Let’s Rethink the War in Ukraine

Now that the Ukrainian military aid bill has been passed we have an opportunity to assess the developing conflict and offer suggestions. Here we will argue for more diplomacy and less war. None of this essay should be construed as support for Russian behavior – which has been abysmal. And at the end, there will be a bonus history lesson from European Member of Parliament Clare Daly.

Back in the 1960’s President John F. Kennedy acquired some hard-won experience in managing crises and dealing with the USSR (now the Russian Federation) in a nuclear armed world. Two well-known observations he made at that time are relevant now. First, at his inaugural address in 1961 he declared, “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”

Although Kennedy’s words seem reasonable, the fact is that the United States has repeatedly refused to negotiate with the Russian Federation about the crisis in Ukraine, starting even before the Russian invasion in early 2022. Beyond that, the US exerted its influence to help halt talks between Ukraine and Russia in March of 2022, shortly after the Russian invasion. At that time the Ukrainian position was much stronger, having just thrown the Russians back from the gates of Kiev. The US again refused to engage in talks as recently as February of 2024. This US rejection of diplomacy may not be out of fear, but is unhelpful to the cause of peace.

In the past, the United States has engaged in high level negotiations even while fighting was ongoing. We know that during the War of 1812, the Vietnam War, and in Afghanistan as well, high level talks between the warring parties took place while military action continued. No one in Washington seems interested in doing anything similar now, even during an expanding crisis with a nuclear armed Russia.

A second quote from Kennedy, equally relevant, came only months after the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962. JFK declared that the United States sought to, “avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to a choice of either a humiliating defeat or nuclear war.” It seems to some of us that US foreign policy makers have forgotten that message with respect to the Ukraine-Russia conflict.

Policy makers in Washington and NATO seem confident that they can tiptoe along the line of nuclear war with little risk. That is a confidence that some of us do not share given what we know about how nations stumble into war, and how those wars sometimes spiral out of control.

For many months the conflict has steadily escalated, with both sides now striking energy and other infrastructure well behind the front lines. Just a few days ago the US announced that it was going to provide Ukraine with long range missiles that can strike anywhere inside Ukrainian territory now occupied by Russia, and they have now done so.

The new missiles are supposedly not to be used for strikes against Russian territory, but given the ongoing tit for tat cycle of attacks now underway, one wonders how long the limits on the use of the missiles will last. The next step for the Russians may be the use of hyper-sonic missiles which are less vulnerable to air defenses. And if Russia faces the prospect of losing, in the words of President Kennedy, a “humiliating defeat,” nuclear weapons may well come into the mix. How do we know this? It is because Russian leaders have said so. (In the past, the US has also rattled the nuclear saber.)

Ukraine seems to be in a bad position. They are running out of troops and having trouble enlisting new ones. Many of the Ukrainian soldiers on the front lines have been there for more than two years with hardly any breaks or respite. That is not sustainable, and in fact it is remarkable that so many Ukrainian troops have carried on the fight for so long. Generally, combat units in the front lines with 90 days or more of continuous fighting have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) rates approaching 100 percent. Thousands of Russian soldiers are similarly stressed.

New aid from the US is already arriving in Ukraine, but it will be of limited use if Ukraine lacks the soldiers to make use of it. Ukraine’s new conscription law will not take effect until mid-May, but it will be late summer before new recruits can be properly trained in significant numbers to join the struggle. For Ukraine, this is not good news. In addition, many potential military recruits in both Ukraine and Russia seem reluctant to enlist in the service of regimes riddled with corruption. Who can blame them?

Clare Daly, the feisty Irish member of the European Parliament, has drawn a comparison to Ukraine’s difficult position now and that of the Irish republic in 1922. Although the Irish at that time felt strongly that all of Ireland should be part of the republic, they made the difficult decision to not fight the British over the six counties of the north at that time. But through diplomatic and other means, the Irish still struggle for a unified Ireland.

It is unlikely that Ukraine will win this round, but like the Irish they will doubtless pursue their national aspirations into the future. Member of Parliament Daly wants a halt to the war in Ukraine, and so do many of the rest of us.

Arnold “Skip” Oliver is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Heidelberg University in Tiffin, Ohio.