Is Ukraine Headed for a Cease Fire? And Is That the Best Option?Roundup
tags: Cold War, military history, Russia, Ukraine, Korean War
Sergey Radchenko (@DrRadchenko) is a professor of international relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
After a year of brutal fighting, in which thousands of lives have been lost, civilian infrastructure destroyed and untold damage caused, the war has reached a stalemate. Neither side will countenance a negotiated settlement. On the battlefield, battered armies contest small strips of territory, at a terrible cost. The threat of nuclear escalation hangs in the air.
This isn’t Ukraine today; it’s the Korean Peninsula in 1951. No two wars are exactly alike, of course. But in the long history of carnage, one war stands out for its relevance to the current blood bath in Ukraine: the war in Korea from 1950-53, where the South Koreans and their allies, headed by the United States, battled it out against North Korean and Chinese troops, backed by the Soviet Union. There are all sorts of lessons to be gleaned from the conflict. But the most important might be how it ended.
In Ukraine, an end to the war seems a long way off. For Russia, victory would most likely entail securing the Ukrainian territory it claims as its own. For Ukraine, nothing less than driving Russian troops out of the country — including Crimea — will do. Neither side is interested in negotiations, and it’s hard to see how a peace settlement would come about.
In Korea, the situation was similar: Neither North nor South Koreans, nor their sponsors, were in a hurry to end the war. But the conflict — which claimed as many as three million lives and destroyed entire cities — gradually fizzled out, leading to a cease-fire and a temporary division of the Korean Peninsula that proved more lasting than anyone could have imagined at the time. In the end, a stalemated war proved preferable to the alternatives.
The decision to start the war in Korea was made by one man: Joseph Stalin, leader of the Soviet Union. After initially rebuffing the pleas of North Korea’s dictator, Kim Il-sung, for Soviet permission to invade the South, Stalin changed his mind in January 1950. The reasons were twofold. First, with the impending conclusion of the Sino-Soviet Treaty of alliance, which would be signed in Moscow on Feb. 14, 1950, Stalin knew that he could count on the Chinese to participate in the war if required.
Second, and of potentially greater importance, were misleading signals from the United States. Chief among them were Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s famous pronouncement on Jan. 12, 1950, that excluded Korea from America’s “defensive perimeter.” Combined with intercepted intelligence, it was enough to reassure Stalin — wrongly, as it turned out — that the United States would not intervene in Korea.
Given the green light to invade, North Korean forces crossed the 38th parallel on June 25, 1950, soon capturing Seoul and pushing forward in a grand sweep that could well have ended with their capture of all of Korea. But a decisive intervention by the United States, under the United Nations flag, brought disarray to the North Korean ranks and turned the tide of the war. In late September 1950, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, in charge of the West’s war effort, made the fateful decision to cross into North Korea, aiming to liberate the northern half of the country.
Watching these developments from afar, Stalin urged the Chinese to join the fray. After some initial hesitation, Mao Zedong, whose Communist victory in China had come just the year before, agreed. The Chinese secretly began crossing into North Korea in late October 1950. The war entered a new bloody stage.