The Case Against Appeasement

Russian attacks on Ukraine
Photo: Leon Klein/Getty Images
Julia Ioffe
June 7, 2022

By his count, French President Emmanuel Macron has spent some 100 hours on the phone with his Russian counterpart during the last six months. “I have lost count of the conversations I have had with Vladimir Putin since December,” Macron said recently. And yet, Macron has little to show for all that effort. Putin is not backing down. In fact, his armies now occupy 20 percent of Ukraine and his spokesman continues to insist that the special military operation will continue until its goals are achieved. The Kremlin is working feverishly to incorporate occupied Ukrainian territory into the Russian Federation.

Still, Macron is eager to find a negotiated settlement to the war, which is now in its fourth month. He is not alone in this pursuit. In his corner is a motley crew that includes Germany’s chancellor Olaf Scholz; many on the American left, like commentator Peter Beinart; and even Henry Kissinger, who said out loud what many in this camp of self-described realists had been starting to whisper privately: it’s time for Ukraine to cede territory in exchange for peace with Russia. 

It’s worth stipulating that ending the war in Ukraine, and doing so sooner rather than later, is everyone’s goal—even Putin’s. The sooner the war ends, the sooner soldiers on both sides can stop dying, the sooner Ukrainian civilians are no longer shelled in their homes, the sooner Ukrainian refugees can come home and begin the arduous process of rebuilding what the war has torn down. Perhaps as important, for billions of people around the world, a settlement might also bring an end to the sanctions and blockades that have exacerbated the energy crisis and threaten global food shortages that could last for years.

But peace at any price is hardly worth the name, and peace without justice never really holds because it is not truly peace. It merely postpones the inevitable explosion and, in some ways, makes it more powerful by concentrating and compressing grievance. 

This is my case against appeasement.

The First 100 Days

Last Friday marked 100 days since Russia invaded Ukraine. It was exactly the kind of milestone that the American media loves: a neat, round number denoting a meaningful quantity of time. The message was that one hundred days of war is a long time, long enough that American attention has already started to wander. According to Axios, there has been a 22-fold decrease in engagement with social media posts about the war in Ukraine. I’ve felt it myself. When the war had just started, the shock and interest of American readers and viewers was palpable. Anything I said about it on Twitter immediately garnered tens of thousands of likes. I was doing five to six TV hits a day and saying no to even more. Now, my schedule has significantly lightened and even shocking news out of Ukraine or Russia barely register on social media. Despite Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska’s plea that we not become desensitized by Ukrainians’ pain, Americans have moved on. 

It’s hard to blame them. Between Buffalo, Uvalde, and a looming recession, news at home is alarming enough. There are only so many hours in the day and only so much that collective attention spans—and nerves—can accommodate, and the centripetal force of American politics is hard to resist. The pull in America is always inwards. As one D.C. insider recently told me regarding the waning political support for Ukraine, “There’s a reason Americans are isolationists. We’re safe. We’re not Poland.”

One hundred days of a foreign war is a long time for Americans, even though 100 days is not much time at all, especially in the context of war. Yet some commentators are already invoking the term “forever war” in relation to a conflict that is only in its fourth month. The term lumps Ukraine in with Iraq and Afghanistan, two largely pointless wars that went on so long that few people remembered why they had begun, and were ultimately fought by people who hadn’t been born when they were launched. When Joe Biden decided to leave Afghanistan, the argument on the left was that getting out immediately was worth almost any price, that the lives of American troops were more important than those of the Afghan civilians clinging to the wheels of ascending U.S. military planes. After decades of war abroad, Americans have developed a profound suspicion of foreign interventionism—as well as its eye-popping price tag. It is one of the few things that brings together the left and right of the American political spectrum.

“Russia Will Do This Again”

The cruel irony at the core of the push to compromise is that it puts the burden of settlement on Ukraine. It is illogical that, after Russia invaded Ukraine, destroyed dozens of its cities and towns, killed and wounded some 40,000 Ukrainian civilians, Ukraine should cede 20 percent of its territory to soothe its tormentor. It is also deeply unjust. When Macron says that “we must not humiliate Russia,” there is no concern that Ukraine may be humiliated by being forced to reward its attacker. 

The argument, according to the armchair experts, is that Russia is stronger and bigger, it has more men and materiel, and has been making gains in the Donbas. According to these analysts, there is no realistic way that Ukraine can claw back territory and win, so Ukraine should help to end the war now before it gets even worse. 

