Zelensky’s Terrible Dilemma—and Ours

An existential choice faces Volodymyr Zelensky, President of Ukraine. It is perhaps the worst choice facing any head of state in the world—between capitulation before Russian President Vladimir Putin and continued resistance to the Russian invasion. If Zelensky chooses the former, there is no guarantee—or even a realistic hope—that any agreement to end hostilities will be honoured a minute longer than Putin finds convenient. On the other hand, continued resistance guarantees that many more Ukrainians—military and civilian—will die and many more cities and towns will be reduced to rubble, even if victory (whatever that looks like) is achieved eventually.

Negotiations to secure a deal are urged by President Macron of France, Prime Minister Draghi of Italy, and Chancellor Scholz of Germany, along with Nixon’s ancient former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and British Lords David Owen and Robert Skidelsky. These people, and other prominent public figures who share their view, know—or should know—that a deal with Putin will be worth nothing. Truth in Russia, before and during the invasion, has not merely been sacrificed, it has been gutted and stamped on, criminalised and redescribed as lies. Merely calling the Ukrainian conflict a “war” currently merits arrest, and thousands have already been detained for protesting the invasion. Every night, the Kremlin’s chief media propagandist, Vladimir Solovyov, spouts fountains of lies on Channel One, for which he’s so handsomely rewarded that he owns two large villas on Italy’s Lake Como (one of which has recently been burned and vandalised).

The invasion itself was so apparently senseless, and so self-destructive, that few expected Putin to press ahead with it, even as Russian troops massed on Ukraine’s borders before the February 24th attack. Putin and his ranting TV anchors repeatedly denied that war was imminent, and his faithful foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, even denied Russia had invaded Ukraine after it had done so.

So, why did Putin do it? For two reasons, above all. First, he was tormented by the prospect of Ukraine becoming wholly democratic and pro-Western—an example he feared would inspire the very many Russians who wish to see their own country develop an active civil society. Second, were this to happen, it would thwart Putin’s clearly expressed aim to merge the three Slav states of the former Soviet Union into a partial reconstruction of the Russian empire—Belarus is already in Putin’s pocket; Ukraine is now fighting to stay out of it; and Russia has allotted itself the role of imperial master. In a 5,000-word essay published in July last year and titled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” Putin denied that Ukraine is a separate state, and warned that Russia could not permit it to drift into the West’s orbit.

In a Western context, imagine a British prime minister writing an essay titled On the historical Unity between Britain and Ireland” as a prelude to the forcible seizure of the Irish Republic. After all, the rationale might run, it was part of Britain for centuries, until almost exactly a century ago (Anthony Trollope wrote two novels about an Irish politician named Phineas Finn, which dramatized the countries’ political union in the mid-19th century). But this counterfactual is inconceivable for the simple reason that the UK has long renounced its imperial ambitions while Putin has rekindled and inflamed those of Russia. He has come to see the reconstitution of the most important part of the Russian empire as his legacy. If rumours of Putin’s failing health are true, that legacy may soon become operative, which has led observers to speculate that the precipitate invasion was the decision of a sick man in a hurry. Putin’s imperial ambitions and iron determination make him an impossible interlocutor—a man determined, as Emmanuel Macron has discovered, not to give an inch.

In 1940, the British cabinet led by Neville Chamberlain faced an existential dilemma comparable to that faced by Zelensky today—whether to oppose Hitler or to deal with him. Those in favour of negotiations, led by the Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, had what sounded like a reasonable case: the British army had just been chased out of France and miraculously rescued at Dunkirk—Britain was clearly weaker than a resurgent Germany. Furthermore, Hitler had indicated, through Italian Prime Minister Mussolini, that he would not attack Britain, and would leave her empire untouched if the UK government pledged to give him a free hand in Europe and elsewhere.

This famous episode became a source of national pride, because the debate was resolved in favour of continuing the fight, a line long taken by the recently appointed Prime Minister Winston Churchill. But that is because the war ended in victory, an outcome that was by no means certain at the time. Nevertheless, had Halifax’s position prevailed, it’s now obvious that any treaty negotiated would not have been worth the paper on which it was written, especially after France was taken, and Italy and Japan joined the Reich in an axis against the UK.

