The Wisdom to Quit While Ahead: The Case for a Cease-Fire in Ukraine

by John Whitehead



Two dramatic developments have recently changed the now seven-month-long war between Ukraine and Russia. First, the Ukrainians counter-attacked against the Russian military forces occupying eastern regions of their country, re-taking significant territory and inflicting a major defeat on the Russians.


Second, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his response to this set-back on September 21. He is calling up Russian reservists to increase the troops available to fight in the war. Also, he announced Russian support for referendums in the occupied eastern Ukrainian territories about those territories’ future fate. Such presumably mock referendums have provided the justification for Russia’s more recently announced annexation of these territories. Most disturbing, Putin made a veiled but unmistakable threat to use nuclear weapons in response to “a threat to the territorial integrity of our country and to defend Russia and our people.”


These developments drastically increase the dangers created by the already-high-stakes Ukraine war. The most prudent response is to freeze the conflict by seeking an immediate cease-fire.


Putin’s recent speech sends several important and ominous signals. Despite Russia’s limited success in conquering Ukraine, the war’s cost in Russian lives, the Ukrainians’ recent successes, and the evident unpopularity of calling up more Russians to fight in the war, he is not yet willing to admit defeat.


The Russian annexation of regions of eastern Ukraine, combined with the threat to use nuclear weapons to defend Russian territory, implies that Putin is willing to resort to nuclear weapons to avert defeat in Ukraine. Moreover, given Ukrainian military successes and the uncertain impact that calling up more Russian troops will have on the war in the near future, Putin may face the choice between accepting defeat and resorting to the nuclear option sooner rather than later.


The Russian setbacks that have led to Putin’s recent escalation may also make him more open to compromise, however. While Putin was reportedly unwilling to accept a diplomatic solution in the war’s early days, perhaps because he expected an easy Russian victory, the war’s dismal consequences may have changed his attitude.


The most realistic diplomatic option at this stage is a simple cease-fire that stops fighting along the current division of territory between Ukrainian and Russian forces. A more permanent agreement that settles the underlying conflict or leads to complete Russian withdrawal from Ukraine seems highly unlikely, especially in light of Russia’s formal annexation of parts of eastern Ukraine. A cease-fire will make the Ukraine war a frozen-but-unresolved conflict comparable to the Korean War.


Ukraine and its western allies, including the United States, should propose a cease-fire to Russia. The United States and the other allies should also discourage the Ukrainians from both trying to take back all of Russian-occupied Ukraine and launching strikes against Russian territory (as the Ukrainians apparently have done). To this end, the western allies should curtail military aid to Ukraine that could be used for taking back more Ukrainian territory or striking Russia.


Such an approach might understandably dismay even peace activists. Russia has committed the massive injustice of invading Ukraine. The Russian military has reportedly caused tremendous suffering to Ukrainians, from indiscriminate attacks on civilians to torture and sexual violence, including against children. How can leaving Russia in partial control of Ukrainian territory be accepted, especially when a decisive victory seems possible for Ukraine?


These are legitimate concerns. They must be balanced against the tremendous risk of continued fighting provoking Russian nuclear escalation, however. For Ukraine and its allies to simply press on with the war — in the hope that Putin is bluffing and will not follow through on his nuclear threats if he continues to lose — is not a responsible policy. At worst, such a policy could lead to far more people suffering and dying.


Trying to halt the war now is a more prudent policy, bitterly disappointing though it may be. Doing so is not “appeasement.” Ukraine, with western support, has successfully defended most of its territory from invasion. Russia is worse off now than before it invaded Ukraine. Russian casualties from the war are unknown but have likely been quite high. Russian aggression has prompted economic sanctions on Russia while also leading Finland and Sweden to seek NATO membership, thus expanding the network of European countries allied against Russia.


In this context, it is not appeasing Russia for Ukraine and the western allies to refrain from pressing their advantage by pushing Putin into an ever-more-desperate situation. As the saying goes, sometimes discretion is the better part of valor.


American citizens should contact President Biden by phone and email and their representatives in the House and Senate to urge the United States to seek a cease-fire (and to continue arms control negotiations with Russia). Reaching a cease-fire now may prevent nuclear catastrophe later.

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