Buy the Time to Make Peace: Seeking a Cease-Fire in the Ukraine War

Posted on June 15, 2022 By

by John Whitehead

The Ukraine-Russia war recently passed its 100-day mark. In those 100 days, the war has killed huge numbers of people (precise numbers are unclear) and displaced millions. The war also still threatens to cause harm beyond Ukraine’s borders, whether through a broader conflict between Russia and the west or through an international food crisis. Yet as the fighting between Ukrainians and Russians moves towards a possible stalemate, an opportunity to stop the war might be appearing. Policymakers on both sides should seize such an opportunity.

Russian War in Ukraine Ceasefire

To date, the Ukrainians have successfully prevented the Russians from seizing Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, while inflicting what seem to be grievous casualties on the invaders. However, the Russians still have made slow but notable gains, occupying large areas of Ukraine’s eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk as well as part of the country’s southern coast. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy recently described the Russians as occupying about a fifth of his country.

Meanwhile, Russia is using its naval forces in the Black Sea to blockade Ukraine’s trade. This blockade has slowed the export of Ukrainian grain to other countries, raising the possibility of food crises in certain parts of the world.

African nations receive roughly 40 percent of their wheat from Russia and Ukraine. The blockade poses a threat to their food security. Macky Sall, the president of Senegal and also of the African Union, told Russian President Vladimir Putin that “our countries, even if they are far from the theatre [of action], are victims of this economic crisis.” Amin Awad, the United Nations’ crisis coordinator, has warned “Failure to open those ports will result in famine.”

The current situation is a bitterly tragic one. However, a possibility to end the fighting, even if temporarily, may be in sight. The major parties to the conflict may now be in a better position to pursue diplomacy leading to a cease-fire.

Zelenskyy and other Ukrainian policymakers have the same strong incentive to stop the fighting that they always did. A cease-fire means at least a temporary end to Ukrainian troops and civilians dying from Russian aggression and no Russian occupation of more Ukrainian territory. A cease-fire now would also stop the fighting with the Ukrainian government still in control of most of the country.

Putin and other Russian policymakers currently have their own incentive to stop the fighting. A cease-fire means at least a temporary end to Russian troops dying in what has proved a costly military adventure for Russia. Russian territorial gains, especially in eastern Ukraine, offer Putin the opportunity to declare a face-saving victory: Putin can claim that Russia has liberated the peoples of Donetsk and Luhansk (or at least most of them) or otherwise improved Russia’s position in the world.

Policymakers in the United States and other NATO members also currently have an incentive to stop the fighting. A cease-fire means at least a temporary end to the fighting with Ukraine still largely free of Russian occupation and without direct conflict between NATO and Russia. Western policymakers thus can achieve a face-saving victory of their own: they checked Russian aggression in Ukraine without falling into a wider war.

The world’s peoples also have an incentive to stop the fighting, the same incentive we have always had. A cease-fire means at least a temporary end to our fellow human beings dying in war and a diminished risk of the conflict escalating into World War III.

Despite these incentives for a cease-fire, I acknowledge that a cease-fire also has major disadvantages. As I have emphasized, a cease-fire is only a temporary end to the fighting. Without a larger political settlement, the fighting could begin again, whether because of renewed Russian aggression or for some other reason. The Russian invasion of Ukraine and accompanying Ukrainian civil war of 2014, for example, diminished but never truly ended, eventually flaring up again this year.

Also, a cease-fire does not address the larger injustice: Russia’s aggressive occupation of eastern and southern Ukraine and the various human rights violations committed by Russian forces. A far better resolution to the current war would be for all Russian forces to withdraw from Ukraine and for the Ukrainians to resolve their internal political conflicts without foreign military intervention.

While a more stable resolution to the conflict that restores Ukrainian independence would be preferable to freezing the conflict with a cease-fire, such a scenario might not be realistic at this stage. Continuing the war in the hopes that the Ukrainians will eventually push the Russians out of all their territory risks the many dangers that have loomed over the war from the start.

