Discover more from The Bulwark
There Is No Substitute for Ukrainian Victory
Now is not the time for an armistice in Ukraine.
JUST WHEN UKRAINE MAY BE ON THE MARCH to regain more of its territory currently occupied by Russia, some in the commentariat are ready to come to Russia’s rescue. That, in essence, is the idea put forward by Samuel Charap in Foreign Affairs. The United States and others, he argues, should broker an armistice between Russia and Ukraine. The idea is misguided and dangerous.
Coming on the eve of the Ukrainian counteroffensive, which may shift the military balance even more in Ukraine's favor, a push for an armistice would undercut any hopes Ukraine might have of winning the war. Such a deal, Charap acknowledges, would also leave Ukraine “without all its territory,” consigning millions of Ukrainians against their will to live under repressive Russian control.
Combined with the Ukrainians’ tremendous courage and determination to fight—and they would defend their land and freedom even without Western support—Western military aid has helped produce an unmitigated disaster for Russia’s Vladimir Putin and his forces. It also has made possible a Ukrainian victory on the battlefield, a realistic and far better way for this war to end.
The vast majority of Ukrainians, according to recent polls, reject territorial concessions and compromises with Putin and are confident they can win. They also don’t trust Putin to keep his word, and for good reason. Their voices on the way forward matter.
Furthermore, Putin would read any push for an armistice as weakness on the part of the West, a sign that he was right that he could outlast the other side. This potentially could expose other countries to even greater danger from Russia, especially Moldova and even the Baltic states. Putin must be stopped and defeated in Ukraine, or the threat he poses will only widen.
Charap assumes that negotiations with the Russians over an end to the war require Western diplomats to knock constantly on the Kremlin’s door. He has it exactly backwards. No amount of rapping will compel Putin to open the door if he doesn’t want to, but if Putin ever wants to negotiate—actually negotiate, not just bully and remonstrate, and after withdrawal of his forces—he wouldn’t struggle to find Western interlocutors.
People who know Mr. Putin say he is ready to sacrifice untold lives and treasure for as long as it takes, and in a rare face-to-face meeting with the Americans last month the Russians wanted to deliver a stark message to President Biden: No matter how many Russian soldiers are killed or wounded on the battlefield, Russia will not give up.
Putin himself has made it clear that, as a general matter, he is not interested in negotiations. Putin’s rejection of National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s recent speech proposing arms control negotiations to follow on the New START Treaty featured shockingly offensive language, especially in the Russian cultural context.
Accordingly, only Ukrainian military victory can impose an end to the war. Grasping for negotiations, and totally speculative conjectures about them at this crucial juncture, are reckless.
That Charap’s putative armistice comes as Ukraine is beginning its long-anticipated counteroffensive seems ill-timed at best. If pursued, it would be profoundly demoralizing to Ukrainians. As Ukraine sees a major infusion of Western military assistance and a boost in morale despite terrible losses, Russia is experiencing endless infighting between the Russian Ministry of Defense and Wagner mercenary leaders, declining morale, and continued corrupt and inept leadership. Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin continues his public feud with Ministry of Defense officials and even recently appeared to take a swipe at Putin. As retired U.S. Army General Mark Hertling recently tweeted, this shows “a vast difference between solid UKR confidence & increasing RU chaos.”
A negotiated agreement to end this war may prove unavoidable; Charap seems to see it as desirable. It definitely is not. The West’s priority for the foreseeable future should be to provide Ukraine with everything it needs to defeat Russian forces. That would enable the return of both land and people to Ukrainian control, where they belong.
Under a duly and democratically elected president, Ukrainian leaders care about every loss they suffer, civilian and military. By contrast, Putin and his generals treat Russian troops as cannon fodder to throw at the enemy. Their operational approach is to overwhelm the other side through mass. At some point, however, those being sacrificed may decide that they don’t want to meet the same fate as those who went before them. Armies sometimes break. A sufficiently demoralized Russian military may begin refusing orders. Negotiating with Putin then would serve only to help him keep his grip on power.
This war has been an unmitigated disaster for Russia and is the direct result of Putin’s personal decision to invade his neighbor. Eschewing military victory and preparing to negotiate now would salvage something Putin can hold up as victory—and then use to threaten Ukraine again after Russia has reconstituted its forces. It is not a recipe for a stable “endgame” but rather a prescription for the very “endless war” that this proposal purports to avoid.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking before Charap’s essay was published, sought to beat back feckless calls to force a compromise on the Ukrainians. “[A] ceasefire that simply freezes current lines in place and enables Putin to consolidate control over the territory he’s seized, and then rest, re-arm, and re-attack—that is not a just and lasting peace,” he said in a June 2 speech in Helsinki. “It’s a Potemkin peace. It would legitimize Russia’s land grab. It would reward the aggressor and punish the victim.” And yet that is exactly what Charap’s scheme would do.
