The Hard Truth About Long Wars
Why the Conflict in Ukraine Won’t End Anytime Soon
At this stage of the war in Ukraine, as Russia steps up its offensive in the Donbas and more revelations of the atrocities committed by its forces emerge, the prospect of any kind of negotiated peace between Moscow and Kyiv seems remote. Even earlier this spring, when delegations from the two sides were meeting, the talks had little impact on either Russia’s or Ukraine’s determination to keep fighting. And at times, both Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin have been dismissive of the negotiations. Today, the sides have effectively suspended their diplomatic efforts.
Amid the gloom, it would be easy to forget the real progress that negotiators have already made. In late March, Ukrainian diplomats introduced an innovative framework for a deal that could provide a pathway out of the war. And crucially, the proposal, which was leaked to the press following talks in Istanbul on March 29, has already received at least preliminary support from both sides. At the center of the proposed deal is a trade: Kyiv would renounce its ambitions to join NATO and embrace permanent neutrality in return for receiving security guarantees from both its Western partners and from Russia.
Perhaps because of its novelty, the significance of the Istanbul proposal has yet to be appreciated in many Western capitals, where security guarantees have become synonymous with treaties of alliance. Unlike an alliance, which unites close partners in common defense, usually against a potential enemy, the proposed deal calls for geopolitical rivals to guarantee Ukraine’s long-term security jointly, outside of an alliance structure—and to do so despite one of the rivals’ ongoing war of aggression against Ukraine. If the proposal were to become the basis of an eventual settlement, the result would be a mechanism, however counterintuitive, that would make Russia itself a stakeholder in Ukraine’s security.
In the context of Ukraine, officials and analysts have tended to equate security guarantees with Article 5 of NATO’s foundational North Atlantic Treaty, the provision that treats an “armed attack” on one ally as an attack on all and calls for each ally to respond with “such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force.” Indeed, Ukraine aspired to join NATO in large part for this collective defense pledge. And the United States and its NATO allies have been reluctant to offer Ukraine membership because of the Article 5 obligations it would entail, and the resulting risk of direct conflict with Russia.
The Istanbul proposal envisions a very different mechanism for ensuring Ukraine’s security. According to the communiqué that was leaked to the press, the proposal would establish Ukraine as a permanently neutral country and provides for international legal guarantees of its nonnuclear and nonaligned status. The guarantors of the treaty would include all the permanent members of the UN Security Council—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—as well as Canada, Germany, Israel, Italy, Poland, and Turkey. In the event of an attack on Ukraine, these guarantor states, after receiving an official appeal from Kyiv and conducting urgent consultations, would provide assistance to Ukraine, including, if necessary, the use of armed force “with the goal of restoring and then maintaining Ukraine’s security as a permanently neutral state.”
Under the Istanbul plan, Russia would be a stakeholder in Ukrainian security.
According to the proposal, the guarantees would not extend to parts of Ukraine occupied by Russia (although Ukraine would not concede its legal claims to the entirety of its internationally recognized territory). Ukraine would commit not to join any military coalitions or host any foreign military bases or forces on its territory. Any multinational military exercises in Ukraine would be possible only with the consent of all the guarantor states. And finally, the guarantors would confirm their intention to promote Ukraine’s membership in the European Union. The proposal contained additional provisions, and certain details have been clarified since the Istanbul meeting. But according to published reports, the core points of the communiqué remain on the table.
Immediately after Istanbul, there were questions about whether Russia would reject the proposal out of hand—particularly after the chief Russian negotiator, Vladimir Medinsky, was sharply criticized in Russia for not taking a harder line in the talks. After all, Moscow had only weeks earlier sought to oust Zelensky by force, and when the Russian government subsequently agreed to talks it also made several extreme demands—such as Ukrainian recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea—that were absent from the Istanbul communiqué. Moreover, Russian hard-liners lambasted the proposals to accept a U.S. security guarantee to Ukraine and to support Kyiv’s EU membership. But two days after arriving back in Moscow, Medinsky appeared before the cameras and gave a very upbeat assessment of the Istanbul plan. It seems highly unlikely that he would have done so without having first consulted Putin. And Putin himself, in his meeting with UN Secretary-General António Guterres in late April, called the proposal a “real breakthrough.”
