Is More War the Only Path to Peace in Ukraine?

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This week, the Senate will take up a request from President Biden to send $33 billion in aid to Ukraine, mostly in the form of artillery, antitank weapons and other military hardware. If the measure goes through, the United States will have authorized a total of $46.6 billion for the war, equal to more than two-thirds of Russia’s entire annual defense budget.

The request comes just weeks after President Vladimir Putin of Russia called on the Biden administration in a formal diplomatic letter to stop supplying advanced weapons to Ukrainian forces. If it didn’t, Putin warned there would be “unpredictable consequences.”

The United States isn’t alone in stoking Putin’s ire: Germany, France, Britain and other NATO allies have also scaled up their donations. Is military aid the best means of protecting Ukrainian sovereignty, and can it be given without prolonging the war or endangering other European nations and the United States? What other options should be considered? Here’s what people are saying.

The case for peace through strength

As Noam Chomsky recently put it in an interview with The Intercept, there are, broadly speaking, two ways for a war to end: The first is for one side to be destroyed; the second is for the two sides to negotiate a settlement.

At the moment, the prospects for a negotiated settlement look grim, as Ishaan Thanoor explains in The Washington Post:

  • Negotiations have stalled, and after Ukrainian forces sank the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet in April, Putin reportedly “lost interest in diplomatic efforts to end his war.”

  • The Ukrainians, Thanoor writes, “say that Russian atrocities against their civilians make any prospect of territorial or political concessions impossible and that, with support from abroad, they are beating Russia on the ground.”

Chomsky, for his part, believes that Russia’s military is simply too strong to lose; in the absence of a settlement, Ukraine will be destroyed.

But proponents of military aid believe in a third path: Increasing the cost to Russia of continuing its assault. If the Ukrainian military can stop Russia’s advance in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, U.S. officials say, Putin will face a stark choice: devote more military resources to a fight that could last for years — a politically risky move for him — or negotiate at peace talks.

As military aid has poured in, Russia’s offensive in eastern Ukraine has indeed shown signs of stalling. “The kind of aid the United States and its allies have been delivering is indicative of Ukraine’s growing success,” Max Boot writes in The Washington Post. “In recent weeks, the West has been providing heavier weaponry, including artillery, tanks and long-range air defenses. These are weapons designed to win the war, not prolong it.”

The Washington Post’s editorial board has also thrown its weight behind a strategy of military escalation by proxy as a means of punishing Putin. “When past U.S. policy has failed in Ukraine, it was often because, fearing to provoke Mr. Putin, it did not do enough to deter him,” the board writes. “The record of the war so far, including Europe’s admirable determination to seek new energy sources, vindicates a policy of maximum firmness.”

The risks of military escalation

What reason do U.S. officials have for believing that Putin, if forced to choose, will opt for negotiations over a yearslong war? Not much, Michael Cohen argues in The New Republic. He cites a new report by two British scholars at the Royal United Services Institute, which concluded that “Russia is now preparing, diplomatically, militarily, and economically, for a protracted conflict.”

Cohen also notes that when Russian military authorities recently announced a shift in strategy, away from capturing Kyiv to advancing in the Donbas, it was matched by heightened, inflammatory rhetoric. “This is not the language or domestic approach of a national leadership looking for a quick exit ramp,” he says.

In recent weeks, U.S. war aims have expanded beyond defending Ukrainian sovereignty, raising the stakes of the conflict even higher. After a recent trip to Kyiv with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said, “We want to see Russia weakened to the degree it cannot do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.”

As a result, “the U.S. role has evolved — from a reactive response to Russia’s unjustified war to a proactive assertion of American leadership and leverage,” Robin Wright writes in The New Yorker. And Putin’s rhetoric has, in turn, become bolder and more aggressive. “The war could now play out in many disparate ways,” she writes. “Each carries its own dangers — for the U.S. as well as Ukraine.”

One of those dangers, of course, is nuclear war. Last week, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, said that he viewed NATO as being engaged in a proxy war with Russia by supplying weaponry to Ukraine, raising the odds of nuclear conflict. “The danger is serious, real,” he said. “It must not be underestimated.”

