Some People Will Hate Me for Writing This: End the War!

Don’t Touch, Sue Coe, 2023. Courtesy OF the artist.

My ostracism

I first wrote about the Russian war against Ukraine for CounterPunch on February 25, 2022. I began by excoriating Putin for mounting his blitzkrieg just when European leaders at last seemed ready to address Russia’s legitimate security concerns. Then, I recounted the history of U.S. and NATO duplicity over alliance expansion. I detoured slightly to describe the speed with which old, anti-Soviet canards were rushed out by Pentagon and State Department spokespersons and pundits, and concluded with a modest proposal for peace: a Ukrainian pledge of neutrality, withdrawal of Russian troops and heavy weapons from the theatre of war, a pull back of NATO troops from Russian border areas, and a revival of U.S./Russian negotiations over Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces and START, the pact to reduce offensive nuclear arms.

For my troubles, I was denounced by a notable New York art radical and friend (who shall remain nameless), and many (but not all) his comrades. My rebuke was no Moscow show trial, but it still hurts to feel ostracized. The war has sundered many a cohort of liberals, socialists, and fellow travelers. Nevertheless, here I go again, more than 18 months later.

The costs of war

The Russian war against Ukraine has been going for more than 18 months and has led to over 500,000 casualties, including almost 200,000 killed on both sides. I started to write “it’s almost unbelievable”, but then I thought about the scale of casualties from other recent wars, such as the one fought in Iraq following the U.S. invasion in 2003.

The cost to rebuild Ukraine’s infrastructure was estimated last March at $411 billion and is probably now much higher. The war has pushed seven million Ukrainians into poverty and produced more than six million refugees. 17 million need humanitarian assistance.

Apart from its 100,000 war dead – more than the U.S. suffered in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq combined – Russian has not suffered as much as Ukraine. The war after all, is not being fought on its territory (a few pin-prick drone strikes excepted). Nevertheless, the Russian economy shrunk by 2% last year and will grow by only about 1.5% this year. It has run up enormous budget deficits and been frozen out of much of the global financial system. The nation has had to mobilize 300,000 unmotivated reservists to fight the war and lost some 900,000 young and educated people to self-exile. Thousands more have been jailed for war resistance, including notable dissidents like Boris Kagarlitsky. Putin may think of the exile and purge as bonuses – he now has fewer critics — but the ranks of the nation’s brightest and most innovative people are now reduced. Protest persists, but it has become surreptitious, a battle of codes and memes.

Russia invaded Ukraine in part to prevent NATO expansion, but the war has had the effect of growing and arguably strengthening the cold-war era organization. Sweden and Finland joined NATO in April. (The latter has a more than 800-mile-long border with Russia.) Russian military strength has been shown to be a paper tiger, unable to quickly defeat a country 28 times smaller in geography, four times smaller in population, and with a military budget 1/10 as large. Putin survived a coup attempt, but not easily, and has become a global pariah, unable for example, to attend the recent BRIC summit in South Africa out of fear of arrest. No matter how it ends, the war will not have been a success for Putin.

Russia and Ukraine won’t stop the war by themselves.

Both nations are losing but neither will stop fighting. They are stuck in a bloody stalemate with no clear path to victory and no impetus to negotiate. They have committed too much blood and treasure – and spent too much political capital — to accede to the other’s demands. Major concessions by either side would bring about their leaders’ political downfall.

Russia wants Ukraine to agree to a cease fire, followed by a declaration of neutrality enshrined in its constitution. They also want Ukraine to accept Russian sovereignty over Crimea and recognition of Donetsk and Lugansk (collectively, the Donbas) as independent states, presumably allied with Russia. Ukrainian President Zelensky recently issued a 10-point plan for peace that includes a guarantee of safety for nuclear power plants, withdrawal of Russia forces, return of prisoners of war and abducted children, security guarantees, and the surrender of all seized land, including the Donbas region and presumably Crimea. Zelensky described that last demand as “not up for negotiations”, which in negotiation-speak means it is. But that’s a thin reed upon which to hang the heavy weight of negotiation. As things now stand, the war is likely to drag on indefinitely, or at least until Ukraine runs out of money, arms, and men. Russia, with its vast reserve of soldiers, armaments, and oil money, will keep fighting until it achieves a semblance of victory, or until the costs become so high that Putin is overthrown and a more temperate leader installed. (If there even is such a person in a position to lead.)

Who’ll stop the war?

