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Ukraine will not win. Only a peace plan by the major powers can end the war

by Stephen M. Walt
A genuine peace treaty would require agreement on a host of thorny issues (e.g., borders, reconstruction assistance, prisoner repatriation, accountability for war crimes, security guarantees, transit arrangements for the Black Sea and Sea of Azov, etc.), and none of these issues would be easily resolved. The Biden administration would have to roll back its earlier triumphalism.
Ukraine will not win - Only a peace plan by the major powers can end the war
By Stephen M. Walt
[This article posted on 5/5/2023 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.fr.de/politik/foreign-policy-ukraine-russland-friedensplan-grossmaechte-usa-china-zr-92251188.html.]

The Ukraine war will not end in Moscow or Kiev. It can only be done in Washington and Beijing. Commentary.

Cruel reality: Ukraine cannot win the war with Russia.

The Kremlin should also be interested in a quick end Ukraine war.

The U.S. and China should negotiate a peace plan for Ukraine, comments U.S. publicist Stephen M. Walt.

This article is available in German for the first time - it was first published by Foreign Policy magazine on April 18, 2023.

Washington, D.C. - If leaked Pentagon documents are to be believed - and I think they are - the United States needs a Plan B for Ukraine. As much as we would all like to see a swift liberation of Ukrainian territory, it is unlikely that the under-equipped and under-trained Ukrainian forces now gearing up for a spring offensive will achieve widespread success against Russian defenses.

The Administration's bold promises of a possible Ukrainian victory are unlikely to materialize, and Ukraine will suffer additional damage in the meantime. What Ukraine needs is peace, not a protracted war of attrition against a more populous adversary whose leader does not care how many lives are sacrificed in the maelstrom.

Ukraine war: the origins of the conflict with Russia.

Protests in Maidan Square in Kiev, Ukraine, 2014.

View photo gallery

Ukraine must hold out until Putin is willing to negotiate

I suspect that most top officials in Joe Biden's administration understand this cruel reality, whatever they may say in public. Although anything is possible in wartime, they do not expect Ukraine to make a dramatic breakthrough or the Russian army to collapse. Instead, they hope that Ukrainian forces will do well enough to convince Russian President Vladimir Putin to seek a cease-fire and eventually negotiate a comprehensive peace agreement. (For an unofficial version of this view, see Raj Menon's thoughtful and relatively optimistic analysis here.)

If the Ukrainian offensive goes badly, however, Putin will be in no hurry to negotiate. Although it would also be better for Russia if the Ukraine war ended, it is unlikely to stop until its main wartime objective - the strategic neutralization of Ukraine - is achieved.

The allies of the parties in the Ukraine war, China and the United States, should negotiate a joint peace plan.

The allies of the parties in the Ukraine war, China and the U.S., should negotiate a joint peace plan. © dpa

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Peace in Ukraine: great hopes still rest on China

What is to be done? Since the beginning of the war, outsiders have hoped that China might use its influence and leverage to persuade Moscow to reach an agreement and end the fighting. Those hopes have been dashed so far, in part because China has benefited from the war in several ways. Western sanctions made Russia even more dependent on China, provided Beijing with oil and gas at discount prices, and prevented the United States from focusing more of its attention on Asia. But it is also problematic for Beijing if the war drags on endlessly. China is eager to mend fences between Europe and the United States, allow trade, investment, and cutting-edge technology to flow freely, and gradually drive a wedge between Europe and the United States. Although China's leadership has tried to portray itself as an uninvolved party in the conflict, the fact that it is one of Russia's best friends while attacking Ukraine undermines each of these goals.

Thus, there is reason to believe that China's leaders would like to end the war sooner rather than later and that, under the right circumstances, they would be willing to use their influence to achieve that goal. This possibility alone should worry U.S. policymakers: What if, after its successful mediation efforts between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Beijing positioned itself as a broker of peace in Ukraine? If China succeeds in doing so-which is admittedly a very big "if"-it would reinforce its efforts to portray the United States as a power in decline that is better at sowing discord and conflict than promoting cooperation, and it would burnish China's image as an emerging power genuinely committed to peace and harmony.

