Those opposed to any kind of peace settlement between Ukraine and Russia typically argue that you must respond to aggression with force. If a dictator invades a foreign country, you must fight back against the dictator or provide help to the foreign country so they can fight back.
The NATO countries have taken a pragmatic compromise position from the start. Because Ukraine is not part of NATO, the NATO countries have no doctrinal basis to send troops and air support into Ukraine. Instead, the NATO countries, especially the United States, have sent massive military supplies ranging from anti-aircraft missiles to bullets, software and lately, tanks to arm the Ukrainians. But they have not sent troops.
A legitimate question arises about whether unjustified aggression should be met with as much force as is necessary to defeat the enemy. In the case of Ukraine, the Ukrainian army and civilians fighting with the army have been successful in blocking Russia from achieving their chief aim, which was to completely take over Ukraine. In a word, Ukraine has defeated Russia regarding its goal in its invasion of Ukraine.
Ukraine can achieve victory over Russia if it gives up some territory
If Ukraine were to reach a peace settlement with Russia at this time, say one that gave them two of the four regions in Southern Ukraine, namely Donetsk and Luhansk, would this amount to appeasement?
You can argue either way but since doing so would enable Ukraine to maintain control over the vast majority of their country, there is a strong case to be made that this would not be appeasement. Rather, it could be argued that this would be a qualified victory.
Moreover, since Russia and Ukraine have been fighting in these two regions for eight years, ending that war now, which is inextricably bound up with the war that started in February 2022, would really end two wars at once.
In addition, the cost of trying to win the 2014 war that is a part of the 2022 war is potentially catastrophic, since no one knows if Putin will turn to nuclear weapons if Ukraine starts closing in on a complete victory in which Russia gets nothing. Russia, in the end, may nuke most of Ukraine, leaving Ukraine not only a part of Russia but largely destroyed with tens of millions of Ukrainians killed.
This is why the axiom that you must respond to aggression with force must be examined in context: there are two parts of this situation that would distinguish it from, for example, World War II. Thus, it is not a question of whether the US and the other NATO countries can keep supplying Ukraine with the weapons they need to defeat Russia, because at a certain point Putin may go nuclear.
The axiom to respond to unjustified aggression with force is a good one but it is not an absolute principle of war. Indeed, in 2023, there are very few absolute principles left in this world. Kant’s Categorical Imperative, to borrow a refrain from William Butler Yeats, “is dead and gone and with O’Leary in the grave.”
The tanks that the US, Germany, France and Poland are sending to Ukraine will help the Ukrainian army beat back the Russians. The question will still remain about whether the West should be concerned about Putin saving face. Putin is not Hitler and treating him like Hitler is a risk.
There may be a way for Ukraine to give up some territory, perhaps even one of the four Southern regions, in exchange for peace with Russia, as well as membership in NATO.
Trying to kill every last Russian soldier and completely humiliate President Vladamir Putin puts Ukraine and NATO in a precarious position. If you humiliate this president enough, then there is no predicting what he might do.
The writer (email@example.com) is the editor of the interdisciplinary volume Leveraging, has taught ethics and political philosophy at five US colleges and universities, and ran for Congress in Maryland in 2016.