How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
What terms should Ukraine accept to end Russia’s unprovoked, unjustifiable war? Some may consider this an impertinent question. In a war between democracy and autocracy, or good and evil, only a righteous victor’s peace is defensible. The right question, in that view, is what demands the United States and its partners, first and foremost Ukraine, should impose on Russia as punishment for its egregious aggression.
In reality, a satisfying victory is likely out of reach, at least for now. Russian President Vladimir Putin has run into unanticipated, stiff resistance from the Ukrainians and harsh sanctions from an unexpectedly unified West, but nothing suggests that he is about to retreat. Instead, he is doubling down. His military is increasingly targeting civilians, especially in large cities. As the death toll, the scale of destruction, and the risk of a widening conflict mount, the priority must be an end to the suffering. This can only be achieved through diplomatic engagement that produces a political settlement.
The first, most urgent challenge is to broker a cease-fire and provide humanitarian aid to refugees, both inside and outside Ukraine. The next is to negotiate an end to the war. A cease-fire would create conditions for more fruitful diplomacy, but talks, such as those now underway between the Ukrainians and the Russians, should proceed even if it proves unattainable. Either way, the Russian army will be occupying considerable Ukrainian territory: Crimea, to be sure, but also parts of northern, northeastern, and eastern Ukraine, including a land corridor connecting Crimea to Russia and land north of the peninsula. Ukraine and the West will need to determine what compromises they can make to induce Putin to stop his war and withdraw his forces. Demilitarizing Ukraine or relegating the country to Russia’s sphere of influence, as Moscow demands, would be unacceptable. Short of such appeasement, however, Kyiv and its partners must now consider how much they are willing to concede.
In a final deal, Kyiv’s bid to join NATO—and, possibly, further enlargement of the alliance into the former Soviet space—will likely need to be ruled out, but Russia will also need to accept that a neutral Ukraine would retain close security ties with the West. The agreement must also include plans for Russia to contribute to the cost of reconstructing Ukraine and for referenda to settle the political futures of Crimea and the Donbas “republics.” The West, for its part, must clarify the circumstances under which it is prepared to remove sanctions on Russia. No party will be satisfied with all aspects of the final settlement. But without hard compromises, the war may not end.
There is no obvious path to an early, decisive victory over Russia. The United States and its allies have rejected the possibility of direct military intervention to defend Ukraine, given the risk that it could trigger a nuclear war. The Western arms flowing into Ukraine will increase Russia’s already substantial losses in soldiers and armaments, but Putin appears prepared to accept the cost if that is what it takes to subdue the Ukrainian army.
Putin started this war, but toppling him would not necessarily end it. A popular uprising that overthrows him is unlikely; the Russian state has formidable means of repression at its disposal and has proven its willingness to use them. In the event of a palace coup, a new leader could be more willing to talk but would hardly be interested in surrendering, given the risks that would pose to remaining in power. There is little reason to think regime change attempted from the outside would produce a positive outcome, either. Those who advocate this route assume one of two scenarios: the emergence of a new autocrat who is willing to end the war without victory, or even better, mass protests that eventually lead to a democratic Russia. They overlook a third outcome that cannot be ruled out: prolonged political upheaval and violence that destabilizes a nuclear superpower.
Likewise, harsh, punitive sanctions will not end the war any time soon. The historical record shows that sanctions take a long time to affect the calculations of the targeted state, if they do at all; consider the example of North Korea. Leaders who believe their actions are essential to achieve vital national security objectives, as Putin does today, have often proved willing to pay a steep economic price.
Without hard compromises, the war may not end.
The United States and its European allies, meanwhile, cannot wait to find out how long the Kremlin can bear the costs of its war. They are fast approaching the limit of the sanctions they can levy without suffering the economic repercussions themselves. Gas prices are soaring, as is the cost of wheat (both Russia and Ukraine are major exporters). Inflation, already severe, is expected to get worse and economic growth rates to fall, introducing the risk of 1970s-style stagflation. The disruption of supply chains that began during the pandemic has been exacerbated by the war, as container shipping companies face higher insurance rates and cargo aircraft are forced to use longer routes following Russia’s decision to deny overflight rights to 36 countries.
Prolonging the Russian offensive will lead to the deaths of many more innocent Ukrainians and wreak further economic damage on Ukraine that will take years, perhaps decades, to repair. And it will increase the chances of the war spreading beyond Ukraine, drawing the United States and its NATO allies into an armed confrontation with Russia. Moscow has already declared that the convoys carrying Western arms to Ukraine are legitimate targets and has stepped up airstrikes and missile attacks on locations near Ukraine’s border with Poland. Demands to create a no-fly zone over Ukraine or to dial up sanctions with the aim of bringing down Putin’s political order carry the risk of disastrous unintended consequences without achieving the desired results.
