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US-West must prepare for a diplomatic endgame in Ukraine

Violence within and disorder radiating outward — two big reasons to bring this year-old conflict to a close, sooner than later.

Analysis | Europe

This is part of our weeklong series marking the one-year anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, February 24, 2022. See all of the stories here.

A year into the conflict, Russia’s brutal effort to subjugate Ukraine has been a stunning failure. Moscow launched its “special military operation” in order to pull Ukraine back into its sphere of influence. Instead, the invasion and the death and destruction it has caused have irreversibly alienated and angered the vast majority of Ukrainians. Russia, of its own doing, has lost Ukraine for good.

Even if this war ends with Russia in control of at least some piece of Ukrainian territory, the conflict will go down in history as an enormous strategic blunder and historic setback for Russia. President Vladimir Putin’s deluded effort to flex Russia’s imperial muscle has left his country irreversibly weakened. Russia is diplomatically and economically isolated, suffering grievous losses on the battlefield, and diminished in the eyes of the world.

Nonetheless, this war is far from over — and year two may not play out as well for Ukraine as year one. As Ukraine and its Western supporters seek to build on their successes, they should embark on year two determined to continue the fight — but also ready to marry efforts on the battlefield to a diplomatic strategy aimed at bringing the war to a close sooner rather than later.

To be sure, an accounting of the first year of the war provides good reason to remain optimistic about the future course of the conflict. Both Ukraine and its NATO supporters have far outperformed initial expectations.

Ukrainians themselves deserve much of the credit for foiling Russian aggression. A combination of smart battlefield operations and indomitable willpower enabled Ukraine’s forces to blunt the Russian army’s initial assault on Kyiv, and then to take back a substantial portion of the territory that Russia occupied after its invasion last February. Despite the ongoing pummeling of Ukrainian cities, Ukraine’s citizens remain stalwart and defiant.

Meanwhile, the United States and its European allies have been by Ukraine’s side every step of the way. Even before the Kremlin launched its errant war, the Biden administration engaged in tireless diplomacy to prepare an effective response. The steady provision of arms and economic assistance to Ukraine has been essential to enabling Ukrainians to stand their ground. 

President Joe Biden and his NATO counterparts deserve credit not just for rushing aid to Ukraine, but also for maintaining Western unity and resolve despite the war’s blowback effects on the global economy. The war has contributed to soaring inflation on both sides of the Atlantic, saddled Europe with millions of Ukrainian refugees, and disrupted energy and food supplies globally. Nonetheless, the United States and Europe have stayed steady, giving Ukrainians what they need to defend themselves. Biden’s surprise visit to Kyiv on February 20, followed by a stop in Warsaw, caps off an impressive year of U.S. leadership and transatlantic unity. 

So far, so good; over the course of the first year of the war, Ukraine and its international supporters have done a stunning job of thwarting Russia’s bald act of aggression. Why, then, change course and begin to develop plans for a diplomatic endgame? Given Ukraine’s progress on the battlefield, why not just let the war run its course?

It may well be months, if not longer, before Ukraine and Russia are prepared to sit at the negotiating table. Both sides are determined to keep fighting for now, and it will probably take the prospect of a military stalemate to convince them that negotiations are preferable to continued warfare. Nonetheless, the West, in coordination with Kyiv, should begin to develop the outlines of a diplomatic endgame for a number of compelling reasons.

For starters, both Ukraine and its Western backers need to be careful not to oversell the prospect of victory and create domestic expectations that prove to be unrealistic and unattainable.  President Volodymyr Zelensky regularly talks up the aim of taking back every inch of Ukraine’s territory, including Crimea, while NATO allies keep pledging to support Ukraine for “as long as it takes.”

But history makes clear that leaders not infrequently find themselves entrapped in their own rhetoric, pushed to chase self-defeating strategic objectives by domestic pressures of their own making. Zelensky is an inspiring and effective wartime leader, but he risks overpromising, potentially tying his hands politically should he need to scale back his war aims. The same goes for NATO’s leaders. They too may come to regret overstating the strategic importance of a Ukrainian victory should they eventually need to explain to their electorates why they are not doing more to prevent Kyiv from falling short of vanquishing Russia and restoring full territorial sovereignty.

