Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky gets a lot of advice on how he can end the war in his country, and most of it pushes in one direction: Swap some sovereignty for peace. If only Zelensky would give Russian President Vladimir Putin another chunk of Ukrainian territory, the argument goes, the war would end.
Opinion | Putin, not Zelensky, is the one who can end the war in Ukraine
In May, Zelensky reported that French President Emmanuel Macron “suggested to me certain things related to concessions on our sovereignty in order to help Putin save his face.” Henry A. Kissinger echoed that advice. Speaking at the World Economic Forum that same month, the former US secretary of state warned Western leaders not to push Putin into an embarrassing defeat, and instead suggested they urge Zelensky to give up Ukrainian territory as a means to ending the war. Op-ed pages in Europe and the United States have been filled with self-appointed strategists suggesting ways for Zelensky to halt the carnage.
And Ukrainians I know harbor a very specific, private worry: Should Putin succeed in fully taking Donbas, he might declare his war of conquest over for now, quickly prompting some Western leaders to urge Zelensky to accept the loss of occupied land as the price of peace.
Strangely, few in this army of advisers direct their wisdom toward Moscow. Why does no one offer Putin advice for how to end his invasion? To those claiming to make the “case for diplomacy,” in alleged opposition to the “case for war, ” please detail how you would persuade or compel Putin to stop the conflict. Real diplomacy takes two to tango. Recommendations for peace that instruct only Zelensky to capitulate are not only repulsive, but also highly unrealistic.
The repulsive part should be obvious. Putin was not provoked into invading; Russia faced no security threat from Ukraine. Putin has now recognized two regions of Ukraine — Donetsk and Luhansk — as independent states, and he has plans to annex them, along with other southern Ukrainian cities and regions that together constitute what Putin calls “Novorossiya.” To try to please Putin by giving him more territory would normalize annexation and reward imperialism.
And no, this is not just what great powers do. After World War II, the great powers endorsed a set of norms to prevent annexation and end colonization. For several decades thereafter, including during the Cold War, they were rare. Giving Putin more Ukrainian land now would not only radically undermine Ukrainian sovereignty, but it would also threaten to unravel the post-World War II international system more generally. If Russia is allowed to forcibly annex neighboring territory, what would stop other countries from doing the same?
The self-appointed Zelensky advisers understand these distasteful facts. They just claim to be realists and assert that their proposal — land for peace — is the only way to end the war. But they are in fact unrealistic, if not downright naive, about Putin and power.
Putin already annexed part of Ukraine in 2014. Conquest of Crimea did not satiate him then. Why wouldn’t Putin pocket new gains from 2022 and then prepare for yet another war?
You don’t have to take my word for it; listen to what Putin himself has said. Putin claims that Ukrainians are just Russians with accents and have no historical claim to statehood. Putin also promised to “denazify” Ukraine, a bizarre euphemism for overthrowing the democratically elected Zelensky.
Just days ago, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reaffirmed this Russia war objective, declaring, “We will certainly help the Ukrainian people to get rid of the regime, which is absolutely anti-people and anti-historical.” Already, Putin has tried to seize the country’s capital, Kyiv, and he has not once mentioned abandoning that military objective.
Acquiring Donbas, or “Novorossiya,” might delay Putin’s pursuit of these other military objectives, but it will not stop them. If Zelensky gave Putin more Ukrainian territory today, Putin would demand more tomorrow — more land, more influence over the Ukrainian government, certainly more control throughout in Ukraine.
Moreover, Putin thinks he is winning. Using barbaric methods of terrorizing civilians with long-range artillery shells and rockets, Putin’s army is making incremental progress on the battlefield. So why would he quit now?
History teaches that wars tend to end in two ways. Either one side wins, or a grinding stalemate is reached. Neither of those conditions exists yet in Ukraine. No matter what Zelensky says or gives, Putin will not stop fighting until his army can no longer move forward.
The real party of peace is not those advising Zelensky to give Putin more land. It is those pushing the West to supply the Ukrainian army with more and better weapons, and as fast as possible. Without stalemate on the battlefield, Putin will never negotiate. The faster Ukraine’s army can stop Russia’s, the sooner Putin’s war will end.
I hope I am wrong. I would love to read a serious plan for persuading Putin to end his invasion. But Western recommendations aimed only at pressuring Zelensky to quit won’t work.
Putin, not Zelensky, is the key decision-maker for ending the Russian invasion of Ukraine. If your plan for peace does not spell out a way to change Putin’s calculus, there’s nothing realistic about it.