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Opinion: When is the right time to talk about peace in Ukraine?

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The war in Ukraine has seen its fair share of twists and turns over the last 27 months. The first year was largely defined by the Russian army’s highly public missteps, from gas-less tanks stranded on the roadside to Russian soldiers redeploying to the Donbas after a failed push to take Kyiv. Then came Ukraine’s swift September 2022 counteroffensive in Kharkiv. The Ukrainians were riding high in November 2022, so much so that U.S. intelligence agencies picked up chatter that Russian generals were talking about the use of tactical nuclear warheads.

The situation, however, has deteriorated for the Ukrainians ever since. The capture of Kherson in November 2022 was the high-water mark of Ukraine’s progress. Since then, the battlefield situation has slowly rebounded to Russia’s advantage. Moscow has regained more territory over the last two months than Ukraine did during its entire counteroffensive last year. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is frustrated by Russia’s current operations in Kharkiv, leading Washington to loosen its ban on using U.S.-supplied weapons to hit targets inside Russia.

All of this leads to the inevitable question: At what point should Ukraine shift its strategy from total military victory toward a good-enough peace?

War’s worst-kept secret

For many, even talking about the possibility of a diplomatic settlement with Russia is blasphemy. Russia, after all, is the aggressor, invading a sovereign neighbor and committing countless atrocities in the process. Its president, Vladimir Putin, is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes. Ukraine is the victim, the logic goes, and forcing it to sit down at the same table with its victimizer leaves a sour taste in our mouths.

All of that may be true to a degree. International politics, though, isn’t a morality contest — it’s at times an ugly, highly competitive slugfest between states where the ideal is rarely attainable.

To date, Zelenskyy has been adamant: Ukraine will only negotiate with Russia after it withdraws its troops from every inch of Ukrainian territory, including Crimea, which has been under Russian occupation for more than a decade. Zelenskyy’s 10-point peace plan, which demands a total Russian military withdrawal, Russian compensation for war damage and war crime prosecutions for Russian soldiers, is in effect a surrender document for Moscow. Zelenskyy will reiterate those same terms this month, when dozens of countries assemble in Switzerland for a so-called peace summit.

Yet that plan, although desirable, is simply not credible. In fact, given the current state of the war, as well as Putin’s willingness to sacrifice Russia’s future to maintain the roughly 20% of Ukrainian territory his forces now occupy, Zelenskyy’s position is downright delusional. This is one of the worst-kept secrets in international relations, one the Biden administration likely recognizes behind the scenes.

The White House, of course, is highly unlikely to state this obvious fact openly. First, doing so would cause extreme strain between Washington and Kyiv at a time when both are working to hold Ukraine’s defensive lines. Second, the U.S. would be embarrassing Zelenskyy by in essence calling his peace proposal a fool’s errand. And the impact on morale within the Ukrainian army could be significant — who would risk their life for a draw?

What will it take?

But none of these considerations outweigh the facts on and off the battlefield — and whether we like it or not, those facts now favor Russia. While Russia’s casualties are steep — the U.K. Ministry of Defense estimates that 465,000 Russians have been killed or wounded thus far — the Russian government is preparing for a war that could last for years. Putin is consistently throwing bodies into the fight — approximately 30,000 Russians are joining the ranks every month — and is providing lucrative bonuses and benefits to entice more young men to join. Despite stringent U.S. and European Union sanctions, Russia has managed to redirect its crude to the east (mainly to China and India), garnering tens of billions of dollars for the treasury. The Russian economy is sustaining the war effort just as the war is sustaining the Russian economy.

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