How does this end?
As the war rages on in Ukraine’s east, in an expanding crucible of devastation and human tragedy, the global conversation is increasingly focusing on how the fighting could end and how to define victory — and for whom.
Potential answers to that question have come from Ukrainian officials, some of whom have pledged to keep fighting until all of their country is liberated from Russian troops, and from Eastern European leaders, who have dismissed the idea of a negotiated end to the war as dangerous.
Other voices in the West, led by President Emmanuel Macron of France and Prime Minister Mario Draghi of Italy, are suggesting that some kind of territorial compromise between Ukraine and Russia is needed to end the fighting more quickly.
Henry Kissinger, a 98-year-old former secretary of state, laid out that position bluntly in a video appearance in Davos, Switzerland, on Monday, saying that Ukraine would have to cede territory in exchange for peace.
He argued that Ukraine should agree to “a return to the status quo ante,” a restoration of Ukraine’s borders as they were before the war began in February. That would mean giving up the Crimean Peninsula that Russia seized in 2014 and parts of the eastern Ukrainian region known as the Donbas.
That idea has drawn fierce criticism from many Ukrainians, including from President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who on Thursday compared Kissinger’s proposal to Western Europe’s appeasement of Nazi Germany in the Munich Agreement of 1938.
But Zelenskyy has also said that he hoped to end the war at the negotiating table after reestablishing Ukrainian control up to the Feb. 24 boundaries.
He has insisted that his troops will keep fighting at least until they are able to retake the swaths of southern and eastern Ukraine that Russia has captured in the last three months.
The status of the territory that Russia held before Feb. 24, he said in a television interview last week, ought to be hammered out at the negotiating table. Trying to retake it by force, he warned, could cost tens of thousands of lives.
“I believe that reaching the line that was before Feb. 24 without unnecessary losses would be a victory for our state today,” he said. “The war is very complicated, and victory will be very complicated. It will be bloody, it will definitely come in battle, but the ending will definitely come in diplomacy.”
Some Ukrainian officials have said their country should fight until all of its territory, including the Crimean Peninsula, is liberated from Russian occupation.
Central and Eastern European leaders have supported that goal, with Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins of Latvia declaring this week that “the only solution to this war is Ukraine’s victory and Russia’s defeat.”
Looming over the debate is the biggest unknown: whether President Vladimir Putin of Russia would be willing to accept anything other than total capitulation by Ukrainian forces.
Putin has been studiously vague in public. He insisted at the start of the war that Russia did not plan to “occupy Ukrainian territory,” but he has also slandered Zelenskyy’s government as controlled by “Nazis” who pose an existential threat to Russia itself.
“We are not chasing deadlines,” Putin’s chief security adviser, Nikolai Patrushev, said in a Russian newspaper interview published Tuesday. He indicated that Putin was not in a mood for compromise: “Nazism must either be 100% eradicated, or it will rear its head in a few years, and in an even uglier form.”
But some analysts have suggested that rhetoric, like an early unsuccessful attempt to take Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, may be overreach aimed at providing a fallback negotiating position of a more realistic goal: taking parts of eastern and southern Ukraine, including the Donbas region on the Russian border and the Kherson region next to Crimea and the Black Sea.
Russian occupation authorities in eastern and southern Ukraine have signaled that the Kremlin plans to take long-term control of captured land.
For now, despite all the proposals for how to end the war, there are no peace talks to bring it about.
Talks between Russia and Ukraine ground to a halt after a seeming breakthrough in late March, with both sides hardening their stances as they sought to make military gains.
On Thursday, the West’s latest initiative to stop the fighting appeared to run aground: a peace plan proposed by Italy that reportedly would give Crimea and the Donbas wide autonomy, but have them remain part of Ukraine.
Russia rejected the idea.
“Serious politicians who want to achieve results and not promote themselves in front of their electorate don’t propose things like that,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said.