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Zelensky’s Terrible Dilemma—and Ours

Capitulation or Bloody Resistance?

· 7 min read
Zelensky’s Terrible Dilemma—and Ours
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, right, stands for a moment of silence to honor the war dead during a visit to soldiers on the frontlines to present medals and provide encouragement, May 29th, 2022 in Kharkiv, Ukraine. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office /Alamy)

An existential choice faces Volodymyr Zelensky, President of Ukraine. It is perhaps the worst choice facing any head of state in the world—between capitulation before Russian President Vladimir Putin and continued resistance to the Russian invasion. If Zelensky chooses the former, there is no guarantee—or even a realistic hope—that any agreement to end hostilities will be honoured a minute longer than Putin finds convenient. On the other hand, continued resistance guarantees that many more Ukrainians—military and civilian—will die and many more cities and towns will be reduced to rubble, even if victory (whatever that looks like) is achieved eventually.

Negotiations to secure a deal are urged by President Macron of France, Prime Minister Draghi of Italy, and Chancellor Scholz of Germany, along with Nixon’s ancient former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and British Lords David Owen and Robert Skidelsky. These people, and other prominent public figures who share their view, know—or should know—that a deal with Putin will be worth nothing. Truth in Russia, before and during the invasion, has not merely been sacrificed, it has been gutted and stamped on, criminalised and redescribed as lies. Merely calling the Ukrainian conflict a “war” currently merits arrest, and thousands have already been detained for protesting the invasion. Every night, the Kremlin’s chief media propagandist, Vladimir Solovyov, spouts fountains of lies on Channel One, for which he’s so handsomely rewarded that he owns two large villas on Italy’s Lake Como (one of which has recently been burned and vandalised).

The invasion itself was so apparently senseless, and so self-destructive, that few expected Putin to press ahead with it, even as Russian troops massed on Ukraine’s borders before the February 24th attack. Putin and his ranting TV anchors repeatedly denied that war was imminent, and his faithful foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, even denied Russia had invaded Ukraine after it had done so.

So, why did Putin do it? For two reasons, above all. First, he was tormented by the prospect of Ukraine becoming wholly democratic and pro-Western—an example he feared would inspire the very many Russians who wish to see their own country develop an active civil society. Second, were this to happen, it would thwart Putin’s clearly expressed aim to merge the three Slav states of the former Soviet Union into a partial reconstruction of the Russian empire—Belarus is already in Putin’s pocket; Ukraine is now fighting to stay out of it; and Russia has allotted itself the role of imperial master. In a 5,000-word essay published in July last year and titled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” Putin denied that Ukraine is a separate state, and warned that Russia could not permit it to drift into the West’s orbit.

In a Western context, imagine a British prime minister writing an essay titled On the historical Unity between Britain and Ireland” as a prelude to the forcible seizure of the Irish Republic. After all, the rationale might run, it was part of Britain for centuries, until almost exactly a century ago (Anthony Trollope wrote two novels about an Irish politician named Phineas Finn, which dramatized the countries’ political union in the mid-19th century). But this counterfactual is inconceivable for the simple reason that the UK has long renounced its imperial ambitions while Putin has rekindled and inflamed those of Russia. He has come to see the reconstitution of the most important part of the Russian empire as his legacy. If rumours of Putin’s failing health are true, that legacy may soon become operative, which has led observers to speculate that the precipitate invasion was the decision of a sick man in a hurry. Putin’s imperial ambitions and iron determination make him an impossible interlocutor—a man determined, as Emmanuel Macron has discovered, not to give an inch.

In 1940, the British cabinet led by Neville Chamberlain faced an existential dilemma comparable to that faced by Zelensky today—whether to oppose Hitler or to deal with him. Those in favour of negotiations, led by the Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, had what sounded like a reasonable case: the British army had just been chased out of France and miraculously rescued at Dunkirk—Britain was clearly weaker than a resurgent Germany. Furthermore, Hitler had indicated, through Italian Prime Minister Mussolini, that he would not attack Britain, and would leave her empire untouched if the UK government pledged to give him a free hand in Europe and elsewhere.

This famous episode became a source of national pride, because the debate was resolved in favour of continuing the fight, a line long taken by the recently appointed Prime Minister Winston Churchill. But that is because the war ended in victory, an outcome that was by no means certain at the time. Nevertheless, had Halifax’s position prevailed, it’s now obvious that any treaty negotiated would not have been worth the paper on which it was written, especially after France was taken, and Italy and Japan joined the Reich in an axis against the UK.

