From War of Choice to War of Perseverance
Peace in Ukraine remains a long shot unless the West can change Putin's calculus.
Originally published at Project Syndicate
March 14, 2022 11:54 am (EST)
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“Ripeness is all,” noted Edgar in Shakespeare’s King Lear. When it comes to negotiations to limit or end international conflicts, he is right: agreements emerge only when the leading protagonists are willing to compromise and are then able to commit their respective governments to implement the accord.
This truth is highly relevant to any attempt to end the war between Russia and Ukraine through diplomacy. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has any number of reasons to end a conflict that has already killed thousands of his citizens, destroyed large parts of several major cities, rendered millions homeless, and devastated Ukraine’s economy. And his standing has grown by the hour, giving him the political strength to make peace – not at any price, but at some price.
Already, there are signs he might be willing to compromise on NATO membership. He would not recognize Crimea as being part of Russia, but it might be possible for him to accept that the two governments agree to disagree on its status, much as the United States and China have done for a half-century concerning Taiwan. Similarly, he would not recognize the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics,” but he could sign on to their being given significant autonomy.
The question is whether even this would be enough for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has demanded the “de-Nazification” of Ukraine, a phrase that seems to call for regime change, as well as the country’s total demilitarization. Given that he has questioned whether Ukraine is a “real” country, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that he remains uninterested in coexisting with a legitimate government of a sovereign, independent state. So far, Putin has demonstrated he is more interested in making a point than in making a deal.
What could change this? What could make the situation riper for a negotiated solution? That is actually the purpose of the West’s policy: to raise the military and economic costs of prosecuting the war so high that Putin will decide that it is in his interest (he clearly cares little about the interests of Russia) to negotiate a ceasefire and accept terms that would bring peace. Again, this seems unlikely, if only because Putin almost certainly fears it would be interpreted as a sign of weakness, encouraging resistance to his continued rule.
Alternatively, he could be pressured to negotiate. In principle such pressure could come from below – a Russian version of “people power” in which the security services are overwhelmed, much as they were in Iran in the late 1970s. Or pressure could come from the side, from the few others who wield power in today’s Russia and could decide that they must act before Putin destroys more of Russia’s future than he already has. The former does not seem to be in the offing, given mass arrests and control of information, and there is simply no way of knowing if the latter might happen until it does.
The one other party that could put pressure on Putin to compromise is China and its president, Xi Jinping. True, China has publicly cast its lot with Putin, blaming the US for the crisis and even amplifying Russian conspiracy theories. Xi might have calculated that it is good for China to have the US preoccupied with the threat from Russia rather than focused on Asia. Xi also likely sees little or no upside in edging toward the US position, given bipartisan support in the US for a tough policy toward his country.
At the same time, Xi cannot be happy that Putin’s invasion violates a basic tenet of Chinese foreign policy, namely, to view sovereignty as absolute and not to interfere in other countries’ internal affairs. Instead of dividing the West, Putin has united it to an extent unseen since the collapse of the Soviet Union, while simultaneously contributing to worsening views of China in Europe. Nor can Xi welcome the risks the Ukraine crisis poses at a time when China’s post-pandemic economic recovery remains fragile and he is seeking an unprecedented third term in power.
While the chances of changing China’s calculus are low, efforts to do so should nonetheless be explored. As a first step, the US should reassure China that it stands by its one-China policy. US President Joe Biden’s administration could rescind the Trump-era tariffs, which have failed to induce any change in Chinese economic practices and have contributed to inflation at home. It could also signal its willingness to restart a regular strategic dialogue.
Most important, Chinese leaders should be made to understand that this is a defining moment for their country and its relationship with the US. If China continues to side with Putin, if it provides military, economic, or diplomatic support to Russia, it will face the prospect of economic sanctions and stricter technology controls in the short run and deep American enmity in the long run. In short, the US should make clear that the strategic costs for China of its alignment with Russia will far outweigh any benefits.
There is no way of knowing whether Xi will elect to reorient his stance, and if he did, whether it would cause Putin to approach negotiations in good faith. Without China’s support, though, Putin would be even more vulnerable that he already is.
For now, a negotiated peace remains a long shot. There is no evidence that battlefield losses, the costs of sanctions, or internal protest will deter Putin from continuing his efforts to raze Ukraine’s cities, crush its spirit, and oust its government. Meanwhile, the people, army, and leadership of Ukraine, backed by the West, continue to demonstrate extraordinary resilience. An unwarranted war of choice is morphing into an open-ended war of perseverance.