Not all wars are tragic, but the war between Russia and Ukraine is. Both peoples are inextricably linked to the West and to each other in a common history, Christian faith, and cultural heritage. Over the long run, in the face of China’s expansion and the perils posed by modern technology’s relentless assault on humanist values, the West will be much stronger if it embraces both Ukraine and Russia. The longer the war goes on, the more destruction it will wreak on Ukraine, on Russia, and on the economic, social, and political fabric of the West. At a time the United States should be zeroing in on the China threat, it is spending billions to fight Russia in Ukraine. Over time, the war will make Russia more dependent on China, strengthen the Beijing-Moscow axis, and drive Russia farther from the West, weakening both Russia and the West.
These undeniable geopolitical realities have prompted a wide range of serious people, among them Henry Kissinger, Emmanuel Macron, and the eminent international relations thinker John Mearsheimer to urge the West to press for a peace settlement, even if it requires Ukrainian territorial concessions of lands seized by Russia since the start of the invasion. Increasingly echoed in Paris, Rome, Berlin, and Madrid, where I have been sojourning for the past few weeks, such urgings represent an alluring, yet ultimately false counsel of political realism.
The first and more obvious problem is that meaningful peace negotiations require that one side has a clear upper hand, or that both are equally exhausted, neither of which has happened yet. Neither Russia nor Ukraine has run out of material resources or the will to fight. Both of them believe they may still prevail.
But the most troubling aspect is the assumption that a limited victory such as this proposal envisions for Russia – essentially rewarding it with territorial gains secured through its invasion – would lead to a lasting peace. If we read Putin’s pronouncements over the last two years and take him at face value, his ultimate goal is not some limited Bismarckian readjustment of borders that annex Ukraine’s Russian-speaking lands, but the wholesale abolition of the Ukrainian state and its full absorption into a militarily reinvigorated Greater Russia. If so, then a partial victory for Putin not only would reward his expansionist behavior, and strengthen immeasurably his prestige and power at home, but also leave him strategically better placed for a further, and possibly final, onslaught against Ukraine a few years down the road. The supposed lasting peace will have been no more than a truce; a short prelude to another war. But the next one will be fought at an even greater disadvantage for the Ukrainians, most of whom want to link their future with a free and prosperous Europe rather than Putin’s Russia.
Political realists have powerful insights into the ways of the world, but they are prone to overlook the “real world” impact of individual leaders and regimes. As the great realist Hans Morgenthau was fond of observing, practicing “appeasement” with Otto von Bismarck or Gustav Stresemann may have been a sensible policy; doing it with Adolf Hitler amounted to an intellectually shallow, colossal misjudgment. This was the fundamental mistake many British socialists and conservatives made in the 1930s, to the obvious frustration of conservatives such as Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle who understood the crucial difference. Putin is no Hitler. But his explicitly articulated goal of reconstituting greater Imperial Russia and its sphere of influence under his leadership is irreconcilable with the freedom and well-being of 140 million human souls living in Ukraine, the Baltics, and Eastern Europe, few of whom happen to agree with Kissinger or Macron on the wisdom of a peace obtained by granting Putin a limited victory.
And this takes us to my final point. As Aristotle and realists such as Thucydides observed 2,400 years ago, the nature of a regime (“a way of life”) does matter to most people. Territorially, Germany today is not much smaller, and is more economically powerful, than it was in 1936, but its neighbors fear it far less than they did nine decades ago because it has a radically different regime. There is no need for Europe, or the United States, to fear Russia in perpetuity. In fact, our long-term goal should be to embrace Russia into the great European family and the wider West that today includes such non-European states as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Australia. While Putin would like us to believe otherwise, what makes Russia a threat to its neighbors today is not its proud spirit, its great courage in adversity throughout history, or its glorious historical and cultural heritage, but the particular regime it has. We neither can, nor should, change Russia’s current regime, but we need to take its particular character into our calculations when we think about what a lasting peace with today’s Russia requires. If this war is to end with a reasonable hope of lasting peace, it must end in such a way that Mr. Putin, the heart and soul of Russia’s regime, cannot conclude that his military adventure, however punishing it has been for his people and his country’s economy, was worth its frighteningly high price.
Mr. Coll is Vincent de Paul Professor at DePaul University College of Law and served as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense in the first Bush Administration. He is a faculty partner with the Jack Miller Center.