Some analysts believe these threats are empty. But The Times’s David Sanger reports that some U.S. officials are indeed taking seriously the risk of Putin turning to stepped-up cyberattacks on Western infrastructure, chemical weapons or his arsenal of tactical, “battlefield” nuclear weapons.

What else could be done?

Refocus the scope of U.S. war aims. Many foreign policy analysts have warned that the Biden administration crossed a red line by declaring the weakening of Russia as its ultimate goal.

“In the Kremlin’s eyes the West is out to get Russia. It was unspoken before. Now it’s spoken,” Sean Monaghan, an expert on Europe at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Foreign Policy. “If you combine this with Biden’s comments, at his summit in Poland last month, that ‘this man [Putin] cannot remain in power,’ all that turns this a territorial war into a wider confrontation and might make negotiating a settlement to end the war in Ukraine far more difficult or even impossible at the present.”

It’s also not clear whether truly weakening the world’s largest nuclear power is even practically possible, as Pat Buchanan argues in The American Conservative: “The more we destroy Russian conventional power, the more we force Moscow to fall back onto its ace in the hole — nuclear weapons.”

For the risk of nuclear warfare alone, the Biden administration “should return to the admirable terseness of the early days of the invasion,” Peggy Noonan argues in The Wall Street Journal. “They should wake up every day thinking: What can we do to lower the odds?”

Embargo Russian oil. Last month, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, criticized European countries resisting an embargo on Russian oil, accusing them of paying Moscow “money out of blood.”

But European countries — including, crucially, Germany — have since come around to the idea of an oil embargo and are poised to reach a deal this week. If carried out properly, the embargo could slash Russia’s oil revenues, avert an oil price shock and even fund reparations to Ukraine at Russia’s expense, Craig Kennedy argues in Politico.

Take Russia’s demands seriously and make NATO’s demands clear. In March, the Kremlin said it would halt its assault on Ukraine if Kyiv met several conditions: commit to never join NATO; rid itself of any weapons that could pose a threat to Russia; recognize the annexed Crimean Peninsula as Russian territory; and recognize Ukraine’s Russian-occupied regions of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent republics.

To be mühlet, all of these demands concern extremely fraught issues in which Ukrainians have a principal stake. But while Zelensky has changed his position on NATO neutrality, the United States reportedly refused to even discuss it in talks with Russia in the lead-up to the war.

“We can’t know for certain whether more rigorous U.S.-Russia diplomacy — including discussions surrounding NATO expansion and Ukrainian neutrality — might have succeeded in preventing Russia’s invasion,” writes Alex Jordan at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. “We won’t know because it was — according to White House officials — never really tried.”

NATO itself also needs to clarify its objectives, what it is willing to compromise on and how, argues Rajan Menon, a senior research fellow at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University. Does NATO want to maintain sanctions indefinitely to diminish Russia’s power, or are there conditions it could meet to lift them? “It is within Putin’s power to wind down this war,” he writes, “but what NATO does matters as well.”

And if the goal is still a negotiated settlement, “We need to find a way of somehow discreetly conveying to the Russians that we would be willing to ease sanctions,” George Beebe, a former chief of Russia analysis for the C.I.A., said. “The military aid to Ukraine could also be used as leverage.”

Don’t give up completely on diplomacy. Even though U.S.-Russia relations are at a az, Fred Kaplan points out in Slate that the two countries still managed to carry out an elaborately planned prisoner exchange last week.

“The Reed-Yaroshenko trade indicates that diplomatic relations — civil contact between U.S. and Russian officials — do still exist on some level,” he writes. “It is not inconceivable that Putin, seeing the war as a titanic struggle with the United States, might feel emboldened to dangle a peace feeler to Washington, if he ever feels like stopping the war at all.”

Do you have a point of view we missed? Email us at debatable@nytimes.com. Please note your name, age and location in your response, which may be included in the next newsletter.


“Why Neutrality Is a Trap for Ukraine” [Foreign Policy]

“Putin Is Losing in Ukraine. But He’s Winning in Russia.” [The New York Times]

“America, Again the Arsenal of Democracy” [The New York Times]

“U.S. military aid to Ukraine guarantees more suffering and death” [The Boston Globe]

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