Russian War in Ukraine


Consider some alternative scenarios for a continued war. Both sides might continue to fight, with neither one able to prevail, and the war will continue to grind up lives in a bloody stalemate. The Russians might gain the upper hand and occupy still more Ukrainian territory. The Ukrainians might gain the upper hand, causing the Russians to resort to some extreme escalation—in the worst-case scenario, the use of nuclear weapons. Any of these scenarios, or some other chain of events, might also lead to NATO intervention, with all the dangers that includes.

Despite its disadvantages, a cease-fire is preferable to many other alternatives. Seeking a cease-fire provides a stop, however temporary, to the fighting and also provides time for policymakers to negotiate. As Zelenskyy has commented, the war will “only definitively end through diplomacy.”

Italy has already proposed the outlines for a possible diplomatic resolution. The proposal includes a cease-fire, plans for a guarantee of both Ukrainian security and Ukraine’s neutrality toward NATO, talks about certain Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine receiving future autonomy within the country; and withdrawal of Russian troops in return for lifting of sanctions on Russia.

I admit to being skeptical about whether the different sides will agree to this proposed solution—Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has spoken dismissively of it, and I don’t think other parties are willing to make the necessary concessions either. Still, at least some type of resolution may become possible with a cease-fire. Even if finding a political settlement takes years, a frozen conflict is better than a hot one.

Besides stopping the fighting, the other urgent problem that needs to be addressed is the possible food crisis caused by the Russian blockade. Ukraine and its western allies should consider a two-fold response to the blockade.

First, they should make an all-out push to bypass the blockade and transport Ukrainian grain to other countries or areas outside the blockade’s reach so they can be properly exported abroad. Efforts to ship Ukrainian grain out through Romania, Poland, and Germany are already underway. These and similar efforts should be accelerated. The United States has already invested considerable money and energy into providing Ukraine with weapons and other aid. Making a comparable investment of resources in getting Ukrainian food exports to those who need them should be a still greater priority.

Second, diplomats should pursue negotiations with the Russians (whether as part of larger talks to resolve the conflict or separately) to allow food exports through the blockade. Unpleasant though it may be, such negotiations might require some concessions to Russia. Perhaps lifting sanctions on Russian food exports—an approach recommended by President Sall—would be an appropriate offer in exchange for allowing Ukrainian food exports.

These are some of the steps policymakers and diplomats can take to check the Ukraine war’s violence. Ukrainians at the grassroots can also potentially make a contribution to achieving a just peace in this conflict.

Ukrainians in areas occupied by Russia might wish to consider pursuing a campaign of nonviolent resistance to the occupiers’ rule. The recent call by Vice Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk for teachers in the occupied territories to leave their jobs and for parents in those territories not to send their children to school reflects the basic idea of what such a campaign might look like.

Consistent noncooperation with the Russian occupiers may contribute to undermining their control of eastern Ukraine. Those living in the occupied territories must of course decide for themselves what is a prudent and appropriate path to take. Yet nonviolent resistance could prove a better, less bloody way of weakening Russian influence in Ukraine.

An end to the Ukraine war still seems far off. Also, even ending the war today cannot restore the lives already lost or undo the other harm caused. Moving the war closer to a peaceful resolution may be possible, though, and is well worth trying.


For more of our posts on war policy, see:

Russia and Ukraine: 

Not Your Pawns: A CLE Examination of the Russia-Ukraine Conflict

A Hidden Cost of the Ukraine War: How Russia’s Invasion Encourages the Spread of Nuclear Weapons

A Catastrophe Decades in the Making: The Russian Invasion of Ukraine

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

In general: 

Wars Cause Abortion

Would Nonviolence Work on the Nazis?

The Darkest Hour: “Glorifying” War?

The Civil War Conundrum, 150 Years Later

Seeing War’s Victims: The New York Times Investigation of Civilian Casualties in Iraq and Syria



war policy

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