Act Before We Reach “Midnight”: The Need to Seek a Cease-Fire in Ukraine
by John Whitehead
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists recently announced that they had adjusted their “Doomsday Clock,” a symbolic measure of threats to humanity, to 90 seconds to “midnight”—that is, global catastrophe. This current status is the closest to midnight the Doomsday Clock has been in its 75-odd-year history. This dire prediction, the Bulletin has explained, is largely “because of the mounting dangers of the war in Ukraine.”
While the risk of worldwide disaster cannot be quantified with the precision implied by measures such as “90 seconds,” the Doomsday Clock’s setting serves as a useful metaphor for current global dangers, especially the danger of nuclear war. I agree with the Bulletin that the risk of nuclear war is now very high, primarily because of the Ukraine war.
Almost a year after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Russia-Ukraine war threatens to spin out of control into some greater catastrophe. Nuclear war between Russia and the United States is the worst of the war’s possible outcomes, although lesser but still dire outcomes are also possible. Averting disaster will require the United States and other western nations to limit their support for the Ukrainian war effort and to pursue a cease-fire or similar diplomatic resolution to the conflict.
The State of the War
Following the Ukrainians’ success last fall in pushing back Russian forces and re-taking some territory, the situation on the ground has bogged down into a stalemate. In Ukraine’s east and southeast, Russian forces still occupy roughly 15-20 percent of the country, including much of the provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk and the Crimean peninsula. Fierce fighting continues around the eastern city of Bakhmut.
While the battle lines have not moved dramatically during the winter, both sides have continued fighting by long-range means. Russia has waged a sustained campaign of missile and shellfire attacks on Ukraine that have devasted the country’s civilian infrastructure, often leaving cities without electricity. The Russian campaign has also caused more direct harm: for example, this January a Russian missile hit an apartment block in the city of Dnipro, killing at least 40 civilians. For their part, the Ukrainians have succeed in striking Russian-occupied territory in Ukraine and even Russian territory with their own long-range attacks.
Various western nations continue to give military assistance to Ukraine, with the United States and other nations recently deciding to send tanks to the Ukrainians. Tanks may allow the Ukrainians to break through the current stalemate and push the Russians further back. On the Russian side, Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov has described the tanks to Ukraine as a sign of western nations’ growing “direct involvement in the conflict.”
Hopes for a diplomatic solution to the Russia-Ukraine war are not bright. Yet pursuing such a solution is imperative, given the alternatives.
Diplomacy: The Best among Bad Options
The ideal resolution to the Ukraine war would be for the Russian people to put sufficient political pressure on their government that Russian President Vladimir Putin is forced to end his aggression and withdraw Russian forces from Ukraine. While this might happen, this outcome is hardly guaranteed: evidence suggests Russian public opinion is ambivalent about the war rather than mobilized against it. Peace advocates should not rely on the Russian war effort being undermined from within.
The resolution of the war presumably hoped for by policymakers in Ukraine and western nations such as the United States is that Ukraine will win a decisive military victory over Russia, pushing the Russians out of all the Ukrainian territory they have occupied since 2014, including Crimea. The Russians would then simply accept this defeat and the war would end. Again, such an outcome might happen: Ukraine’s battlefield successes have been one of the war’s great surprises. I don’t think such a scenario is the most likely outcome, though.
If the war continues unchecked, I suspect the most likely outcomes will be one of the following scenarios:
- The Ukrainians, with western support, continue to win victories over the Russians. To avoid the humiliation of total defeat, a desperate Putin dramatically escalates the war, possibly by attacking a western nation that belongs to NATO or possibly even by using nuclear weapons. (Former Russian President Dmitri Medvedev has explicitly warned this might happen.)
- In a variant of the above scenario, the Ukrainians win a total victory on the battlefield and push the Russians out. This humiliating defeat leads to Putin being overthrown in a coup and replaced by a hardline nationalist who resorts to some dramatic escalation in an attempt to still win the war or exact revenge.
- Ukrainian victory leads to Putin’s overthrow and larger political upheaval in Russia. Such a scenario might seem positive, but it is more likely to prove disastrous. Revolution and regime change has a mixed record, especially in Russia. We should not expect general upheaval in Russia to lead to a more just and humane regime than Putin’s rule. Regime change might well lead to chaos or even civil war, as it did in varying degrees in 1917 or 1991. Chaos and instability in a continent-spanning nation of about 140 million people with a massive nuclear arsenal is not an outcome anyone should desire.
- The war continues and, despite their military successes and western support, the sheer human cost involved—according to one estimate, roughly 100,000 Ukrainian troops might have been killed or wounded to date in the war—takes its toll on Ukraine. Russia benefits from its larger population and prevails through sheer weight of numbers, occupying more Ukrainian territory and forcing Ukraine to accept a worse situation than the current one. (This outcome is probably the least likely, but little is certain in war.)
- In perhaps the most likely scenario, the war simply grinds on and on without resolution, killing huge numbers of Ukrainians and Russians and hurting some of the world’s most vulnerable people in the process.
Faced with such scenarios, a cease-fire that freezes both sides in their current positions and radically reduces the fighting and killing seems like the least-bad option.
The immediate prospects for a cease-fire are unclear: neither Ukraine nor Russia might be ready to negotiate one yet. The goal of a cease-fire should always remain in sight, though, and policymakers from all nations should constantly seek an opportunity to foster cease-fire negotiations between Ukraine and Russia.
Until a cease-fire is in place, western nations would do well to moderate their military support for Ukraine. If the Ukrainians continue to make battlefield gains that push back occupying Russian forces, this could lead to one of possible crisis scenarios described above.
An Appeal for Diplomacy
Even as I argue for a cease-fire, I acknowledge the clear limitations of this approach. Freezing the Ukraine war now would leave Russia in control of a relatively small but still significant swath of Ukrainian territory. Accepting this situation could be seen as rewarding Russia’s brutal aggression.
I understand why many people, even peace-minded people, rebel at such an outcome. I agree that this outcome is very far from satisfactory. However, I think it is preferable to the most likely alternatives.
Sometimes the most prudent policy is to accept a continued injustice if it means avoiding still greater injustices. This was in effect what the United States and western nations did during the first Cold War, accepting Soviet domination over the eastern half of Europe rather than pursuing a destructive, war-mongering policy of “rolling back” the Soviets.
Whatever the limitations of seeking a cease-fire, the alternative of supporting and encouraging a purely military effort by Ukraine to achieve total victory and hoping that this doesn’t provoke a disastrous Russian response is simply not a responsible policy.
We should urge our elected representatives to work for a cease-fire in Ukraine. We should also urge them to curtail further shipments of tanks or other military aid to Ukraine that might lead to further Ukrainian territorial gains and an escalation of the war.
Policymakers need to act now, before the Doomsday Clock gets any closer to midnight.
For previous coverage on Ukraine, see:
For more on the damage of war, see: