The war in Ukraine has reached a dangerous and precarious moment. Having failed in their initial attempt to overcome Ukrainian resistance through a conventional ground assault, the Russian invaders are now resorting to indiscriminate shelling and bombing of urban areas, producing an ever-growing toll of civilian casualties. As we go to press, Russian armored columns are attempting to encircle Kyiv and other major cities, cutting off access to food, water, and power in a brutal drive to force their surrender. Adding to the danger, Moscow has declared that further Western arms shipments to the Ukrainian defenders are a “legitimate target” of Russian attack—a threat made all too real when Russian missiles struck a Ukrainian training base near the Polish border on March 13. We stand on the precipice, then, of a major war in Europe—and one that would entail a significant risk of nuclear escalation. Preventing such an outcome and bringing relief to the suffering people of Ukraine must therefore be the world’s overriding objectives at this critical moment.
Vladimir Putin ordered his unlawful and unjustified invasion in the mistaken belief that the Ukrainians would put up minimal resistance, that heavily armed Russian forces would deliver a rapid victory, and that the West would respond in an incoherent, ineffectual fashion. He was wrong on every count: The Ukrainians have mounted an unexpectedly strong resistance; numerically superior Russian forces proved incapable of seizing the strategic advantage; and the West responded in a unified and vigorous fashion.
In response to these setbacks and humiliations, Putin appears determined to increase the pain being inflicting on Ukraine by his forces—producing more casualties every day, eliciting ever-greater anger and punitive moves from the West, and causing more hardship for his own people. The daily images on Western TV of Ukrainian cities under attack and civilians running in terror have aroused fierce anti-Russian sentiment, stoking the war hawks’ calls for direct US military involvement and making any future normalization of relations with Moscow increasingly remote.
As a result of his reckless escalation, Putin has brought us closer to the outbreak of a Europe-wide war than at any time since the Berlin crises of the 1960s. As in those earlier confrontations, a precipitous NATO response could lead to uncontrolled escalation, possibly triggering the early use of nuclear weapons—something Putin has already suggested he might resort to. The growing use of NATO bases in Poland to supply arms and ammunition to the Ukrainian military represents a significant threat to Russian forces and could prompt a lethal response, with obvious escalatory implications, although Moscow has so far limited its attacks to Ukrainian bases near the Polish border. If NATO imposes a no-fly zone over Ukraine, as called for by many in Washington, we should expect shoot-outs between opposing aircraft and inevitable losses, prompting countermeasures by each side and the likely commitment of main battle forces. Once that occurs, Russian and US military doctrine both envision the potential use of nuclear weapons to stave off a battlefield defeat. Putin—already feeling cornered by the forces arrayed against him—could prove especially trigger-happy.
Avoiding such an outcome must be the world’s paramount objective at this incredibly dangerous moment. However great our sympathies for the victims of Russian attacks, US and European leaders must resist the pressure to impose a no-fly zone or to otherwise become directly involved in the fighting. Such a move would only prolong Ukrainian suffering and expose more of Europe to the bloody costs of war—and deepen the risk of a nuclear conflagration that would leave no part of the globe untouched.
Rather, the primary objective now must be to stop the fighting as soon as possible, spare Ukrainian cities from further bombardment, and allow for the safe evacuation of refugees. This will require high-level negotiations between the belligerents themselves, aided where appropriate by prominent figures who enjoy the trust of both sides—perhaps some combination of President Erdogan of Turkey, President Xi of China, and Prime Minister Bennett of Israel. These intermediaries must convince Putin that a continuation of the war will only bring him further shame and humiliation and expose his country to financial ruin; they must also convince Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that continued fighting, however useful in securing Western aid, will not ensure the safety of his citizens. With neither side able to achieve its ultimate objectives through further combat, both have powerful incentives to halt the fighting.
As soon as Russian forces cease combat operations and begin their withdrawal, the main priority should be restoring essential services to Ukrainian towns and cities, tending to the sick and wounded, and beginning the process of reconstruction. The 2 million–plus refugees in Poland and other European Union nations will have to be settled in a humane fashion and helped to return to their homes when it is safe and practical to do so. Ideally, Russia should pay for a lot of this—perhaps the seized assets of Russian oligarchs can be used for this purpose—but we in the West should contribute what we can.
Once the fighting has stopped, it should be possible for Russia and Ukraine to work out the parameters of their future relationship. It is not for us, distant from the fighting, to dictate the terms of that relationship. But from what is already known of the two sides’ positions, we can envision a future Ukraine that espouses some form of NATO-free neutrality, perhaps on the model of Finland or Switzerland, and with the predominantly Russian-speaking regions in the east enjoying a significant degree of autonomy; Russia, for its part, must guarantee Ukraine’s security, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.
As this process unfolds and with Russian forces withdrawn, it would then be possible to consider other priorities. These could include measures to aid Americans and Europeans suffering from high oil and natural gas prices and ordinary Russians experiencing economic pain, despite having no role in Putin’s war. The relaxation of sanctions in the energy sector would increase the flow of oil and gas to Europe, helping Europeans overcome shortages there and slowing the implosion of the Russian economy. Meanwhile, investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy in Europe should be vastly expanded—both to slow the pace of climate change and to prevent future energy crises brought on by excessive reliance on a single major provider of fossil fuels.
Accompanying all of this, it will be essential to begin construction of a new security order in Europe—one designed to make the outbreak of wars like the one in Ukraine less likely. It is tempting, in retrospect, to assign blame to one side or another—or some combination of both—for the current calamity, but surely the crucial point is that the systems put in place to prevent or deter armed conflict have failed catastrophically. We must learn from these failures and devise new measures offering a better chance of success. These could include new or expanded systems of common security plus “deconfliction” measures—hotlines, military-to-military consultations, tank and artillery exclusion zones—intended to reduce the risk of accidental or inadvertent escalation. Such initiatives could lead, in time, to the resumption of nuclear arms control talks with Moscow, where it could be demonstrated anew that arms limitations are mutually beneficial.
Finally, we must recognize that the world has just undergone a historic transition—much as the end of the Cold War and 9/11 occasioned such transitions. Right now this new world appears far more polarized and militarized than the one it is replacing: US military spending, for example, could rise by as much as $100 billion this year—and keep rising in the years ahead. We will have to work much harder, then, to resist the tide of militarism, reduce the risk of nuclear war, and slow the pace of climate change. But we also have an opportunity—perhaps a once-in-a-generation opportunity—to renew the appeal and mobilizing power of peace. We have been reminded—once again and all too vividly—of the true costs and horrors of war. We have also witnessed the incredible bravery of anti-war demonstrators in Russia, thousands of whom have been arrested by the authorities. All this should make the pursuit of peace even more compelling.