Talking Points

Can the Korean War point the way out of the killing in Ukraine?

Nobody really knows how to end the war in Ukraine.

Vladimir Putin has thrown his own country into decline. Having committed Russia's prestige, power, and soldiers to combat in the name of "de-Nazifying" Ukraine, he can't very well end the invasion without something to show for it. And while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has signaled his willingness to come to some sort of compromise, including giving up on his country's NATO aspirations, he also — understandably — remains defiant: "I'm ready for dialogue," he said last week. "We're not ready for capitulation."

A grinding, bloody stalemate without end seems possible. 

"Weapons from the United States and its European allies will strengthen Ukraine's negotiation position. But without their direct involvement in the war, which is not going to materialize, Ukraine will not enjoy an outright victory and Russia will not suffer an outright defeat," Liana Fix and Michael Kimmage pointed out Wednesday at Foreign Affairs. 

Perhaps the answer, then, is to end the war without really ending it. 

It's been done before. Roughly 5 million people were killed in the Korean War between 1950 and 1953 before combat ended. But the war itself has never officially ended — instead, an armistice was signed in which both sides agreed to "insure a complete cessation of hostilities and of all acts of armed force in Korea until a final peaceful settlement is achieved." They stopped killing each other and kicked the problem of ending the war down the road.

They're still kicking. North Korea and South Korea, along with the United States and China, are still negotiating an end to the Korean War, nearly 70 years after the fighting ended. It's far from a perfect solution — technically, it's not a solution at all. North Korea remains dominated by a nuclear-armed authoritarian regime, the two countries still sometimes skirmish, and the whole situation is more than a little absurd: Everybody seems to want an official peace, but nobody really knows how to get there. 

An uneasy peace is better than a hot war, however. More than 10 million Ukrainians have been forced to flee their homes, cities like Mariupol are being bombed into ashes, and thousands of people on both sides are dying ugly, needless deaths. Zelensky can't want to see his people continue suffering, and Putin shouldn't want his embarrassment to continue indefinitely.

Ending the war permanently will take delicate negotiating and involve fraught compromises that nobody really likes. That's hard stuff. Some creative thinking and bargaining will be needed. The best thing for now is not to worry so much about a formal peace agreement, but to stop the fighting itself, as soon as possible.