A range of immediate measures is needed to secure long-term solutions and end the war on Ukraine’s terms rather than on Russia’s.
If you do not regard Ukraine as a European democracy with full sovereign rights, and if you do not see Russia as a fascist, imperialistically minded state, this is probably not the publication for you. But you would also be ignoring the evidence to hand. These labels are facts, and they lead to what ought to be inescapable operational conclusions.
As noted in the introduction, there is a potential world of difference between what should happen and what will happen in this war. Ukraine ‘should’ win (in the sense that it is essential on both moral and practical grounds that it does); whether it will win is not yet determined. But if the policy pitfalls described in the preceding chapters are avoided, then Ukraine has a much stronger chance of victory. Concomitantly, Russia will be more likely to lose, with European security and the rules-based international order more likely to be preserved.
This is a solutions-based report, designed to help get to the ‘should’ – the optimal outcome. In this context, the report has repeatedly challenged the notion of compromise with Russia and the related aphorism that one should ‘not let the perfect be the enemy of the good’. Outwardly reasonable suggestions about ending the war in Ukraine often reference the ‘reality’ of settlements and imperfect peace agreements achieved in other conflicts – such as in Colombia and Northern Ireland – where justice for some families and communities was subordinated to a wider regional or national stabilization agenda. Crucially, however, those two settlements were put to referendums (Ireland’s was approved, Colombia’s narrowly rejected).
The evidence shows that if the same were to be attempted in Ukraine, an overwhelming majority of citizens would vote against anything less than a restoration of pre-2014 borders (including Crimea), reparations from Russia (if not already addressed through the seizure and repurposing of Russian individuals’ and state assets), and a judicial reckoning for the crime of aggression (with the leading perpetrators of atrocities and war crimes, presumably including President Vladimir Putin, tried in international courts). Taking into account the nature of the Russian regime, any settlement that does not encompass these elements would be guaranteed to fail.
Another misconception is that the stakes are not as high as Ukraine and its supporters claim, at least in the sense that the rules-based international system is not at risk. Quite apart from the dubious inference that Ukraine can be sacrificed for some greater good, and that everywhere beyond Ukraine would thereafter and forever be secure, this position disregards Russia’s track record across the globe and its embrace not only of conventional aggression but of other hostile measures such as extraterritorial assassination and electoral manipulation. If Russia wins, not only is Ukraine gone; no one is safe from a Kremlin made bolder by success.
What is needed is a greatly enhanced commitment by all of Ukraine’s backers to providing war-winning materiel as swiftly as it can be delivered and absorbed by Ukraine’s armed forces.
Only an overwhelming Ukrainian military victory can deliver what Ukrainians themselves reasonably demand. This can only be achieved with external military support, in particular from the US. The arguments against providing Ukraine with advanced weaponry are spurious. What is needed is a greatly enhanced commitment by all of Ukraine’s backers to providing war-winning materiel as swiftly as it can be delivered and absorbed by Ukraine’s armed forces. This should include more air defence systems, long-range missiles, combat aircraft, advanced main battle tanks, and other such weapons systems as may be identified as essential to victory. Half-measures short of this will prolong the conflict, at a continuing cost in Ukrainian lives and also at great cost to the long-term prospects for the security of Europe.
There also needs to be a clear acknowledgment that Vladimir Putin has passed the point of no return and has to go. The president is an intrinsic part of the problem of Russian expansionism – although by no means its sole architect. The immediate issue of safeguarding Ukraine can be achieved by defeating Russia militarily. But addressing the longer-term challenge to Europe, given deep-seated attitudes and assumptions held across Russian society, requires change within Russia itself. Such change needs to be far more constructive than the kind Yevgeny Prigozhin – himself a staunchly nationalist, pro-war figure – would have brought had his challenge to Putin succeeded. Nevertheless, a lasting resolution, with or without the recovery of Ukraine’s territory, is simply impossible with the current political configuration in Moscow. To believe otherwise is to misunderstand Putin himself, his personal obsession with Ukraine, the broader antipathy of much of the Russian population towards Ukraine, and the popular assumption within Russia of entitlement to empire more broadly. For all the talk of security guarantees for Kyiv, up to and including NATO and EU membership, Ukraine and the West can never feel secure while Putin remains in power, and while Russia’s leadership and many Russian people believe the Ukrainian people and polity should rightly be ruled from Moscow.
