The Shortest Path to Peace

Supporting and arming Ukraine, and accelerating the collapse of the Russian military, is the most realistic way to end the conflict.

Illustration showing a flag of Russia covered by a cloud and a flag of Ukraine that is not
Daniel Zender / The Atlantic; source: Getty

Flawed judgments about military history helped fuel bad policy in the run-up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and through the conflict’s early phases. Bad historical analogies look to do the same now, in the debate over how to bring this war to some kind of durable termination.

One line of argument, advanced by some French and German leaders in recent discussions with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, according to The Wall Street Journal, is that sooner or later Russia and Ukraine can reconcile like Germany and France after World War II. (A German government spokesperson later denied the report, but this is hardly a new recommendation.) It is a terrible analogy. Reconciliation may have arrived a couple of decades after the Second World War, but that conflict had ended with the aggressor not merely defeated but devastated. French troops had occupied Germany, including a part of its former capital. Clear borders between the two countries had been established and German society, if not thoroughly de-Nazified, had moved a long way in that direction.

The Russia-Ukraine case is very different. Russia, as unambiguous an aggressor as was Nazi Germany in 1940, will not, even under the most optimistic assumptions, see its cities flattened, its regime overthrown, its military disbanded for 10 years and only reconstructed thereafter under the supervision of the Western democracies. And the idea that the fighting will conclude with Russia again accepting (as Moscow did three decades ago) the legitimacy of Ukraine’s 1991 borders is barely conceivable.

To suppose that any real peace between Russia and Ukraine is possible within the next decade, after the horrors of the invasion—rape, torture, murder, the wholesale kidnapping of children—is simply naive. Nor are the Arab-Israeli truces a plausible model for the future. Those truces lasted, respectively, seven years (1949–56), 11 years (1956–67), six years (1967–73), and nine years (1973–82). And that does not count the cross-border raids, aerial dogfights, terrorist attacks, and up-to-the-edge-of-war mobilization crises during those truces. In the Middle East, the great powers were able to put brakes on their clients, and the country whose existence was up for dispute, Israel, eventually became the strongest power.

A rather more popular analogy is the truce after the Korean War, which has lasted for a good 70 years. But here as well the comparison is too flimsy to hold up to a closer look. Stalin approved the original North Korean invasion of the South. Only after he died, in March 1953, did the new Soviet leadership indicate that it was willing to bring the conflict to an end. In July of that year, the armistice was finally signed. Not to put too fine a point on it, although Vladimir Putin’s demise would probably make it easier to conclude the conflict in Ukraine, he is not dead yet.

The analogy breaks down in many other ways, as well. For one thing, China and North Korea couldn’t have imagined victory after early 1951. In August of that year American and United Nations ground forces, coupled with the South Korean army, numbered more than 500,000 troops, half of them American. The front line was about the length that the demilitarized zone is today, stretching through 150 miles of mountainous, and therefore defensible, terrain. The lines had been restored roughly to the prewar demarcation between the South and North.

In Ukraine, the active front lines are about 600 miles in length, but the Russia-Ukraine border is much longer than that. Ukraine must defend not a narrow, mountainous peninsula but rather wide open spaces and vulnerable cities. No multidivisional foreign force is deployed on Ukraine’s side. And neither side can accept returning to the pre-February 24 lines of demarcation.

The peace on the Korean peninsula was kept only by a robust South Korean military, tens of thousands of American troops, and, for a long period, the presence of American tactical nuclear weapons. Although historians still debate how far the United States was prepared to go during the war, the use of nuclear weapons was a matter of discussion within the U.S. military and government at that time, and presumably word of that reached Moscow and Beijing.

Adroit and historically informed statecraft lies not in casting about for historical analogies and crying “Eureka!” after finding one that fits. It lies, rather, in recognizing the distinctive features of the situation before us. We must understand both the history that has led us here and the personal histories of those making decisions, but we should focus on particulars rather than generalities. Reaching for comparisons is a heuristic, an analytic shortcut that risks at best discomfiture, at worst disaster. “As our case is new, so we must think anew,” Abraham Lincoln said in his message to Congress in December 1862, and he was a statesman if ever there was one.

That being so, how should we think about a Russia-Ukraine peace—or, if that is not possible, a cessation of hostilities?

Begin with the reality that neither side is looking for a cessation of hostilities at this moment, and Western leaders would therefore be foolish to attempt to persuade and nudge the Ukrainian government into it. The record of such attempts (including Woodrow Wilson’s diplomacy during the early stages of World War I) is largely one of failure, for the very simple reason that in war, as in other human endeavors, if you do not play the game you usually do not make the rules. It would not only be a waste of time but send all the wrong signals if Ukraine’s partners were to discuss such matters with journalists and pundits before at least one side is ready for it.

In the long term, moreover, a truly peaceful Ukraine is possible under only two imaginable conditions: NATO membership, or the forward deployment of tens of thousands of American troops coupled with a guarantee to wage war on Ukraine’s behalf comparable to that extended to South Korea. The former is unlikely until Ukraine’s borders have been recognized by all concerned, including Russia; the latter is also improbable, at least for now. The notion that defense guarantees by a collection of European states can somehow substitute is risible. No Ukrainian leader believes (or should believe) that French, German, Italian, or Dutch leaders will be ready to wage war against Russia in defense of Kyiv. That, ultimately, is what a defense guarantee means and what its credibility requires.

Any long-term planning for Ukraine and for the West should now also be predicated on the postwar persistence of a malignant and militarized Russia, which may well intend to restart the war once it has had a breather. Potential dissidents have fled the country or are in jail; a societal mobilization built on xenophobia and paranoia is under way; freedom of expression is being stamped out; and any successors to Vladimir Putin are unlikely to be much better. Both Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of the Security Council, and Dmitri Medvedev, its deputy chairman, have expressed eliminationist views no less rabid than those articulated by their boss. Furthermore, even a defeated Russia will retain, in the Russian general staff, a thinking and planning organ of considerable quality. They will learn, adjust, and come back to avenge their humiliations at the hands of Ukraine and the West. And if they do not feel humiliated, it will only be because they have succeeded in crushing out the life of a free, sovereign, and whole Ukraine.

All of this being so, the best possible outcome leading to a cessation of fighting would be a Russian military collapse. If the West hopes to achieve this, it must provide Ukraine with a massive amount of all necessary weapons short of atomic bombs. Such an effort would require the kind of dramatic increases in output made possible under legislation like the American Defense Procurement Act of 1950.

The Russian military in Ukraine is in a parlous state. On a large scale it cannot maneuver, it cannot coordinate, it cannot assault. Its losses have been stunning. The Ukrainians, meanwhile, have suffered as well, but the indications are that General Zaluzhny has been conserving units for a spring offensive once the mud dries. The West needs to do all it can to ensure the success of that effort.

Should such an offensive succeed in breaking the land bridge between Russia and Crimea, and possibly even liberating Crimea and large parts of the Donbas region, there will be political repercussions in Russia. In all political systems, including authoritarian ones, dramatic failures on the battlefield in a war of choice reverberate in capitals. Already, Russian oligarchs and bureaucrats whisper criticisms of Putin and his war to Western journalists. He will not falter, but others may decide that he needs to be out of power. It probably will not be pretty when it happens, but Putin’s exit could, like Stalin’s death in 1953, open up the way for something better than war at a fever pitch.

At least for a time.