The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Putin’s Unconditional Surrender Should Not Be the Goal

Placeholder while article actions load

Nothing creates confusion more than war. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has said that “diplomacy leads to peace, and peace is desirable for every human being.” Yet Ukrainian officials have furiously denounced suggestions — most recently from 99-year-old former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger — that they settle for a return to the status quo ante, leaving Vladimir Putin in control of large swathes of Ukrainian territory.

Ukraine “does not trade its sovereignty for someone to fill their wallet,” raged a senior adviser to Zelenskiy. The Ukrainian leader himself suggested that Americans who opposed support for his country “start reading some World War II memoirs,” since any appeasement of Putin would only encourage him to invade more European countries. 

In fact, memories of World War II are only too fresh in countries such as the United States and United Kingdom. For quite a few British and Americans, what seems like a just war in Ukraine brings back memories of their countries’ finest hours. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson would dearly love to be seen as the Winston Churchill of our time. Some of US President Joe Biden’s less diplomatic utterances have echoed the view that only Putin’s total defeat will dissuade him from embarking on further military adventures. Quite what constitutes total defeat remains rather vague.

Meanwhile, those who are still trying to find room for diplomacy are quickly denounced as cowardly appeasers. The French President Emmanuel Macron has been ridiculed for trying to talk sense into Putin, while German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has been criticized for slowing a total ban on importing Russian oil and gas.

The idea that Putin is a reincarnation of Adolf Hitler is, however, just a mirror image of Putin’s propaganda that Russia is fighting the Nazis in Ukraine. This war, although horrifying enough, is not World War II. And the Allied demand in 1945 for the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan is the wrong model to apply in Ukraine.

Even then, this demand was contested. The British and some Americans wanted to grant the Japanese certain conditions, such as retaining their emperor — a promise that might conceivably have ended the war sooner and saved countless lives. The hawks in this matter were often Democrats who believed that only a total Japanese surrender would enable the Allies to install a democracy in Tokyo.

That this process indeed took place, and Japan, like West Germany, became a democracy and a staunch US ally, strengthened the conviction of some Americans many years later that the same thing could be achieved in Afghanistan, Iraq — and perhaps now in Russia.

Yet conditions today are quite different. In 1945, the Allied forces were on the verge of defeating utterly devastated enemies. However inept its armed forces may appear to be, Russia is far from devastated. And Ukraine, however brave its soldiers and effective its Western arms, is far from dominant. Neither side is in any position to demand an unconditional surrender.

The idea that a defeat of the Russian army in Ukraine would result in a democratic transformation in Russia is equally farfetched. Nothing is impossible, of course. But circumstances in Putin’s Russia don’t remotely resemble those in Germany and Japan after their collapse. Both countries in 1945 were occupied by the Allies, who helped the Germans and Japanese restore democratic institutions that had previously existed. (This wasn’t true, of course, of the areas occupied by the Soviet Red Army.) There is no chance of Russia being occupied. And a humiliated Russia is hardly likely to become liberal very soon.

The Ukrainian demand that Russia withdraw all its troops from Ukrainian territory is an entirely legitimate position to adopt. But it is a position, not an ultimatum. Compromises can and should be reached once negotiations begin.

This might mean that Ukraine agrees not to become a member of NATO. Or that Russia retains some control over Donbas or the Crimea. As the British journalist and historian Neal Ascherson has pointed out, territorial integrity and national sovereignty should not be confused. Many countries have lost territory after wars without losing their national independence.

Compromises can be risky, to be sure. Zelenskiy would be vulnerable to nationalistic attacks inside Ukraine if he were to surrender any land. But it is up to him and his government to decide what risks are worth taking for the sake of ending a war that is ruining their country. Arguing from the sidelines that no concessions are acceptable and that anything short of bringing Putin down would be a defeat for democracy is unhelpful. Ukraine is not a pawn in a global war between good and evil.

Helping Ukraine to fight back against a brutal invasion is essential. Giving Ukrainians the means to do so is a valid enterprise. They should be in the strongest possible position to negotiate. But it is not for those of us outside Ukraine to tell them what their endgame should look like.

More From Other Writers at Bloomberg Opinion:

• The Best Outcome for Ukraine: Andreas Kluth

• Why So Few Big Rats Have Fled Putin’s Ship: Leonid Bershidsky

• Ukraine Should Beware of Britons Bearing Gifts: Pankaj Mishra

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Ian Buruma is professor of human rights at Bard College. His latest book is “The Churchill Complex.”

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion

©2022 Bloomberg L.P.

Loading...