‘As long as it takes’: Washington’s dangerous trap for Ukraine

Helena Cobban
18 min readSep 8, 2023
Colonels from the North Korean and U.S. militaries discussing possible lines for an armistice, October 1951

Pres. Joe Biden’s avowals that the United States will back Ukraine’s campaign to push the Russian military out of its eastern provinces for “as long it takes” have become a mounting chorus over recent months. (He has seldom if ever spelled out the precise nature of the “it” in question. That’s problematic, since Washington and Kyiv have deep disagreements over the extent of their war goals. Perhaps U.S. taxpayers and everyone else deserve some clarity on this point?)

Of course, if Biden were to offer a clear and compelling vision of the outcome for whose pursuit he has been pouring money and weapons into Ukraine, he might also have to explain such anomalies as to why this war against Russia’s bad actions should be supported when he and his predecessor have steadfastly supported Israel’s annexations of Golan and East Jerusalem; Washington has long thought that blithely splitting Kosovo off from Serbia was quite okay; and why no-one in Washington has ever been held accountable for the illegal 2003 invasion of Iraq…

There are doubtless numerous factors that hold Biden back from offering a specific and principled vision of Washington’s goals for the anti-Russia campaign in Ukraine… And in its place we are offered only the content-free pablum of “as long as it takes.”

This is dangerous territory. Especially today, as we survey the failure of the summer’s long-touted “counter-offensive” against Russia’s military units in eastern Ukraine… Biden’s repeated “ALAIT” declarations portend only a lengthy, continuing commitment of U.S. and allied resources-and of Ukrainian lives-into a World War I-style meat grinder with increasingly devastating local and global consequences.

Considering an armistice

There is, as earlier generations of American leaders understood, a better alternative to any such bleakly destructive meat-grinder. It is called a ceasefire, or more precisely an armistice, which is a specific kind of a ceasefire that applies across the whole field of battle, that contains crucial monitoring and verification mechanisms, and that is designed to help pave the way for permanent peace agreement, though it is not itself a permanent peace agreement that resolves all the outstanding issues of disagreement.

This latter point is very pertinent to Ukraine, as the issues of contention in the conflict there are many and complex and range far beyond that country’s own borders.

In nearly all the current discourse of U.S. and Western elites, any mention of a ceasefire in, or negotiations over, Ukraine is derided as equivalent to a humiliating surrender by “the West” or as handing an outright victory to the (always evil) Putin — and anyone who dares suggest that such a path be considered must be some kind of a “useful idiot” or even a paid stooge for Moscow. (A few cautious exceptions to this revanchist form of discourse are Rajan Menon, Samuel Charap, and Charles Kupchan, as profiled in this recent New Yorker article.)

But it has been clear for some weeks now that the famed Ukrainian “counter-offensive” has been going nowhere. Surely it is time to look for a de-escalatory path that can not only end the carnage in Ukraine but can also start to heal the many global schisms that the conflict there has exacerbated?

I’ve been looking for some time now at the different forms that an armistice can take. Back in January, I urged people to consider a Korea-style armistice for Ukraine. I wrote then that, “[T]he armistice of 1953 halted the “big” war in Korea, and there has not been a big war there since then. “ There also, of course, has never been a final peace agreement in Korea. But I noted that,

the [Korean] armistice allowed for the reconstruction of war-shattered cities and infrastructure throughout the peninsula. In the case of South Korea, the decades after 1953 saw the development of a super-robust economy and a flourishing, increasingly democratic society.

I also noted — in a point that could have strong relevance for Ukraine — that South Korea’s government had never, in the 70 years of the armistice’s existence become a formal party to it. The three parties that signed it in 1953 were the Supreme Commander of the [North] Korean People’s Army, the Commander of the “Chinese People’s Volunteers,” and the Commander-in-Chief of the United Nations Command. The latter was a U.S. Army general. (By a quirk of fate, in 1950 when the Korean crisis came to a head, the Soviets had just stormed out of the U.N. Security Council, so the United States was able to ram an anti-North Korea resolution through the Council and win full UN backing for what was always, clearly, a U.S.-led war effort in Korea.)

Now, as I know from my own multi-year experience as a war correspondent in Lebanon and Iraq, and from research I have done on conflict-termination efforts in Africa and elsewhere, negotiating a full-on armistice can be a lengthy endeavor. The main items that need to be agreed during those negotiations are:

  • The precise location on an agreed map of the armistice/ceasefire line between the warring parties.
  • The nature of the arms limitations that will be put in place on either side of that line. These may include provisions for completely demilitarized zones for specified depths on either side of the agreed ceasefire line and for zones of limited arms or limited military movement even further from the ceasefire line.
  • The nature of the monitoring, verification, and dispute-resolution system that both (or all) parties agree to.
  • The scope of the peace negotiations that will follow the armistice going into place.

