Untying the Knot of War: Seek Negotiation, Not Escalation, in Ukraine

The Russian war against Ukraine is nearing its two-month mark with no clear end in sight. The human suffering caused by the war, including reported human rights violations by Russian forces, is terrible to contemplate.[1] Further, the ongoing US confrontation with Russia over Ukraine carries its own set of dangers: a more uncompromising stance toward the opposing side and the risk of escalation to a wider war.

No Room for Compromise?

US President Joe Biden has made several statements that make a negotiated solution to the war less likely. He has repeatedly called Russian President Vladimir Putin a “war criminal” and also referred to the Russian president as a “butcher.”[2] Other US policymakers have made similar statements. The State Department announced that it formally judged Russian forces guilty of war crimes in Ukraine.[3]

Both the Democratic and Republican ranking members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee have indicated Putin must face consequences for such crimes. Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) said, “Putin must be held accountable for this tragic and barbaric assault on innocent civilians.” Senator Jim Risch (R-ID) said, “The international community must also take concrete steps to hold Putin and his cronies accountable for their war crimes.”[4]

In a more just world order than the present one, world leaders who violate international law—whether Putin or anyone else—would indeed be held accountable for their crimes. That is regrettably not the current situation, however.

The United States doesn’t have jurisdiction to try Russian policymakers for war crimes and Russia isn’t a party to the International Criminal Court (and neither is the United States).[5] Also, Russia’s status as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council would likely allow it to block effective prosecution of Russian war crimes.[6] Most important, as long as Putin and his associates remain in power, they remain effectively immune from prosecution by a foreign or international court.

Calling Putin a war criminal is unlikely to lead to the Russian president being brought to justice. However, such statements are likely to make Putin more committed to waging war against Ukraine and less willing to negotiate.

The war has created a dire political situation for Putin. For all the death and devastation they have caused to date, Russian forces have not succeeded in seizing the Ukrainian capital of Kiev or otherwise decisively defeating the Ukrainians. The war might well end in a Russian defeat.

Wartime defeat could threaten Russian President Vladimir Putin’s legitimacy and hold on power, which means he has a strong incentive to do whatever is required to win.[7] If a fall from power also means probable prosecution for war crimes, then that incentive to win becomes even stronger.

If US policymakers are effectively saying that Putin must be removed from power—a step that Biden has explicitly advocated, although he later walked back that statement—then that leaves little room for Putin to negotiate an end to the Ukraine war.[8] Russian officials have responded to such statements by calling them “absolutely unacceptable and inexcusable” and warning of a “collapse” in US-Russian relations.[9]

Escalating Conflict

In the absence of a negotiated solution, the Ukraine war continues and threatens to expand. The United States has provided an estimated $2.6 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since the February 2022 Russian invasion (and was providing military assistance to the Ukrainians for years before that point).[10] Most recently, the Biden administration decided to send $800 million in military assistance to Ukraine, including military equipment previously not provided to that country.[11]

Whatever else one might think of such assistance, US support to Ukraine’s war fighting carries with it the danger that the United States will be drawn into a direct conflict with Russia. If US military personnel train Ukrainian military personnel—as is apparently planned under the most recent military aid package—that opens the possibility of US troops being caught up in combat with Russian troops.[12] Great caution is needed.

The Biden administration has at least so far refrained from committing US troops directly to the war. In particular, the administration has not embraced the policy of a “no-fly-zone” over Ukraine, despite repeated requests for such a policy from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.[13] A no-fly-zone would effectively require US or other NATO forces to shoot down Russian aircraft, if necessary. This would turn the Ukraine war into a full-fledged world war between Russia and the west.

The administration has also to date rejected the notion of giving Ukraine fighter jets. While not as extreme as imposing a no-fly-zone, flying jets from NATO nations into Ukraine so Ukrainians can use them against Russians could still be interpreted by Russia as an escalation.[14]

Nevertheless, various voices within the United States have called for giving Ukraine fighter jets or even imposing the no-fly-zone. Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE) has questioned the fighter jet decision, saying “President Biden should explain exactly why he vetoed fighter jets for Ukraine.”[15] Congressman Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), the Republican House minority leader, has urged “provide [the Ukrainians] the planes where they can create a no-fly-zone,” a stance seconded by House Republican Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA).[16] Senator Rick Scott (R-FL) has released a statement expressing support either for supplying jets or imposing a no-fly-zone (and also calling for measures to “further devastate the Russian economy”).[17] We must hope the Biden administration continues to avoid such escalations.

Escalation on the Russian side is also a real danger. What this might entail was recently spelled out by CIA Director William Burns: “a potential resort to tactical nuclear weapons or low-yield nuclear weapons.”[18] While such a drastic step does not seem likely at present, what the future holds is unknown.

As long as the war continues without a diplomatic resolution, more people will die and the risk of some terrible escalation continues. All parties need to seek a cease-fire and some kind of negotiated settlement. The settlement’s precise form will no doubt depend on how the situation on the ground changes, but it will probably require an agreement on Ukrainian neutrality between Russia and NATO as well as concessions by all sides.

