July 21, 2024

Relocations: My peace plan for Ukraine

Russia and Ukraine flags
The flags of Russia and Ukraine. Petr Kratochvil photo for Public Domain
September 28, 2023

With the failure of Ukraine’s counteroffensive, it’s time to end the war

By Herbert Rothschild

Last week I shared with you my pleasure that something I wrote in a previous column proved wrong. This week I share my sadness that something I wrote in a previous column has proved right. On the verge of bad weather, which will dampen down the ground war, Ukraine’s spring counteroffensive has regained little territory.

Herb Rothschild Relocations
Herbert Rothschild

It’s possible to trace the counteroffensive through time at a USA Today website where, as you scroll down, you get a series of maps that change to show how the chronological events reported in the text boxes running over the maps altered facts on the ground. Ukrainian gains have been far too small to affect the course of the war — perhaps fewer than 30 square miles on the eastern front and probably not more than 150 square miles on the southern. For comparison, the breach of the Kakhovka Dam on the Dnipro River on June 6 flooded an area larger than Ukraine has won back.

The human cost of the fighting can’t be determined with certainty. Ukraine won’t report its casualties, and Russian reports aren’t regarded as trustworthy in the West. On Aug. 18, the New York Times published estimates by unspecified U.S. officials that, to date, Ukraine has lost 70,000 dead and 120,000 wounded, mostly during the counteroffensive. Russia has lost 120,000 dead and 170,000 to 180,000 wounded.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy keeps insisting that there can be no cessation of hostilities until all the territory that Ukraine controlled prior to 2014 is liberated from Russian occupation. We can sympathize with his position, but we need not endorse it. As I wrote in June, “(T)he lives of Ukrainians shouldn’t be sacrificed on an altar of national honor. The suffering of those who have stayed and those who chose exile is too great to prolong if there is a way to end it that doesn’t entail equal or greater suffering.”

Nor do I exclude Russian casualties from my concern. Yes, they are serving in a bad cause, but so were the U.S. troops who fought in Vietnam and Iraq. All lives are precious, including victims of the famine in Africa that the interruption of grain shipments out of Ukraine have exacerbated.

How might peace negotiations begin? I think the first move is up to the U.S. We should declare that we will not support membership in NATO for either Ukraine or Georgia. In the past I’ve written about how provocative NATO expansion to the east has been, how it violated Western guarantees given in 1991 to Mikhail Gorbachev when he agreed to the reunification of Germany, how Russia has consistently protested as NATO took in more and more countries on Russia’s borders, how Russian troop movements into Georgia and its re-annexation of Crimea in 2014 were linked to increased signals from the West that those two countries might be admitted to the military alliance. And I’ve challenged you to imagine our reaction if Mexico and Canada were to enter a military alliance with China.

My understanding received validation last Saturday when Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in a news conference at the U.N, indicated that Russia would recognize Ukraine’s borders prior to Moscow’s invasion if Kyiv pledges to not join a military alliance. Lavrov told reporters that, in 1991, Moscow “recognized the sovereignty of Ukraine on the basis of the Declaration of Independence, which it adopted upon leaving the USSR.” That declaration included the assurance that Ukraine would be a “permanently neutral state that does not participate in military blocs.”

Frankly, I don’t think the Biden administration will renounce an intention of NATO membership for Ukraine. It refused to negotiate on this point during the talks leading up to the invasion. Our foreign policy establishment is filled with people used to playing Big Power games, damn the human cost. Further, our military contractors are raking in even more of our tax dollars. Democrats would do well to recognize, though, that there is growing domestic discontent with our financing a war that promises to continue for years. Current Republican efforts to cut off aid will not succeed this year, but red flags are waving. 

Zelenskyy already is facing the possibility that Republicans will control Washington after the 2024 elections. If Biden were to tell him that even a Democratic win won’t assure a perpetual flow of weapons, he’ll have to negotiate despite himself. And I do believe that Putin has long abandoned hope that he can conquer Ukraine and swallow it whole. The war poses the greatest threat to his hold on power since he ascended to it.

So, what might a peace agreement look like? No NATO membership for Ukraine is a key element, which wouldn’t preclude its extensive economic ties with the West. There must be territorial concessions, especially regarding Crimea, which predates what I think Lavrov meant by the invasion. I keep challenging our media’s characterization of the 2014 seizure as an annexation. Russia reclaimed a territory that became a part of Russia in 1783 and was never part of Ukraine until Khrushchev thoughtlessly ceded it to Ukraine in 1954, when Ukraine was still part of the Soviet Union. It’s populated by Russian speakers. And because it’s Russia’s only warm-water port, Russia considers it vital to its defense.

What about Russian-occupied territory in the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine? As I explained in a column last year, predominantly Russian-speaking areas there seceded in 2014 after a Western-backed coup ousted the democratically elected president, Viktor Yanukovych, whose political base was in those areas. Before Russia invaded in 2022, Ukraine had been waging war for eight years to end the secession. Exempting Crimea, the U.N. could conduct a referendum in all the territories Russian troops now occupy with a pledge by both sides to abide by the popular will. My guess is that people in the land bridge between those eastern regions and Crimea that Russia secured by military force will vote to rejoin Ukraine, but parts of the Donbas will vote either for independence or union with Russia.

Would such a settlement mean “rewarding” Putin for his aggression? In a way, yes, although he would have failed in his main aim and paid a terrible price for his gains. Would it embolden him to attack other countries such as Poland? Only if you believe our self-serving characterization of the Ukrainian war as Putin’s megalomaniac quest to reestablish a Russian empire. Would it mean the triumph of autocracy over democracy? It’s just as reasonable to claim that it would have been the other way around. Would it mean the end of great suffering and of the possibility that we may stumble into World War III? That would be true without qualification.

Herbert Rothschild is an unpaid board member. Opinions expressed in columns represent the author’s views and may or may not reflect those of Email Rothschild at

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