foreign interests

The War in Ukraine Can Be Over If the U.S. Wants It

A man injured by Russian shelling receives first aid at a humanitarian relief center in Severodonetsk. Photo: Rick Mave/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

There are two kinds of Realpolitik when it comes to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has now dragged agonizingly past the three-month mark. There is the belief, held by many American pundits and most of the foreign-policy Establishment, that Ukraine must be supported at all costs and can very well win the war against Russia’s horrific aggression. Whatever Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy desires, short of a no-fly zone — though there has also been agitation, in more hawkish quarters, for that — he should receive. America, they contend, should continue to aggressively arm Ukraine, with $40 billion viewed as a down payment rather than a last-ditch tranche of funding.

The other Realpolitik is the sort practiced by the architect of the term, Henry Kissinger. Now 99, the deeply polarizing former secretary of State is still a prominent voice on foreign affairs, joining with a public intellectual he often clashed with in the past, the 93-year-old Noam Chomsky, in offering an alternative view of the war in Ukraine. “Negotiations need to begin in the next two months before it creates upheavals and tensions that will not be easily overcome. Ideally, the dividing line should be a return to the status quo ante,” Kissinger told a Davos gathering recently. “Pursuing the war beyond that point would not be about the freedom of Ukraine, but a new war against Russia itself.”

In April, Chomsky offered a similar assessment, enraging many commentators across the political spectrum. “There are basically two options. One option is to pursue the policy we are now following … to fight Russia to the last Ukrainian. And yes, we can pursue that policy with the possibility of nuclear war,” Chomsky told Current Affairs. “Or we can face the reality that the only alternative is a diplomatic settlement, which will be ugly — it will give Putin and his narrow circle an escape hatch. It will say, “Here’s how you can get out without destroying Ukraine and going on to destroy the world.”

Chomsky provoked more outrage because he is very much a titan of the anti-imperialist left. In stating that Ukraine should offer some sort of concession to an aggressor, he was decried as a hypocrite and even a Vladimir Putin apologist. But Kissinger irked plenty too, especially the internationalists in America who view Ukraine’s heroic resistance as a greater struggle for democracy against totalitarian Russia. How dare anyone suggest Ukraine negotiate a peace not on its terms when it has fought so bravely for so long?

As unpopular as both Chomsky’s and Kissinger’s contentions are, they are ultimately the ones most anchored to reality. Yes, Russia caused this war and should reap punishment for it. Putin is a murderous dictator. American military aid has undoubtedly allowed Ukraine, a once outmatched nation, to fight on as hard as it has. There may very well be repercussions to flooding a nation formerly known for its political corruption with billions of dollars in relatively unaccounted for armaments, but this is the price the Pentagon and its backers in the media and foreign-policy Establishment seem willing to pay.

Yet the revival of NATO, the stirring solidarity of the West, and the surge in pro-Ukrainian fervor in liberal American enclaves cannot mask the dispiriting truth of the war, which slogs on as a stalemate that Russia is not ready to retreat from. The Russian military is far too shambolic to march on Europe in an echo of Hitler’s imperialism, as some of the more fevered commentators warned of in the winter — bludgeoning Mariupol was hard enough — but the troops aren’t being readily turned away. Russia is making steady progress in Ukraine’s east, now controls almost all of the Luhansk region, and is threatening to encircle thousands of the most experienced Ukrainian troops. Russia has seemingly abandoned its most dangerously ambitious plans for the country — a takeover of Kyiv followed by rapid regime change — and appears to be settling for control of the Donbas. Boris Johnson, the U.K. prime minister, lamented the “slow” but “palpable” progress of the Russian troops and called for further military support to Ukraine, including longer-range multiple-launch rocket systems, or MLRS, which are capable of firing missiles that could reach Russia. (Joe Biden has shown some restraint in rejecting Ukrainian requests for those missiles, though it appears the U.S. still plans to supply it with MLRS with shorter-range rockets.)