Even though Ukraine and its Western backers are in no position to defeat Russia on any reasonable timescale, they do have leverage to push for negotiations. Stiff resistance from Ukraine’s army and irregular forces is multiplying Russian casualties, which—together with deteriorating economic conditions in Russia and the ruling elite’s fears of popular discontent—could put enough pressure on Putin to make him amenable to a political settlement. Ukraine’s leaders, for their part, may be open to major concessions in order to end the human suffering and economic damage caused by the Russian assault. The tipping point for both parties to commit to the type of agreement that can end the war may be only weeks away.
That means the time to sketch the outlines of a diplomatic solution is now. It is the Ukrainians’ right, of course, to decide the terms acceptable for ending their armed resistance to Russian aggression. But negotiations will not be limited to Ukraine and Russia, as any resolution to the crisis will need to address not just Ukraine’s geopolitical orientation but Moscow’s broader concerns about Europe’s security architecture. For these discussions, Russia will accept no other interlocutor than the United States, the only other country with sufficient military might to alter the balance of power on the continent—and to act as guarantor for a final settlement.
Front and center in these negotiations will be the question of NATO’s eastward expansion, which the United States and its allies have so far categorically refused to discuss with Russia. It is hard to imagine, however, that Putin will drop his demand that Ukraine’s membership in NATO be blocked before he withdraws his troops. Before the war, NATO membership was non-negotiable for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. But his recent statements have put neutrality back on the table. The United States and its allies, meanwhile, may have to decide whether they are willing to shut NATO’s door to other former Soviet countries seeking membership.
The time to sketch the outlines of a diplomatic solution is now.
The next challenge is to find an arrangement under which a militarily nonaligned—or neutral—Ukraine can be confident in its security. After Russia’s invasion, a deal with terms similar to those of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum—in which Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom offered security assurances in exchange for Ukraine abandoning the nuclear arsenal it inherited from the Soviet Union—will hardly be acceptable to Ukrainian leaders. Kyiv will undoubtedly look to the United States and other NATO members for arms and military training, as well as assistance in modernizing its defense industries, to ensure that Ukraine has the capacity for self-defense.
Russia will be uneasy with such an outcome, but it may accept it as long as Ukraine agrees not to allow NATO combat troops, armaments, or bases on its soil. In exchange, Ukraine may seek limits on Russia’s military deployments in its territory adjacent to Ukraine.
A settlement must also ensure that Russia abandons the territories it has occupied since its February 24 invasion and establish a procedure for determining the future status of Crimea and the Donbas statelets whose independence Putin recognized prior to the attack. Ideally, that procedure would end in a decision based on internationally monitored referenda that are certified as free and fair. Such a vote would likely affirm Crimea as a part of Russia, which Ukraine can accept as a reality without formally recognizing it—this would be similar to the way the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic handled their relationship in a treaty signed in 1972. The outcome of a referendum in the Donbas would be less certain. Since the separatist leaders have claimed, with Russian backing, the entirety of the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, only a third of which they physically controlled before the war, Kyiv should insist that the referenda be conducted throughout the two provinces. That would almost certainly result in a defeat for the separatists and the liquidation of their strongholds.
Finally, the settlement must include provisions for the reconstruction of war-ravaged Ukraine. The Russians will be unwilling to bear the entire burden, but Moscow ought to cover a large share of the costs its invasion has inflicted, with the United States, Europe, and international financial institutions picking up the rest.
Convincing Russia to undertake a substantial financial commitment—or to make any of the tough concessions outlined here—will require the United States and its allies to put forward a plan for the removal of sanctions. Moscow will want to know the terms and timetable for phased economic relief and, eventually, the end of all penalties. Without this assurance, it will have no incentive to agree to a settlement.
The final terms of an actual agreement will depend on where the fight stands as the negotiations unfold. Positions on the battlefield and economic and political conditions within Russia, Ukraine, and the West will all influence the pace and results of the talks. Russia and Ukraine may be prepared to make the necessary concessions only after both conclude that the costs of continued fighting outweigh the sacrifices that a diplomatic settlement will require. And the West might push vigorously for a settlement only when it realizes that sanctions on Russia require that it endure severe economic blowback. No party has reached that stage yet, but given the brutality of the conflict, the mounting losses on both sides, and fragile socioeconomic conditions in the West, the time could come sooner than expected.
An enduring settlement will have to balance the interests of all parties to the conflict. In the framework proposed here, no party achieves its ultimate goals, but each gets something it urgently needs—this is the inevitable outcome of any negotiation to end a horrific war. It will not look like the victory that many in the West and Ukraine yearn for. Still, a settlement that preserves an independent Ukraine with the wherewithal to defend itself should count as a major success. It is worth remembering that the West won the Cold War not in one fell swoop but through a series of steps—including, when necessary, compromises with Moscow to avert war. The result was the steady accumulation of advantages over 40 years. That is the approach the West should adopt today.
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