Here and there in Ukraine, the energy supply continues to collapse under merciless Russian bombardments. Kiev expects the disruption for millions of Ukrainians to last until March. A “perilous winter” is approaching, the World Health Organization warned this week. The average minimum temperature in Kiev in January is -7.
Now that the first snow is falling, the question arises again: isn’t it time to end Putin’s war through negotiations?
At last week’s G20 meeting in Bali, several world leaders called for talks, including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. On Friday, Turkish President Erdogan appealed to President Putin to resume diplomatic talks. And the highest ranking American soldier, MarkMilley, pointed out this month that, given the battlefield, the conditions for a conversation are favorable. Ukraine is winning and you have to negotiate from a position of strength. Moreover, he fears that the advance will come to a standstill in the winter.
The White House has not yet taken much notice of Milley’s musings. Washington’s official political line remains that President Zelensky may determine when negotiations begin. And Zelensky wants to fight on for now.
Ever since the beginning of Putin’s war, the question of negotiation has divided the world into two camps: the bridge-builders and the go-getters. The first camp points to the disastrous consequences of war and to Putin’s nuclear threats. The bridge builders also like to quote Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu. In The Art of War he wrote 2,500 years ago that you should not humiliate an enemy. This was later incorporated into the lesson that you must provide an enemy with “a golden bridge” over which to retreat. (In the 1910 English translation, Sun Tzu advises: “When you surround an army, leave a way out.”)
Whoever invented the ‘golden bridge’, the idea that you have to offer an opponent a way out, appeals to mediators. You could offer Putin something that is not so important, for example the right to be informed of Ukraine’s NATO membership, conflict mediator David Harland suggested in an interview. Because, he argued, you have to give Putin an excuse not to escalate. If not, we may end up with a disaster.
The go-getters are horrified at the thought that you are already looking for a conversation with Putin. They point out that despite Ukraine’s recent territorial gains, Russia still occupies one-fifth of the country. And if you offer Putin a golden bridge, they say, he will withdraw to regain his strength and later resume the fight. To prevent this, only total defeat is sufficient. Sign at the cross and no further talk.
The go-getters also point to Ukraine’s experiences with Russia: the fighting in the Donbas in 2014 was followed by the invasion in 2022, despite all talks under the Minsk agreements. In short, you cannot make agreements with Putin.
The go-getters think the bridge builders are naive, but they themselves are already thinking about peace. Zelensky presented one last week ten-point plan for peace and there has been a plan by former NATO chief Rasmussen and Zelensky’s chief of staff Jermak for the future security of Ukraine. They write, among other things, that you will soon have to arm Ukraine so heavily that Moscow deems an attack hopeless in advance. Deterrence can greatly reduce the risk of him trying to come back.
For Zelensky, the survival of his country is at stake, so loss is understandably unthinkable for him. The same should apply to his allies. It is not morally acceptable for an aggressor who commits war crimes to get away with territorial gains. And an undefeated Russia is also a security risk for the West. Moreover, NATO & Co have now invested so much money and prestige in the confrontation that loss is not really an option for that reason alone.
That means the West can really only do one thing: give Ukraine the means to win. Even if that means that modern tanks and fighter planes will soon have to cross the Polish border and even more anti-aircraft guns to protect the infrastructure in freezing cold.
Geopolitics editor Michael Kerres writes here every other week about the tilting world order.
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of November 25, 2022