For all the talk of security guarantees for Kyiv, up to and including NATO and EU membership, Ukraine and the West can never feel secure while Putin remains in power.
What happens if Russia is not defeated
We already have multiple guides to the consequences of a false peace with Russia. The drive to end conflict by imposing unworkable ceasefires led to the ‘six-point plan’ for Georgia after Russia’s 2008 invasion, multiple flawed ceasefire agreements in Syria, and the two Minsk agreements on Ukraine following Russia’s first invasion in 2014. Crucially, capitulations by the West not only allowed Russia to retain occupation of substantial parts of Georgia’s and Ukraine’s sovereign territory, they also showed Russia it could go further. This encouraged the full-scale onslaught on Ukraine in 2022.
But the scale of the 2022 invasion is such that the international ramifications of a settlement imposed on Ukraine would now be far greater. First, Ukraine’s existence as a sovereign state would be fatally undercut. Next in line could be Moldova, an obvious target considering its adjacency to Ukraine, its unilateral exit from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in May 2023 and its broader westward drift. After that, the Baltic states and Poland – despite their NATO membership – would be left more vulnerable by the message that the West is not prepared to face down Russia. After all, if Western states cannot enforce the specific commitments in the Budapest Memorandum, why would they honour the vaguer promise of collective defence enshrined in Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty? (Contrary to how it is routinely portrayed, Article 5 does not unequivocally oblige member states to use armed force – or in fact take any measures at all – in support of another member under attack.) Some Balkan states could also be at risk from an unrestrained Russia.
This report has argued that any proposed solution which leaves Ukraine with less than 100 per cent of its territory restored and Putin in power is not viable. Unless or until such point as Ukraine’s defeat is assured and there is no other option, calls for compromise are specious. This is not only because compromise will be unacceptable to Ukraine, which perfectly well understands that the West has let it and other countries down repeatedly this century in conflicts with Russia. It is also because any perception of success – which Russia will measure by ground held, not by lives or materiel lost – will convince the Kremlin that its assault on Ukraine was the correct choice.
A ticking clock – the case for urgent action
Most publications of this nature seek enduring relevance, a ‘shelf life’. Not here. US assistance remains decisive, but America is approaching another momentous electoral fork in the road, with a stark choice between an administration currently doing the right thing – albeit hesitantly and with one foot on the brake – and one that would wish to abandon Ukraine or, if possible, Europe altogether. This, then, is the decisive year in which to give Ukraine the necessary military assistance to win, before the 2024 US election distracts from and constrains Western action – or, in the event of a victory for Donald Trump or his fellow travellers, hands victory to Russia. Far too much time has already been lost to timidity and misplaced fears of Russian escalation. This delay could well prove tragic. If the recommendations in this report – principally to ensure Ukraine’s military victory and the reduction of Russia as a future threat – are not taken up within months, all is potentially lost.
This is the decisive year in which to give Ukraine the necessary military assistance to win, before the 2024 US election distracts from and constrains Western action – or, in the event of a victory for Donald Trump or his fellow travellers, hands victory to Russia.
Western politicians too readily use the word ‘unacceptable’. Wars of aggression, annexations, mass killings, breaches of the Geneva Conventions, radiological and chemical weapons attacks, mass murder of airline passengers, ecocide as exemplified by the June 2023 destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam, and the vast array of Russia’s hostile actions against its neighbours and perceived adversaries further afield have all been described thus. But Russia has never been confronted with sufficiently severe consequences for its behaviour, which therefore has been de facto accepted as the norm.
Ukraine, by contrast, understands the true meaning of unacceptable actions because they threaten its existence. The lesson from Ukraine and its plight is to understand that if you consider something unacceptable, you must stand against it, defeat it and prevent it from happening again. This means imposing meaningful costs and consequences on the perpetrator. As observed by Estonia’s prime minister, Kaja Kallas, Russia’s leaders have seen throughout history that there is little consequence or sanction for waging war – it is essential now to break the cycle in which, through the centuries, one country in Europe repeatedly attacks its neighbours with minimal accountability.
