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May 2024 Issue [Readings]

Coming to Terms:
Adapted from “The Diplomatic Path to a Secure Ukraine”

Adapted from “The Diplomatic Path to a Secure Ukraine,” a paper that was published in February by the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

More than two years into Russia’s invasion, it is increasingly clear that the Ukrainian army is not capable of reconquering the territories lost to Russia; instead, without continued and massive Western aid, the Ukrainians will suffer eventual defeat owing to Russia’s huge economic and demographic superiority, and the long-term continuation of such aid cannot be guaranteed. Sanctions have not cratered Russia’s economy or crippled its war effort. Russia has corrected many of the problems that plagued its forces during the war’s first year and pursued an attrition strategy that is steadily exhausting Ukraine’s supply of fighters, emptying Western weapons stockpiles, and sapping U.S. and European political patience. Current trends are pointing not toward a lasting stalemate but toward Ukraine’s eventual collapse.

The United States should seek negotiations now. As the shake-up in Ukraine’s military leadership earlier this year and news reports of the exhaustion of Ukrainian troops portend, its time may indeed be much shorter than most Western analysts realize. The soldiers on the front lines speak of back-to-back deployments, falling numbers of troops, declining supplies of ammunition, and apparently inexhaustible Russian reserves. Western aid should therefore be continued, as the alternative is likely to be a situation in which Russia will dictate, rather than negotiate, terms of a settlement. But this aid should also be envisioned not as a means to secure victory but as a source of leverage in negotiations.

The only viable terms for such a compromise are that Russia abandons its hopes of conquering more Ukrainian territory and reducing the whole of Ukraine to a client state—and in return, the West meets Russia’s basic concerns about its own security and provides a path toward reestablishing normal economic relations.

The Biden Administration, for its part, is trying to sustain the Ukrainian defense in what has become a war of attrition, while deferring any serious talk of negotiations. The hope is that this strategy can succeed until at least after the U.S. elections, when it is likely either Joe Biden will be reconfirmed in office and be in a stronger domestic position to negotiate with President Vladimir Putin, or Ukraine will be Donald Trump’s problem.

This strategy is a risky one. The bloody attritional “stalemate” on most fronts in the First World War—which several military analysts have compared to the Ukraine war over the past year—ended in all cases with the victory of one side, while the other collapsed owing to the scale of its losses, the exhaustion of its nation’s economy, or both.

In a war of attrition, the odds are on Russia’s side. After a brief wobble, Putin has reconsolidated his grip on power. According to our information, fundamental to his success has been that while many Russian elites did not want the war, they are now determined not to lose it. Plus, Russia has at least four times the population and fourteen times the GDP of Ukraine. Western sanctions have failed to cripple the Russian economy’s ability to sustain war.

In consequence, Russia has been able to greatly outcompete the West in the production of artillery shells, which are critical to attritional warfare and which Russia has been firing at more than three times the rate of the Ukrainians. It has also been able to buy huge quantities of ammunition from North Korea and drones from Iran. Western supplies of weaponry can only partly counterbalance this. Apart from anything else, the West cannot provide Ukraine with more troops to make up for Ukraine’s huge losses and difficulties in extending conscription.

Biden has spoken of helping to put the Ukrainians “in the strongest possible position at the negotiating table,” but all the evidence now suggests that they will in fact be in a weaker position the longer the war goes on.

Skeptics counter that if time is on Russia’s side, Russia has no incentive to agree to a compromise. But this view underestimates the gap between what Russia can accomplish on the battlefield and what it needs to ensure its broader national security. It is entirely true that Russia has no interest in freezing the existing situation, given that trends in the war suggest that if it continues fighting, it can accomplish more of its war aims, including capturing territories it claims but does not now hold. It will also continue fighting because, absent a Western pledge to end NATO expansion, the war is its only other means of blocking a Ukrainian alliance with the United States or NATO. But Russia cannot realistically hope to resubjugate the bulk of the Ukrainian people, which its invasion has permanently alienated. Nor can Russia secure itself against an expanding and rearming NATO without a massive military buildup that would badly wound its civilian economy. Without a settlement with the West, Russia’s overall security will be damaged even if it achieves victory over Ukraine on the battlefield.

