The missile impact in Poland last week made a war against a nuclear-armed illegitimate state become frighteningly tangible. When the risk of a conflict between Russia and NATO subsided, the relief was palpable.
The people of Eastern Europe have lived with the fear of such an escalation for decades. They must not be sacrificed on an altar of “de-escalation”.
For now, it looks like the incident in Poland will not affect the West’s commitment to Ukraine. The US and European countries have reaffirmed their military and financial support, and some have pledged even more.
The heads of government of the G20 countries also launched a statement condemning the “war in Ukraine”. While that was a rather weak statement, it was taken as a sign that patience among Russia’s allies was running out.
China’s President Xi spoke out against the misuse of food and energy as “weapons” in Bali, and his French counterpart Macron called for more effort from him to persuade Russia to de-escalate.
Even peace has a humanitarian price – we should not pay everyone
But what exactly would be the ultimate goal of de-escalation? Ukrainian President Zelensky has made it clear that what is at stake for his country is sovereignty and territorial integrity, the withdrawal of Russian troops, accountability for mass war crimes and repairing the damage caused.
Others, like British Prime Minister Sunak, remained vague about putting Ukraine in the “strongest possible position”.
Calls for a compromise are likely to increase in many parts of Europe as confrontation looms and Russia’s invasion strains the economies of various countries. Leading statesmen – and indeed this seems to be a predominantly male phenomenon – from developing countries have been lining up to play peacemaker for months.
That would be a mistake. It is not easy to make a humanitarian argument against peace talks. The lives of many people in Ukraine were destroyed. A third of the population has fled the country. Those left behind bear witness to war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, and the environmental damage will be felt for years to come.
Globally, Russia’s actions have triggered a cost-of-living crisis that has pushed low-income countries to the brink of collapse. Dozens of governments could default or collapse.
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But it is precisely for humanitarian reasons that we must resist attempts to force peace on Ukraine at any cost. We have both argued over the past decade that “preventing conflict” and “preventing atrocities” are not one and the same. Unfortunately, the quickest path to peace and the protection of civilians do not always go hand in hand.
In Ukraine, the liberation of more areas, the protection of the people living there and the pushing back of the Russian heavy artillery from urban areas are likely to prolong the conflict. But if it can prevent more atrocities like the ones in Bucha and Mariupol, it is reasonable for Ukraine to choose this path.
Western countries have an appalling record of accepting atrocities in developing countries in the name of “geopolitics.” All too often they have intervened without real long-term commitment or encouraged frozen conflicts out of self-interest.
The Ukrainian people must decide when the time has come for negotiations
This is unacceptable, neither in developing countries nor in Ukraine. The West must stay the course — with timely military and humanitarian assistance, sanctions, and increased commitment to accountability and reparations.
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Likewise, southern governments should increase pressure on Russia to withdraw from Ukraine. It is clear from the UN polls that the vast majority of states condemn Russian aggression. Those in power must admit that a peace at any price that denies justice to Ukraine violates the very rules they are demanding compliance with.
Putin has repeatedly made it clear that he will only make concessions when pressed.
Ultimately, it is up to the Ukrainian people to decide when the time is right – and the right conditions – for negotiations. The least cruel and probably the quickest route to a lasting peace is for the Ukrainians to force Russia to withdraw. We have to stand behind them.
The authors: Natalie Samarasinghe leads the lobbying work of the Open Society Foundations. Fred Carver is Managing Director of the Strategy for Humanity consultancy.
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