The war in Ukraine has already gone on far too long. It is time for each side to cut its losses and get back to the negotiating table.

By Prof. Richard E. Rubenstein

The war in Ukraine can must be stopped now, before any more Ukrainians or Russians are killed and maimed, by declaring a ceasefire and then negotiating a peace. Ending the rocket attacks is not “rocket science.” The Russians can halt troop movement toward Kiev and other major cities, stop air and ground bombardments, and suspend further troop mobilizations and shipment of weapons into Ukraine. The Ukrainians can stop attacking Russian troops and the members of NATO can cease shipping weapons to Ukrainian forces. Economic sanctions against the Russians by the U.S. and Europe can be suspended pending a successful peace negotiation.

In fact, this almost certainly describes how the conflict will eventually end – in a ceasefire followed by negotiations. A decisive victory or defeat for either party is highly unlikely. An attempt by Russia to re-absorb Ukraine would destabilize that nation for decades, as well as driving the U.S. and NATO to arm Eastern Europe to the teeth – exactly the situation that Putin declared to be intolerable prior to the invasion. By the same token, absorbing Ukraine into the American-European empire would be a pyrrhic victory. Further undermining Russian security would inspire Russian leaders to unite with China in attacking American interests around the globe.

End the war in Ukraine

So why not avoid the sacrifice of thousands more lives and billions of dollars by ending the war now? The answer, I’m afraid, lies in two forms of radical misapprehension: the West’s fixation on World War II and the need to punish aggressors, and Russia’s fixation on the Cold War and the need to undo the humiliation and damage suffered following the U.S.S.R.’s collapse.

Allies in World War II, competitors in the Cold War, both parties now seem driven by fear. The U.S. and their NATO partners see Putin as a new Hitler or Stalin who will continue to conquer other nations unless stopped by superior military and economic force. The Russians see the West as aggressive imperialists who not only won the Cold War but continued to expand their realm at Russia’s expense. Each side’s leaders are mortally afraid of showing weakness – yet all understand that continued escalation of the conflict could end in an unthinkable nuclear war.

Russia and the United States, NATO, and Ukraine must therefore agree to come to the table – but who will come first? The primary responsibility, it seems clear, is on the party whose refusal to negotiate set the stage for the Russian invasion – the United States and the NATO nations.

There is no excuse for Vladimir Putin’s invasion of a neighboring country. Not even the destruction wreaked on Russian-speaking Donbas separatists by the Kyiv regime justified this violence. But “punishing” Putin in ways that prolong and escalate the conflict and that cause suffering for civilians on both sides is horribly counterproductive. Russia’s resort to force was unjustified but not unprovoked. If the West had taken Putin’s concerns seriously enough in the first place to negotiate in good faith about Ukraine’s relationship to NATO and the increasing number of missiles and other arms being placed in Eastern Europe, there would have been no invasion.

What lessons are to be drawn from this. First, Mr. Putin has got to get over the fact that the Soviet Union lost the Cold War and that its Russian successor regimes were treated in a punitive and humiliating way by the West. That’s history; time to move on. Second, the West has got to understand that Putin is a ruthless, often cruel nationalist leader, but not the reincarnation of Hitler or Stalin. That’s history; time to move on. To insist on arming Ukraine and punishing Russia because of this invasion without calculating the results in terms of lost lives and the possibility of world war, is a knee-jerk, emotion-driven reaction, not a rational or humane policy.

One further note: just as Putin must stop fantasizing about a Ukraine that “belongs” to Russia as in medieval days, Biden and the European leaders must stop pontificating about the alleged right of all “sovereign nations” to join any military alliance that they like. As the Westerners should know, national sovereignty is far more flexible in practice than this. Finland and Austria are sovereign nations in every respect, but they were demilitarized after World War II and prevented from joining either side in the Cold War. The right of Ukraine to join NATO is no more absolute than was the right of Cuba to join the Warsaw Pact. These are matters to be negotiated, and you don’t start negotiations by saying that the other side’s demands are non-negotiable!

One definition of insanity, we are told, is a refusal or inability to learn from one’s mistakes. The Russian invasion was evidently expected to produce a fairly easy victory without serious violence against civilians or the destruction of cities, but Ukrainian resistance and the rustiness of Russia’s military establishment spoiled this scenario. The U.S. and NATO apparently thought that by arming the Ukrainians and imposing harsh economic sanctions on Russia, they could compel Putin to withdraw his forces. But these pressures did not deter him from continuing the war, nor did they produce the anti-Putin rebellion that some Westerners hoped for. On the contrary, the failure of expectations on each side has incited each side’s leaders to escalate the conflict to a tragically destructive level.

The war in Ukraine has already gone on far too long. It is time for each side to cut its losses and get back to the negotiating table. Now – right now! — is the time for a ceasefire. There simply is no alternative to a negotiated peace.

Prof. Richard Rubinstein teaches at the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University,