In some ways ceasefires can seem complicated — by themselves they don’t solve the problems that led to armed conflict in the first place. By themselves they don’t hold the perpetrators accountable. By themselves they don’t change the balance of forces on the ground when they go into effect. In short, by themselves, ceasefires are never enough. But in one fundamental way they are as urgent and simple as can be: once declared, and for as long as ceasefires hold, while other issues are being negotiated, people are no longer being killed, injured or made homeless.
Last week, 30 progressive members of Congress released a letter calling on the White House to broaden its Ukraine strategy to include support for a ceasefire and direct diplomacy with Russia to help stop the war. Within hours of the release, an outraged pressure campaign erupted from the media and other political figures, resulting in the Congressional Progressive Caucus quickly withdrawing its letter. Still, its release in the first place was significant, as was the fact that it had won the support of 30 members of Congress. These included some of the most influential progressives in the U.S. House, including Reps. Jamie Raskin (D-MD), Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), and others.
The high-visibility call urging support for a ceasefire and diplomacy was significant partly because, so far, the Biden administration has sent over $65 billion dollars and uncountable stores of advanced weapons systems to Ukraine (and Congress is debating an additional $50 billion), all while acting as if it were only a supportive bystander with no say in ending the war. The United States is in fact functioning as an active player in the conflict, supplying the arms, training and funding that are helping to keep it going.
In so doing, the administration is continuing Washington’s long history of rejecting urgently needed ceasefires where civilian lives were at stake (though mostly not when the lives being lost are on the U.S. allies’ side). For Washington, wars are generally viewed through the lens of who is gaining or losing military and economic power as the determinative factor in when to call for an end to fighting — not the human cost.
Under George W. Bush’s administration in 2006, for instance, six days into Israel’s assault on Lebanon, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was asked about the urgent need for “a ceasefire now.” She rejected the call, saying that imposing a ceasefire had to wait until “conditions are conducive to do so.” A few days later, as Rice headed to the Middle East, the Wall Street Journal reported that her mission had nothing to do with a ceasefire but was instead aimed to “build support for the effective crippling of Hezbollah.” About 1,200 Lebanese were killed in the war, overwhelmingly civilians, and about one-third of them children. The large majority of these deaths occurred after Rice’s rejection of a ceasefire. Nearly three years later, as Israel’s “Cast Lead” war against Gaza raged, Rice again refused a potential ceasefire orchestrated by the United Nations, saying the United States would not support a ceasefire until it could be deemed “durable and sustainable.” In doing so, she equated an immediate ceasefire with permanent negotiations, and guaranteed that the one-sided war (in which Israeli forces would ultimately kill 1,400 Palestinians, most of them civilians) continued for 16 more days.
Do ceasefires guarantee that diplomatic negotiations for permanent solutions will immediately begin? No — but it’s far more difficult to even consider negotiations while fighting continues to rage. It’s happened before in history. Negotiations between the United States and Vietnam went on for almost five years while the fighting continued, until the 1973 agreement that required U.S. troops to withdraw from South Vietnam. But those examples are rare. In most cases, ceasefires operate as a precondition for peace treaties and negotiated settlements.
There are many reasons a ceasefire in Ukraine is so desperately needed. First off, there’s the dire human cost of the war, especially among Ukrainian civilians. There have also been global consequences, including the economic fallout from the war itself, from the sanctions imposed on Russia and the stalled shipping from Black Sea ports as well as higher oil prices and supply chain delays. These economic disasters have led to a lack of food available in the Global South, and resulted in hunger and threats of famine. Then there’s the environmental impact of the war, as attention and crucial funding for new sustainable energy sources collapses and the search for alternative sources of dirty fossil fuels escalates global warming. In response to the war, global powers including the United States and European countries have seen a global escalation of militarization and militarism. All of these factors, alone or together, would justify a pressing search for an immediate ceasefire.
Yet there is another key reason that a ceasefire is urgent: the war in Ukraine raises the direct threat of nuclear war. The United States and Russia are the primary nuclear-armed states, together controlling 90% of the nuclear weapons in the world. Senior Russian military leaders have reportedly discussed using a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine, a grim prospect that could lead to mass devastation and, potentially, a wider global conflict. Meanwhile, Washington is spending hundreds of billions of dollars to upgrade and modernize its arsenal of nuclear weapons.
The Russian war in Ukraine broke out even as the consequences of other recent brutal wars — in Libya and Syria, in Yemen and Somalia, even the decades-long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — continue to ravage the people where they were fought. Victims of those wars match or surpass the numbers of those killed or injured in the Ukraine war. The same goes for those forced out of their homes and even turned into war refugees in other countries. And yet none of those wars ever came close to exploding into global nuclear conflagration. While they involved hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops and weapons, those component wars of Washington’s so-called “global war on terror” never threatened to escalate to a nuclear exchange. The war in Ukraine, from its start, has represented a greater global threat than any of those earlier wars.
