For the past three months, I have resisted the urge to write about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It was just too disturbing. Covid wasn’t bad enough, so we needed a war too? War is ugly, cruel, terrible and barbaric. I have watched the genocide and devastation of Ukraine along with everybody else. I am sickened and distressed by it like everybody else. And I am most disturbed because I see very few diplomatic efforts to end the war. I ask myself, as Michael Goodwin put it in the New York Post, “Are we on the verge of sleepwalking into World War III?”
In his book The Sleepwalkers, Christopher Clark describes how World War I began even though no European leader wanted war or thought that war would be the result of their actions. In general, war results from a series of cumulative miscalculations. It is fair to say that Russian President Vladimir Putin miscalculated the ferocity of Ukrainian resistance, the quality of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s leadership and the firm reaction from the West.
The war in Ukraine is a senseless one, and it has upset the New World Order that emerged after the end of the Cold War. It has thrust us back to the “Old World Order” in which Russia was ruled by the likes of Stalin and Khrushchev. Europe’s 30-year calm has been shattered.
There is plenty of blame to go around, and historians will no doubt spend decades in the attempt to assign it. Yes, I doubt Putin would have invaded Ukraine if Donald Trump were still president. Yes, Putin thought he would have a cakewalk like Crimea in 2014. Yes, to have helped Ukraine with fighter jets and howitzers from day one rather than three months into the war would have been prudent.
Mistakes have been made. But now is the time to negotiate a settlement between Putin and Zelensky.
My grandfather came from Zhitomer and fought for the Russians in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5. His life was saved by U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, who negotiated the peace treaty that ended the war. President Joe Biden must now do the same: negotiate peace between Russia and Ukraine in order to save lives. Otherwise, we risk sleepwalking into World War III. As Henry Kissinger recently said, we are at a “turning point.”
As Dominic Green wrote in the New York Post, “Either the Biden administration can push for negotiations, define the terms of a peace deal and secure the foundations of a 21st century security system in Europe, or it can fight Russia to the last Ukrainian and pursue an open-ended and uncontrollable conflict with Russia that will cost thousands of Ukrainian lives, reverse America’s gains and consume America’s global strategy.”
For a treaty to work, each side must save face. Putin must give up on his dream of conquering the entirety of Ukraine and Zelensky must be prepared to make concessions.
If Biden thinks that Putin can be defeated, this would be the exact kind of miscalculation that could lead to World War III. As Green put it, “The closer America gets to defeating Russia in Ukraine, the closer America gets to losing in Ukraine. While it is imperative for the stability of Europe that Putin does not win outright in Ukraine, it is vital that he not lose too badly. If he wins, he will be emboldened, but if he loses, he will be enraged—and regain the initiative. Putin is not mad but wicked.”
In the Russo-Japanese War, both Russia and Japan made territorial claims on Manchuria and Korea. Casualties were high on both sides. The Russians lost 60,000 men and the Japanese lost 41,000. Throughout the war American public opinion tended to side with Japan, just as American public opinion sides with Ukraine today. The Japanese asked Roosevelt to negotiate a peace agreement and representatives of the two nations met in Portsmouth, New Hampshire in 1905. There, Roosevelt negotiated a treaty that gave Japan control of Korea and much of south Manchuria. Russia, which lost the war, was not required to pay Japan’s war costs. Both sides conceded on certain issues, but also came away with an accomplishment.
Although the situations are different, it is now up to the Biden administration to end the Russia-Ukraine war in a similar way: each side will give something up, but also walk away with something. This must be done before the war spirals out of control and the world sleepwalks into World War III. There is bipartisan support for the negotiation of such a settlement. Biden must seize the moment before it is too late.
Dr. Joseph Frager is a lifelong activist and physician. He is chairman of Israel advocacy for the Rabbinical Alliance of America, chairman of the executive committee of American Friends of Ateret Cohanim and executive vice president of the Israel Heritage Foundation.