The war continues to rage as negotiations sputter. However, the search for a compromise that's honorable for both parties is the only way to avoid escalating violence. There is a way to build the proverbial "golden bridge" of retreat for all.
PARIS — For 105 days, from November 30, 1939, to March 13, 1940, Finland resisted against the USSR, a country 47 times bigger in population and 66 times larger geographically.
Is today’s Ukraine in the process of becoming, for Russia, what Finland was for the Soviet Union of the past? Of course, the differences between the two countries are not of the same nature, and Ukraine is less alone against Putin than Finland was against Stalin.
But, to Moscow’s displeasure, after more than three weeks of war, Ukraine still stands. Like a tumor, the Russian occupation certainly spreads, but it is confronted by powerful antibodies, military and emotional.
Zelensky, a symbol of the resistance
Transformed by Volodymyr Zelensky, similar to how the British were by Winston Churchill in May and June 1940 during the Battle of Britain, the Ukrainians suffer and bend, but do not break. Before the start of the Russian invasion, President Zelensky’s popularity was at 23%. It is now 90%. Putin has given him his greatest role, allowing him to become the symbol of the resistance and national unity of Ukraine. Like Napoleon Bonaparte said of the “Marseillaise” French national anthem, Zelensky alone is worth several divisions.
The scales may tip in Ukraine’s favor. True, Russia still has upper hand in terms of firepower, but it is clear that things are not going how Putin would have liked. As time passes, the expression “special operations” still becomes difficult to justify. It is obviously a war.
Russian losses — we’re speaking of 7,000 dead — are already more than 10 times greater than those suffered by Moscow during the “seizing” of Crimea in 2014, and should be compared to the 15,000 Russian soldiers killed in Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989. These losses will become more and more unjustifiable.
The weapons provided to Ukraine have seriously damaged the Russian army, just like the Western sanctions have hurt and will continue to hurt Russia’s economy. If the current situation were to continue, Russia would find itself plunged into a state of technological darkness, lagging far behind its Western rivals and adversaries (or its Chinese ally), a fall from which it could never recover.
For Russia, not to win the war is to lose it
This plunge into the darkness of ignorance is now accompanied by the hurried departure of all those who, despite the regime, maintained an attitude of free thought. How many have emigrated? Certain analysts estimate the figure to be 200,000 people. It is very little in comparison to Russia’s population, but these are among the best educated who leave, and without them, the country’s entire future seems ever more uncertain. Russia will no longer be just a poor and isolated power, but a backward power.
Not to lose the war for Ukraine is to win it. Not to win the war for Russia is to lose it.
So that's where we are: Ukraine is holding on, and Russia is stuck. Not to lose the war for Ukraine is to win it. Not to win the war for Russia is to lose it. From this fundamental reading key, two scenarios are possible: escalation or negotiation.
An honorable compromise for the two parties would consist of the clarification of the status quo that existed before the beginning of the Russian invasion of 2022. Ukraine’s independence and sovereignty would be reaffirmed. It would benefit from a status of armed neutrality based on the model of Switzerland, but within the framework of a process to join the European Union. And all this without humiliating Putin.
History, international justice and the Russians themselves will hold him accountable one day. Regardless of what ethical and political judgment we have for the man, it will be necessary to offer Putin conditions that will seem acceptable to him: a “golden bridge” to retreat across, to use the formula attributed to the ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visiting injured Ukrainians in a hospital in Kyiv
Frustrated aggressor, heroic resistor
The arrival point of the negotiation — and not, of course, its departure — could be summarized as follows. Ukraine, morally victorious, accepts the loss of Crimea and eastern Donbas. These are territories that it had already lost control over. And Russia, having returned to its senses, recognizes that it has not defeated Ukraine and that in the south of the country, its territorial possessions are limited to Crimea alone. In other words, Ukraine continues to have access to the Black Sea and continues to be in control of Odessa and Mariupol.
This compromise may appear unrealistic to some — Putin in his race towards the abyss will never accept it. Or it may appear unjust and immoral to others — why reward Russian aggression in this way? But it is precisely because it seems unacceptable to both parties — the frustrated aggressor and the heroic resistor — that this compromise would make sense.
Of course, each party will aim to reinforce their position of negotiation on the ground, and the more we advance in the talks, the fiercer the fighting will be. But isn’t the alternative much worse: the long-lasting war, the normalizing of bombings of civilians? Not to mention the risk of escalation, which can lead up to the use of weapons of mass destruction.
We shouldn't play with fire.
We must not give in to Putin’s strategy of fear. “You describe me as crazy, well I’ll show you just how far I can go!” But we shouldn’t play with fire either.
Europe's essential role
The suggested compromise would also have the advantage of rendering Beijing's support of Moscow more difficult. It’s one thing to support your authoritarian ally in the face of democracies. It’s another to isolate yourself alongside a pariah state that refuses the honorable exit that it was offered.
Europe has an essential role to play in this scheme and should show some enlightened generosity. Ukraine has just renounced NATO. The European Union should rediscover what made has made it strong, its capacity to defy the gravity of history to construct something noble. The Ukrainians, through their heroism, have won the right to enter our “club of values.”
But how many lies will be unnecessarily sacrificed before Putin recognizes the tragic futility of his enterprise? To paraphrase Winston Churchill: Men only become reasonable when they have exhausted all other solutions.
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