I understand why Volodymyr Zelensky says he is willing to negotiate with Vladimir Putin. I have no doubt the Ukrainian president is sincere. If there were anything that remotely resembled a viable peace plan, his government would leap at it.
Mr. Zelensky’s people have suffered the most bestial bombardment in Europe since World War II. Whole cities have been broken and blackened by Mr. Putin’s war machine, tens of thousands of innocents killed.
Every day it goes on, without pity or remorse: captives tortured, women raped, schools and kindergartens deliberately targeted. Every day the Iranian-made drones thump into the cities, turning off the lights, cutting the water supply.
Peace? Of course Ukraine wants peace. The economy is in ribbons. Mr. Zelensky’s government can barely pay its public servants. Of course it would like a negotiation.
There is only one problem. It is the same problem that has confronted Mr. Zelensky every day since Feb. 24. There is nothing to negotiate. No would-be mediator on earth has been able to come up with any compromise that even begins to be plausible.
What kind of deal could we possibly construct, under the current circumstances? Let us suppose that Western powers were to try to persuade Ukraine to trade land for peace. Any such bargain would, naturally, be disgusting. It would be a moral reproach to humanity.
But let’s imagine that some kind of agreement could be struck whereby Mr. Putin keeps not only the pro-Russian parts of the Donbas but also at least some of the territory he has captured in the south. The minute you think about it you can see that the idea isn’t merely repugnant. It is hopeless.
It has zero chance of working. Which bit should the Ukrainians give up, in perpetuity, to the Russians? A couple of cities? The whole land bridge from Mariupol to Crimea?
Even if the Ukrainians were to be persuaded to surrender their rights to some of their land—which they wouldn’t, couldn’t and shouldn’t be—there is no reason to believe that Mr. Putin would stick to the deal. He has already officially annexed four oblasts. He says that Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Luhansk and Donetsk are now legally part of Russia.
As his batty 2021 essay made clear, Mr. Putin is possessed by a chthonic belief that Ukraine is part of a holy and indivisible union with Russia. He doesn’t merely want the land bridge. He wants the whole thing. He has spent so long in his Covid bubble, taking semi-mystic advice from bearded Orthodox priests, that he genuinely believes he is fated to avenge the insults of history and reunify the empire of Peter the Great. Of course Mr. Zelensky would like to negotiate, but you can’t negotiate with a murderous liar who will continue—whatever he may claim—to try to destroy your country.
So let’s get real. Let’s recognize that there is only one possible set of circumstances in which a negotiation could take place—and that is when Mr. Putin has failed. There is only one way to end this war, and that is to help the Ukrainians expel the Russian invaders from every mile of the territory they have viciously annexed, and certainly everything taken since Feb. 24. And please, can we all stop the cringe-making nonsense about the risk of “backing Putin into a corner” or “forcing him to lash out”?
We make him sound like Tony Montana at the end of “Scarface,” crazily waving a nuke and shouting, “Say hello to my little friend.” If Mr. Putin were to use a weapon of mass destruction, he would be tendering Russia’s resignation from the club of civilized nations; he would earn the revulsion of the swing states, in Asia, Latin America and Africa, that are currently cutting him so much slack; he would lose his Chinese patrons; he would terrify his own population; and he would plunge his country into economic isolation of cryogenic ferocity.
It isn’t going to happen. We should stop talking about it.
There is only one way forward, and that is for the West to continue to support the liberation of the Ukrainian people, perhaps the most transparently just and righteous cause in international affairs in living memory.
The Ukrainians have shown what they can do. With a mixture of inspired leadership and the heroism that comes from knowing you are fighting for your country, they have put the Russians to flight in Kharkiv and now in Kherson.
Yes, eventual defeat will be embarrassing for Mr. Putin, and yes, he will have some explaining to do. But he controls the organs of propaganda. He has strong popular support. He can say, perhaps, that the “Nazis” have been purged from Ukraine, or that Russian minorities have been protected.
Let him come up with a story. It’s not our job. Our job is to give the Ukrainians the help they need—Himars, artillery, tanks and planes—to defend their homes and their families and to restore what they had: a free, sovereign, independent and democratic Ukraine.
The assistance of the West—above all, of the U.S.—has been outstanding and invaluable. Our job is to continue to give that help until the Ukrainians have won, and decisively. And then of course there will be time to negotiate a peaceful, orderly and lasting relationship, and friendship, between Ukraine and Russia.