This plan, brimming with realpolitik cynicism, asks nothing of Russia other than a pause on its territorial ambitions. Nor does it ask Ukrainians what they want. Do the Ukrainian people and their democratically elected leadership feel this is a price worth paying? Do they want to give up 20 percent of their territory—territory which is integral to their economy—to appease Russia? So far, it seems they don’t. While Americans may be tired of watching the war in Ukraine, there has been no evidence that Ukrainians are tired of fighting it. 

Nor do the Russians seem to be looking for an out. When we talk about exit ramps for Putin, it’s worth remembering that he’s blown past at least a dozen of them since December. He doesn’t want an exit ramp. He wants to win. And it’s not land that he wants, but the destruction of the entire Ukrainian state, as well as the very notion of Ukraine as a real and separate country. It’s why the Kremlin is busy purging textbooks of any mentions of Ukraine. It’s why, in his invasion announcement, Putin again returned to the false claims that Ukraine is a fictional country, cobbled together from historically Russian lands by corrupt Russian leaders of yore. It’s why Russian TV hosts regularly mock the Ukrainian language and Russian analysts constantly serve up revisionist claims about Ukraine’s history and its future as a small, landlocked rump state around Lviv, fit only for integration into Poland.

How can one reach a compromise with a position that isn’t just maximalist, but genocidal? How does one negotiate with a position that doesn’t even admit to the existence of the other side? Moreover, how does one settle with a man who has yet to keep his word? Putin, after all, told us that Russia wouldn’t invade Ukraine. Then, when Russia did invade Ukraine, he said Russia wasn’t there to occupy it. Now, his puppet politicians are visiting the occupied Donbas and publicly proclaiming that, “Russia will be here for a long time, Russia will be here forever!” And how does the compromise camp account for the fact that several settlements were reached after the 2014 invasion that effectively froze the conflict in Ukraine’s east, only to have Putin encircle and invade Ukraine from three sides just a few years later? 

It’s all well and good to talk about peace in theory, but those who know Russia—really know it, from the inside—know that this theory has little in common with reality. Consider what Boris Bondarev, the Russian diplomat who quit in protest over the war, told me about a negotiated settlement just two days after his resignation from the Russian Foreign Ministry, where he’d worked for more than 20 years. “No way,” he said. “You can’t. You just can’t make peace now. If you do, it will be seen as a Russian victory. Russia will spend a couple years scraping together some resources and then it will do this again.” 

Putin sees compromises as admissions of weakness, and if the point is to stop the war in Ukraine before it spreads, caving to Putin will achieve the opposite result. When Putin feels there’s room to keep pushing further, he does. Putin has already signaled that the war won’t stop in Ukraine: Russian officials have made clear that they intend to march all the way to Moldova. And if we’re scared he’ll drag us in, it’s worth recalling that Putin has already gone to war with the West: in 2016, when he interfered in the American presidential election, when he stoked separatist movements in Spain, when he tried to stage a coup in Montenegro. From the earliest days of the war, Putin’s army of television hosts have been bellowing about how Russia is not fighting with Ukraine but with the entire “collective West.” The only ones who don’t realize it, it seems, is us.

21st Century Imperialism

Ultimately, the worst element of appeasement is its inherent imperialism. At its root is the idea that bigger, stronger countries should call the shots over smaller, neighboring countries simply because they can, or because their larger resources entitle them to some sort of military-economic paternalism. It is the same argument that was central to the now obsolete debate about whether NATO membership for Ukraine should be forbidden simply because Russia didn’t like it. 

It didn’t seem to matter to these so-called realists that Ukraine, like Poland and the Baltic states, actively wanted to join the defensive alliance because it was intimately familiar with Russia’s history of invasion and occupation. Notice, by the way, how Putin didn’t stop the war despite Volodymyr Zelensky’s offer of neutrality. Notice how Putin essentially disregarded Finland and Sweden’s upcoming NATO accession and said that the northern expansion didn’t pose a threat to Russia. (It’s almost like none of this was about NATO…)

Imposing Russia’s will and our fatigue on the Ukrainians, taking away their agency, both as a people and as a democratic state, is the opposite of what we should be doing. The best thing the U.S. can do is stay the course and provide enough aid to Ukraine to give them a real chance of victory, however they define it. Last week Biden was asked by a reporter if Ukraine has “to cede territory to achieve some peace?” Biden responded by restating his administration’s position that other powers would not—and cannot—decide Ukraine’s fate without Ukraine’s input. “It’s their territory,” he added. “I’m not going to tell them what they should and shouldn’t do.”

It was, quite frankly, the only correct answer.