Support our coverage of the war in Ukraine by getting a free or paid subscription.
The armistice proposal rests on the premise that “Fifteen months of fighting has made clear that neither side has the capacity—even with external help—to achieve a decisive military victory over the other.” In fact, Ukraine already has scored impressive military victories, driving Russian forces away from Kyiv and other parts of Ukraine that they occupied, or tried to occupy, in the opening days of the full-scale invasion.
Russian control of Crimea, which Moscow illegally annexed in 2014 during the first phase of its invasion, could be in jeopardy—something deemed unthinkable by most analysts. Parts of Russia bordering Ukraine and even Moscow itself have seen incursions and drone strikes. Ukraine has achieved far more than most expected, Charap included.
To Charap, territory is mostly immaterial. “Regardless of how much territory Ukrainian forces can liberate,” he writes, “Russia will maintain the capability to pose a permanent threat to Ukraine.” How would an armistice neutralize the “permanent threat”? The only way to deal with it is to defeat Putin’s forces soundly. The West can help by providing Ukraine the military resources it needs to drive every Russian soldier off of Ukrainian territory. As Hertling noted, “Without trained & well-led soldiers overwatching obstacles, RU defenses are useless.”
Instead, Charap charges that the Ukrainian military “will also have the capacity to hold at risk any areas of the country occupied by Russian forces—and to impose costs on military and civilian targets within Russia itself.” Let’s be clear: Ukraine has the right to self-defense and to regain its territory. If Russian forces were not illegally occupying Ukrainian soil—committing war crimes and genocide in the process—they would have nothing to fear from Ukraine. But because Putin invaded Ukraine without any provocation or justification, he has created turmoil inside his own borders, too, as Ukrainians have the right to strike targets inside Russia. In addition, he has created openings for pro-Ukrainian Russian forces to strike against Putin’s control in regions like Belgorod.
One way or another, the Ukrainian military will be better able to deter further Russian aggression in the future than it was in 2022. It is better equipped, better trained, more experienced, and backed by a state and society that Putin now knows cannot be conquered easily. It’s hard to see why the Ukrainian military should be forced to deter Russian aggression from the current front lines rather than having the opportunity to do so from the internationally recognized border.
Charap believes that the current situation
could lead to a devastating, years-long conflict that does not produce a definitive outcome. The United States and its allies thus face a choice about their future strategy. They could begin to try to steer the war toward a negotiated end in the coming months. Or they could do so years from now . . . An effective strategy for what has become the most consequential international crisis in at least a generation therefore requires the United States and its allies to shift their focus and start facilitating an endgame.
In other words, Charap thinks that Putin’s strategic calculation is correct—that the Kremlin autocrat can absorb more pain, more death, and more destruction with more patience than Ukraine and its democratic supporters. For Ukraine’s sake, as well as that of the United States, one hopes this prophesy is not the self-fulfilling kind.
Besides, shouldn’t the Ukrainians have any say in this matter? Shouldn’t they be given agency in these decisions? After all, it is Ukrainians, not Americans, who are fighting and dying to defend their country and their freedom. Except for a handful of American volunteers, there are no American soldiers deployed to the war zone. We are providing weapons and training, albeit too slowly, to help the Ukrainians take back their land. But as long as Ukrainians think they can prevail and remain determined to fight, who are we to override them?
Charap maintains the Ukrainians cannot win. Even with Western assistance, he apparently doesn’t give them a fighting chance. We and many others, not least Ukrainians themselves, believe otherwise.
Had American policymakers followed Charap’s advice in January 2022, a month before Russia’s full-blown invasion of Ukraine, the United States would not have provided military assistance to Ukraine because “military assistance is not an effective lever for resolving this crisis.” Furthermore, Charap argued, “Military assistance now [in January 2022] will at best be marginal in affecting the outcome of the crisis.”
In fact, U.S. military assistance, along with that from other allied nations, has had an enormous impact on tilting the playing field in Ukraine’s direction.
Defeatism and accommodationism were the wrong approach to Putin’s build-up before last February’s invasion. They are as misguided now as they were before Putin unleashed the dogs of war.