If the armistice is to succeed, the first three of those items need to be agreed in detail. Only the fourth can have some fuzziness to it.

If we look at some historic armistices, we can see that (a) they take varying lengths of time to negotiate, and (b) if there is a credible and mutually agreed third party that commits to brokering this negotiation, this can speed the negotiating process along. (So can a sense of desperation on behalf of one of the parties.)

So let’s look at some historic armistice negotiations in light of those factors:

The World War I armistice, November 1918

These negotiations were extremely speedy, because during the summer of 1918 Germany’s military position on the Western front collapsed catastrophically. They had launched an ambitious offensive on the Western front in March 1918. But by then, the Allies were being strengthened by fresh American reinforcements at a speedy rate, and on August 8 they had mounted their own large, and as it turned out decisive, counter-offensive.

Relative numbers of riflemen on the Allied (blue) and German(red) sides of the Western Front in summer 1918. Source

On 29 September 1918, the German Supreme Army Commander in occupied Belgium informed Emperor Wilhelm II that the military situation facing Germany was hopeless and demanded that the Kaiser request an immediate ceasefire. Six days later, the Kaiser’s emissary formally asked Pres. Woodrow Wilson to negotiate the terms of the ceasefire.

As a precondition for doing this, Wilson demanded that Germany withdraw from all occupied territories and cease all submarine activities. In September-October 1918, the situation throughout German-occupied Europe was chaotic. There was a widespread mutiny by the German naval forces that led to the brief declaration of a Kaiser-free republic there. And there was political confusion over whether Wilson would insist that any peace agreement be based on the “14 Points” regarding national self-determination that he had earlier enunciated and whether this would involve the abdication of the Kaiser. (Britain and France, which both had large global empires, were strongly opposed to any mention of the 14 Points.)

Despite all this confusion, on November 7, a German delegation undertook a ten-hour journey by car across war-devastated northern France and the next morning started the negotiations with Allied officers in the private rail wagon of the (French) Supreme Allied Commander Ferdinand Foch.

Those negotiations lasted less than 72 hours and came close to being negotiations over the terms for a German surrender. The final armistice agreement was signed on the morning of November 11, and came into effect six hours later.

The original armistice specified a term of only one month, but it was later prolonged. The parties also moved to the more comfortable premises in Paris where the terms of the final peace were hammered out. For Germany, these terms were codified in the Versailles Treaty of late June 1919. For its former allies, a series of other treaties followed:

  • Austria, September 1919
  • Bulgaria, November 1919
  • Hungary, June 1920
  • the Ottoman Empire, then the Republic of Turkey, August 1920; subsequently revised by the Treaty of Lausanne, of July 1923.

Over the years that followed 1919, the very punitive peace agreement that the Allies had imposed onto Germany at Versailles provided, as we know, extremely fertile ground for the incubation of German Nazism. But the failings of the Versailles Treaty need not necessarily taint the war-ending achievements that had been realized in the earlier Armistice Agreement.

(26 years later, in 1945, the U.S. statesmen who decided the fate of defeated Germany and Japan deliberately chose not to repeat the mistakes made in 1919. Perhaps it was too much to expect that in 1918–19, the Americans might have exhibited similar strategic wisdom?)

The Arab-Israeli armistices of 1949

In the aftermath of World War II, much of Britain’s once-expansive global empire collapsed. The British had been ruling Palestine under a “Mandate” from the League of Nations since 1923, and that rule had long been both brutal and chaotic. In 1947, London announced it would leave Palestine in May 1948 and dumped the long-contentious matter of the territory’s future into the arms of the infant United Nations. In November 1947, the U.N. ruled that Palestine should be split in two, with the minority of its residents who were Jewish colonial settlers getting most of the land and the majority who were indigenous Palestinian Arabs getting a much smaller share. (The part of the plan that allotted Jerusalem to a separate international body went nowhere.) Almost immediately after the U.N. announced this plan, the Zionist militias who were relatively strong in some parts of the country started expelling Arabs from villages and areas they had lived in for many generations.