The main events and issues that led to today’s crisis are now well-known. The invasion on February 24th, after weeks of indignant denials; the failure of the Russian army to reach Kyiv and depose the Zelensky government; the savagery of the invading Russian troops; the hugely impressive fighting spirit of the Ukrainians and the courage of President Zelensky himself, who had previously been written off as a comic posing as a statesman. Only, now the Russians seem to have regrouped after a chaotic start to their campaign and are beginning to win ground in the east. They have a stranglehold on shipping in the Sea of Azov, and in the Black Sea where the crucial port city of Odessa is situated. Reports point to the encirclement of the city of Severodonetsk, in the Donbas region. Zelensky says the Russians are killing up to 100 Ukrainian soldiers a day, a much higher rate than at any time in this war. Before the invasion began, irregular Russian forces controlled about 30 percent of the Donbas region, where much of its industry is situated. Now, the Russian army claims to control between 70 and 80 percent of the Luhansk region of the Donbas, and is continuing to advance.

The fortunes of war will go this way and that, but Zelensky’s dilemma is clearly apparent. It’s worth thinking hard about this, since many of us will be citizens of states assisting the Ukrainian war effort. Our taxes pay for aid and our governments, whether pressing for negotiations or encouraging struggle, remain closely involved in events. Ukraine must now choose between buying Putin off with all or most of the Ukrainian territory he now controls, or fighting on to win and risk a Ukrainian collapse. No good option now exists. Even outright victory for one side or the other will require a long war, which will suit Russia more than Ukraine.

“Buying Putin off” means accepting the east and south of Ukraine as part of the Russian state, just as Crimea has already been so proclaimed. An internationally recognised border between this acquired Russian territory and the rest of Ukraine would have to be agreed. Ukraine would be made to commit to a cessation of all attacks on that border. Neutrality would force Ukraine to renounce any and all plans to join NATO or the European Union. All Western sanctions would have to be lifted. These would be Russia’s main demands (there may be others, such as declaring Zelensky and other prominent members of his government to be “war criminals”), and since Ukraine will have sued for peace, the initiative would be with Russia.

What might Ukraine get in return? In the first instance, it would get the peace for which its citizens now desperately yearn. The Black Sea and Sea of Azov ports would reopen, which the rest of the world wants very much. For the time being at least, Ukraine would again be a defined, if severely reduced, territory, which would remain at least formally independent. It might hope to receive reparations from Russia for the billions of dollars of damage caused. These are only possibilities, and the last must be remote, unless the West forces Putin’s hand with some leverage of its own.

What is the rationale for settling now? The Russian army is resurgent and pressing hard. Ukrainian victories may become rarer, and the Western lobby for negotiations is strengthening, not least because the war is throttling energy, grain, and fertiliser supplies, and Western democracies are spending vast sums on support. The longer the war continues, the more the West will hurt, and the less it will feel moved to help Ukraine. Germany, the largest and richest of Ukraine’s European allies, has still not fulfilled its promise to send tanks and heavy weaponry, and may never do so if it wants to maintain a good relationship with Russia after the war. Others may follow Germany’s dispiriting lead, alarmed not only by the economic price the conflict is exacting, but also by the ongoing threat of nuclear escalation. If the battle continues to favour Russia, these voices argue, then the sooner talks begin, the better.

These are strong reasons for ending war—some would add, at any price. But what is the rationale for carrying on? First and most important: nothing Putin says can be trusted. Since the entire Russian campaign is founded on lies, ceding territory in the east will make Putin hungrier for more—and even all—of Ukraine. As the American civil rights campaigner and journalist, Ida B. Wells, once remarked, “the appetite grows for what it feeds on.” Rewarding a dictatorship’s aggression will only encourage other irredentist regimes like China to follow Putin’s ruthless example. Ukraine may yet retake the advantage, and while Ukrainian society may be desperate for peace, it is not openly splitting—Zelensky and the army still enjoy strong support. Finally, advanced weaponry, bought with the $40bn in aid passed by the US Congress and Senate last week will upgrade Ukraine’s military technology—and stocks will last through the summer.

That is how the issue now stands. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has written a biography of Churchill, and perhaps inspired by his predecessor’s example, has ensured that his country’s support for Ukraine—both rhetorical and material—is among the strongest of all democracies. Pursued by a domestic scandal that may yet unseat him, Johnson nevertheless understands the need to give the embattled Ukrainian nation his full-throated support. In his speech to the Ukrainian parliament in May, he reiterated his agreement with Ukraine’s decision to fight on: “no outsider like me can speak lightly about how the conflict could be settled, if only Ukraine would relinquish this or that piece or territory or we find some compromise for Vladimir Putin. We know what happens to the people left in the clutches of this invader.”

