Russia’s attempt to destroy Ukraine as an independent country cannot be allowed to succeed. This is not solely for the sake of Ukraine. At stake are the future of global security and the preservation of the core principles of international relations embodied by the United Nations.
Moscow’s war of reconquest against Ukraine has confirmed in the most brutal terms how Russia rejects the values underpinning European security – the same values agreed between Moscow and the West at the end of the Cold War. As a revisionist power, Russia has made itself the primary obstacle to peace and security in Europe and beyond. For stability to be restored and protected, it is essential that the outcome of the war in Ukraine leads to a situation in which – in addition to the expulsion of occupying forces – the exercise of Russian power is contained rather than encouraged. Over time, Russia’s leadership must also be persuaded to renounce its expansionist ambitions.
That these goals are difficult to achieve should not be used as a justification for ‘Western’ powers to resign themselves to the pursuit of an inadequate or partial settlement between Ukraine and Russia. Such a concession, anathema to the government of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the people of Ukraine, would ultimately favour Russia and solidify at least some of its territorial gains in Ukraine. Dispelling misplaced arguments for pragmatism and their variations, and making a plea for Western solidarity and resolve in arming Ukraine and resisting Russia, is the principal ambition of this report.
The report will set out a vision for the optimal outcome from this war. It imagines a secure and territorially whole Ukraine, which is a member of NATO and the EU. It also envisages the possibility – though a remote one – of a ‘better Russia’ in the longer term. This reformed Russia would be less authoritarian, more constructive in its foreign relations, and would at long last contribute to a more stable and cooperative Europe of the type imagined in 1991 but never realized. At enormous cost, Vladimir Putin has provided an opportunity for Western democracies and others to reprise such an endeavour.
A number of policy options widely advocated for ending the war, while largely well-meaning, are misguided because they will not deliver lasting security.
But for all this to happen, the starting requirement is that Western governments and politicians challenge their own assumptions about the preconditions for peace. Accordingly, the report examines policy options widely advocated for ending the war and explains why they will not deliver lasting security. Similarly, the report critiques commonly raised objections to increasing Western assistance to Ukraine – objections that cite perceived risks such as military escalation, Russian state collapse of the type some thought they might see on 24 June 2023 with the Wagner Group’s approach on Moscow, and financial cost. Most importantly, the report proposes what its authors believe are more effective alternative ways forward. These are largely based on resisting the temptation to settle too easily or too quickly, ignoring Russian (and Western) fearmongering, increasing the costs of the war to the Kremlin, persevering in the pursuit of justice, and dramatically increasing military support for Ukraine.
The problem with ‘realist’ arguments on Ukraine
Ever since Russian forces were pushed back from the Kyiv region in April 2022, the possibility of a successful outcome for Ukraine has been a prominent part of the international policy debate. A frequent question has been, ‘What does a Ukrainian victory look like?’ This question took on a new urgency on 24 June, with the Wagner Group’s brief uprising exposing weaknesses in the Russian regime. Definitions of Ukrainian success and prescriptions for achieving it have ranged widely. At the ‘maximalist’ end of the spectrum – a characterization sometimes used pejoratively to suggest the victim of aggression is being unreasonable – are the demands of the Ukrainian government. These include the withdrawal of Russian troops and cessation of hostilities, the full restoration of Ukrainian territory, justice for war crimes, and reparations for war-related damages.
At the other end of the scale are calls for Ukrainian compromise and concession as a means of expediting a ceasefire and then a permanent settlement agreeable to Russia. These calls are widely endorsed by influential policy commentators often categorized as ‘realists’. The gist of these positions is that Ukraine is unlikely to be able to liberate its sovereign territory from Russian occupation, much less achieve justice through international courts – and that therefore, since the current bloodshed is futile, the sooner Kyiv is induced to accept a negotiated settlement and territorial losses, the better. Where the cost of leaving Ukrainian citizens under Russian occupation is recognized, it is presented as a lesser evil than fighting on to liberate them.