On May 14, 1948, as Britain’s “Mandate” to rule over Palestine expired and the last British forces left Palestine, the Zionist organizations in the country declared the independence of their new state “Israel”. They imported large numbers of arms and fighters from elsewhere, seizing lands well beyond the boundaries of the land the U.N. had allocated to them and escalating their campaigns of expelling from all the lands they controlled, the Palestinian Arab residents. The Palestinians’ indigenous ability to resist those campaigns was very limited, since the resistance militias they had hoped to sustain had all been very violently suppressed by the British since 1936. After May 14, as the scale of the Zionist/Israeli expansion and expulsions mounted, the governments of the Arab states of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and distant Iraq all dispatched armed forces to try to save what they could of the land and people of historic Palestine. Egypt, Jordan, and Syria all abutted Israel. They were able to dispatch forces deep into the area of former Mandate Palestine. Jordan’s “Arab Legion” seized and held the whole of the “West Bank” of the River Jordan, including most of the Palestinian national capital of Jerusalem. Egypt pushed up deep into the coastal Gaza region. But the Arab armies were unable to push the Israeli forces back to the lines allotted to them by the UN’s Partition PLan.

In the case of this multi-party war, the U.N. leaders clearly felt they had great responsibility to try to end the fighting and salvage what they could of their Partition Plan. But it took the organization several months to swing into (diplomatic) action. The main U.N. official charged with trying to negotiate the Israeli-Arab armistices was Ralph Bunche, the African-American head of its Trusteeship Department, whose main task was to lead the organization’s push to gradually negotiate the end of the European powers’ still massive global empires.

April 1949 map from the Truman Library. The green areas were those the U.N. Partition Plan allotted to the Jewish state. All the rest of Palestine had been allotted to the Palestinian Arab state. Click to enlarge

In January 1949, Bunche announced that Egypt, which had one of its brigades embarrassingly encircled by the Israeli forces along the coast of Palestine, was willing to start negotiating an armistice with Israel, and six weeks later that armistice was concluded on the Mediterranean island of Rhodes. (Rhodes was also the site of many of the other armistice agreements that followed that year.)

In March 1949, Israel and Lebanon concluded their armistice agreement. (Lebanon had not sent any armies into the field against Israel. But during the fighting, the Zionist/Israeli forces had occupied 13 villages in Lebanon. Under their armistice agreement, Israel agreed to withdraw to the international border.)

In March, Israel and Jordan also started U.N.-sponsored talks for an armistice, which were concluded just under a month later. The Iraqi forces that had recently arrived to strengthen Jordan in the fighting also agreed to withdraw.

The armistice talks between Israel and Syria were more complex. The Syrian fighters had performed better in the war than either the Egyptians or the Jordanians, and had even succeeded in seizing some of the land in the north of Palestine that the U.N. had allocated to the Jewish state. Under the terms of their armistice agreement, the Syrians handed most of those areas over to the Israelis, who were supposed to keep them completely demilitarized. But the Syrians retained control of some 66 square kilometers of land the U.N. had allocated to Israel — and they were also supposed to keep those areas demilitarized.

This last set of Armistice talks were conducted at a key bridge on the River Jordan, and took four months to complete.

In all these cases (except that of Lebanon), the armistice agreements specified that the agreed Armistice Lines should not be understood to constitute the final international borders between the parties. And in all cases, the U.N. undertook the tasks of verifying and monitoring the compliance of the parties, with any questions or disputes about their compliance to be resolved through “Mixed Armistice Commissions” which would meet regularly under U.N. auspices.

In the case of Egypt, the armistice with Israel became superseded by the peace treaty concluded between the two states in 1979. Jordan’s armistice agreement was also superseded by a peace treaty, concluded in 1994. As we know, though, those two paths from the 1949 Armistice Agreement to the much later final peace treaty were by no means smooth: in 1956, Israel joined with Britain and France to invade Egypt; in 1967, Israel was involved in a violent shooting war against Egypt, Syria, and Jordan; and in 1973 Egypt and Syria launched a military campaign to try regain the lands they had lost in 1967.

In both of the peace treaties Israel concluded with an Arab neighbor, the Arab party expressly denied that it was in any way “representing” the interests of the Palestinians. (The Palestinian Arabs, to whom the 1947 Partition Plan had allocated an independent state, had not been included in any of the negotiations for the 1949 Armistice Agreements.)

In the cases of Lebanon, Syria (and Iraq), the 1949 Armistice Agreements have never been superseded by a final peace treaty and remain in force today. The U.N. still maintains a dedicated “Truce Supervision Organization”, UNTSO, tasked with monitoring the Israel-Lebanon and Israel-Syria agreements.

