BY RICHARD C. GROSS
“Yes, how many times will it take ’til he knows
That too many people have died.”
— Bob Dylan, “Blowin’ in the Wind,” 1963
President Joe Biden needs to start saying no to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. But it’s not easy and it’s complicated.
The adversaries in the Russo-Ukrainian war, and I include the United States and its allies in their proxy superpower conflict, seem determined to carry on the conflict to its bitter end, whatever that will be. At least that’s what they say publicly. It’s Ukraine, not Russia, that’s being physically destroyed.
Maybe it will take many more losses on both sides before tears will replace cheers.
For peace, Zelensky said Friday, Russia must stop “murdering Ukrainian children” and “respect the right of Ukrainians to live on Ukrainian land. Only then will we tell you the form we can use to put an end to the war.”
It’s clear after a year of combat, with losses on both sides in the untold thousands, including thousands more of Ukrainian civilians, that the fighting has ground down to a trench war stalemate.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has kept his mouth shut about conditions. Unconditional Ukrainian surrender?
An expected major Russian winter offensive so far hasn’t materialized. Russia has lost much of its armor to Ukrainian — read American-made — firepower. Its broken tanks and personnel carriers littering the battlefields are mostly fit for scrap.
The time could be ripe for a move toward a cease-fire or, better yet, an armistice, despite Putin’s and Biden’s stated willingness to see the war continue. That would be one way to weaken a major U.S. adversary.
China called Friday for a cease-fire, the Associated Press reported, but it seemed to be ignored; nobody seemed to pay attention. There’s a likelihood Beijing will supply Russia with war matériel.
“It is time for the United States and its allies to get directly involved in shaping Ukraine’s strategic objectives, managing the conflict and seeking a diplomatic endgame,” Charles A. Kupchan told The New York Times. He is a former Obama administration official, now with the Council on Foreign Relations.
And it would help if Biden would stop provoking Putin verbally, as when he said in Poland last year, “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.”A call for regime change?
Russia with 144 million people is a major nuclear power and has threatened to use tactical nuclear weapons in the war. If so, then what? How do we — never mind the Ukrainians — counter that? Then it becomes our war. Definitely not good. It’s why this war is so dangerous.
But Biden has been very careful to try to ensure an absence of any direct Washington involvement in the war. That’s why he won’t give F-16 fighters to Ukraine and has kept the number of Patriot missiles to a minimum. Patriots are advanced anti-missile weapons. Large numbers of them have been sent to Israel.
Ukraine “doesn’t need F-16s now,” Biden told ABC News Friday.
Biden largely seems to have given control of the war to Zelensky, who has not stopped begging publicly for major weapons since Russia invaded a year ago. That could embarrass the American president, forcing him do more than he may want. The Ukrainian, 45, is of an age at which he could be a son to Biden, 80. And sons ask for help.
Example: Biden has just pledged to give Ukraine another $2 billion, bringing total security assistance to about $29 billion since the start of war, plus $4.73 billion in Foreign Military Financing. That continuing payout of an allowance is not petty cash.
It apparently has made it difficult for Biden to say no to the war weary leader of a country of 44 million that has lost more than Western officials estimate to be 100,000 troops killed or wounded. The United Nations says 8,006 civilian deaths have been confirmed up to Feb. 15 in that relentlessly bombarded country.
Western officials estimate the Russians have lost 200,000 troops killed or wounded. The Russians say about 9,000 have died.
“We have been standing for exactly one year,” Zelensky said Friday, yet again rallying his people. The onetime comedian is excellent at that.
The war on the ground is ferocious, brutal. Phone intercepts of Russian soldiers calling home nearly a month after the war started with Moscow’s invasion of the Kyiv area provides an extremely rare glimpse of what it’s like on a battlefield, as published by the AP:
“Leonid tells [his mother] that civilians were told to flee or shelter in basements, so anyone who was outside must not be a real civilian.”
“Mother: Oh, Lyonka, you’ve seen so much stuff there!”
“Leonid: Well . . . civilians are lying around right on the street with their brains coming out.”
“Mother: Oh God, you mean the locals?”
“Leonid: Yep. Well, like, yeah.”
“Mother: Are they the ones you guys shot or the ones . . .”
“Leonid: The ones killed by our army.”
“Mother: Lyonya, they might just be peaceful people.”
“Leonid: Mom, there was a battle. . . .A young guy was stopped, they took his cellphone. He had all this information about us in his Telegram messages — where to bomb, how many we were, how many tanks we have. And that’s it.”
“Mother: So they knew everything?”
“Leonid: He was shot right there on the spot. . . . He was 17 years old. And that’s it, right there . . . There was a prisoner. It was an 18-year-old guy. First, he was shot in his leg. Then his ears were cut off. After that, he admitted everything, and they killed him.”
“Mother: Did he admit it?”
“Leonid: We don’t imprison them. I mean, we kill them all.”
Imagine being a parent whose son is on the battlefield telling you all of this. What are his chances of survival?
Halting the war may be difficult, with Russia still holding the Crimea on the Black Sea in the south and the eastern Donbas region bordering its own territory. A truce — something — would save lives on both sides and the further devastation of Ukraine. There’s no shame in peace.
Ukraine never can hope to conquer Russia, which occupies 11 time zones. It’s a stretch to think Putin, a brutal leader and former KGB agent, would give up his territorial gains in Ukraine. He’s no Mikhail Gorbachev.
There’s little doubt, watching the daily destruction of pieces of Ukraine, civilians included, that this can go on. When will it become enough is enough?
Yet peace in the shape of an armistice, which halted World War I in 1918 until there could be a peace agreement between the Allies and Germany, and the Korean War in 1953, is more a truce than a surrender. Biden should recommend such action. Now.
Richard C. Gross, who covered war and peace in the Middle East and was foreign editor of United Press International, served as the opinion page editor of The Baltimore Sun.