The war in Ukraine continues, and the death toll shows no signs of slowing down. This is prompting some to call for a rush to the negotiating table. This would mean strengthening Russia and, worst of all, abandoning Ukraine and our values.
PARIS — After 18 months of war in Ukraine, as doubts are spreading about the outcome of the conflict, there are signs of hesitation about continuing to aid Kyiv, particularly in the United States. Facing this reality, we need to get back to basics — and remember what is really at stake.
This requires that we place the current tragic episode in Russia's quest for empire within a historical context.
We need, first of all, to get the subject right. It is not a question of knowing whether this war is devastating to Europe, or whether it benefits the United States, and paradoxically also Vladimir Putin. Some of those who did not see the war coming are wallowing in the error of not understanding either the distant causes or the potential consequences of the conflict.
For exiled Russian academic Sergei Medvedev, author of the hard-hitting essay A War Made in Russia, Putin's reign, soon to enter its 24th year, is the third act in the slow decline of the Russian empire. It began in 1917, accelerated in 1991 and culminates today with Putin's "overreach."
Empire and escapism
At the heart of the Russian problem, is its relationship with its empire. It is as if Russia's uninterrupted territorial expansion were a gigantic form of escapism. It is not constantly expanding to protect itself from the antagonistic "other." It is doing so to protect itself from its inner demons, to avoid being confronted with the total divorce that exists between the grandeur of its empire and the misery of its people.
On the one hand, we have the vast number of territories under its control, the palaces, cathedrals and, more recently, atomic weapons and space exploration (even though Moscow has recently suffered another setback in this regard, unlike India, which is not wasting its energy on a costly and pointless war).
Putin is the symptom, not the cause, of the "Russian disease".
The other face of Russia, beyond the empire, is poverty, if not humiliating misery, tyranny, corruption, and violence. It is not a question of giving priority to the happiness of the people — that's not part of the Russian regime’s hardware — but of reducing the ever-widening gap between the desire for imperial grandeur and the reality of the population's living conditions.
Putin is the symptom, not the cause, of the "Russian disease." To believe that giving him the territories he already controls in Ukraine would be enough to restore normal relations with Russia, and thus security and stability in Europe, is not only immoral, but also ignorant and naive. A "victorious" Russia is more dangerous than a "defeated" one. The more you eat, the hungrier you get: this is especially the case for a country that cannot conceive of itself without its empire, and which has its empire on its borders, and not beyond the seas, as was the case for France and Britain.
Commemoration fallen Ukrainian soldiers in Kyiv on Aug. 25.
Getting the subject right is one thing. Getting the timing right is another. Deciding what to do about a war where the human toll is undoubtedly worsening, we cannot in any moral sense declare that we must simply give it time.
The war in Ukraine is looking more and more like the trench warfare of World War I. But that is not the only legitimate analogy with the Great War. Tomorrow, we will have to rebuild both bodies and souls. Losses have been more or less equal on both sides, but demographically, after many of its citizens fled, Ukraine only constitutes between one-quarter or even one-fifth of the Russian population.
So at 18 months of war, comparing on the World War I scale, this means that we are in 1916, at the start of the Battle of Verdun.
It is thus far too early to draw definitive military conclusions. The Ukrainian counter-offensive is proving slower and more difficult than expected. It is nonetheless making significant, if not decisive, progress in the south. Neither side is seriously prepared to negotiate. The toll of losses, far from encouraging compromise, is instead driving each to score ever more significant victories.
To abandon the Ukrainians today by forcing them into negotiations and territorial compromises, after the sacrifices they have already made and continue to make, would be a historical mistake, both a moral and political error. In 1917, the United States finally committed itself to our side and swung the fate of World War I in our favor. The opposite could occur in January 2025 if a Republican candidate, having won the November 2024 elections, were to enter the White House and decide to put an end to aid to Ukraine.
In the coming months, if not weeks, psychological warfare will be just as important as real warfare. Ukraine knows that it must make progress on the ground if it is to maintain support from its Western allies.
The only possible peace will be the one that follows the victory of the aggressed over the aggressor.
It is easier to make sacrifices for a war whose objective is "victory" (i.e. the defeat of Putin’s imperial ambitions) than for a “non-victory,” which now could only be considered a failure given the heavy human toll.
Having been slow to enter the war alongside the Ukrainians, let's not be quick to leave it. We can neither step back nor wait. The only possible peace will be the one that follows the victory of the aggressed (Ukraine) over the aggressor (Russia).
At the very heart of Europe, resignation to the defeat of law at the hands of blind force is simply not an acceptable option. Nostalgia for empire, which motivates Moscow, cannot prevail over the dream of freedom which, beyond ever-increasing fatigue, continues to animate Kyiv.
By attempting to destroy a state, Russia has created a nation. This is now undoubtedly a European nation, and it deserves our unwavering support in order to one day sit among the other democracies of the world.