The trouble with the seemingly bottomless pleas for more armaments for Ukraine is that with them a viable end to the war falls ever further out of reach. Though many American foreign-policy analysts and pundits believe the only acceptable outcome of the war is full freedom for Ukraine and a total repulsion of Russian forces, this remains highly unlikely and may put the world in further danger. That is Kissinger’s contention, and it’s one that must be heeded. If the American-backed military gains for Ukraine are fleeting and merely increase the odds of a more ruinous collision between NATO and Russia, should Ukraine keep receiving American missiles? This is the dilemma both Kissinger and Chomsky confront. The economic shocks of the war cannot be dismissed any longer. Skyrocketing energy prices across the globe are destabilizing for affluent and precarious nations alike. Mass starvation looms — Russia is trapping 20 million tons of grain in Ukraine, which has been one of the world’s great breadbaskets. Ordinarily, Russia and Ukraine account for one-quarter of the grain traded internationally. Even before the war, strains on the global food supply were emerging with the pandemic and ongoing droughts in North America and the Horn of Africa. Wheat prices are now surging.

And there is the faint possibility, always to be taken seriously, of nuclear conflict. Kissinger is one of a vanishing number of men who worked in American government when nuclear war was a much-discussed existential threat to be averted at all costs. Russia is an enormous country that is going to play a role in global affairs for the rest of this century, just as it did in the past one. This fact cannot be hand-waved away, nor can the reality that Russia has stockpiled more nuclear weapons than any other nation in the world. Putin’s Russia is more unsettling than the Soviet Union because it is far weaker and dominated by fewer men; it simply has less to lose. As in the defeated Germany after the First World War, grievance culture might take hold, this time in a nation with enough nuclear warheads pointed outward to annihilate every large city on Earth. Russian military doctrine envisions using tactical nuclear weapons defensively to turn the tide in a losing war. The total rout of Russia that Ukraine wishes for could return the U.S. and the rest of the West to the darkest hours of the Cuban missile crisis 60 years ago.

Chomsky and Kissinger’s detractors, who suggest it is wrongheaded or even immoral for Americans to ask for a ceasefire that does not grant every Ukrainian demand, are increasingly detached from the burning world in front of them. Tens of billions in American arms mean Americans should and will have a say in Ukraine’s future, along with Europe. Lloyd Austin, Biden’s secretary of defense and a budding crackpot realist, has tipped his hand that he views the war in Ukraine as a proxy war against Russia, and if indeed he wants this to continue, he should be prepared for the loss of much more life.

There is no moral or singularly satisfying approach to ending Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The severe economic sanctions the West has imposed on Russia have yet to change Putin’s behavior and seem to be incentivizing his turn toward China. A collapsing Russian economy does not mean peace for the rest of the world. For now, it has led to further instability with the dark promise of something worse.

As the journalist Anatol Lieven has argued, it is time for America and Europe to celebrate Ukraine’s resistance and broker a peace agreement that both limits Russia’s ambitions and, crucially, permits Putin to save face. Few Western pundits, for now at least, can concede it is necessary to allow Russia to extract any degree of victory in the wake of Putin’s savagery. But foreign policy conducted among nuclear powers cannot be Manichaean. Ceding the Donbas to Russia is, in reality, a minor concession to Putin — it is partially Russia-controlled already — that would also potentially allow him to exit the war, since all authoritarian rulers are deeply sensitive to the perception at home that their military conquests are unsuccessful. Ukraine, as has been discussed before, can pledge never to join NATO. In turn, Ukraine will maintain its sovereignty, can stop sacrificing its soldiers and civilians, and will be able to further integrate, culturally and economically, into Europe. Hawks will misconstrue this as appeasement and tirelessly invoke Neville Chamberlain, as if all modern foreign policy were an exact repetition of a war fought 80 years ago. Nazi Germany conquered France in a matter of weeks; Putin’s Russia cannot even get close to Odesa.

American hawks, if they choose, can declare a partial victory. They can credit their support for Ukraine’s military as the reason why such a peace was secured, even if an agreement could have been reached sooner without as much bloodshed. The endgame of the war must be a negotiated settlement, and, yes, it will be up to the U.S. to broker one. The sooner the Biden administration and its European allies move to aggressively bring Moscow and Kyiv to the table, in spite of those like the U.K.’s Johnson who would rather scuttle such talks, the sooner the slaughter can end. Diplomacy is not appeasement. It is the only way out.

The War in Ukraine Can Be Over If the U.S. Wants It