Opinion: West cannot push Ukraine to compromise with Putin

Valera Kondratenko, 32, would be at home working on Wall Street and living on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. He has a degree in finance, is the chief investment officer of a private equity fund, speaks excellent English, and tweets about Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

In fact, Kondratenko lives in Kyiv.

As a civilian, he’s doing everything in his power to support Ukraine’s war effort – he helped found a community group that imports vehicles for the military – and he’s hopeful for the outcome of the fighting. But he is also unsentimental.

“If there is a hint of compromise with the Russians,” he says bluntly, “I have no future in Ukraine. If we give them the Donbass, it’s only a matter of time before they take another bite of the apple. I cannot build a future for myself or my family under the shadow of a Russian takeover.”

As Russia’s war of aggression enters its fifth brutal month, G7 leaders have taken it upon themselves to stand with Ukraine “as long as it takes”. But the phrase means many different things to different people, and even to some of Ukraine’s most staunch supporters in Europe and the US. grim analogies to World War I and reference to dwindling voter approval of the conflictbegin to propose terms for a compromise settlement. One of the proposed scenarios: Western assistance in restoring and guaranteeing the security of a divided country along the lines of North and South Korea.

After a month in Kyiv and conversations with dozens of Ukrainians, I see no support for this position within the country.

White-collar workers, workers, civil servants, civilians and soldiers are a matter of course for most Ukrainians: a compromise settlement would be nothing more than a pause, allowing Russia to regroup for a new strike – another third invasion, in the next few years, to take over the rest of Ukraine .

No one I met in Kyiv believes that Western security guarantees will deter the occupiers after a compromise settlement, as happens in Korea. Many focus on how the uncertainty caused by the division of the country will cast a shadow over the foreign investment needed for a post-war recovery. Still others predict a popular uprising—think of the 2004 Orange Revolution and the 2013-2014 Maidan protests—if President Volodymyr Zelensky even starts negotiations to hand over territory to the Russians.

And to the person I spoke to, everyone is assuring that Ukrainian forces will continue to fight, with or without Western help, until the Russians are expelled, pushed beyond the borders established when Ukraine was created in 1991.

Ukrainian poll published this week by the Wall Street Journal confirms what I heard in Kyiv. As many as 89% of Ukrainians polled oppose swapping conquered lands for peace, and 81% oppose allowing Russia to keep territory it annexed in 2014.

What is surprising is that this is not a Ukrainian consensus. This is how many in the West, even those who supported Ukraine at the beginning of the war, now waver.

Don’t the supporters of the settlement remember what Vladimir Putin wrote last year?n his infamous essay about Ukraine and Russia? He insisted that the Soviet Union invented Ukraine, carving it out of historically Russian territory, and promised to start “gathering”—read annexing—the lost “Russian lands.”

True, much of what Putin says is bragging. But Mariupol, Bucha, Severodonetsk, the 2014 annexation and the current attempts to Russify newly captured cities in southern Ukraine should leave no doubt. The Russian leader means what he says about returning Ukrainian territory and erasing the Ukrainian nation from the map of the world.

Can Ukraine win the war with Russia? No one knows. Two historical parallels, Afghanistan and Vietnam, suggest that this is possible. Determination and ingenuity go a long way in war, and smaller, less developed, less well-equipped countries can fight back against big powers if they want what they’re fighting for badly enough.

I’ve seen some of this myself in recent weeks when I’ve been putting together what happened in irpen, a city north of Kyiv that prevented the Russians from entering the capital. In the first days after the invasion, the local militias had only a few automatic rifles and shoulder grenade launchers. But unlike the invaders, they knew the area and had plenty of intelligence from civilians who reported on Russian positions, allowing just a few dozen poorly equipped soldiers to destroy long columns of Russian tanks and other military equipment.

It doesn’t always work out that way – fragmentary defenders don’t always win. The Russian war in Syria is a less encouraging parallel. A large army ready to raze cities and kill civilians can sometimes prevail over time.

But it is still too early for the West to predict the outcome of events in Ukraine, and it will never be appropriate for us to dictate the terms of a settlement. We don’t fight and we don’t die. There are Ukrainians – and it is up to them to decide when and how to settle accounts with Russia.

What is not clear: why in the West it is not obvious. Kyiv needs more heavy weapons from the US and Europe, the sooner the better. But empty talk and weak signals can be just as damaging as belated help.

People on both sides of the conflict are listening carefully to the cues of public opinion in the US and Europe. And reckless speculation about a settlement could undermine chances on the front lines, discouraging Ukrainians, while encouraging Putin.

Tamar Jacoby, president of Opportunity America, an American political non-profit organization, has been volunteering in Poland and Ukraine since early March, helping with refugee relief and covering the war.