Russian progress in the Ukraine war is pushing the United States toward a painful choice.
If we want a prosperous Ukraine with a viable path toward liberal governance and European Union membership, we will have to concede that it cannot be a NATO or U.S. ally, and that this neutral Ukraine must have verifiable limits on the types and quantities of weapons it may hold. If we refuse to agree to those terms, Russia will quite probably turn Ukraine into a dysfunctional wreck incapable of rebuilding itself, allying with the West, or constituting a military threat to Russia.
Russian progress is not yet evident on the map, where the battle lines have not moved appreciably over the past year. Ukraine’s counteroffensive failed to break through Russian defenses, and Russia has not pushed Ukrainian forces significantly westward. An observer comparing territorial holdings in January 2023 with January 2024 might reasonably conclude that the war has become a stalemate.
It is quite true, as the Biden administration has warned, that ending U.S. aid to Kyiv would quickly result in Ukraine’s collapse. Sufficient aid to help Ukraine to stand successfully on the defensive should therefore continue. But what U.S. policymakers need to understand and honestly acknowledge is that absent a compromise peace settlement, massive levels of aid will have to continue not just for the coming year, but indefinitely. There is very little realistic chance of the West being able to outlast Russia and force it to accept peace on Ukrainian terms. The controversies in Congress over aid to Ukraine reflect these realities and are unlikely to diminish.
Under such circumstances, for the Biden administration to pledge American support to Ukraine for “as long as it takes” to defeat Russia is unwise, and even dishonest. It is widely believed in Washington that the failure of Ukraine’s counteroffensive means that the West has no choice but to back Ukraine’s fight against Russia for many years to come. Seeking compromise with Moscow is regarded as not only undesirable but also futile. Lacking alternatives, we must stay the present course, hoping that time will improve Ukraine’s position.
But time is not on Ukraine’s side, either militarily or economically, and so Ukraine’s position in any future negotiations may well be very much worse than at present. Russia’s population is at least four times that of Ukraine and its GDP 14 times. The Russian army is far better led and more tactically adept than it was at the start of the war, and Western sanctions show no signs of being able to cripple the Russian economy, which is more and more geared for war.
And whatever Brussels may say, as long as the war continues it is exceptionally unlikely that Ukraine will be able to develop economically and begin the extremely difficult process of joining the European Union.
Most importantly, the United States has not tested the assumption that Russian President Vladimir Putin has no interest in talking. It is indeed very likely that Putin believes Russia now has the upper hand in the war and can afford to wait. Nonetheless, Putin has repeatedly insisted that Russia is ready to talk, and also that Washington – not Kyiv – makes the key decisions in the war and therefore it is for Washington to engage in talks.
This may be posturing; but it is also possible that Putin recognizes that absent a settlement, Russia is headed toward the dangers of a permanently volatile confrontation with the West, an economy distorted by the demands of military production, and a constricting degree of dependence on China. Russians’ concerns about these problems are likely to grow as their fears they may lose the war in Ukraine diminish.
It is further alleged that Putin believes that a future Donald Trump presidency would be the Kremlin’s best hope for a settlement on Russian terms. However, Trump’s first term produced some friendly rhetoric but much hostile action toward Moscow, including withdrawal from nuclear arms agreements and increased flows of U.S. weapons and training for the Ukrainian army.
Moreover, given the animosity toward Trump evident in Congress and the U.S. foreign and security policy establishment, Putin has little reason for confidence that Trump could actually deliver any deal. By 2020, Russians were thoroughly disillusioned with Trump. As the leading Russian foreign policy thinker Fyodor Lukyanov told Radio Liberty about the 2020 elections, “Why should Russians care? I don’t believe anyone here expects any change regardless of who will win.”
Given that Russia now has the advantage on the battlefield and senses that time is on its side, to get Putin to end the war and end his ambition to subjugate Ukraine or seize more territory, Washington will have to offer some serious incentives. These will need to include showing that the U.S. is prepared to meet Russian concerns about the U.S. and NATO security threat to Russia (concerns that are genuinely held throughout the Russian establishment).
This will mean agreement to a Ukrainian treaty of neutrality, with security guarantees for Ukraine, that will allow that country to follow neutral Finland and Austria during the Cold War and develop as a free market democracy. Western sanctions against Russia would need at least to be eased if not suspended, but with a binding commitment that they would automatically resume if Russia launched new aggression.
On the issue of the territories presently occupied by Russia, the only possible way forward is to defer this question for future talks under United Nations auspices, while putting the maximum possible security measures in place to prevent a resumption of war.
An agreement along these lines would be extremely painful for both Ukraine and the Biden administration. However, we should see preserving the independence of 80 percent of Ukraine as a real victory, even if not a complete one. It is certainly far better than what appears to be the alternative: a war of attrition with dreadful losses for Ukraine, leading sooner or later to a far greater Ukrainian defeat.
Sophia Ampgkarian contributed to the research for this article.
George Beebe spent more than two decades in government as an intelligence analyst, diplomat, and policy advisor, including as director of the CIA's Russia analysis and as a staff advisor on Russia matters to Vice President Cheney. His book, The Russia Trap: How Our Shadow War with Russia Could Spiral into Nuclear Catastrophe (2019), warned how the United States and Russia could stumble into a dangerous military confrontation much like the situation we face over Ukraine today.
Anatol Lieven is Director of the Eurasia Program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He was formerly a professor at Georgetown University in Qatar and in the War Studies Department of King’s College London.
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.