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There’s No Peace in Ukraine Without Russian Retreat

Calls for diplomacy are misplaced and naive.

By , a British Lebanese freelance journalist focusing on conflict, human rights, and the Middle East.
A woman hugs her soldier friend in Kherson, Ukraine.
A woman hugs her soldier friend in Kherson, Ukraine.
A woman hugs her friend, who is a soldier in Ukraine's army, on Nov. 2 in Kherson, Ukraine. Bulent Kilic/AFP via Getty Images

Ukraine’s liberation of Kherson and the jubilant scenes of celebration on the streets of the newly freed territory have rightly dominated headlines across the world.

Visiting Kherson, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that Ukraine’s victory over Russia in the region represents “the beginning of the end of the war.”

Zelensky’s elation is understandable, but also premature. Despite battlefield successes and Ukraine retaking more than half the territory that Russia had captured since it invaded in February, the end of the war is not in sight anytime soon. Liberating territory on the east bank of the Dnipro River remains a perilously difficult task for the Ukrainian military to achieve.

Ukraine’s liberation of Kherson and the jubilant scenes of celebration on the streets of the newly freed territory have rightly dominated headlines across the world.

Visiting Kherson, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that Ukraine’s victory over Russia in the region represents “the beginning of the end of the war.”

Zelensky’s elation is understandable, but also premature. Despite battlefield successes and Ukraine retaking more than half the territory that Russia had captured since it invaded in February, the end of the war is not in sight anytime soon. Liberating territory on the east bank of the Dnipro River remains a perilously difficult task for the Ukrainian military to achieve.

Ukrainian battlefield successes have also begun to impact policymakers in the multinational coalition providing Kyiv with vital military, intelligence, and logistical support.

Yet far from reassuring Kyiv’s backers of Ukraine’s ability to liberate all its occupied territory, diplomatic pressure has been building behind the scenes to push Ukraine into negotiations with Russia. This is a mistake. Laudable a goal though peace is, the only way peace can be achieved is through the decisive defeat of Russia. Those who fear that Russia will be humiliated miss the point: If Russia isn’t humiliated, it will inevitably try again. Listen to the boasts of Kremlin mouthpieces on Russian state media about it.

The most significant intervention on the matter came from U.S. Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who this month said that a winter pause in fighting in Ukraine could lead to “a window of opportunity for negotiation.” He added: “There has to be a mutual recognition that a military victory is probably, in the true sense of the word, is maybe not achievable through military means.”

A flurry of diplomatic discussion between Washington and an outraged Kyiv took place following the comments, with Washington reassuring allies that it had no intention of pressuring Zelensky into negotiating with Russian President Vladimir Putin. That included Milley clarifying his comments last week, saying that the United States will “continue to support Ukraine as long as it takes to keep them free” and that it is “up to Ukraine to decide how or when or if they will negotiate with the Russians.”

While there doesn’t seem to be any significant change in Washington’s approach, as the cost-of-living and energy crises continue to impact Western capitals, pressure is building on Ukraine to seek a negotiated end to the war.

But Milley’s comments should put to bed the false notion, often put forth by opponents of military support, that the members of the multinational coalition oppose negotiations or diplomacy with Russia. There have been repeated attempts at negotiation with Putin, both before and after the invasion, and a continual stress on dialogue. The huge political push by French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz before Russia’s invasion, going as far as offering Putin assurances on Ukraine’s future relationship with NATO, were a chastening experience for Western diplomacy.

Milley is not a lone voice on the subject of negotiations. There is a concerted lobbying attempt in multiple Western capitals, particularly from political figures on the far right and far left, to pressure Ukraine into entering into negotiations with Russia.

These include figures like linguist Noam Chomsky and former British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn on the left, and Fox News host Tucker Carlson and U.S. Sen.-elect J.D. Vance on the right. While they may share little else politically, they all seem to agree that the West should stop arming Ukraine and push Kyiv into negotiations with Moscow.

