Kissinger to Ukraine: Come on, throw Putin a bone

Kissinger to Ukraine: Come on, throw Putin a bone
(AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

Has land for peace ever worked — even lately? We’ll get to that in a moment, but first let’s look at a critical moment in the Russian offensive in Donbas. If Putin wants to force a face-saving settlement, he needs to win a decisive battle to secure an area that he, um, largely controlled by proxy before the invasion. Reuters casts the ongoing battle on the Siverskiy Donets river as Putin’s last, best hope to get out with some claim of victory:

The decisive battles of the war’s latest phase are still raging further south, where Moscow is attempting to seize the Donbas region of two eastern provinces, Donetsk and Luhansk, and trap Ukrainian forces in a pocket on the main eastern front.

The easternmost part of the Ukrainian-held Donbas pocket, the city of Sievierodonetsk on the east bank of the Siverskiy Donets river and its twin Lysychansk on the west bank, have become the pivotal battlefield there, with Russian forces advancing from three directions to encircle them.

“The enemy has focused its efforts on carrying out an offensive in order to encircle Lysychansk and Sievierodonetsk,” said Serhiy Gaidai, governor of Luhansk province, where the two cities are among the last territory still held by Ukraine.

“The intensity of fire on Sievierodonetsk has increased by multiple times, they are simply destroying the city,” he said on TV, adding there were about 15,000 people in the city and the Ukrainian military remains in control of it.

It’s not just Russia that sees this battle and others around it as potentially decisive. Volodymyr Zelensky urged his people to remain firm in their resolve and for Western allies to step up arms shipments in order to blunt the new Russian offensive:

Russian forces on Tuesday stepped up their offensive on the last pocket of resistance around Lugansk in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, as the conflict entered its fourth month.

Since Moscow’s invasion in late February, Western support has helped Ukraine hold off its neighbour’s advances in many areas, including the capital Kyiv. Russia is now focused on securing and expanding its gains in Donbas and the southern coast.

“The coming weeks of the war will be difficult, and we must be aware of that,” Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his nightly address Monday after regional leaders and residents reported heavy bombardments.

“The most difficult fighting situation today is in Donbas,” Zelensky said, singling out the worst-hit towns of Bakhmut, Popasna and Severodonetsk.

So far, the Ukrainians have shown little appetite for negotiation. They saw how perseverance worked for them in Kyiv and Kharkiv, where their underground transportation system transitioned back to operation today from its previous status as shelter. Even when Russians gain ground in Ukraine, they wind up losing it due to bad tactics, egregiously planned logistics, poor morale, and increasing artillery superiority for Ukraine. Even when outmatched, as they were initially in Kyiv and Kharkiv, Ukraine’s superior morale and discipline prevailed over time, especially with fresh materiel from NATO.

That brings us to Henry Kissinger, the remarkable eminence grise of American diplomacy. Kissinger warned today in Davos that the West would make a terrible error in attempting to punish Putin with a crippling military loss, and urged the US and EU to convince Ukraine to trade land for peace:

Dr Kissinger said the war must not be allowed to drag on for much longer, and came close to calling on the West to bully Ukraine into accepting negotiations on terms that fall very far short of its current war aims.

“Negotiations need to begin in the next two months before it creates upheavals and tensions that will not be easily overcome. Ideally, the dividing line should be a return to the status quo ante. Pursuing the war beyond that point would not be about the freedom of Ukraine, but a new war against Russia itself,” he said.

He told the World Economic Forum that Russia had been an essential part of Europe for 400 years and had been the guarantor of the European balance of power structure at critical times. European leaders should not lose sight of the longer term relationship, and nor should they risk pushing Russia into a permanent alliance with China.

“I hope the Ukrainians will match the heroism they have shown with wisdom,” he said, adding with his famous sense of realpolitik that the proper role for the country is to be a neutral buffer state rather than the frontier of Europe.

Yes, land for peace has a great history of success, especially in Europe. Oh wait ….

Ukraine has already responded to this free advice:

Ukrainian Ambassador to the U.S. Oksana Markarova on Monday took aim at suggestions that Ukraine “allow Putin to save face” or cede territory for peace in an effort to end the more than three-month war.

“Peace at any cost is not in anyone’s interest, because it’s not possible. Either you win and you can live peacefully in your own country, or you die, and it doesn’t matter whether you die quickly, right away from the shells, or you die slowly [from] occupation and torture,” she said.

Ukraine might be forced to accept such an outcome if Putin can reverse his military fortunes on the battlefield. There hasn’t been much evidence of improvement, but the recent short-term gains at least leave that as a possibility. For now, Ukrainians see a grinding war as in their favor, and the evidence thus far backs that theory. At the very least — and this is likely a lot more important than “the very least” — it keeps Putin from rebuilding his military for a second attempt at seizing and annexing the entirety of Ukraine.

That’s the problem with Kissinger’s advice here, too. If we could trust Putin to be chastened by a negotiated stalemate or return to the status quo ante, Kissinger might be right. Putin clearly wasn’t sated after 2014, though, and won’t be sated now with merely peeling off Donbas and Ukraine’s ports on the Sea of Azov. He wants Ukraine as a puppet state at worst, and annexed to Russia eventually. All of his moves since 2008 at the latest have aimed at military aggression to expand Russian territory at the expense of sovereign neighboring states, and Ukraine likely won’t be the last to fall if we don’t take that seriously.

It’s tough to take an argument that Russia is necessary for power balance in an era where Russia has acted almost completely unbalanced for as long as they have. We didn’t inflict serious damage on Putin after his invasion of Georgia in 2008 and his military seizure of Crimea in 2014. Does Kissinger think that was “balance”? The only way to disincentivize Putin from further aggression is to make it as costly as possible. Ukraine understands that, because Ukraine will get gobbled up the next time if Putin doesn’t learn that lesson this time.

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