In fact, the Istanbul communiqué may be a breakthrough—at least a conceptual one. At first, this was not entirely clear in Western capitals. When asked whether the United Kingdom was prepared to become a guarantor of Ukraine shortly after the Istanbul meeting, Dominic Raab, the British deputy prime minister, pointed out, “Ukraine is not a NATO member.” He added, “We’re not going to engage Russia in direct military confrontation” over Ukraine. In other words, if NATO allies have been unwilling to grant Ukraine Article 5 protections because it might get them into a war with Russia, why should they give Ukraine the same commitment in a different form?
But the security guarantees outlined in the Istanbul communiqué are very different from Article 5. Most important, unlike the North Atlantic Treaty, the proposed agreement would include Russia as a party. The Istanbul plan implies Russian consent to the United States’ and its allies’ guarantees to Ukraine—and their consent, in turn, to Russia’s co-equal guarantor role. Indeed, since it would involve geopolitical rivals as guarantors, the Istanbul proposal would not be a treaty of alliance, like NATO, but a multilateral security guarantee, an arrangement whereby competing powers commit to the security of a third state, usually on the understanding that it will remain neutral and unaligned with any of those powers.
Multilateral security guarantees serve a fundamentally different purpose than alliances. Whereas alliances such as NATO are intended to maintain collective defense against a common enemy, multilateral security guarantees are designed to ensure comity among the guarantors regarding the guaranteed state, and by extension to bolster that state’s security. In this sense, the Istanbul proposal is similar in form to the treaties that enshrined Belgium’s independence and guaranteed its permanent neutrality in 1831 and 1839.
Prior to those treaties, Belgium did not exist. Due to its strategic geography—the country enjoys a North Sea coast close to Britain and is sandwiched on land between Germany, France, and the Netherlands—its territory had been the site of more than a thousand battles among European powers since Roman times. When the Belgians rebelled against their then rulers, the Dutch, in 1830, the members of the Concert of Europe—Austria, Prussia, the United Kingdom, France, and Russia—began protracted negotiations with both parties to work out the parameters of an independent Belgium. Eventually, they reached agreement on a wide-ranging treaty separating Belgium from the Netherlands and agreeing that the former would be an “independent and perpetually neutral state … bound to observe such neutrality toward all other states.” The articles of the treaty were “placed under the Guarantee” of the five great-power signatories.
Belgium traded neutrality for security and got 75 years of peace.
This arrangement was possible because all the major European states saw Belgium’s independence, security, and neutrality as essential to the security of the entire continent. Belgium was particularly important to the great-power rivals that neighbored it, France and Germany, since the lack of topographical obstructions on its territory made the country a direct pathway for one to invade the other. And it was important to the United Kingdom both for maritime security and as a European trading hub.
But along with the guarantors, Belgium benefited, too: it gained independence and had 75 years of peace. Indeed, on more than one occasion, the treaty was invoked by one of Belgium’s guarantors to deter another’s (usually either France’s or Germany’s) designs on the country. As one early-twentieth-century British observer put it, “It was one of those treaties which are founded not only on consideration for Belgium, which benefits under the Treaty, but in the interests of those who guarantee the neutrality of Belgium.”
In 1914, of course, Germany violated its guarantee by invading and occupying Belgium as part of its Schlieffen plan to attack France, famously dismissing the 1839 treaty as a mere “scrap of paper.” Belgium’s neutrality is therefore sometimes seen as a failed experiment. But the United Kingdom honored its guarantee and entered the war against Germany because of the German attack on Belgium. Moreover, Belgium had at this point enjoyed three-quarters of a century of peace under the treaty—almost exactly three times as long as the brief era of relative peace enjoyed by post-Soviet Ukraine before Russia’s first attack in 2014.