It is no surprise that figures like these who echoed Kremlin falsehoods about NATO expansion and opposed arms transfers to Ukraine pre-invasion continue to do so even after Ukraine’s resistance has proved so successful. But these calls have an appeal beyond the fringes of the left and the right—and one that needs to be countered.

These attempts focus largely on ending multilateral support for Ukraine’s war effort in order to force Kyiv into negotiations. They break down into five key demands: a cease-fire, an end to aid, land for peace, an end to Russian sanctions, and a ban on Ukraine joining NATO.

These might sound like calls for peace, but they are, in fact, demands for unilateral Ukrainian surrender—even as Ukraine continues to achieve astonishing if costly victories. They demand that Russia be rewarded with stolen land and kidnapped people for its brutal invasion and be gifted its geopolitical aims.

The actual hurdle to any negotiated settlement remains Russia, which not only has invaded Ukraine and committed war crimes and crimes against humanity against the Ukrainian people, but has illegally annexed Ukrainian territory, which it now claims as part of the Russian Federation. As Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov stated, “They will be with Russia forever.”

Russia’s formal position on negotiations is that all Ukrainian land it currently illegally controls through military aggression belongs to Russia in perpetuity, with the country even going as far as amending the Russian Constitution to seize Ukrainian assets.

There is no reason to think that Russia would keep any promises made. In Syria, it repeatedly brokered cease-fires it had no intention of respecting, including bombing a U.N. aid convoy that Moscow had agreed to let enter Aleppo. Moscow has repeatedly violated cease-fires in Ukraine too. Russia’s torture of prisoners and vengeance-fueled attacks on critical civilian infrastructure show it has no regard for any sense of the laws of war. Rewarding it by crippling Ukraine’s ability to resist will only embolden future imperial ambitions.

Russia is taking a beating on the battlefield, and it is desperate for time to dig in and build defenses on occupied territory. Ukrainian civilians are also being slaughtered under Russian occupation. Every liberation brings fresh news of Russian atrocities, from Bucha to Kherson. Military cease-fires will not protect those living in occupied territory—they only give Russia more time to terrorize them or to forcibly kidnap them and deport them to Russian territory.

Even if Ukraine and the international community were to turn around and surrender to Russian territorial demands in Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Luhansk, and Donetsk at gunpoint, what reason does Ukraine have to believe that Russia will not invade and try to capture Kyiv again? Russia has invaded Ukraine twice in the last decade. Why would this agreement be different, especially if Russia knows others won’t come to Ukraine’s aid?

It is also time to reflect on the myriad reasons why the Minsk accords were a failure. With the international community having already strong-armed Ukraine into a capitulation to Russian demands, only to be met with an expanded invasion less than a decade later, we cannot ask Ukraine to do the same again today. Even the biggest supporters of the Minsk II agreement can’t deny that Putin tore up those accords himself in February. There are no grounds for any trust now, especially after nine months of war.

Ukraine and its backers need to permanently disabuse Putin of the notion that he can attempt to do this again. Any viable and just settlement for the Russo-Ukrainian war has to be backed by security guarantees for Ukraine’s independence, whether that means NATO membership or some other arrangement. This means that if there is a next time, Ukraine won’t be fighting alone. Opponents of support to Ukraine are effectively inviting Russia to invade again.

The end to this war is actually very simple: Russia withdraws from Ukraine. Ukraine is under no obligation to meet any conditions for this withdrawal, and Western capitals have no right whatsoever to dictate these conditions to Ukrainians. This is Ukraine’s starting point for negotiations—and those calling for diplomacy need to listen to Ukrainians.

There can be no return to the status quo antebellum. The blood cannot be unspilled. Pressuring Ukraine into surrendering territory would be a betrayal of a legal, humanitarian, and political responsibility to the Ukrainian people—and a guarantee for an emboldened, aggressive, and murderous Russia. Moscow must understand that it has lost this war, or the consequences of this invasion will be repeated again and again.

Oz Katerji is a British Lebanese freelance journalist focusing on conflict, human rights, and the Middle East.

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