The only entities that can stop the war right now are China and the U.S. China is like Russia’s big brother or sister. Its economy is four times bigger, its military is much larger in personnel, its agriculture is more productive, and its technological development more advanced. China is by far Russia’s biggest trading partner, and the largest market for its oil and other fossil fuels; the latter has been a lifeline for Putin. If Chinese President Xi Jinping applied pressure on Putin to end the war, or if he cut off or restricted oil imports, the war would end. Unfortunately, he has little motivation to do those things. China is buying Russian oil at a discount and the war is distracting the U.S. from its “pivot to Asia” inaugurated during the first Obama/Biden administration. China may also be hoping to extract trade and other benefits from the U.S. in exchange for a diplomatic intervention in the war. So far, the U.S. has made no overtures, at least not publicly – which is stupid, unless your goal is to prolong the war.

That leaves it to the U.S. We all know the reasons it has not chosen to stop the war: 1) the happy prospect of destroying a major geopolitical rival in the Eurasian heartland; 2) the massive profits gained by politically connected arms, aerospace, and fossil fuel sectors; 3) a desire to reaffirm U.S. domination over the E.U. and NATO partners; 4) a demonstration to China that it will pay a high cost if it tries to annex Taiwan like Russia did Ukraine. (The difference here is that Taiwan is, according to international law, part of China – “one country, two governments”) and 5) pursuit of the post-Cold War chimera of unipolarity, the idea that there is no alternative to U.S. political and economic hegemony. All these propositions are riven by contradiction and self-delusion. They are deeply ideological, which is why they are so difficult to dismantle.

But there are also good, self-interested reasons for the U.S. to encourage the war’s end, chief among them the desire of Joe Biden and the Democrats to deny Republicans an election year issue: a quagmire of endless war and limitless foreign spending. Another reason for the U.S. to press for a negotiated settlement is the desire to find a face-saving end to the war before Ukraine loses. (The public upbraiding of Ukraine over war strategy may be an effort by the Biden administration to blame defeat on its ally, not itself – an exercise in blaming the victim.) Finally, there are – admittedly far down on the list – selfless rationales for ending the war now: 1) the massive cost in Ukrainian and Russian lives, mentioned earlier, and the casualties yet to come (Russian and U.S. cluster munitions will persist for decades) 2) the risk of nuclear conflict, and 3) the war’s toll on the environment and its deflection of attention away from the titanic struggle against global warming.

Here’s the part that will elicit hate mail

The U.S. must pressure Zelensky to signal he is willing to make concessions for peace. With outright victory a vain hope, there’s no other alternative. The war was always a fool’s enterprise – for both sides. As I have argued here before, it could have been stopped before it started, or a day, month or year after — and on the same terms: land for peace. The Russians would be granted what they already have – Crimea and part of the Donbas – in exchange for military withdrawal, recognition of Ukrainian sovereignty, a mutual non-aggression pact, third party (U.N. or NATO) security guarantees, and U.S. agreement to gradually reduce sanctions against Russia. Critics will ask, “Why should Ukraine cede any territory to Russia – isn’t that rewarding aggression”? The answer is, “yes, but that’s the cost of Ukraine’s survival and the precondition of its rebuilding. And even if you think Ukraine should fight to its last man for its complete territorial integrity, why must the U.S. support those maximalist goals? Assertions by American chicken-hawks like Timothy Snyder that Putin is a Hitler who will next seize Poland or other NATO countries were ridiculous at the start of the war, and even more absurd now that Russia’s military weakness has been exposed.

Until recently, few Americans had even heard of the Donbas, much less could find it on a map. And yet that’s what the war has come down to. Protestations about the sanctity of national sovereignty are hypocritical in the extreme, given the U.S. history of foreign interventions. But worse than dishonest, they are a mistake. The war cannot be won by Ukraine and the U.S., at least not at a cost that is conscionable, and therefore must be quickly ended. For that to happen, the American left will have to jettison its entente with cold-war liberals and begin to do what it has historically done: fight to end U.S. imperialism and military interventions, including the current one. It should in addition, press for the elimination of nuclear weapons and organize in support of a livable planet and an economy based upon the satisfaction of real human needs, not the enrichment of the few. About these last goals, at least, I hope my old comrades in New York still agree.

Stephen F. Eisenman is emeritus professor at Northwestern University. His latest book, with Sue Coe, is titled “The Young Person’s Guide to American Fascism,” and is forthcoming from OR Books. He can be reached at