The idea of negotiations with and concessions to Putin and the current Russian leadership undoubtedly seems a bitter pill to swallow after the events of the past two months. However, a diplomatic resolution will ultimately not be bitter to the untold numbers of people whose lives will be saved by the war ending—not to speak of the still greater number of people who will spared if further escalation can be prevented.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev urged President John F. Kennedy that they “ought not now to pull on the ends of the rope in which you have tied the knot of war… a moment may come when that knot will be tied so tight that even he who tied it will not have the strength to untie it.” After that, the only option would be to “cut that knot”—that is, wage world war.[19] Now as then, leaders on both sides should not “pull the knot tighter” through further verbal and military escalation. They should seek to untie the knot and end the war.

A version of this essay originally appeared on the Consistent Life Network blog.


[1] “Report on Violations of International Humanitarian and Human Rights Law, War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity Committed in Ukraine Since 24 February 2022,” Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, April 13, 2022, https://www.osce.org/files/f/documents/f/a/515868.pdf.

[2] Nandita Bose, “Biden Urges Putin War Crimes Trial after Bucha Killings,” Reuters, April 4, 2022, https://reut.rs/39iCsUp; Libby Cathey, Molly Nagle, Justin Gomez, and Armando Garcia, “Biden Calls Putin a ‘War Criminal’ after Meeting with Troops in Poland,” ABC, March 25, 2022, https://abcn.ws/3sBm0FD; Sam Fossum and Kevin Liptak, “Biden on Putin: ‘I Think He Is a War Criminal,’” CNN, March 17, 2022, https://cnn.it/3a3UaLN; Kevin Liptak and Maegan Vazquez, “Biden Says Putin ‘Cannot Remain in Power,’” CNN, March 26, 2022, https://cnn.it/3yAJgr6.

[3] Conor Finnegan, “US Formally Accuses Russian Forces of Committing War Crimes in Ukraine,” ABC, March 23, 2022, https://abcn.ws/37LXQAX.

[4] Bose, “Biden Urges Putin War Crimes Trial.” 

[5] Finnegan, “US Formally Accuses Russian Forces of Committing War Crimes in Ukraine.”

[6] Bose, “Biden Urges Putin War Crimes Trial.”

[7] Thomas L. Friedman, “Putin Has No Good Way Out, and That Really Scares Me,” New York Times, March 8, 2022, https://nyti.ms/3sBFVnW.

[8] Liptak and Vazquez, “Biden Says Putin ‘Cannot Remain in Power’”; Michael D. Shear, “‘I Make No Apologies’: Biden Says His Putin Comments Were an Expression of Moral Outrage,” New York Times, March 28, 2022, https://nyti.ms/3wglVJN.

[9] Fossum and Liptak, “Biden on Putin: ‘I Think He Is a War Criminal’”; Finnegan, “US Formally Accuses Russian Forces of Committing War Crimes in Ukraine.”

[10] W. J. Hennigan, “What’s in Biden’s $800 Million Military Aid Package for Ukraine,” Time, April 13, 2022, https://bit.ly/3NhcwXX; Katie Lobosco, “Here’s What’s in the $13.6 Billion Ukraine Aid Package,” CNN, March 15, 2022, https://cnn.it/39qGU3i.

[11] Hennigan, “What’s in Biden’s $800 Million Military Aid Package for Ukraine.”

[12] Ibid.

[13] “Zelenskyy Rebukes NATO for Refusing a No-Fly Zone over Ukraine, as Russian Air Strikes Escalate,” ABC [Australia], March 4, 2022, https://ab.co/3wsYlYX; “‘Close the Sky over Ukraine’: Zelenskyy Pleads to US Congress,” Al Jazeera, March 16, 2022, https://bit.ly/3wdXe0y.

[14] David E. Sanger and Eric Schmitt, “Poland’s Fraught Offer: Fighter Jets for Ukraine, but Only Through U.S. Hands,” New York Times, March 9, 2022, https://nyti.ms/3a440xd; Paul McLeary, Alexander Ward and Betsy Woodruff Swan, “Shot Down: How Biden Scuttled the Deal to Get MiGs to Ukraine,” Politico, March 10, 2022, https://politi.co/3wfoCuS.   

[15] Sanger and Schmitt, “Poland’s Fraught Offer.”

[16] Video available on Kevin McCarthy Twitter account, March 16, 2022, https://bit.ly/3wg2BMx.

[17] “Sen. Rick Scott: Biden Must Allow Plane Transfer to Ukraine or Enforce a No-Fly Zone,” Senator Rick Scott website, March 16, 2022, https://bit.ly/3FPV0aA. I also should acknowledge my debt to Michael Tracey’s work for details on Republican advocacy for an aggressive line towards Russia: Michael, Tracey, “Ukraine War Frenzy Proves: It’s Still John McCain’s GOP,” April 7, 2022, https://bit.ly/3lcYCKt.

[18] Jonathan Landay and Michael Martina, “U.S. Cannot ‘Take Lightly’ Threat Russia Could Use Nuclear Weapons — CIA Chief,” Reuters, April 14, 2022, https://reut.rs/38omWGB.

[19] US State Department, Office of the Historian, “Telegram from the Embassy in the Soviet Union to the Department of State,” October 26, 1962, https://bit.ly/39oC5rB.

© 2022 John Whitehead. All rights reserved.

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