Ukraine’s geography, like Belgium’s, makes the country a core security concern for the geopolitical rivals that border it. And, as with Belgium’s security in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Ukraine’s security is now seen as central to the peace and stability of the whole continent. And like the Belgian treaties, the Istanbul communiqué offers benefits to both the guaranteed state and the guarantors. Ukraine would get an end to the current Russian assault and strong guarantees against potential future aggression. It would also get Moscow’s promise to stand aside on its path to EU membership. For its part, Russia would get Ukrainian neutrality, ending the prospect of its NATO membership, in an agreement legally guaranteed by the United States, its allies, and Ukraine; it would also receive assurances that there will be no foreign bases in Ukraine or foreign militaries exercising there without Moscow’s consent. And for the West, the Kremlin’s renunciation of its objections to Ukraine’s EU membership would mean Ukraine’s final departure from the Russian sphere of influence.
Although Russia would benefit from the Istanbul plan, many observers doubt that Moscow will ultimately approve it. After all, Russia would be agreeing that if it attacked Ukraine again it would face a high risk, if not a near certainty, of war with the United States and its allies. There are two possible explanations, then, why the Kremlin signaled its preliminary support for the Istanbul formula. First, it is possible that Russia does not take seriously the prospect of the United States’ and its allies’ making good on guarantees to Ukraine and would sign up with the intention to violate the deal—much as Germany dismissed the Belgian treaty as a “scrap of paper” when it invaded in 1914. But the risk that the U.S. military would come to Ukraine’s defense would be existential for Russia. It seems highly unlikely that Moscow would want to open up the prospect of war with the United States merely to prove a point.
That leaves a second interpretation: if Ukraine accepts permanent neutrality, as the plan calls for, Russia would have no interest in attacking it. Not only would that explain Moscow’s willingness to take on the risk of conflict with the United States; it would also be consistent with the extraordinary lengths to which Russia has gone to preclude Ukraine’s NATO membership. In other words, the incentives created by a legally binding deal that ensured Ukraine’s neutrality and kept foreign militaries off its territory outweigh any possible benefits from a future invasion. For if Russia were to repeat its aggression, it would now risk both a direct conflict with the United States and the end of Ukrainian neutrality.
Of course, such an agreement would entail significant challenges. For the United States, the credibility of its global alliances would rest on this risky arrangement. Ukraine’s neutrality and the ban on foreign bases and exercises would pose particular dilemmas for the U.S. military. The Pentagon’s usual approach to ensuring security commitments—including, for example, forward deployments, full access to territory, and some degree of operational planning with partners—would not be possible in this case. Finally, the area of application of the guarantees would need to be squared with the line of de facto territorial control when a cease-fire is declared. The United States has found formulas for guaranteeing the security of states with territorial disputes—West Germany’s and South Korea’s security were guaranteed to their de facto borders, even though Washington formally recognized their legal claims to the entirety of their divided countries. But in those cases, the lines of demarcation were relatively well defined and stable—the inner German border and the 38th parallel—whereas the lines dividing Russian and Ukrainian forces in areas that Moscow has occupied in Ukraine since February 24 change almost daily. To make this work, Moscow would have to withdraw from much, if not all, of the areas it has occupied since the invasion.
These challenges are significant. And work to address them could begin only after both sides no longer see an advantage in pursuing their aims on the battlefield. There is currently no sign of that. But if Moscow and Kyiv were to return to the table, the Istanbul communiqué could point the way to a resolution of the dilemma of Ukraine’s status as an in-between state, transforming geopolitical rivalry over its alignment into mutual commitment to its long-term security. If this framework succeeds, it could also provide a model for other nonaligned states, such as Moldova and Georgia, and even for a new European security architecture, in which Russia and the West remain geopolitical adversaries but accept certain red lines.
An agreement based on the Istanbul communiqué would be exceptionally difficult to negotiate. The politics of the conflict, Russia’s war crimes, and the ongoing fighting present powerful obstacles to achieving it. But so far, it is the most plausible pathway that has been identified to a sustainable peace for Ukraine.
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