The main events and issues that led to today’s crisis are now well-known. The invasion on February 24th, after weeks of indignant denials; the failure of the Russian army to reach Kyiv and depose the Zelensky government; the savagery of the invading Russian troops; the hugely impressive fighting spirit of the Ukrainians and the courage of President Zelensky himself, who had previously been written off as a comic posing as a statesman. Only, now the Russians seem to have regrouped after a chaotic start to their campaign and are beginning to win ground in the east. They have a stranglehold on shipping in the Sea of Azov, and in the Black Sea where the crucial port city of Odessa is situated. Reports point to the encirclement of the city of Severodonetsk, in the Donbas region. Zelensky says the Russians are killing up to 100 Ukrainian soldiers a day, a much higher rate than at any time in this war. Before the invasion began, irregular Russian forces controlled about 30 percent of the Donbas region, where much of its industry is situated. Now, the Russian army claims to control between 70 and 80 percent of the Luhansk region of the Donbas, and is continuing to advance.

The fortunes of war will go this way and that, but Zelensky’s dilemma is clearly apparent. It’s worth thinking hard about this, since many of us will be citizens of states assisting the Ukrainian war effort. Our taxes pay for aid and our governments, whether pressing for negotiations or encouraging struggle, remain closely involved in events. Ukraine must now choose between buying Putin off with all or most of the Ukrainian territory he now controls, or fighting on to win and risk a Ukrainian collapse. No good option now exists. Even outright victory for one side or the other will require a long war, which will suit Russia more than Ukraine.

“Buying Putin off” means accepting the east and south of Ukraine as part of the Russian state, just as Crimea has already been so proclaimed. An internationally recognised border between this acquired Russian territory and the rest of Ukraine would have to be agreed. Ukraine would be made to commit to a cessation of all attacks on that border. Neutrality would force Ukraine to renounce any and all plans to join NATO or the European Union. All Western sanctions would have to be lifted. These would be Russia’s main demands (there may be others, such as declaring Zelensky and other prominent members of his government to be “war criminals”), and since Ukraine will have sued for peace, the initiative would be with Russia.

What might Ukraine get in return? In the first instance, it would get the peace for which its citizens now desperately yearn. The Black Sea and Sea of Azov ports would reopen, which the rest of the world wants very much. For the time being at least, Ukraine would again be a defined, if severely reduced, territory, which would remain at least formally independent. It might hope to receive reparations from Russia for the billions of dollars of damage caused. These are only possibilities, and the last must be remote, unless the West forces Putin’s hand with some leverage of its own.

What is the rationale for settling now? The Russian army is resurgent and pressing hard. Ukrainian victories may become rarer, and the Western lobby for negotiations is strengthening, not least because the war is throttling energy, grain, and fertiliser supplies, and Western democracies are spending vast sums on support. The longer the war continues, the more the West will hurt, and the less it will feel moved to help Ukraine. Germany, the largest and richest of Ukraine’s European allies, has still not fulfilled its promise to send tanks and heavy weaponry, and may never do so if it wants to maintain a good relationship with Russia after the war. Others may follow Germany’s dispiriting lead, alarmed not only by the economic price the conflict is exacting, but also by the ongoing threat of nuclear escalation. If the battle continues to favour Russia, these voices argue, then the sooner talks begin, the better.

These are strong reasons for ending war—some would add, at any price. But what is the rationale for carrying on? First and most important: nothing Putin says can be trusted. Since the entire Russian campaign is founded on lies, ceding territory in the east will make Putin hungrier for more—and even all—of Ukraine. As the American civil rights campaigner and journalist, Ida B. Wells, once remarked, “the appetite grows for what it feeds on.” Rewarding a dictatorship’s aggression will only encourage other irredentist regimes like China to follow Putin’s ruthless example. Ukraine may yet retake the advantage, and while Ukrainian society may be desperate for peace, it is not openly splitting—Zelensky and the army still enjoy strong support. Finally, advanced weaponry, bought with the $40bn in aid passed by the US Congress and Senate last week will upgrade Ukraine’s military technology—and stocks will last through the summer.

That is how the issue now stands. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has written a biography of Churchill, and perhaps inspired by his predecessor’s example, has ensured that his country’s support for Ukraine—both rhetorical and material—is among the strongest of all democracies. Pursued by a domestic scandal that may yet unseat him, Johnson nevertheless understands the need to give the embattled Ukrainian nation his full-throated support. In his speech to the Ukrainian parliament in May, he reiterated his agreement with Ukraine’s decision to fight on: “no outsider like me can speak lightly about how the conflict could be settled, if only Ukraine would relinquish this or that piece or territory or we find some compromise for Vladimir Putin. We know what happens to the people left in the clutches of this invader.”

Faced with a hideous choice, Volodymyr Zelensky and his government have chosen the path of greatest resistance—an act of very great courage and a huge risk in the face of an assault that grows heavier by the day. It is also a choice for those countries in strong support of Ukraine. And in making it, British citizens should not be ashamed to agree with their flawed prime minister.

John Lloyd

John Lloyd was the FT’s Moscow correspondent from 1991–95. He is co-founder of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and his forthcoming book is about the rise of the New Right in Europe.

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