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.

Back in the 1960s, President John F. Kennedy acquired some hard-won experience in managing crises and dealing with what is 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 United States exerted its influence to help halt talks between Ukraine and Russia in March 2022, shortly after the invasion.

At the time, the Ukrainian position was much stronger, its forces having just thrown the Russians back from the gates of Kiev.

The United States again refused to engage in talks as recently as February. This American 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 1962. JFK declared 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 U.S. foreign policymakers have forgotten that message with respect to the Ukraine-Russia conflict.

Policymakers 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. And if Russia faces the prospect of losing, in Kennedy’s words, a “humiliating defeat,” nuclear weapons may well come into the mix.

How do we know this? Because Russian leaders have said so.
Ukraine seems to be in a bad position. It is 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.

New aid from the United States is already arriving in Ukraine, but it will be of limited use if Ukraine lacks the soldiers to make use of it. Its new conscription law takes effect this month, but it will be late summer before new recruits can be properly trained in significant numbers to join the struggle.

For Ukraine, that 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, a feisty Irish member of the European Parliament, has drawn a comparison of 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 not to fight the British over the six counties in the north at the 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, the Ukrainians will doubtless pursue their national aspirations into the future. Daly wants a halt to the war, and so do many of the rest of us.

Arnold Oliver is a political science professor emeritus, and is syndicated by PeaceVoice.