Imagine this: It is summer 1917, and despite mounting losses of American merchant vessels sunk by German submarines, President Woodrow Wilson decides that the US will not enter the fight.
Instead, he convenes a conference with the leaders of the warring powers and proposes a 14-point peace agreement. Among these are that Germany will keep much of its conquered land in Belgium and France; Luxembourg will be erased; and the crippling British naval blockade will be lifted. Russia, already in revolutionary turmoil, will also surrender a swath of land to Imperial Germany.
In reality, President Wilson overcame his instinct for neutrality and used the new world’s power to save the democracies of the old. Little more than a year later, the German and Austro-Hungarian empires were defeated in major Allied land offensives and collapsed in ashes.
Historical parallels are never exact, but they provide some important pointers — as Ukraine prepares to launch its long-awaited spring offensive, the country’s Western backers must be patient.
That fear of Western restiveness is already worrying Ukraine’s leaders. “It is dangerous to consider the upcoming spring counteroffensive of the Armed Forces of Ukraine as the decisive moment of the war,” Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on March 30. Should the campaign fail to liberate large amounts of occupied territories, “some people may say this was the last decisive battle and now we have to think of an alternative scenario.”
Kuleba’s words are an acknowledgment of the high expectations attached to the approaching campaign. The offensives of the fall, in Kharkiv and Kherson regions, were so successful that some will imagine that Ukrainians — now armed with advanced Western tanks and munitions — will repeat the trick. Those offensives recaptured almost half the land Russia has seized, almost 75,000 square km (29,000 square miles.) Anything less than a repeat will be described by the pro-peace party as a failure. It might easily play into the hands of Vladimir Putin, who has signaled his support for China’s detail-lite peace plan. Russia-watchers point to the country’s long history of broken promises, and say a peace would merely be used to reform and rearm Russia’s invading army, ready for the next round. It should be understood that Russia will remain a danger to Europe for decades to come. Latvia’s Prime Minister even called it “the only threat” to the continent’s peace and security.
Some in the West may think they can decide Ukraine’s war aims, so just for the record it’s useful to state what the government in Kyiv wants. Ukraine has stated time and again that only the liberation of the occupied territories can serve as a basis for further talks. If Russia wants to discuss its withdrawal, that would be a better outcome. But that is the goal.
It may be hard to hear for the less-committed governments of Europe in particular, but victory will take more time, more bloodshed, and more weapons. That may appear hardline, but consider the alternatives.
A conflict that ends at this stage will leave Russia not only with Crimea but also with large areas of stolen land amounting to 18% of Ukrainian territory. That’s a lot of land and it would risk Ukraine’s future. “Russia has cut off the Sea of Azov and a large chunk of the Black Sea, seized a fat chunk of Ukraine’s territory, and created a land corridor to Crimea,” said Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of the Wagner Group, in an April 14 article which advised the Kremlin to “firmly consolidate and cling to the territories that it already has.”
What message would a deal on these terms send? It would demonstrate the weakness of Western democracies whose joint efforts were unable to evict a militarily and economically weaker country, an imperialist aggressor seeking to extend its empire. It is easy to imagine the conclusions authoritarian and totalitarian regimes would draw, eager as they are to overturn the rules-based global order. What is the value of values if their advocates are helpless in the face of brute force and can’t defend themselves and their allies? A peace on these terms might well cast aside the critical lesson of 1991, when the world came together to evict Saddam Hussein and re-establish Kuwait as an independent entity.
As for the United States, after the chaotic end to its years in Afghanistan, anything but a full victory of Ukraine would eventually be understood as a disaster. Ukraine is too pro-Western, too pro-democratic, too anti-imperialist to submit to dismemberment. Ukraine may not be able to win the war without US help, but it won’t stop fighting. The idea that selling the country to its enemies would deliver peace is a delusional. Fighting and resistance will continue.
There is, of course, a fix for this. Ukraine now has the most experienced military of all Europe’s democracies and could very easily become NATO’s 33rd member just after Sweden’s entry.
Yet it will not be offered the membership that it has aspired to since 2008. Though NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg promised to strengthen Ukraine’s armed forces and support Ukraine for “the long haul,” the West must know that it cannot prevaricate on the big issues for much longer. However much democratic leaders wish to evade the difficult choices, events have their own logic. Selling Ukraine to Russia is one; defeating the greatest continuing threat to European peace is another.
Elena Davlikanova is a Democracy Fellow with the Center for European Policy Analysis. Her work is focused on analyzing opportunities for Ukraine-Russia reconciliation with regard to fascism and totalitarianism in Russia and their effects on Russia. She is an experienced researcher, who in 2022 conducted the studies ‘The Work of the Ukrainian Parliament in Wartime’ and ‘Understanding.’
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.