The 1953 Armistice in Korea, and comparative armisticeology

Back in January, I conducted a fairly full review of the context, terms, and mechanics of the Korea Armistice Agreement. But now that I am diving deeper into the comparative armisticeology, I want to highlight the following features of the context of the negotiations for that armistice, and its later effects:

  • There was (as in the case of the WW-I armistice negotiations) no evident and credible external third party who could mediate the Korean armistice negotiations. The United Nations did exist but in this war had been co-opted into the U.S.-led fighting team. Absent such an external mediator, it was left to the two belligerent parties to do their negotiating directly.
  • The identity of the parties to the negotiation was fluid and apparently at some points unclear. On the US/UN side, evidently the US/UN commanders wanted to involve their South Korean partner as much as they could. But in the end they went ahead and signed without the South Koreans being a party. On the North Korean side, both China and the Soviet Union were close allies (though they had some differences with each other.) China’s military contribution to the war rapidly became much greater than Moscow’s. In the end, both the commander of the Chinese volunteer forces in Korea and the North Korean commander signed.
  • The armistice negotiations dragged on for two years. This was, by comparison with other armistice negotiations, an extremely long time. Almost certainly that super-slow pace was a function of all the factors mentioned above.
  • The main armistice monitoring body was created by the negotiating parties as an integral part of their negotiations. This was the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission, which initially contained small contingents from Sweden,Switzerland, Poland and Czechoslovakia. After the collapse of the Warsaw Pact/Soviet Union in the early 1990s and the later incorporation of Poland and the two halves of former Czechoslovakia into NATO, North Korea contended that the NNSC had completely collapsed and refused to host NNSC units on its side of DMZ. A small NNSC presence consisting of Swiss, Swedish, and sometimes Polish officers remains on the Southern side of the DMZ. (Sweden’s forthcoming accession into NATO may have some impact on these arrangements?)
  • The armistice has weathered some significant challenges, including Washington’s unilateral abrogation in 1956 of Article 13(d), which mandated that neither side introduce new weapons into Korea, and its subsequent introduction of numerous types of nuclear weapons into South Korea. North Korea’s leaders have also over the decades introduced many kinds of new weapons, including their own home-developed nuclear weapons, into the peninsula.
  • This armistice has not been transformed into a peace treaty. In the 70 years since 1953 there have been several skirmishes along the border and many other challenges to the armistice agreement. Nonetheless, the armistice has remained in place. None of the three signatories has ever renounced it, and South Korea has never mounted any significant challenge to it. Some political movements in South Korea have, over the decades, tried to find peaceful ways to end their conflict with the North but those efforts have never either succeeded or received any significant support from Washington.

Challenges to achieving an armistice in Ukraine

In a conflict that is as lengthy and destructive as the one in Ukraine, the first step toward an armistice may often be the hardest. At this point, each of the warring parties has invested a lot into waging the conflict. Each has lost a lot of fighting men and a lot of weapons. Ukraine has seen much of its national infrastructure badly damaged and many civilians killed and injured (and so have Russia’s allies in the smaller, largely Russian-speaking populations in Ukraine east of the front-line.) Ukraine has seen millions of its people displaced, internally or externally. Russia has experienced some economic disruptions as a result of the U.S. sanctions. The leaders of each country have justified their continued pursuit of the conflict through the use of stark, often harsh-sounding rhetoric that depicts their opponents as uniquely evil and their own campaigns against the enemy as both deeply moral and deeply necessary.

All wars are like that. I am saying nothing new. But the continuation of the fighting and of the accompanying rhetoric represents something like a “sunk cost” that it is very, very hard for leaders to walk away from. Especially, I should add, leaders who feel they need to appeal to, and retain the loyalty of, a broad constituency. (What I saw during my years in Lebanon was that leaders of the more deeply feudal of the tens of political movements there found it relatively easy to switch their allegiance, sometimes with dizzying speed, from one coalition to another. Their followers would largely just go along with their traditional leader. Leaders of more grassroots movements found it much harder to switch direction and allegiances… )

In the Ukraine conflict, it is not only Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky who has to tread carefully regarding showing any openness to a possible negotiation or “accommodation” with Russia. His backers in Washington and the rest of the NATO alliance have also dug themselves very deep into the ideological position that the Ukraine conflict is a “global struggle between democracy and authoritarianism” that the Western allies absolutely cannot afford to lose. Plus, the NATO governments have all invested a lot of money and weapons into fighting that war in what for many of them is a pretty distant place. If they can’t demonstrate to their voters that they have “won” that war — or at least, that they are very clearly well on their way “winning” it — then over time the voters’ verdict on the wisdom of the leaders who led them into the war, with all its still-mounting costs, is likely to be increasingly harsh.