At the time of publication of this report in June 2023, as a Ukrainian counteroffensive gets under way and as the Kremlin survives an attempted power grab from a paramilitary entity of its own creation, Ukraine’s fate hangs in the balance – and with it the longer-term security of the European continent. A plethora of wrong choices is available. They would crystallize Ukraine’s territorial losses, cost more lives in the longer term, and perpetuate and encourage Russia’s global malignancy. This report is a plea for making the right choice.
Summary of principles for Western policy on the war
- Ukraine must not be pressured, directly or indirectly, into a negotiated pause to the fighting. Instead, Kyiv must be allowed to fight the war to a conclusion before a peace is negotiated. Anything short of this grants Russia success and will encourage future Russian invasions.
- Ukraine’s Western backers must recognize that territorial concessions by Ukraine – including over Crimea – are not a workable solution. Granting Russia its wishes will confirm for Moscow that the path of conflict is the right one.
- Ukraine must be provided with genuine security guarantees to provide for its future safety. ‘Neutrality’, Ukraine’s status before 2014, provides no such guarantee. This war proves that real safety against Russia lies only within NATO, and with Ukraine’s completed transformation from former Soviet republic to full and free partner within the transatlantic community. Ukrainian membership of NATO and the EU should be a priority.
- Ukraine’s Western backers must overcome their fear of inflicting a clear and decisive defeat on Russia. The dangers of this defeat are far outweighed by those of Russian success or an ambiguous end to the conflict.
- The potential for political instability within Russia should not be a deterrent to pressing home Ukraine’s advantage. Indeed, the attempted Wagner Group mutiny of 24 June 2023 showed that domestic tumult can offer a tactical edge to Ukraine. The war has shaken the Russian regime, as the rebellion showed, although state fragmentation is unlikely even in the event of Russia’s defeat.
- The financing of support for Ukraine must be recognized as an investment in Euro-Atlantic security, and one which is yielding enormous returns in neutralizing the most acute threat to that security. Western governments should make it clearer to their electorates what this investment buys, and if necessary adopt public communications strategies challenging narratives around the fiscal costs of supporting Ukraine. For example, governments should make clear that headline figures on the value of weapons and other equipment supplied to Ukraine mostly do not represent new costs, but materiel already purchased and on hand.
- NATO must urgently increase production of munitions and weapons systems, with the aim of matching rates of consumption in Ukraine. This is not only to sustain the Ukrainian armed forces in the current conflict, but also to replenish and augment stockpiles across NATO in readiness for an extended period of military tension, and the possibility of high-intensity warfare. NATO should facilitate international defence procurement collaboration and – in consultation with the EU – remove systemic obstacles such as protectionism impeding multinational defence orders.
- The vital requirement for justice for Russia’s war crimes and atrocities must not be disregarded for the sake of a settlement with Moscow. Only accountability will prompt change in Russia. Most pressingly, Ukraine needs ongoing assistance with its vast caseload of war-related proceedings, as well as with the establishment of a special tribunal for Russia’s crime of aggression. Ultimately, support to win the war is necessary to allow a prospect of justice being delivered.
- Economic and financial sanctions must be constantly refined and honed to ensure they remain effective. Policy in this area should be informed by an understanding that Russia is involved in a huge effort to get around sanctions. Sanctions remain important in imposing a cost on Russia. They will have an increasing role in constraining the ability of the Russian military-industrial complex to rebuild offensive military capability eroded in Ukraine.
- The frozen assets of the Russian state and private individuals must be repurposed to finance reconstruction of Ukraine’s society, infrastructure and economy. Western government funding and private sector investment will not be enough on their own to meet Ukraine’s needs. Asset seizures or some variation on them, quite apart from being the moral choice and a source of substantial additional finance, are also necessary to show Russia and the Russians that crime doesn’t pay. In fact, they should be an essential part of the de-Putinization process that Russia must undergo if it is to join the civilized community of nations.
- Finally, it is essential that Western countries – and partners further afield – recognize and accept that the outcome of Russia’s war on Ukraine is a key determinant of their own future safety and security. Any genuine, durable plan for peace can only be implemented after hostilities have ended in Ukraine’s favour. And it must enshrine the principle of respect for the country’s sovereign independence and pre-2014 territorial borders. Any other outcome will set a precedent that encourages aggressors worldwide and degrades the rules-based international order. Ongoing, long-term deterrence of Russia after this war is an essential condition for preserving peace.