraine on the map of Europe. 

In short, as should have been apparent long ago even to the most jaundiced observers, the current war was never about the expansion of NATO and has always concerned the existence of a Ukrainian state and its aspirations to move closer to the EU and Western-style democracy.

And yet, those who advocate fuller US, UK, and EU support for Ukraine are often labelled as warmongers by Western critics. As he has done recently, Anatol Lieven is evidently going to argue that, as Russia is currently having some success on the battlefront, the West should cease aid to Ukraine and seek to push the country to seek what would be an extremely unfavorable peace agreement.

In 2008, the US-led NATO forces pushed the Serbian army out of Kosovo, just as a UN-led force removed Saddam Hussein’s troops out of Kuwait in 1991. But there is a reticence in some circles to offer the same sort of commitment to Ukraine. It exists in some members of the US Republican Party (not least Donald J. Trump, its likely presidential candidate) as well as some countries of the EU. 

But such a commitment is needed if only to prevent the expansion of a regime that has become autocratic and ruthless, and which is imperialistic in its national policies. The revival of imperialism is a reversion back to the Russian Empire, as well as a reversal of the post-1991 developments. 

Potentially, a complete victory in Ukraine would be perceived in Moscow as a starting point for further gains in the south or even into NATO-member territories.

There is, however, another logical starting point for peace negotiations, which is the departure of Russian forces from all areas of Ukraine. One year ago, the then Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin made the same comment.

If that is not acceptable to Moscow, then the United States and others should step up their commitment to the defense of Ukraine. Losses will remain high, but Ukrainians will always prefer to fight for their freedom rather than become part of a Greater Russia.




Chair of Eastern Europe Studies, CGC; Author “Understanding Ukraine and Belarus: A Memoir”

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