• To end the war, some argue that Ukraine must make difficult territorial concessions to Russia.
  • But making the victim give up land would reward the aggressor, showing that invasions work.
  • Forcing Russia to pay for its destruction would give Ukraine more leverage to achieve lasting peace.

The desire for peace in Ukraine is perfectly understandable and, at least among those with any decency,  universal.

But among a subset of those who identify as “antiwar,” a reasonable skepticism of official claims from Washington has warped into something that resembles imperialism: An insistence that the United States quit fulfilling Kyiv’s demands for weapons and, as a great power, effectively impose peace through American betrayal.

“I would sit down with the Ukrainian leaders and say, we must stop this war, stop these war crimes,” Cornel West, a former professor at Harvard and Princeton, recently told CNN. West, who has launched a third-party bid for the White House, has acknowledged Russian responsibility for launching the invasion, even as he has blamed NATO for provoking it. But his terms for peace, which would require “some serious concessions across the board,” were framed primarily in terms of what Ukraine would need to lose.

“Russian troops have to leave,” he said, although from where, exactly, was left unclear. “There’s going to be debates over territory. There’s going to be some kind of concessions over the territory, but stop the killing.”

With Ukraine, we see that the demands are rather clear: Land will have to be handed over in exchange for peace. With Russia, there is lip service to the criminality of its invasion but ambiguity with respect to the consequences for it.

Instead of advocating a policy of surrender, and lamenting that the real world may require an unjust outcome, such antiwar realists should consider a new proposal — reparations for Ukraine through the seizure of Russian state assets — that advocates say would increase the cost of war to Russia and help bring it to an end.

The pitfalls of concessions for peace

West is not alone in framing peace as something that can be achieved by Ukraine giving up.

Vivek Ramaswamy, who is running for the Republican nomination, has likewise said Ukraine must make “major concessions,” imposed by the United States if necessary, including ceding territory now occupied by Russia. Former President Donald Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. have all variously questioned US support for Ukraine, portraying it as an obstacle to peace.

It is logical, as an American, to focus on what can or should not be done by America and its allies. People in the United States, after all, do not vote for the president of Russia. And there’s always the argument that an imperfect peace is better than a state of total war.

The problem is that so many of these calls for an immediately imposed peace, be they from the left or right (or somewhere in the middle), are put forward as sensible realpolitik when they are actually steeped in naivete. 

Ceding territory to an imperial aggressor with maximalist demands — that Ukraine abandon not just claims to its own land, but its independence and desire for a future free of Russian state influence —imparts a lesson: that war works and that the invader just has to wait for the allies of its victims to grow impatient. Instead of lasting peace, critics of such proposals maintain that they will effectively serve as a temporary freeze, allowing a battered Russian military to regroup and try for more in the near future. 

In this, West, a former surrogate for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders who marched against the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and others who advocate for an immediate, US-imposed peace, is closer in spirit to advocates of imperialism than the antiwar movement of 2003. Sanders himself rejected some progressives’ call earlier this year for a “diplomatic push” by the United States for a “cease-fire,” telling reporters that the Russian invasion “has to be resisted” and pushing back against claims that support for arming Ukraine makes one an unabashed militarist.

“Democrats, warmongers?” Sanders said. “When you have Putin breaking all kinds of international laws, unleashing an incredibly disgusting and horrific level of destruction against the people of Ukraine?”

Reparations: Another path to peace

Those uncomfortable with US military aid do have options available to them other than old-fashioned appeasement.

In a recent report for the New Lines Institute, a think tank based in Washington, DC, legal experts argued that Western governments should immediately begin using frozen Russian state assets to pay for the reconstruction of Ukraine’s oft-targeted civilian infrastructure.

Its argument is that Russia committed the supreme war crime of an unprovoked invasion, which in turn justifies countermeasures by states that would otherwise be illegal.

The aim is not just to make the perpetrator pay for the harm already inflicted, a demand endorsed by the UN General Assembly last year, but to end the conflict altogether.

“Consolidating control over Russian assets accomplishes an immediate goal — maximizing leverage, which can influence the outcome of the war,” the authors write.

The logic is simple: The more money Russia loses, the more interest it may have in withdrawing from Ukraine without first demanding 20% of the country’s landmass. And by agreeing to return what’s left of the reserves after Russia leaves, another financial incentive is provided for the Kremlin to end its “special military operation.” 

“It also serves a policy of deterrence,” the report stated. Instead of showing that crime pays, as would a territorial concession, “Any state considering a future war of aggression will see that Russia’s egregious violation of international order carries a cost.”

It’s not a fringe proposal. In June, former US Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, former World Bank President Robert Zoellick, and former US diplomat Philip Zelikow co-authored an endorsement of the reparations proposal, describing it as a “nonviolent” counteroffensive that might also please a domestic audience worried about US taxpayers footing the bill for Russian crimes.

“Transferring frozen Russian reserves to Ukraine would be morally right, strategically wise, and politically expedient,” they wrote. Legislation expressly instructing the administration to do so has been introduced in Congress with bipartisan support.

The Biden administration has already authorized millions of dollars worth of assets from Russian oligarchs to be transferred to Ukraine. But it has refrained from touching Russia’s Central Bank foreign currency reserves, which are estimated to be about $38 billion in the United States alone (and $215 billion in the European Union).

The White House did not respond to requests for comment on whether it is considering the proposal. 

As Financial Times economic commentator Martin Sandbu wrote last month, seizing state assets for reparations is an unproven legal strategy. “Even so, politicians ostensibly determined to make Russia pay for its damages should, at least, be eager to explore it,” he wrote. “But there is zero public sign that anyone is doing so.”

That should be an opportunity for self-styled advocates of peace and tellers of hard truths. If the United States and others are actually serious about using all means at their disposal to bring a swift end to this war, why aren’t they at least considering — as far as we know — this more palatable alternative to cluster munitions? 

But we don’t hear that. When given a microphone, those who imagine themselves the true heirs of the 2003 antiwar movement instead demand that the victim of an unprovoked invasion first be disarmed and then forced to cede large swaths of their country to the government that butchered their compatriots in Mariupol and Bucha. It may be a clue as to where their sympathies lie.