Zelensky’s Terrible Dilemma

Zelensky’s Terrible Dilemma. By John Lloyd.

An existential choice faces Volodymyr Zelensky, President of Ukraine. It is perhaps the worst choice facing any head of state in the world — between capitulation before Russian President Vladimir Putin and continued resistance to the Russian invasion.

If Zelensky chooses the former, there is no guarantee — or even a realistic hope — that any agreement to end hostilities will be honoured a minute longer than Putin finds convenient. On the other hand, continued resistance guarantees that many more Ukrainians — military and civilian — will die and many more cities and towns will be reduced to rubble, even if victory (whatever that looks like) is achieved eventually. …

A deal with Putin will be worth nothing. Truth in Russia, before and during the invasion, has not merely been sacrificed, it has been gutted and stamped on, criminalised and redescribed as lies. Merely calling the Ukrainian conflict a “war” currently merits arrest, and thousands have already been detained for protesting the invasion. …

The invasion itself was so apparently senseless, and so self-destructive, that few expected Putin to press ahead with it, even as Russian troops massed on Ukraine’s borders before the February 24th attack. … So, why did Putin do it? For two reasons, above all. First, he was tormented by the prospect of Ukraine becoming wholly democratic and pro-Western — an example he feared would inspire the very many Russians who wish to see their own country develop an active civil society. Second, were this to happen, it would thwart Putin’s clearly expressed aim to merge the three Slav states of the former Soviet Union into a partial reconstruction of the Russian empire — Belarus is already in Putin’s pocket; Ukraine is now fighting to stay out of it; and Russia has allotted itself the role of imperial master. In a 5,000-word essay published in July last year and titled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” Putin denied that Ukraine is a separate state, and warned that Russia could not permit it to drift into the West’s orbit.

In a Western context, imagine a British prime minister writing an essay titled “On the historical Unity between Britain and Ireland” as a prelude to the forcible seizure of the Irish Republic. After all, the rationale might run, it was part of Britain for centuries, until almost exactly a century ago … But this counterfactual is inconceivable for the simple reason that the UK has long renounced its imperial ambitions while Putin has rekindled and inflamed those of Russia. …

Britain, 1940:

In 1940, the British cabinet led by Neville Chamberlain faced an existential dilemma comparable to that faced by Zelensky today — whether to oppose Hitler or to deal with him. Those in favour of negotiations, led by the Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, had what sounded like a reasonable case: the British army had just been chased out of France and miraculously rescued at Dunkirk — Britain was clearly weaker than a resurgent Germany. Furthermore, Hitler had indicated, through Italian Prime Minister Mussolini, that he would not attack Britain, and would leave her empire untouched if the UK government pledged to give him a free hand in Europe and elsewhere.

This famous episode became a source of national pride, because the debate was resolved in favour of continuing the fight, a line long taken by the recently appointed Prime Minister Winston Churchill. But that is because the war ended in victory, an outcome that was by no means certain at the time. Nevertheless, had Halifax’s position prevailed, it’s now obvious that any treaty negotiated would not have been worth the paper on which it was written, especially after France was taken, and Italy and Japan joined the Reich in an axis against the UK. …

Ukraine 2022:

Zelensky says the Russians are killing up to 100 Ukrainian soldiers a day, a much higher rate than at any time in this war. Before the invasion began, irregular Russian forces controlled about 30 percent of the Donbas region, where much of its industry is situated. Now, the Russian army claims to control between 70 and 80 percent of the Luhansk region of the Donbas, and is continuing to advance. …

Ukraine must now choose between buying Putin off with all or most of the Ukrainian territory he now controls, or fighting on to win and risk a Ukrainian collapse. No good option now exists. Even outright victory for one side or the other will require a long war, which will suit Russia more than Ukraine.

“Buying Putin off” means accepting the east and south of Ukraine as part of the Russian state, just as Crimea has already been so proclaimed. An internationally recognised border between this acquired Russian territory and the rest of Ukraine would have to be agreed. Ukraine would be made to commit to a cessation of all attacks on that border. Neutrality would force Ukraine to renounce any and all plans to join NATO or the European Union. All Western sanctions would have to be lifted. These would be Russia’s main demands (there may be others, such as declaring Zelensky and other prominent members of his government to be “war criminals”), and since Ukraine will have sued for peace, the initiative would be with Russia.

Russia gave guarantees for the security of Ukraine in the 1990s, in return for Ukraine giving up its nukes. Says it all, really.

Meanwhile the war is close to stalemate now. The Russians are on the defense everywhere except one narrow area of advance in the Donbass. After that attack peters out, they are kaput.