Faced with a hideous choice, Volodymyr Zelensky and his government have chosen the path of greatest resistance—an act of very great courage and a huge risk in the face of an assault that grows heavier by the day. It is also a choice for those countries in strong support of Ukraine. And in making it, British citizens should not be ashamed to agree with their flawed prime minister.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://quillette.com/2022/06/04/zelenskys-terrible-choice-and-ours/

Yet another Ukraine war propaganda article on Quillette, and i wouldn’t mind, but hey could we get some propaganda that is not insulting to the reader’s intelligence?
There is not an ounce of fact or information in this opinion article, which indicates that the author does not need facts to form his opinions, but considers his opinions worthy to be generously shared with the readers of Quillette.
Mr. John Lloyd clumsily pulls statements out of his…hat, and expects readers to take them as facts:

Mr. John Lloyd forgets that Russia attempted quite desperately to reach agreements with Ukraine in the years and months preceding the invasion. Mr. Lloyd is probably unaware of the two Minsk accords and how Ukraine unilaterally ignored and broke them.
Mr. Lloyd is also unaware of the peace proposals that Russia has put on the table, and none of which included any territory annexation other than Crimea where the majority of the population is Russian and where Russia has important military naval bases.

The delusional Mr. Lloyd tries to draw parallels between Britain’s choice during WW2 and Ukraine’s choice now, again betraying his lack of information and his misunderstanding of history.

So now Mr. Lloyd assumes that Ukraine was making progress towards democracy, and Putin was tormented by it [insert Tucker Carlson annoying laughter here].
The Canadian independent journalist Eva Bartlett has a few things to say about Ukraine’s “democracy”
She’s exposing the TRUTH in Ukraine and they don’t like it | Redacted Conversation with Eva Bartlett - YouTube
There are other sources as well, but i favor western ones when linking, because everything else is discarded as propaganda. Also you can get some hints about Zelensky’s “democracy” from the mainstream media if you read carefully, because they “slip” tidbits of information about Zelensky’s banning of opposition parties, arrests of journalists even on foreign territory, etc.

Could go on and on about Mr. Lloyd’s hallucinations, but i have to stop and ask how can such uninformed and confused people write articles on subjects they have no clue about and then get these articles posted in several publications.
Some people writing these articles are smart but dishonest, they have a propaganda mission and they fulfill it well, in the case of Mr. Lloyd im inclined to think he is just genuinely not very good at analyzing things.


Mr LLoyd is ready to fight to the last Ukrainian


So, you are now sucking Putin’s left nut? What a disgusting comment.

This is a war of aggression on Russia’s part, with NO provocation or excuse.

Don’t kiss the butt or dick of dictators, Kaay. It makes you look like Lenin’s useful idiot.

Since I was unfamiliar with the Minsk accords, I wikied them up. Here is the money quote from Wikipedia:

“Amid rising tensions between Russia and Ukraine in early 2022, Russia officially recognised the Luhansk and Donetsk people’s republics on 21 February 2022. Following that decision, on 22 February 2022, the Russian president [Vladimir Putin] declared that the Minsk agreements “no longer existed”, and that Ukraine, not Russia, was to blame for their collapse. Russia then invaded Ukraine on 24 February 2022.”

Following the same logic, the US should invade Mexico, declare Mexican territory to be sovereign states, and then bomb Mexico City when Mexico fights back.

So, any nonsensical and pro-Russian blame about “breaking the Minsk accords” simply buys Putin’s lies.

What a stupid position. Ukraine has and had every right to reject the previous Russian theft of Ukraine territory.

And, please, before you say it, don’t raise the argument of “protecting ethnic Russians in Ukraine”. This is the Hitler rationale for the takeover of the Sudeten portion of Czechoslovakia. It’s a long-discredited false claim. It’s the false claim that led NATO to bomb Beograd, of course. False then, false now.


I guess you, on the other hand, are cheering on the Russian rape troops. How thoughtful of you to work hard to assist Russians in their rape of Ukraine.


Are you saying it’s false to claim that ukrainian violence against russian people has anything to do with this war or that its false to claim such violence was ever happening at all?


Same argument that Hitler used in 1939. Same argument that Putin will use in the future to justify invasions of Lithuania, Latvia, Georgia, Armenia. And, yes, it was and remains a huge lie.

The excuse for aggression is always there. Why do you buy it?


All I’m asking is what is “it?”

Is it?

What is it?

“When you say it, do you mean X or Y?”



Your attempt at kissing Putin’s butt duly noted.

You really need to read up on history, of which you appear to know little. The Sudeten excuse is a fact of history. Why do you want that used here?


