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A diplomatic end to Putin’s Ukraine war is unlikely

It will require an unusually wise and courageous leader to walk the strategic tightrope and choose the least-bad policy options.

U.S. President Joe Biden meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva, June 16, 2021. Source: Facebook/The White House.
U.S. President Joe Biden meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva, June 16, 2021. Source: Facebook/The White House.
Clifford D. May
Clifford D. May is the founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), as well as a columnist for “The Washington Times.”

Let’s acknowledge that we’re treading on dangerous ground. Russia is ruled by a thug who has launched a war intended to extinguish Ukraine as an independent nation.

In 1990, there was a similar crisis. Another thug, Saddam Hussein, invaded and occupied Kuwait, which, he insisted, was not a real country but only a rogue province of Iraq.

“This will not stand!” pronounced President George H.W. Bush, who then mobilized more than two dozen nations to participate in a military campaign to oust the aggressors.

They did so not because Kuwait was lovely, free and democratic. They did so to support Bush’s vision—a quintessentially American vision—of “a world where the rule of law, not the law of the jungle, governs the conduct of nations.” And, yes, they also didn’t want the Iraqi dictator to get his hands on Kuwait’s oil, which he would have used to support terrorism and other nefarious purposes.

Saddam Hussein had attempted to acquire nuclear weapons but was denied that capability when Israel, in 1981, bombed an unfinished Iraqi nuclear reactor near Baghdad.

By contrast, Vladimir Putin, Russia’s ruler, has the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, including 10 times as many tactical nukes as the U.S. So, the perils of taking him on directly are much greater.

America and its NATO allies have not sent troops to defend Ukraine. Its president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has not asked for that. The democratically elected Ukrainian leader is only asking that he and his fellow countrymen be given the means to defend their land, their families and their freedom. We should give them those means—urgently and unstintingly.

They have been fighting with inspiring zeal and success. Over the weekend, it was reported that another Russian general had been killed—the eighth since the invasion began.

A few days earlier, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, the Moskva, was destroyed. Russian officials said it was an accident. More plausibly, the ship was hit by two made-in-Ukraine ground-to-sea Neptune missiles. “We have one more diving spot in the Black Sea now,” Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov tweeted Friday.

Are such developments inducing Putin to think about what diplomats call an “off-ramp”? I suspect he’s thinking about revenge instead.

Simultaneously, his lengthening list of war crimes is leading Ukrainian patriots and their supporters to conclude that there can be no diplomatic solution.

“Ukraine must be victorious, and any instrument of peace should document this fact,” former Under Secretary of State Paula Dobriansky and former First Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy Richard Levine wrote in The Wall Street Journal over the weekend.

That is certainly the outcome justice demands. Can it be achieved? At present, I don’t see Putin winning. But neither do I see him being decisively defeated and expelled from all of Ukraine, including Crimea and the eastern region of Donbas, where he’s maintained forces since 2014 and where a new phase of the war is about to begin.

Nothing we’re hearing from the Putinists suggests they are reconsidering their insistence that Ukrainians are rebels and traitors to their neo-colonialist empire.

“Ukrainism is an artificial anti-Russian construction that does not have its own civilizational content, a subordinate element of an alien civilization,” snarled RIA Novosti, a Russian state-owned media agency.

Some Russian officials are also now insisting that the Cold War never ended. Olga Kovitidi, a Russian senator from Crimea, went even further, telling an interviewer that “the Second World War did not end.” She added that “this snake of Nazism [has] raised its head” again in Ukraine. Germany, too, she added, remains a Nazi regime.

Such propaganda is being relentlessly disseminated by multiple Kremlin media outlets. If the polls can be believed, many if not most Russians are buying it.

That may be further emboldening Putin, who reportedly sent a letter to Biden warning of “unpredictable consequences” if he does not “stop the irresponsible militarization” of “the Kyiv regime.”

In other words, Putin is instructing the United States, a sovereign nation, not to help Ukraine, a sovereign nation, defend itself from his barbarism.

Similarly, Xi Jinping, Putin’s key ally and the ruler of the increasingly powerful Chinese empire, recently warned that he would “take strong measures” if the United States does not cease official interactions with the democratically elected government in Taiwan, which he calls a rogue province of China.

American isolationists on both the left and right will urge Biden to back off, to grant Russia and China their “spheres of influence.” If tyrants run roughshod over the world beyond our shores, why should that matter to Americans, ensconced as we are between two deep blue oceans?

What they have failed to learn from history is that appeasement never sates the appetites of those ambitious to conquer and subjugate others. Once men like Putin and Xi believe they have the algorithm for making America and other free nations retreat and capitulate, they’ll use it again and again.

To paraphrase Winston Churchill: No matter how much you feed the crocodile, in the end, you’ll be the dessert.

No, we don’t want the new Cold War now being waged against us by Moscow, Beijing and their allies—notably the Islamic Republic of Iran and North Korea—to turn hot. But attempting to make ourselves inoffensive to aggressors who despise and want to destroy us is no solution.

So, as noted, we’re treading on dangerous ground. It will require an unusually wise and courageous leader to walk the strategic tightrope and choose the least-bad policy options. Let’s acknowledge, too, that it’s been a while since we’ve had a leader who fits that description.

Clifford D. May is the founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and a columnist for “The Washington Times.”

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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