Putin also has domestic incentives to engage the West. His position for now is secure, particularly after his successful suppression of the Wagner Group’s revolt last year and his reelection this spring. But Russia’s stumbles early in the war prompted doubts about his competence among Russian nationalists, and few within elite circles—­and especially the business elites—in Moscow and St. Petersburg are happy about the complete break in relations with the West produced by the invasion. There is a real chance that Putin could start to lose political clout if he neglects core domestic issues to pursue a Pyrrhic victory in Ukraine. As it becomes more evident to the Russian people that they will not lose the war, their desire for a return to some form of normalcy is likely to grow, which will in turn create incentives for the Kremlin to engage with the West over a broader settlement.

As to whether Putin would be willing to compromise, the only way of finding this out is through talks—as even U.S. Establishment journalists have begun to recognize. The Russian government has stated its demands. What we need to explore is what they mean in practice and whether Moscow is prepared to moderate them.

The United States will have to make the first move toward talks and, given that time is on Russia’s side, will have to assure the Russians in advance that it is prepared to accept certain basic conditions—­especially Ukraine’s military neutrality­—in the context of a broader settlement.

Equally importantly, only the United States can propose and implement wider European security arrangements that could persuade Russia to moderate some of its specific ambitions in Ukraine. This is also in accordance with an old diplomatic maxim that if a particular issue is resistant to agreement, then the solution may be to broaden it in order to find other areas where compromise is possible.

Paradoxically, the most difficult issue of all, that of control of territory, is also in a way the easiest, since Ukraine cannot reconquer its lost territories militarily. In the spring of 2023—­before Ukraine’s summer counteroffensive—some Ukrainians were already prepared to say in private that if the offensive failed, Ukraine might have to accept the loss of these territories, if the alternative was years of war and hundreds of thousands of casualties with no real prospect of victory. The failure of the counter­offensive can only have strengthened this view.

However, it also seems clear that no Ukrainian government would officially cede these territories to Russia. It seems highly improbable that a majority of Ukrainians would vote for such a referendum, and the backlash from heavily armed ultra­nationalist forces would be ferocious. The only answer therefore is the one pursued in Cyprus over the past half century: to leave the territorial issue for future negotiation, while both sides promise not to change the armistice line through force.

These guarantees would have to relate to the wider European security order and include guarantees for Ukrainian security. Russia’s most consistent demands in this area have been threefold: a legally binding guarantee that Ukraine will not enter NATO; that Ukraine place limits on its own armed forces; and that NATO draw back its forces from Eastern Europe to where they were in 1997, before the former Communist states in Eastern Europe were invited to join the coalition.

Agreeing to a treaty of neutrality for Ukraine would be a largely symbolic concession by the West. U.S. and NATO leaders have repeatedly stated that the alliance will not send troops to defend Ukraine. A month into the war, President Volodymyr Zelensky stated publicly that he was willing to declare neutrality, because prior to the Russian invasion he had asked the U.S. and other NATO governments to guarantee that within five years Ukraine would be a member, and they had all demurred. In these circumstances, to go on maintaining the possibility of NATO membership is simply a lie—and not worth the sacrifice of a single human life.

Concerning “demilitarization” and limits on NATO forces near Russia’s borders, any such agreement must include elements of reciprocity: verifiable limits on the number of Russian troops and missiles deployed in Kaliningrad, in Belarus, in Russian regions bordering Ukraine, and in the occupied areas of the country.

Short of NATO membership, what other security guarantees can the West give Ukraine to deter future Russian aggression? As in any international agreement, the search for absolute guarantees is pointless. The way forward is to create a settlement that Russia can live with, while making clear the price that Russia would pay for violating its terms: the resumption of massive Western arms transfers to Ukraine and the automatic reimposition of full economic sanctions on Russia.

That is why, as part of a settlement, existing Western sanctions should be suspended but not abolished. In addition, since Russia has been so heavily dependent on the goodwill of China and the Global South, it is very important that a peace settlement take place under the formal auspices of the United Nations, thereby increasing the diplomatic and economic costs of future Russian aggression.

Moscow has never articulated specifically what it means by the “denazification” of Ukraine, which it consistently cites as one of its war aims. If it means dictating the composition of future Ukrainian governments, this is obviously unacceptable. If, however, Russia is prepared to compromise on this issue, then there are two ways it could be reframed, and they are things Ukraine should be doing anyway—­and that the West should be demanding—­as part of Ukraine’s path to membership in the European Union.