Why won’t you answer a question? I want to know what’s a lie. That Ukrainians were torturing and killing Russians, or that it has anything to do with the war?


How much I dont know about history has nothing to do with any of what I’m asking you about your claim


Persons in Ukraine are not Russians. They are Ukrainians of Russian ethnicity/heritage. As such, their treatment in Ukraine is an internal matter.

I thought everyone was clear on that - states handle their internal matters internally. As such, it is not a matter for Russian intervention in the internal affairs of Ukraine.


You managed to still avoid the question, but you did it without invoking your apparent obsession with Putin’s genitalia/anus. An improvement I suppose.


You should tell that to ya boi Z.


Aid from other countries to Ukraine is a completely separate question. However, an irredentist and expansive Russia needs to be contained.


Stating the obvious, namely that the author speaks out of his behind, and bringing arguments, is not what i would call “sucking Putin’s left nut”.
Now when you say that “this is a war of aggression with NO provocation or excuse”, it becomes obvious you drank the western media kool-aid and got high.
How does bringing information that is readily available and verified, make me “Lenin’s useful idiot”?
What’s Lenin got to do with it? :stuck_out_tongue:

*Tucker Carlson laugh…
ok, any sensible person interested in getting informed about the events in Ukraine would have stumbled upon the Minsk accords (there were two of them), that started in 2014. Also a person seeking information would have easily found out that Ukraine (at american behest) consistently broke the accord.
Your “money quote” haha… from wikipedia haha is only mentioning 2022 events, and that out of context.
wikipedia is not an independent source of information, so any self-respecting user should also seek alternative sources and double check
Meet Wikipedia’s Ayn Rand-loving founder and Wikimedia Foundation’s regime-change operative CEO - The Grayzone
Wikipedia formally censors The Grayzone as regime-change advocates monopolize editing - The Grayzone

No, the same logic would be like this: If Mexico would be stuffed chock full of Russian weapons and military advisers, and amass a considerable army trained and armed by Russia, and persecute Americans in Mexico, i dont think the US would hesitate a split second before invading Mexico.

Again you have no clue what you are talking about, which is normal given the amount of kool-aid you ingested.
First things first, the protecting of the Russian ethnics in Donbas (which are a majority in those regions), was never a priority for Putin. It’s actually the Duma (Russian parliament) that voted for the recognition of the two republics, Putin was never for it because he had always put his bets on the Europe-backed Minsk agreements.

There is plenty of evidence of the suffering inflicted on the people of Donbass by the Ukraine regime over the last 8 years, so that alone would have been a valid reason for intervention, but sadly they were never a primary reason for the invasion, the primary reasons being of geopolitical and economic nature.
The reasons for the Russian invasion have been amply exposed over the last 8 years since the American backed coup in Ukraine, by several American politologists, some of which i already linked before so i wont do it again.

It’s interesting how people who dont understand the past and dont understand the present, are talking about the future. Guess because that’s the only territory where nobody can factually prove them wrong.

You have a big mouth, but small knowledge of the issues you are talking about.


Same with the suffering of the people of Atlanta under the tyranny of the Georgia government. The “suffering of the people” is propaganda to justify the invasion. Same with the “suffering of the Kosovarians under the Serbs” which was used by Clinton and NATO to justify the bombing of Beograd. Complete garbage.

It’s astonishing how you first give Russia a pass for their invasion in 2014 of various parts of Ukraine, and then blame Ukraine for fighting back. This goes under the term “blame the victim”. Like when a person being raped kicks the rapist in the nuts. You would then charge the rapee with assault and battery. Twisted and sick, really.

The persons of Russian ethnicity in Lithuania, of Latvia, Georgia, are in the same situation as those in Ukraine. And that is what will happen next, when people like you, kaay, give Putin’s aggression cover.

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Just out of curiosity, where are you located? Your posts read better in the original Russian.

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The “various parts of Ukraine” are just one: Crimea, and that was a region with Russian majority and a very important Russian naval military base. The Russian move was defensive and backed by the population of Crimea as shown by the referendum results and the reception Putin gets when he visits Crimea. After the burning alive of Russian supporters by neo-nazi Maidan backers, can’t blame the Russians in Crimea for voting the way they did.

So you keep on with your crystal ball antics, only that now it’s also about “people like me that give Putin’s aggression cover”

The facts and arguments i present have nothing to do with my location or nationality, and why you even bother asking when apparently you already used your beloved crystal ball to figure out my native language…only that your crystal ball needs some fine tuning, my native language is Romanian and my location is Canada. How does this change anything?