The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Think the West can coax an end to the war in Ukraine? You’re wrong.

Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on May 25. (Sergey Guneev/Kremlin Pool/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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Who can end the senseless war in Ukraine? It is a very short list.

No. 1: Russian President Vladimir Putin.

No. 2: Vladimir Putin.

No. 3: Putin.

Extend the list and it’s Putin all the way down. He alone started the war. He alone positioned as many as 190,000 troops to invade his neighbor in February.

Nations around the world pleaded with him not to unleash the largest unprovoked assault in Europe since World War II. He ignored the advice and invaded anyway.

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Now, only he can stop this horror. Weirdly, though, leaders and thinkers of various political stripes seem to think that the United States and its allies have the power to bring the carnage to an end. From Henry A. Kissinger on the right to Katrina vanden Heuvel (a Post columnist) on the left to Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in cloud-cuckooland, these voices have complained in recent days that Ukrainian resistance, supported by the allies, somehow stands in the way of a cease-fire.

This is nonsense.

From the first week of the fighting, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has repeatedly offered the most generous cease-fire terms to Russia, consistent with restoring a stable, peaceful world. Even after kicking Russian tails for more than three weeks, Zelensky asked only that Russia return to its pre-invasion position and commit to respect Ukrainian sovereignty. Ukraine would pause its integration into Western Europe somewhere short of full NATO membership.

Talk about an off-ramp for Putin. His forces have waged wanton and indiscriminate war against civilian centers for three months, raping, looting, kidnapping and murdering. Yet Zelensky’s proffered terms would allow Putin to slink back to the pre-invasion status quo having lost nothing but his nation’s prestige — such as it was.

To let Putin off with that much is the very limit the world can safely allow. To give an inch more would be a betrayal of the vital principle that fascist kleptocrats are not allowed to steal land with tanks and blockade food shipments with warships in the 21st century.

No doubt Kissinger and company are motivated by a laudable desire to end this terrible violence — and the threat of further escalation — as quickly as possible. But they overestimate the ability of the West to impose terms on the Ukrainians.

The whole world was surprised by the fierce patriotism of Zelensky and his people when the invasion began. That patriotism won’t evaporate just because Washington or Berlin or Brussels commands it.

In the Russian-occupied city of Melitopol, Ukrainian guerrillas are already at work. Resistance fighters are believed responsible for a car-bomb attack targeting a senior occupation official. Ivan Fyodorov, the city’s deposed mayor, has promised more of the same, vowing that “the ground will burn” in Melitopol until the Russians withdraw.

Remember the grandmas making molotov cocktails in the early days of the war? Such people will decide for themselves when to stop fighting.

More important: Putin doesn’t want peace. He has gone to extraordinary lengths to avoid peace. He has paid — and continues to pay — a staggering price to resist peace. Even as his military power melts and his economy reels, Putin spurns cease-fire talks. Diplomats have begged him to negotiate, yet he has never engaged seriously.

Instead, Putin has cycled from failed Plan A (a feckless blitzkrieg intended to topple the government in Kyiv and conquer the entire nation) to failed Plan B (a thwarted pincer movement to cut Ukrainian forces in half and secure the south and east for Russia) to failing Plan C (a consolidation of nearly leaderless and reportedly mutinous troops trying to add modestly to Russia’s pre-invasion holdings).

These botched efforts have cost Putin dearly. Rather than negotiate a cease-fire, he has preferred to see hundreds of Russian tanks destroyed, the Russian air force humiliated, the flagship of the Russian Navy’s Black Sea fleet sunk, tens of thousands of Russian soldiers killed and wounded, the decimation of the Russian high command, the gutting of troop morale, and the coils of economic destruction squeezing the juice from Russian lifestyles.

Few Westerners have a deeper understanding of Russia and Ukraine than Timothy Snyder, author of the award-winning history “Bloodlands.” He recently published a clear-eyed response to those who believe Putin can be coaxed to peace.

“Some observers of the Russo-Ukrainian war seem to think that its greatest danger is that Ukraine will win, or win too quickly, and that this will be uncomfortable for Putin, and that we should care,” Snyder wrote. “This is a deeply perverse way of seeing things.” The destruction, the genocidal crimes — “those are the kinds of things we should be worrying about, not Putin’s self-image.”

Putin will end the war only when he decides he has no other choice. Therefore, Ukraine must fight on.

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