Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin in 2022 (CNS photo/Sputnik, Mikhail Tereshchenko, Pool via Reuters)

Sven G. Holtsmark offers a rebuttal to our December Commonweal article in which we discussed possible negotiations over Ukraine by referencing an ancient Greek account of war on the island of Melos. We appreciate Holtsmark’s engagement with our piece and believe our divergence may not be as significant as he claims. We do, however, disagree with him that our approach is in any way detached from reality.

We concur, as also stated in our original piece, that the war in Ukraine is a war of aggression for which Vladimir Putin’s regime is solely responsible. We agree, likewise, that a ceasefire would now be inopportune, as Putin would likely use it to “replenish, resupply, and retrain” his army, to cite Holtsmark’s apt words. One should have no illusions in that regard.

Holtsmark claims to be certain that, absent a clear military loss, Russia will never give up the territories it has seized and claimed for its own. But no more than anyone else can he know in advance what compromises Russia ultimately will or will not make. This will be found out only when negotiations take place.

A total victory for either side is unlikely. This is why, alongside continued fighting, a space must be created for diplomacy. Given the right mediator, the proper setting, and suitable terms, the time for negotiations could arrive sooner than seems possible today. It is essential that careful thought should prepare for that moment, so that, should it arrive, the opportunity will not be lost.

Having seen so many lives perish, and suffered so much destruction, each side will be inclined to cement its gains and hedge its losses.

It is therefore important for the parties to establish a trusted channel for talks, which at first could be about small but important matters, such as prisoner exchanges. Once true bargaining begins, it could make sense for the parties to discuss the terms of a cease fire. Presumably by that time, hope for further advances on the battlefield will have greatly diminished. Having seen so many lives perish, and suffered so much destruction, each side will be inclined to cement its gains and hedge its losses. How far we are from that point is hard to know at the present time.

This brings us back to Melos. We have no wish to quibble over our respective interpretations of Thucydides’s famous morality tale. Our point was not that the Athenians had offered to negotiate with the Melians in good faith; clearly, their good faith, like Putin’s today, is very much in doubt. On this we agree. Rather, we hold that engaging with such an adversary can be valuable precisely when the alternative is potentially so much worse. That is why we should take heed of the famous Melian dialogue and try to learn from it, even if—or especially if—we believe that Ukraine’s position is morally superior and that their fight is rightful, valiant, and worthy of political and material support.

Gregory M. Reichberg, Stein Tønnesson, and Henrik Syse are research professors at the Peace Research Institute Oslo.

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