“Ukraine is confronted with a stark choice: fight on through a bitter winter with death raining from above, or initiate negotiations with Russia under unfavourable terms. Two-and-a-half millennia ago, the leaders of the Greek island of Melos confronted a similar choice.”
The quote is from the opening paragraph of a December Commonweal article, “Right on Its Side, but Not Might?” written by Gregory M. Reichberg, Stein Tønnesson, and Henrik Syse. They are right that in this imperfect world, to compromise with the evildoer can be the pragmatically and morally right thing to do. But for that to be the case, an acceptable compromise must be in the realm of the possible. There may be a lesson to learn from this piece of ancient history, but if so, it will not be the one suggested by the authors.
Thucydides, in his History of the Peloponnesian War, recreated as verbatim dialogue the encounter between the invading Athenian generals and the leaders of the still-independent island state of Melos. In the dialogue, the Athenians made it clear to the Melians that they had to accept becoming vassals of the Athenian empire or face certain defeat and death—resistance being futile since the imbalance of power was unequivocally in the Athenians’ favor. As they famously put it: “The strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.”
The Melians refused, partly in the belief that Sparta would come to their rescue, partly because they deemed it dishonorable to give up their freedom without a fight. The Athenians fulfilled their warning when the besieged Melians finally surrendered: having suffered desperate famine, the surviving adult males were slaughtered and the children and women were sold into slavery.
The story of Melos is open to numerous interpretations—one of them being the futility of resistance against an enemy of overwhelming power and ruthlessness, another being as a tale of the utter moral disaster that follows when might is allowed to become right. Reichberg, Tønnesson, and Syse use the story of Melos’s refusal to give in to the Athenian ultimatum to illustrate something rather different—that Ukraine must be open to negotiations with Russia: “not as an alternative to continued fighting in the cause of freedom, but as a necessary complement to it.” Being unwilling to negotiate, they imply, could lead to a “Melian tragedy.”
The authors claim to be “reluctant” to make “concrete recommendations” to the Ukrainians. This is nevertheless exactly what they then do, first by suggesting that negotiations with Russia now are in Ukraine’s interest, and then by outlining the framework for such negotiations. Pointing out that, as a rule, “compromise can be a wise course of action,” they suggest that “Crimea would most likely be on the table.” The first part of this is close to a truism—the way out of situations of conflicting interests often is some sort of compromise agreement. Regarding the second part, they may be right that Crimea will turn out to be the one concession that Ukraine—in the end—may be willing to offer.
Negotiations on such terms, the authors imply with reference to Henry Kissinger (personally I prefer to avoid Kissinger’s name in discussions about right and wrong), could be the way toward peace for Ukraine “within its prewar borders (the status quo ante).” They go on to state that “Russian withdrawal from eastern Ukraine to internationally recognized borders would be a reasonable baseline demand.” However, what is the basis for their implicit contention that Putin’s Russia will accept negotiations on such terms? Is there any evidence at all that this “baseline demand” is something that the Putin regime will ever accept as even a hypothetical option, if not forced to by military defeat, the prospect of military defeat or, more far-fetched, by internal revolt?