In Syria’s multi-faceted war against ISIS, U.S.- and Russian-backed forces, and U.S. and Russian troops themselves fighting on opposite sides, frequently faced off directly. But Moscow and Washington made certain they had a military hotline designed to prevent direct escalation between the nuclear powers. The war in Syria was brutal. Russia’s 2016 assault on the ancient city of Aleppo resulted in not only the destruction of much of the city but the deaths of at least 440 civilians, more than 90 of them children, according to Human Rights Watch. The following year, the United States launched thousands of air and artillery strikes against Raqqa, the Syrian city of almost half a million people, which ISIS had claimed as its “capital.” The U.S.-led assault left the city virtually destroyed, and killed at least 1,600 Syrian civilians, according to Amnesty International.
Neither Russia nor the United States showed much concern about the Syrian civilians they killed, wounded, left homeless, or forced to become refugees while Aleppo and Raqaa were largely destroyed. The priority for Moscow and Washington was to ensure that no U.S. or Russian troops or pilots were killed by their global opponents. Their global strategy more or less worked — thousands of Syrians were killed, millions lost their homes, but the sort-of proxy, sort-of direct fighting never escalated into a direct exchange, nuclear or otherwise, between U.S. and Russian troops or warplanes. Concern about just such a dangerous result was part of the reason that some in the United States rejected calls for a no-fly zone in Syria. If implemented, it would have had to begin with a U.S. attack to destroy anti-aircraft systems across the country, most of which were Russian-made and many of which were operated by Russian advisers.
The Ukraine war is different. This time around, as the Washington Post described it, “the military ‘deconfliction line’ between the United States and Russia went cold,” following the Russian invasion, and the two countries’ defense ministers didn’t talk for more than five months until a late October telephone call finally broke the silence. And even before the Russian invasion, military engagement between Russia and the United States was actually already underway in and around Ukraine. It was the United States and its closest NATO allies that carried out the post-Soviet provocations against Russia, including the eastward expansion of NATO to newly-independent countries once part of the Soviet Union. It was and remains, the United States, not Ukraine, that has built military bases and stationed strategic weapons, for itself and on behalf of NATO, in post-Soviet NATO countries surrounding Russia. Moscow’s threats to Ukraine’s territorial integrity and national legitimacy are matched by Russia’s vaguer, but no less serious, threats against Kyiv’s strategic and arms-supplying partners.
With both nuclear powers setting red lines, and no quick-reaction military-to-military communications system, the threat grows every day that even a small-scale escalation by either side, accidental or not, could quickly spiral into a far more dangerous, far more deadly exchange.
That’s why an immediate ceasefire — not one dependent on being “durable and sustainable” or focused on “crippling” the other side — is so necessary.
What will come next? There must be real, serious diplomacy and negotiations. As is always the case with negotiations, that means a long bargaining process. The United States certainly has no right to impose specific concessions on Kyiv — Ukraine is a sovereign country. But as the primary weapons supplier and economic backer of Ukraine’s military and government, Washington has not only the right but the responsibility to push for diplomacy. Despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hostile rhetoric, the claim that Russia isn’t interested simply isn’t enough, especially when Russian officials have voiced openness to participating in talks.
Neither side is likely to show willingness to negotiate without pressure — and telling the leadership in Kyiv that Washington will continue to provide unlimited billions of U.S. tax dollars and weapons to continue this war, at the potential cost of far more Ukrainian lives, with no endgame in sight, is simply not acceptable. The risks are too great.
The United States doesn’t need to tell Kyiv what it should concede, but it certainly should make clear its own diplomatic positions. That could start with making clear that U.S. sanctions on Russia, designed ostensibly to push Russia to negotiate, will in fact be lifted when a ceasefire in Ukraine is implemented.
Second, the United States could call for new bilateral U.S.-Russian talks designed to reopen and strengthen all existing and abandoned nuclear disarmament and arms control treaties. That could start with a new commitment from both the United States and Russia to implement Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which calls for the recognized nuclear weapons states to move towards “nuclear disarmament, and … general and complete disarmament.”
Third, the United States could announce its intention to halt construction on its latest overseas military base, currently being built in Poland just 100 miles from the Russian border. The base is designed to serve as the Pentagon’s 5th Army Headquarters, and will include the deployment of strategic missiles as well as a full field battalion of soldiers, the first permanent U.S. troop deployment among NATO’s eastern European post-Soviet members.
Any or all of these moves by the United States — while appropriately limited to Washington’s own negotiating positions — could go a long way in pushing reluctant politicians in both Kyiv and Moscow to reconsider their need for a ceasefire and diplomacy. And they could go equally far in reducing the current threat, however small it may seem, of direct U.S.-Russian nuclear engagement.