The mood in Germany continues to be one of war, sanctions, arms deliveries, accusations of Russian war crimes and reports of Ukrainian victories. There seems to be no room for peace. Now, the media and parts of the political establishment are also promoting the view that this war against Russia can be won militarily – if the West only supplies Ukraine with heavy weapons. Under these circumstances, peace negotiations with Russia, or as we like to say pejoratively, with Putin, may not only appear morally reprehensible, but also unnecessary. For Europe, this would be a dangerous delusion.
Europe, for its own interest, should strive for a negotiated peace settlement in the Ukraine war and not risk intensifying the war in the hope to gain a military victory over Russia. If Europe continues to supply large quantities of weapons, especially heavy weapons, without at the same time thinking about peace, it will increasingly end up carrying a share of the responsibility for the senseless destruction and continuing bloodshed Ukrainians are suffering.
This war is taking place on European soil between two European states, and yet it is not Europe but the USA that is determining the Western approach to this war – and this even though the USA is more than 10,000 kilometers away from the war. This indicates that even 30 years after the end of the Cold War, Europe, and in particular the EU, has still not found its own voice. Europe appears only capable of finding a minimal consensus on sanctions and arms deliveries; reflections on how to achieve peace and what peace should look like are missing from official European statements.
The USA has no major economic interests in Ukraine, nor is it directly threatened by political developments there. The overwhelming presence of the USA in this conflict and its enormous and highly risky military deployment can only be explained by the geopolitical goals of the USA. Having Ukraine as a NATO Member would decisively increase American influence in Eurasia, as Brzezinski once called it.
For Europe, the situation is different. Ukraine is first and foremost a neighboring state and a valuable economic partner. It is also a bridge between Europe and the growing economies of Asia. While the American economy suffers little from the effects of sanctions, Europe is disproportionately more affected. Its attempt to completely decouple itself economically from Russia while the war in Ukraine is cutting Europe’s land bridge to Asia means Europe is cutting itself off from its eastern economic areas, its access to essential raw materials, and important markets in Asia. Through these actions, Europe is hence losing one of its great comparative advantages that result from its geographical position. Even more than during the Cold War, Europe’s economy would now have to orient itself almost exclusively towards the West. Since only a few countries worldwide support these sanctions, Europe is virtually committing some kind of political economic self-castration.
Moreover, Western sanctions against Russia and Russia's blockade of Ukrainian ports are halting the exports of Russian and Ukrainian wheat, which are so vital for many parts of the world. This, in particular, affects the Middle East and large parts of Africa, where famine could now break out, endangering the lives of millions. These are people who can barely survive in normal times and are now being punished for a war for which they are not responsible. How can Europe share responsibility for this? These are Europe’s neighboring regions – not the USA’s – that now risk further destabilization. It will hence be Europe that will be faced with considerable security risks from these already unstable regions.
The greatest danger, however, for Europe would come from a strategy aimed at achieving a military victory against Russia in Ukraine. Such a strategy could result in unpredictable reactions from Russia. For Russia, the Ukraine war has become a question of national survival, and we must assume that Russia will use everything it has to avoid leaving the battlefield as a loser. But how far would the nuclear power that is Russia go? Do we really want to test this? And, in the event of a looming Russian defeat, wouldn't we have to be prepared for China’s involvement as a forced reaction to prevent what it may see as an USA encroachment? Suddenly, the Russia-Ukraine war could turn into a dangerous confrontation among three nuclear powers.
A victorious peace seems unlikely. Despite all its military superiority, the USA (with one exception, the UN-sanctioned liberation of Kuwait in 1991) has never won a war. It has ultimately left behind only destruction, chaos and much human suffering. They have never brought democracy. Will this now also be the fate of Ukraine? Wouldn't fantasies of achieving a military victory result in immeasurable suffering to the Ukrainian people? How can we Europeans share responsibility for that?
It is more likely that Russia will dig in and maintain control over large parts of eastern and southern Ukraine. This would threaten to divide Ukraine. The result of this war would hence not be a proud victory, but a bombed-out, divided, internally torn and economically devastated Ukraine that could become increasingly ungovernable. And all this would have been achieved through Western military ‘help’.
Wouldn't it be in Europe's interest to support, even demand, a negotiated peace? In doing so, Europe would follow the call of the world community to resolve the Ukraine conflict peacefully. In the UN General Assembly, Member States not only condemned Russia's illegal military aggression, but also called on all parties to end this war through dialogue and negotiations. Recently, the UN Security Council repeated the call for a peaceful solution in a statement. There is no mention of arms deliveries or even a victorious peace in any UN resolution.
The key elements for a peaceful solution have already been worked out by courageous Russian and Ukrainian negotiators in the first two months of the war. According to these, Ukraine would renounce NATO membership and not allow any foreign military bases on Ukrainian soil, while Russia would commit to recognizing Ukraine’s territorial integrity, withdraw all Russian troops from Ukraine and accept international security guarantees for Ukraine. It had also already been tentatively agreed to give a special status to the Donbas within Ukrainian territory (as already foreseen in Minsk II) and to resolve the future status of Crimea at a later stage through purely diplomatic means.
Certainly, this is not a complete peace treaty – not yet; many difficult details remain unresolved. But the outcome of these peace negotiations, even if only provisional, represent an astonishing achievement at a time of war. There is and will be no other peaceful solution than to agree to some form of Ukrainian neutrality in return for preserving Ukraine's territorial integrity. It would be completely illusory to assume, as some Western governments like to claim, that such a peace treaty is a purely Ukrainian responsibility and that they should stay out. To use this to justify the West's silence on Russian-Ukrainian peace efforts is highly disingenuous.
President Zelensky’s position would be far too weak to push through such a far-reaching peace treaty with Russia without Western support, and for Russia a peace treaty negotiated only with Zelensky would hardly be worth anything. Due to its massive military and financial support, this war has long become also a war of the West, if this was not already the case from the beginning. Because of this, Europe should be working for peace with the same vigor as it did for supporting Ukrainian military. Why has this not happened?
Is Europe failing, now at a time of the greatest threat to peace since the end of the Cold War? How can one explain why no European government found the courage to support the Russian-Ukrainian peace negotiations in Istanbul at the end of March, thus betting on an extension of the war? In particular, the EU leadership showed itself to be frightfully incompetent. For it, a transatlantic solidarity with the USA continues to be more important than the search for a pan-European peace. The Afghanistan experience should serve as a warning to the EU that it shouldn’t rely blindly on American positions. With a possibly weakened US President after the mid-term elections in November and little chance to be re-elected in 2024, the USA’s strong support for this war could wane, leaving the mayhem it created for Europe to solve.
Perhaps Italy's recent peace initiative provides a glimmer of hope. France and Germany should now join in to try to promote a wider European response to this terrible and completely unnecessary war. Only in this way could a complete destruction of Ukraine be prevented and peace in Europe be preserved. It is, therefore, time for Europe to finally find its own voice.