The motives behind such proposals are largely well-intentioned, reflecting the desire of some policymakers for a rapid solution to a disastrous war. However, in addition to the detailed objections outlined in the rest of this report, settlement on any of Russia’s terms makes little sense for two principal reasons. First, it has been decisively rejected by Ukraine itself. President Zelenskyy’s government and the Ukrainian people remain unequivocally committed to decisive victory, and are lobbying hard for the West to supply more military equipment and related assistance. In this, Ukraine has the especially strong support of other front-line states neighbouring Russia, such as Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. These states recognize clearly both the necessity of deterring and punishing, rather than tolerating, aggression and the vicious nature of the regime imposed on a previously free people in the territories now occupied by Russian forces.
Second, the argument for Ukrainian concessions – in effect, surrender – risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Its proponents, many of whom have not changed their views on Russian pre-eminence since before the conflict, claim that since Ukraine cannot win, it should not be provided with the weapons to do so. This has had a pernicious effect on Western policy towards Ukraine. Combined with misplaced fears over Russian reactions, this rationale has retarded and constrained the supply of military equipment and other assistance. For wavering policymakers in the West, forcing Ukraine to concede looks like an easy way out. But while there is a self-evident risk that Ukraine may not achieve all its objectives, such an outcome is far likelier if the West fails to act decisively. In other words, there is no surer way of arriving at a dangerous and unsustainable outcome than not sending weapons to Ukraine.
That is why the authors of this report are convinced, based on their long knowledge of how Moscow operates and the nature of the threat from Russia, that looking for an easy solution would be disastrous. We collectively put forward the following essential conditions that need to be met to ensure that Ukraine is whole, free and independent, that the Russian state is no longer a threat to any other country, and that a precedent is not set to encourage other states with extraterritorial designs.
First-order priorities are as follows:
- The eviction of Russian forces from the occupied territories; the reintegration of those territories into Ukraine; and, consequently, the abolition of any territorial ‘grey zones’.
- Better defence across the whole Euro-Atlantic space against military and non-military threats from Russia, including the protection of economies and trade routes. Not least, this means ensuring that Russia’s neighbours – whether in NATO or not – remain secure.
Medium- or longer-term priorities are as follows:
- Ensuring that the experience of the war and its result lead Russia to change its foreign and security policy to become less aggressive and self-entitled. The ideal end state is for Russia to work within the rules-based international order, not attempt to bring the system down.
- A national recognition within Russia that Ukraine is a sovereign independent state, and that Russia is not entitled to an empire. This requires a sea change in Russia’s political and societal culture.
- An admission by Russia that intolerable crimes have been committed, with acceptance in Moscow that Russia has to pay reparations to Ukraine.
It is important to note that these goals are not what the authors believe definitely will happen. But they need to happen if Ukraine is to remain sovereign and secure. And crucially, contrary to the assertions of ‘realists’, they can happen if the West makes the right moves.
Risks to the international system
How the West responds to the war has global implications. The consequentialist argument – in effect, ‘sacrifice Ukraine, save the world from a broader conflict’ – makes the wrong link between the war and international stability. It interprets security as the avoidance of all-out war between Russia and the West, rather than understanding that the health of the rules-based international order is intrinsically tied to Ukraine’s victory. It ignores the fact that a broader conflict is already at hand, and that Russia has been overtly and covertly waging this campaign for decades. Putin has shown that Russia’s ambition does not end with the subjugation of Ukraine. In fact, it never ends, because the Russian state in its current form has little interest in peaceful coexistence with the West.
The consequentialist argument – in effect, ‘sacrifice Ukraine, save the world from a broader conflict’ – interprets security as the avoidance of all-out war between Russia and the West, rather than understanding that the health of the rules-based international order is intrinsically tied to Ukraine’s victory.
This means that when Russia sees an opportunity to strengthen itself at home or abroad by the deployment of raw power, it takes it. Changes from within, such as mutinies of the like seen on 24 June, can weaken the regime, but they also tighten repressive mechanisms. For as long as these politics remain unchallenged, endless conflict is a normal and inevitable state of affairs. Any proposed solution that fails to break this cycle is merely setting up the conditions for deeper and more disastrous confrontation in the future.
Accommodating Putin’s Russia is thus a dead end, we argue, both for Ukraine and its Western allies. It would deny the Ukrainian people’s demonstrated ambition for membership of the transatlantic community. (Over 80 per cent of Ukrainians polled think their country should join NATO and the EU.) And in most conceivable instances it would leave Russia in the same position or better compared to where it was on 23 February 2022, the day before its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Any such ‘solution’ would not only position Russia to mount another assault on its neighbour whenever it felt ready, it would also leave Russia willing and able to destabilize the international order even further. Achieving the latter is an intrinsic element of Russia’s ambition under its current leadership. If it is the West’s ambition to preserve that order, then logic dictates that Russia’s capability (and, in the longer term, intent) to weaken it needs to be removed.
