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The Moral Costs of Peace Now in Ukraine
Any negotiated settlement that leaves Russian forces in Ukraine would condemn Ukrainians to horrible abuses.
AS VLADIMIR PUTIN’S VICIOUS WAR AGAINST UKRAINE continues, calls for negotiations that would grant Russia large swathes of Ukraine’s sovereign lands and control over Ukrainian citizens who live there are on the rise. The arguments for negotiating range from outright defeatism (“There is no likely path to a Ukrainian military victory”) to a misunderstanding of Ukraine’s security needs (“A cease-fire involving territorial compromise would in fact represent a very great victory for Ukraine and the West”) to an is-ought fallacy stating that one side’s war aims should be the “most likely” outcome (“Neither side is capable of a decisive military victory”). In putting forth these propositions, no consideration is given to the fact that doing so directly contravenes international law, legitimates aggression, evades accountability for war crimes, and provides no guarantees whatsoever that Moscow would respect any such agreement going forward. Indeed, surrendering territory to reward Russian aggression is an option rejected by most Ukrainians themselves, who, according to public opinion polling, show few signs of giving up the fight.
But even more concerning is the fate that would befall Ukrainian citizens living in places that are frequently discussed as territory that might be allotted to Russia in any negotiated settlement, despite the fact that we already know what has happened to Ukrainians who have been forced to live under Moscow’s remit: Tens of thousands, if not more, have been murdered, tortured, and otherwise maltreated, and thousands of children have been kidnapped by the Russian Army and occupation authorities.
The clearest example of this oversight comes from an August New Yorker profile of Samuel Charap, the dean of the negotiation proponents: “You are speaking a lot about the cost of fighting, the line of fighting here and there,” asked activist Olena Halushka. “But what is your analytical perspective on the cost of occupation? Because if you take a look at what is happening, at all of the de-occupied territories, the patterns there are very similar. There are big mass graves, torture chambers, filtration camps, mass deportations—including the deportations of kids.” Charap admitted he didn’t “know exactly how to answer that question,” except to say that it was up to the Ukrainian government. He had therefore arrived at the point at which other analysts had begun more than a year earlier.
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Indeed, some areas in the eastern and southern regions of Ukraine have been occupied since Putin launched his first invasion of Ukraine in 2014, including large parts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts and the entire Crimean Peninsula. This came at an enormous human cost, with some 14,000 civilians killed and vast areas laid waste through intermittent heavy combat. Again, we already know in considerable detail how Putin’s government installed “people’s republics” — cesspools of organized crime and the worst kinds of brutality toward civilians. Igor “Strelkov” Girkin, who played a key role in the beginning of Russia’s war against Ukraine, has admitted to committing multiple extrajudicial executions in occupied Ukraine, among other abuses.
As early as September 2014, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights reported on the prevalence of “torture, arbitrary and incommunicado detention, summary executions, forced labour and sexual violence as well as the destruction and illegal seizure of property” in the Russian-controlled regions. The same offenses were documented in Crimea, and the indigenous Crimean Tatar population has been systematically persecuted with thousands forced to flee their homeland.
When Russian forces launched the current, vastly expanded war against Ukraine in February 2022, yet more Ukrainian territory came under Moscow’s control and, predictably, the Russian Army perpetrated war crimes on such a scale that such practices can reasonably be seen as fully sanctioned by Putin’s regime. Indiscriminate bombing, total disrespect for hospitals and schools that are supposedly protected by international humanitarian law, and the blatant murder and torture of inhabitants in such places as Bucha and Irpin are stark reminders that there are no guardrails on Russian troops when it comes to respecting the rights of civilians in a conflict zone.
Once Ukrainian forces have been able to liberate areas formerly under Russian control, yet additional evidence mounts of the brutality of the occupiers. Arguably the best exemplar of what conditions were like under Russian control is Kherson, a major city in southern Ukraine that was occupied for eight months. Civilians were unlawfully detained and tortured in large numbers. In an attempt to erase Ukrainian culture, schools were forced to adopt pro-Russian curricula, Ukrainian language books were destroyed, and museums and other cultural sites were vandalized or forced to close as Russian military and security personnel sought to implement Putin’s “de-nazification” policy.
Now, even after Ukrainian forces have retaken about half of the territory lost early in the war, millions of Ukrainians still find themselves under the brutal rule of Russian authorities, which administer these places free from any vestige of humanitarian constraints. Details from a new United Nations Commission of Inquiry concerning the terror visited upon Ukrainians who are forced to live under Russia’s illegal occupation regime should dispel any notion that such concessions would mean anything other than the consignment of millions of innocent Ukrainian civilians to a horrific fate. UN investigators “documented further evidence that Russian authorities have committed indiscriminate attacks and the war crimes of torture, rape and other sexual violence, and deportation of children to the Russian Federation,” among others.
Of particular concern is the plight of residents in the remaining occupied territory who, for whatever reason, have not been able to join the millions of Ukrainians who fled their homes to escape the fighting and/or Russian occupation. These “displaced-in-place” persons are typically older, or disabled, or otherwise highly vulnerable and unlikely to receive humanitarian assistance from the occupiers. They are likely among the most common victims of human rights abuses in these areas.
Finally, as David Lewis and his colleagues have documented, the Russians have aggressively seized control over Ukrainian businesses and residences in the occupied zones and replaced the prior owners with Russians loyal to Putin. They have also taken control of what productive enterprises remain, and looted resources, both of which are violations of international law.
There is a reason the Ukrainians keep fighting, despite heavy casualties, intermittent international support, and unfathomable destruction to their country. The alternative to fighting, thanks to Putin and the Russian military, remains worse. Those who call for immediate negotiations should remember that some things are worth fighting for—including a peace worthy of the name.