OPINION - Winning the war, winning the peace in Ukraine


Why do wars end? Historians can often pinpoint the reasons they begin – the absence of a male heir, an archduke taking the wrong turn down a Sarajevo side street or simple territorial ambition. But endings – from Afghanistan to Game of Thrones – can be tricky.

One method of course is unconditional surrender, such as that accepted by the Empire of Japan in August 1945. Others materialise through negotiated settlements, when one or both combatants conclude that peace – or at least a cessation of hostilities – is preferable to war. Problem is, the incentives have to be just right.

Were Ukraine’s counter-offensive going better, with its army retaking swathes of territory in the Donbas, it would see little reason to end the war early – it could win it on the battlefield. Similarly, if Russian forces are able to comfortably withstand the summer battles all while continuing to inflict terrible damage, it too may think it is worth fighting on.

Clearly, I have no idea what will happen. I could not be further from an expert in this field. That is why I read with such interest our defence editor Robert Fox’s fascinating piece delving into whether the US, even under President Joe Biden, is going cold on Ukraine.

But I do take an interest in peace. Not in a Stop the War Coalition, ‘it’s all the West’s fault’ sort of way. This is Russia’s colonial war of aggression. It ought to lose all the territory it illegally seized, war crimes tribunals should be established and reparations imposed. But who is going to enforce that? Remember, the bad guys don’t always lose.

So thoughts move on to the possibility of an enduring settlement, one which enables Ukraine to win the peace. That’s the direction Stephen Kotkin, Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, wants attention to turn. Speaking to Michael Kofman for War on the Rocks, Kotkin makes the point that winning the peace does not necessarily require winning the war. Indeed, the US won the war in Afghanistan but lost the peace. Conversely, it lost the war in Vietnam but won the peace – that country now being a key American partner.

What does winning the peace look like for Kyiv? Ultimately, it’s a path to European Union membership and a US security guarantee, even if that falls short of Nato membership. That is an enduring settlement. Of course, it is not an easy one to pull off when Moscow is strangling your economy, dropping bombs on your critical infrastructure and killing your people. All while hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian men are fighting in trenches rather than working in offices.

What is clear is that Ukraine’s counter-offensive is not yet making the gains many had hoped. Russian forces have reconstituted, defences have been entrenched, and the reality has dawned that winning a war without air superiority is just very difficult and bloody. Expectations were also probably unrealistic, following the successful operation around Kharkiv last year.

Winning the peace doesn’t mean giving up on the fight. I’m just a guy in east London with a keyboard – it could not be less my place to suggest otherwise. And only 18 months ago, Ukraine defended its capital when many thought it would collapse within days. But we also need to be planning for the future, as contingent as that may be.

In the comment pages, Ben Judah says the coup in Gabon matters for us, because it shows the West has failed. Anne McElvoy calls CNN a network beset by a sea of troubles, but thinks ex-BBC chief ‘Thomo’ is perfect to take the helm. While Melanie McDonagh calls for the Curzon Mayfair, home of the ‘classy film’, to be saved.

And finally, now I want to lie in a sea of tomato pulp too. This and more of the best snaps of the day from the Standard’s picture desk.

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