To get to an armistice in Ukraine, which leaders need to be involved? On the Russian side, the answer is quite simple. On the Ukraine-NATO side, the answer is more complex. Back in the early weeks of the war, Zelensky sent envoys to Turkey to negotiate with Russia over a number of relatively “small” matters: local ceasefires, prisoner exchanges, and so on. And there was talk there that the negotiations might become broader. But then, according to many accounts, Boris Johnson — who was still Britain’s PM — persuaded Zelensky that he should shut that channel down. (Intriguingly, one of the key Ukrainian envoys involved in those talks was the Uzbekistan-born Crimean Tartar Rustem Umerov whom Zelensky has just named as his new Defense Minister.)

The rhetoric in Washington and other NATO capitals is always that “only Ukraine can negotiate its future relationship with Russia.” But in April 2022, Boris Johnson seemed intent on denying Kyiv the freedom to do so.

Also, the pattern from Korea 1953 showed that on that occasion Washington was quite happy to close a deal with North Korea and China even without the approval of its local ally.

My judgment is that on the NATO-Ukraine side of the conflict, the U.S. government is the crucial actor that needs to be engaged in any armistice negotiation. Washington can certainly pull the rest of NATO into line as needed. And while Kyiv may (or may not) be as reluctant as Seoul was back in 1953 to put its name on an armistice agreement, any reluctance it has is also something that Washington can manage.

So, Washington and Moscow: how to get these two to agree to talk armistice??

There’s a huge (indeed, for humankind as a whole, potentially existential) game of chicken involved here. Neither of these parties wants to be the first to signal any openness to the possibility of armistice negotiations! To signal that too openly or directly might be understood by the opponent as a sign of desperation… Hence, the great value that can be added if a skillful and trusted third party should take the initiative to explore, and as appropriate, communicate, the desire to proceed speedily to negotiations for an armistice.

Just maybe U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres or someone in his office might play that role? I would certainly hope that throughout the past 18 months he has had either people from his office or high-ranking people from the UN’s arms control agencies engaged in continuing discussions with both Americans and Russians.

Or maybe Switzerland, which has a long record of political neutrality and an extremely savvy and well-funded diplomatic corps, might be involved in such communications?

The risks of failing to get an armistice

I want to recall here the time during World War I, in April 1916, when it was the U.S. President himself who was called on by the warring parties in Germany, Britain, and France to spearhead a ceasefire-promoting campaign for Europe-at a time when all those European leaders realized their forces were completely bogged down in the ghastly trench warfare of northern France with no possibility of a victory in sight but… But also, none of them wanted to appear to his own subjects/citizens as “backing down” from their war campaigns. (The classic game of chicken there.)

In April 1916, the United States was still deeply neutral regarding the war in Europe. But it was a large, influential power considered friendly to all three of those belligerents in Europe. Hence, as I wrote about here last year, all three of those European leaders had communicated with Pres. Wilson, urging him to help them negotiate a ceasefire. Wilson flubbed that challenge, as we know. In August 1916, the fledgling potential peace effort fell apart, and the carnage of northern France continued unabated.

Historian Philip Zelikow was the one who recently unearthed that whole back-story and shared it in his book, The Road Less Traveled: The secret Battle to End the Great War 1916–1917. As he commented there, the 27 months of war that followed August 1916, “changed the whole course of world history.”

If the carnage in Ukraine goes on unabated for another 27 months, or even just another 12 or 24 months, how might that affect the course of world affairs? Here is what we might see:

  1. An incident or accident involving nuclear weapons or other nuclear materials.
  2. An incident that might jack-knife NATO into direct involvement in the conflict.
  3. Ukraine and its NATO supporters coming close to running out of large artillery shells or other vital war supplies.
  4. A considerable exacerbation of the global tensions that are already seriously stymieing efforts to address the global climate crisis and the many other challenges related to that.
  5. A continuing rise of extreme-right movements in Europe…

Please! Let us not even risk such outcomes! At a time of such grave global challenges, we need our leaders to meet them with wisdom, vision, and compassion.

Washington and its NATO allies are not helping the people of Ukraine or anyone else by continuing to insist that the conflict in Ukraine can be resolved only through military means, and that we will continue this war for “as long as it takes.” We need negotiations, too. And, as I’ve tried to demonstrate above, these negotiations do not need to resolve all the many complex issues of contention in one fell swoop. The time to start negotiations for a complete, theater-wide armistice is now.

Originally published at https://globalities.org on September 8, 2023.

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Helena Cobban

Veteran analyst of global affairs, w/ some focus on West Asia. Pres., Just World Educational. Writes at Globalities.org.