It is often noted that much of the world, outside what is commonly referred to as the West, does not support Ukraine – certainly not fully. Some countries in the Global South, or elsewhere in the developing world, may not wish to invest in an outcome in which the West wins. Yet while it is comprehensible that a state in, say, Africa or Latin America may not be as concerned at Russia waging a distant colonial war in Europe, it must be remembered that many of the countries that support Russia or decline to condemn its aggression are already beholden to Moscow in some way or have ulterior financial or domestic regime-stabilization motives. Their stated concerns should thus be considered with the essential caveat that in many cases they are not objective.
Similarly, proclamations or even initiatives emanating from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and most notably China must be treated with caution. These countries have closer ties with Russia than with Ukraine, are inclined towards ‘great power’ politics, and have at best complicated relationships with the West. Ukraine would be bound to lose out from their arbitration if it were undertaken.
Scepticism of the West’s motives and the accusations against it of hypocrisy must not be allowed to impede support for a European nation defending itself against a war of colonial reconquest. The non-aligned world is suspicious of the West on many matters, not least considering the latter’s colonial record. But betraying Ukraine would create a similar level of distrust among most of the countries bordering Russia for decades or longer. It would also provide destabilizing encouragement and precedent for other aggressors far from Europe.
About this report: chapter structure and audience
The chapters that follow examine nine misconceptions in the discourse on assisting Ukraine and ending the war. The report does not cover in depth every potential pitfall that such a complex and difficult situation as that in Ukraine presents for Western foreign and security policy. So, for example, the temptation to revive a ‘Minsk’-type peace agreement (offering concessions to the aggressor) is not covered in detail, while the exaggerated fears that challenging Russia may bring about nuclear escalation are considered here largely in the context of other arguments. Both subjects are also addressed in other recently published Chatham House material.
The fallacies that we focus on in this report are as follows:
- The apparently urgent need to settle, based on the factually incorrect supposition that all wars end at the negotiating table;
- The proposition that Ukraine should give up territory – certainly Crimea, quite possibly more;
- That Ukraine should (again) declare itself neutral, as it was between 1991 and 2014;
- The need to take Russian security concerns, as defined by Russia, into account;
- The assertion that a defeated Russia must not be pushed into a punishing kind of ‘Treaty of Versailles redux’, for fear that this will result in an even more resentful and fascist state;
- The idea that military defeat risks catastrophically destabilizing Russia, with consequences that could include the break-up of the state or loss of control of Russia’s nuclear arsenal;
- The supposedly excessive financial cost;
- The suggestion that the pursuit of justice hinders the quest for peace, on the outwardly reasonable basis that at some point regional stabilization may outweigh Ukraine’s needs for prosecutions and reparations, however justified such demands may be; and
- Finally, the assertion, espoused most prominently by the right wing of the US Republican Party, that this is simply ‘not our war’ – that the West has no obligations beyond perhaps humanitarian support.
This report is not aimed at the leadership of Russia, which stopped listening to Western advice decades ago. Nor is it aimed at Russia apologists, advocates of appeasement, or those who argue that the West is ‘just as bad as Russia’. Those elements were, at least in part, the audience for Myths and misconceptions in the debate on Russia, a conceptually related Chatham House report published in May 2021. Moreover, the opinions espoused by Russia apologists have been discredited by the reality of events – the result, in large part, of Russia’s actions in this latest war.
The intended audience for this report instead comprises reasonable, compassionate, well-informed individuals who sincerely believe that there may be a swift, relatively safe or easy solution to the current highly dangerous situation. The ‘solutions’ these people advocate or subscribe to are not generally irrational, and are mostly worthy of respect, engagement and discussion. However, the report draws on the combined expertise and experience of its authors to explain why such ideas are counterproductive and dangerous. In doing so, it arrives at proposals for a better alternative – one that not only would benefit Ukraine in the short term, but safeguard the cornerstones of Euro-Atlantic security in the long term. Nothing could be more important.