The first is the adoption of some version of Germany’s laws banning neo-Nazi parties and insignia. This would not require Ukraine to eliminate forces like the Azov regiment—­something that would spark violence in Ukraine and could even start a civil war. It would, however, be a strong symbolic marker of Ukraine’s move away from the nationalism that has come to characterize official and public discourse in recent years, such as forbidding the use of the Russian language in education and culture, suppressing the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine, and banning opposition parties. These policies are all incompatible with Ukraine’s hopes of future membership in the European Union.

The second would be to repeal Ukrainian laws curtailing the linguistic and cultural rights of the Russian minority in Ukraine—laws that might violate E.U. rules on minority rights. In return, Russia would have to stop its Russification campaign in the occupied Ukrainian territories and provide Ukrainian-­language education opportunities for Russia’s huge ethnic Ukrainian population (an easy concession for Moscow, since the great majority speak Russian as a first language and are thoroughly assimilated).

Why might Putin agree to such a deal, apart from the fact that it would meet some key Russian demands? Firstly, because even if Russia can conquer much more of Ukraine, such victory will come at an extremely high cost. The three-month-long siege of Mariupol in 2022 culminated in a Russian victory, but it cost Russia heavy casualties and involved the almost complete destruction of the city. Dnipro has more than twice Mariupol’s population, and Kharkiv has more than three times. Russia would rule over fields of ruins inhabited by bitterly resentful populations.

Secondly, Russian public support for the war has been critically dependent on two beliefs, to which some statements by Western officials and commentators give credence: that the West is out to cripple Russia as a state, and that the only peace terms being offered by the West involve Russia’s acceptance of complete defeat. If, through a peace initiative, the West negated these perceptions, Russian public opinion could turn against sacrificing tens of thousands more Russian lives in a war no longer seen as defensive.

Absent a settlement, Moscow is headed toward a long-term confrontation with the West that leaves Russia more and more dependent on China and with less and less independent clout in the world. Russia now exports around half its oil to China alone. Russian trade with China reached $240 billion in 2023, while Russian exports to the European Union have fallen by more than 80 percent since the start of the war. Russia is now highly dependent on imports from China for the kind of technology that it used to get from Europe. This is something that the Russian elites have long feared and have embraced only because of what they have come to see as implacable Western hostility.

The same factors explain why Putin would not use a peace settlement in Ukraine as a prelude to attacking NATO—something that he has repeatedly and credibly declared that Russia has no intention of doing. Quite apart from the absence of any clear benefits, the Russian military limitations revealed by the Russia–­Ukraine War, and the apocalyptic risk of nuclear annihilation, the result would undoubtedly be a full-scale Western naval blockade that would severely limit Russian energy exports and deal the sort of crippling economic blow that Western sanctions have failed to achieve. Rather than a premeditated and unprovoked Russian attack, the real threat of a devastating direct war between Russia and NATO comes from mutual escalation following an accidental and unintended clash (for example, the shooting down of a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft, or a collision at sea), and the dangers of such a clash will only grow the longer the war continues.

As for the Ukrainians, General Valery Zaluzhny recognized after the failure of the 2023 counteroffensive that Ukraine would have to go on the defensive, and Zelensky was forced to accept this reality. Sooner or later, Ukrainian commanders are likely to come to the conclusion that, given the stark and inescapable military realities they are facing, continuing the war risks catastrophic defeat.

In the balance of victory and defeat, a historian of Ukraine might also reflect that, while a settlement like this would be extremely painful, it would nonetheless represent a great Ukrainian achievement, as independence, security, and a Western path for 80 percent of Ukraine would reverse not only Putin’s ambitions when he started this war, but the past three hundred years of Russian domination of most of Ukraine. To be sure, this would be a qualified victory, but it is still vastly better than what Ukraine is likely to become if this war continues: a ruined, depopulated, and truncated rump state with severely reduced chances of ever achieving membership in the European Union. The Biden Administration has declared Ukrainian victory to be vital to Western security, but it has never defined what it means by victory. One thing, however, should be obvious: a qualified victory would be a great deal better than the outright defeat that we have good reason to fear if the war continues.

The biggest question of all is whether the United States can ride the coattails of history moving through Ukraine and achieve a stable balance of power in Europe and beyond. If we lack such foresight, we are very likely headed toward a world in which Ukraine becomes a dysfunctional wreck, a weak and divided West faces decades of nuclear tension with Russia, and Washington has bumbled its way into uniting China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea against us. Let us hope our leaders do not fail this test of statesmanship.

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May 2024

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