The war is an existential one for Ukraine, and is also framed by Russia as a war of vital national interests. Similar conflicts have almost always ended with the victory of one belligerent and the defeat of the other. Calls to ‘settle now’ are based on false analogies and an underestimation of the issues at stake.
Calls by Western experts and politicians to reach a settlement of Russia’s war against Ukraine rest on a common belief: that wars should, and usually do, end in negotiation and compromise.
These two axioms are related but distinct. Sometimes they are expressed categorically, sometimes not. Barry Posen of MIT asserts that ‘there is only one responsible thing to do: seek a diplomatic end to the war now’. Richard Haass and Charles Kupchan are less emphatic: we ‘need to be formulating a diplomatic endgame now’. Their goal largely accords with that of US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan: to put Ukraine ‘in the best possible position on the battlefield, so that … they will be in the best position at the negotiating table’. Echoing this view, British prime minister Rishi Sunak believes that ‘this will end as all conflicts do, at the negotiating table’.
The first problem is that they don’t. It is true that the majority of wars do not end in absolute victory. Ceasefire, armistice and stalemate terminate most conflicts, even if the ‘peace’ is infirm or short-lived. But where the stakes are absolute, as they were in the Napoleonic wars, the US Civil War and the Second World War, armed conflict usually ends in the victory of one side and the defeat of the other. Negotiation, compromise and reconciliation are undertaken with new regimes only after old regimes are defeated and removed. The Franco-German reconciliation invoked by Emmanuel Macron would have been inconceivable had the Nazis remained in power.
Where the stakes are absolute, as they were in the Napoleonic wars, the US Civil War and the Second World War, armed conflict usually ends in the victory of one side and the defeat of the other.
The war that Russia renewed against Ukraine in 2022 falls into a similar category, at least in significant respects: it is unquestionably a war of survival for Ukraine; for Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, it is a war for the defence of Russian civilization, whose roots are deemed to lie in Ukraine. Put another way, while Russia’s sovereignty is not directly on the line, Russia is conducting hostilities as if this were a total war.
The second problem lies in the fatalistic quality of many arguments ruling out the pursuit or even possibility of Russia’s defeat. For Russia, Ukraine’s subordination has long been considered a fundamental interest. But for Ukrainians, survival is the most elemental interest of all. Sixteen months into Europe’s largest war since 1939–45, the armed forces of Ukraine, provisioned by the West, have exposed the pretensions, deficiencies and pathologies of Russia’s state and military culture as no one else has managed to do. Yet inexplicably, the Westerners who call themselves ‘realists’ seem distinctly reluctant to concede that this matters. For Edward Luttwak, what matters is that ‘the Russian Federation is a great power and it can absorb 20 defeats like Ukraine’. More modestly and perhaps more soundly, Barry Posen argues that Russia’s economy is ‘autonomous enough and Putin’s grip tight’. That is true for now. But for how long? The destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam on 6 June 2023 is a chilling demonstration of the lengths to which Russia will go to win this war. Yet it can also be seen as an admission that Russia no longer has a military path to victory. Handing Russia a ceasefire that leaves it in control of Ukrainian territory is not the most obvious response – and might well waste Ukraine’s best opportunity to expel Russian forces.
Indeed, the risk is that recriminations over the Nova Kakhovka dam’s destruction could reinforce the greatest fatalism of all: the belief among officials in several Western governments (including influential figures inside the Biden administration) that Russia will employ nuclear weapons rather than allow itself to be defeated. Yet there is a world of difference between an act of ecological terrorism undertaken without fear of retribution and the use of nuclear weapons in the face of a nuclear-armed alliance that has warned Russia of ‘catastrophic’ consequences.
The third deficiency of arguments to ‘settle now’ is their reliance on false analogies. Apart from the post-war incorporation of West Germany into NATO and that of post-Napoleonic France into the Concert of Europe, the most prevalent analogy invoked is the durability of the armistice that ended the Korean War. Yet that armistice was concluded and sustained thanks to conditions vastly different to those we now face. First, it occurred because of Stalin’s death and the wish of the post-Stalin leadership to end the war. Unlike South Korea, Ukraine is not at war with a Russian puppet state, but with Russia itself, and Putin is very much alive. Second, the American troops and nuclear weapons that have preserved the Korean armistice are not deployed in Ukraine, and Russia is repeatedly assured that they will not be.
This war might not meet legal definitions of genocide, but the barbarism and the serial war crimes that have taken place – material, cultural and now ecological – have not been witnessed in Europe since the Second World War.
The fourth and greatest problem is a failure to take account of the character of this war and the outlook of a systemic adversary viscerally hostile to the ‘collective West’ and the international order it claims to uphold. This war might not meet legal definitions of genocide, but the barbarism and the serial war crimes that have taken place – material, cultural and now ecological – have not been witnessed in Europe since the Second World War. Both sides emphasize that the war is not about territory but the independence and very existence of the entity we recognize as Ukraine.
In short, if Russian troops are not driven out of Ukraine by force of arms, they are most unlikely to leave. For Russia, ‘frozen conflict’ has never been a path to peace but a platform to further enfeeble presumptive adversaries. Vladislav Surkov, the coordinator of Russia’s Donbas war after 2014, has recently admitted that the Minsk accords were never supposed to be workable. Negotiations that would underwrite the continued Russian occupation of Mariupol, Berdyansk and Crimea will be a roadmap to Ukraine’s economic ruin and the transformation of the Black Sea into a zone of Russian dominance. Any outcome short of Russia’s expulsion from territories occupied since 24 February 2022 (at the minimum) will be read in Moscow as a victory and undermine confidence elsewhere.
The way forward
The way forward will not be secure unless the West draws lessons from its own failures. Procrastination, risk aversion and the continued fear of victory will doom Ukraine to an infirm peace that exposes the West to further, possibly greater, tests in future. The war is being waged on an industrial scale. Western defence industries might not be able to meet this challenge over an indefinite period. These constraints make it doubly imperative to remove others of the West’s own making.
Western policy must be underpinned by a long-term strategy – political, military and industrial – based on a sustainable definition of victory, not on a search for negotiation with an adversary whose minimal terms flatly contradict Western interests.
Western policy must be underpinned by a long-term strategy – political, military and industrial – based on a sustainable definition of victory, not on a search for negotiation with an adversary whose minimal terms flatly contradict Western interests. If President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s definition of victory surpasses that of Ukraine’s international partners, his willingness to make concessions to Russia is likely to depend on the West’s own willingness in turn to provide a credible pathway to NATO membership. The latter goal is unlikely to be achieved at the Vilnius summit in July. But, as Henry Kissinger notes, the strongest case against NATO membership before 2022 was the risk of war. Ukraine was not offered membership, and it ended up with war. The case he makes is becoming increasingly difficult to refute.