Indeed, a Ukrainian victory is quite unlikely given the military strength that Russia can bring to the fight. Western sanctions have hurt Russia’s economy, but not succeeded in strangling it or starving its war machine. Even with more help from the West, Ukraine is not poised to generate combat power sufficient to restore full territorial integrity. Moreover, the Ukrainian economy is suffering woefully from this war, having already shrunk by some 30 percent. For the sake of the country’s future, it may well make sense for Kyiv to eventually seek to end the death and destruction even if that means settling for less than full territorial sovereignty. 

Maximalist Ukrainian war aims may be not just unrealistic, but also strategically unwise. An effort by Kyiv to retake Crimea would entail a high risk of escalation. Crimea is home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet and is of considerable symbolic as well as strategic value to Russia. The Kremlin could well resort to the use of a nuclear weapon or other reckless actions if it is confronted with the loss of Crimea. It is doubtful that restoring Ukrainian control of the peninsula is worth running that risk.

Kyiv and its NATO support network also need to worry about the other side of the equation — domestic pressures that risk not strategic overreach, but a diminishing political readiness among the Western democracies to keep up the provision of military and economic aid. To be sure, the West’s willingness to provide arms and economic assistance to Ukraine is still on the upswing. Instead of going wobbly over the course of year one, the transatlantic community has steadily ramped up efforts to support Ukraine and appears ready to stay the course indefinitely.

But the political winds could shift. With the Republicans now in control of the House, a combination of America First neo-isolationism and budget-cutting zealotry could mean less generous assistance packages for Ukraine. A recent opinion survey revealed that public support for sending assistance to Ukraine has begun to soften, especially among Republican voters. Progressive Democrats have their own misgivings about the war and its continuing costs.

As the 2024 election season gets into full swing, managing the domestic politics of U.S. support to Ukraine could well get more complicated. Indeed, in his recent State of the Union address, Biden gave short shrift to foreign policy, instead focusing on the need to improve the lives of working Americans. As he ramps up his likely bid for a second term, Biden is poised to amplify and advance his agenda for domestic economic renewal. That focus, in combination with fiscal stinginess on the right, may well mean less attention — and potentially fewer resources — for Ukraine.

The same goes for Europe. So far, Europeans have admirably weathered the costs of weaning themselves off Russian energy and generously welcomed the millions of Ukrainians who have fled the violence. But, as in the United States, “Ukraine fatigue” is hardly out of the question as the war continues and the looming cost of reconstruction soars. Tough economic conditions are already producing strikes in Britain, France, Germany, and other European countries. At a minimum, NATO members need to prepare a Plan B — a diplomatic endgame for the war — just in case electoral pressures on either side of the Atlantic start making it politically difficult to keep arming Ukraine for “as long as it takes.”

Finally, the West needs to keep a watchful eye on the negative effects the war is having at the global level. The conflict is polarizing the international system, heating up militarized division between a democratic bloc anchored by the U.S.-led alliance system and an autocratic bloc anchored by Russia and China. The United States is warning that China may be preparing to transfer weapons and munitions to Russia, a move that would intensify tension between these two blocs.

Most of the rest of the world is refusing to take sides, with the Global South preferring nonalignment to ensnarement in a new era of East-West rivalry. In the meantime, many developing economies are suffering from the war’s supply-chain disruptions, which are causing food shortages, high inflation, and in some regions, political unrest. Disorder is radiating outward from the war in Ukraine — yet another reason it needs to come to an end sooner rather than later.

The war for Ukraine is poised to intensify in the weeks ahead as both Moscow and Kyiv launch new offensives. But given that neither side has the wherewithal to defeat the other, a military stalemate is likely to emerge over the course of 2023. It may well be that the war then turns into a new frozen conflict, necessitating that the West provide Ukraine the military strength to defend itself over the long haul.

But the prospect of that stalemate could open the door to a diplomatic settlement, and Ukraine and its NATO supporters should be ready to capitalize on that opportunity. Just as Washington readied plans to support Ukraine before the fighting started, it should ready plans for a diplomatic endgame before the fighting stops.

BAKHMUT, UKRAINE JAN 17 2023 Ukrainian gunners fire at enemy targets from a self-propelled artillery cannon 2S7 Pion caliber 203mm during Russian invasion to Ukraine. Editorial credit: Dmytro Larin / Shutterstock.com
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