A crazy idea: Beijing and the U.S. negotiate peace plan for Ukraine

So here's a crazy idea: Since both Beijing and Washington have an interest in ending the war, the Biden administration should invite China to join in a joint effort to bring both sides to the negotiating table. The United States would offer to use its influence to extradite Kiev, and Beijing would agree to use its leverage to extradite Moscow. If successful, the two states would share the credit and neither could claim a propaganda victory over the other.

Does this sound far-fetched? Of course not, but there are some historical precedents for this kind of cooperation between great powers. At the height of the Cold War, for example, the United States and the Soviet Union jointly supported UN Security Council resolutions that ended the Six-Day War in 1967 and established a cease-fire during the October War in 1973. The circumstances were similar to today's situation in that both superpowers wanted the fighting to end and had to pressure their respective clients to agree. As Galen Jackson shows in his excellent new book, The Lost Peace, Soviet leaders repeatedly tried to persuade Washington to convene a comprehensive Middle East peace conference in which both sides would play an equal role, but failed because of U.S. resistance.

Both Moscow and Kiev could abide by peace plan of protective powers

An agreement brokered jointly by the United States and China would also have a higher likelihood of holding, as Moscow and Kiev would be less inclined to renege on an agreement arranged and rubber-stamped by their key patrons. Thus, if China and the United States truly wanted to bring about a peace settlement in Ukraine, there would be some reason to believe that such an endeavor could succeed.

About the Author

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist for Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer Professor of International Relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

Which is not to say it would be easy. While a cease-fire would be comparatively easy to arrange, it would leave Russia in control of most of the territory it claims to have annexed and lead to an unstable, frozen conflict. A genuine peace treaty would require agreement on a host of thorny issues (e.g., borders, reconstruction assistance, prisoner repatriation, accountability for war crimes, security guarantees, transit arrangements for the Black Sea and Sea of Azov, etc.), and none of these issues would be easily resolved. The Biden administration would have to roll back its earlier triumphalism, and any such effort would undoubtedly draw sharp criticism from NATO's more hawkish allies, especially in Eastern Europe, as well as opposition from some, if not most, Ukrainians.

Moreover, U.S. officials may be reluctant to grant Beijing co-equal status in this endeavor, and they would undoubtedly fear that a role granted to Beijing in ending the war would facilitate re-engagement with Europe and undermine long-term efforts to unite the world's democracies against Beijing. There are obvious risks on the Chinese side as well: Ending the war would allow the United States to focus on Asia, which is probably the last thing Chinese President Xi Jinping wants.

Ukraine needs concrete steps rather than meaningless peace proposals

But continuing a war-or, more accurately, not making a serious effort to end it-is a position that is difficult to defend from the rest of the world. For this reason, the Biden administration should take this idea seriously. At the very least, asking China to work together on a peace settlement would put Beijing on the spot: Instead of deferring to meaningless "peace proposals" that no one takes seriously, a U.S. offer to work with China on a joint peace initiative would force Beijing to shut up. If China rejected a sincere U.S. proposal along these lines, its purported commitment to peace would be exposed as hollow. For that reason alone, Beijing might take the proposal seriously and agree to help. And if successful, the initiative would provide a much-needed reminder of the benefits of great power cooperation.

Would it work? I don't know. Frankly, I suspect the circumstances are not favorable - at least not yet - and such a proposal would require the kind of imagination that has been in short supply among American diplomats in recent years. But the main alternatives look worse, and the costs of trying and failing would be modest. And if the Biden administration doesn't like this idea, I hope they have a better idea in mind. I can't wait to find out what it is. (Stephen M. Walt)

This article was first published in English in the magazine "ForeignPolicy.com" on April 18, 2023 - as part of a cooperation, it is now available in translation to readers of IPPEN.MEDIA portals.
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