How to Get a Breakthrough in Ukraine
The Case Against Incrementalism
U.S. President Joe Biden has said that the United States is committed to a negotiated end to the war in Ukraine. But his administration has taken few, if any, steps to create a diplomatic process that could produce such an outcome. Buoyed by Ukrainian battlefield successes and horrified by Russian atrocities, the United States seems committed to continuing its current approach of helping Ukraine recapture as much territory as possible without provoking a wider war. The mantra in Washington is to support Kyiv “for as long it takes” and to rule out, at least for now, practical steps toward diplomacy. That message was reinforced this week when 30 Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives released a letter urging the Biden administration to pursue direct negotiations with Moscow, only to withdraw it a day later amid the predictable outcry.
In fact, the United States and its G-7 partners have already proposed a peace deal. But the terms read like conditions for Russia’s surrender: Kyiv regains all its territory, receives reparations from Moscow, and signs security agreements with Western countries. Such an outcome would indeed be ideal, restoring Ukraine’s control over its internationally recognized borders, strengthening the international order, and chastening Russia—but it is also improbable. Communicating that an outright Ukrainian victory is the desired U.S. endgame without making a concerted effort to prepare for future diplomatic negotiations could lead either to a dangerous escalation or to prolonging the conflict indefinitely. It would be premature to push for any particular deal or even for direct negotiations today. But by laying the groundwork for these negotiations now, the United States, together with its Ukrainian partners and its allies, could minimize the risk of these dangerous outcomes and help chart a path toward ending the war.
On October 11, after Russia carried out attacks on civilian infrastructure across Ukraine, the United States and its G-7 allies issued a statement indicating how they think the war will progress. “We will continue to provide financial, humanitarian, military, diplomatic and legal support and will stand firmly with Ukraine for as long as it takes,” the G-7 leaders said, adding that Kyiv has the right to “regain full control of its territory within its internationally recognised borders.” The G-7 also demanded that Russia “cease all hostilities and immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all its troops and military equipment from Ukraine,” including, presumably, not only areas seized this year but also Ukrainian territory that Moscow has controlled since 2014. And the group pledged to support Ukrainian efforts to pursue a “just peace,” which should include “respecting the UN Charter’s protection of territorial integrity and sovereignty; safeguarding Ukraine’s ability to defend itself in the future; ensuring Ukraine’s recovery and reconstruction, including exploring avenues to do so with funds from Russia; pursuing accountability for Russian crimes committed during the war.”
All this is morally and legally justified. It might also be possible, thanks to Russia’s astonishing underperformance in the war. But there are good reasons to doubt that Ukraine and its Western backers can force Russia’s military to relinquish all the Ukrainian territory it currently holds and then persuade Moscow to abide by the victor’s terms of peace.
First, Russia may opt to escalate rather than to capitulate on the battlefield. The United States and its G-7 partners appear to think that Moscow will accept complete territorial loss without provoking a wider war or using weapons of mass destruction. It is certainly possible that Russian President Vladimir Putin is bluffing when he threatens to use nuclear weapons. But unlike U.S. President Richard Nixon, who embraced the “madman theory” of nuclear intimidation in his standoff with the North Vietnamese, which took place thousands of miles from the United States, Putin is fighting for what he claims is Russia’s own territory. The stakes are therefore much higher. If his conventional forces are being routed, Putin could draw on his immense arsenal of nonstrategic nuclear weapons for use against Ukrainian forces or government targets. The use of nuclear weapons might seem futile or even self-defeating, but during the Cold War NATO envisioned using them to offset its conventional disadvantages vis-à-vis the Warsaw Pact. Putin could also test or use a nuclear weapon away from the battlefield to demonstrate his resolve and his willingness to use more of them in the future.
Even in the absence of a nuclear attack, the risk of a direct clash between NATO and Russia—and the attendant risk of a strategic nuclear exchange—will remain high and possibly increase as long as the war continues. In a moment of desperation, Russia could attempt to turn the tide of the war by trying to stop the flow of Western arms that enables Ukraine to keep fighting.
Second, Ukraine may not be able to sustain its current pace of territorial gains. The G-7 statement seems to assume that time is on Ukraine’s side and that Russia will be unable to recover from its military setbacks. That may be true. After all, Ukraine has made significant gains in its counteroffensives over the last two months, the Russian military has struggled with nearly all its operations throughout the war, and Moscow’s mobilization efforts have been plagued with problems, including the flight of many fighting-age men from the country. Moreover, Russia remains under heavy economic sanctions that could make it harder to sustain the war.
The United States can do more to create the conditions for eventual negotiations to succeed.
Still, it is far from certain that Ukraine will be able to retake all its internationally recognized territory. Russia’s mobilization has been a mess, but it could eventually produce a much larger force. Insufficient troop numbers have been perhaps the Russian military’s biggest weakness, leaving it unable to defend a frontline that stretches more than 600 miles. A bigger Russian fighting force could compel Ukraine to ramp up its own mobilization efforts, even though it faced challenges with enlistment during its last wave of recruitment.
Finally, Russia may not give up even if it is forced to withdraw from Ukrainian territory. The current U.S. and G-7 approach presumes that territorial loss will force Putin to realize that he cannot achieve his goals militarily—or that it will wear Russia’s military down to the point where it cannot continue fighting. But even a victory that returns all of Ukraine into Ukrainian hands would not eliminate all of Russia’s military capability. Such a victory would likely devastate Russia’s ground forces, but Moscow would retain a large inventory of missiles, ample artillery, and formidable air and naval assets. And because Russia and Ukraine share a long land border, Moscow would be able to contest a Ukrainian victory for years to come. Given enough time to rearm and regroup, Russia’s military could eventually invade again.
For this reason, territorial victory would need to be combined with an agreement to end the war. The G-7 statement envisions Russia consenting to Ukraine’s full control over its internationally recognized borders and formally agreeing not to contest that new status quo. But Russia’s current leadership is highly unlikely to agree to such terms, especially if they involve giving up Crimea. Therefore, as Andriy Zagorodnyuk, a former defense minister of Ukraine, has argued in Foreign Affairs, Kyiv would probably need regime change in Moscow in addition to victory on the battlefield to avoid living under the constant threat of reinvasion. And despite increasing (and understandable) calls from Kyiv for Washington and its allies to seek Putin’s ouster, the Biden administration has studiously avoided embracing this as an objective of the war.
Barring regime change, the likely pathways forward given current Ukrainian, U.S. and allied policies are either Russian escalation, as noted above, or a conflict of indefinite duration. A protracted war could benefit Washington to the extent that it weakens Moscow and forces it to pare back its ambitions elsewhere. But a war that drags on would also have significant downsides for the United States. It would continue to eat up military and financial resources as well as the time and energy of U.S. policymakers, diminishing Washington’s ability to prioritize long-term strategic competition with China. A protracted conflict would likely also sustain the deep freeze in U.S.-Russian relations, potentially jeopardizing cooperation between Washington and Moscow on issues of global importance, such as arms control.
A long war would also disrupt the global economy. The United States’ most important trading partners and allies in Europe would be the hardest hit, mainly because of higher energy prices. And, of course, the country that would suffer the most—in terms of lives lost, infrastructure destroyed, and economic devastation—is Ukraine. Even a conflict that continues at a lower level of intensity would disrupt the economy and scare off investment, complicating the country’s economic recovery.
In an op-ed in The New York Times in May, Biden wrote that U.S. military assistance to Ukraine was intended to put the country’s leaders in “in the strongest possible position at the negotiating table.” Quoting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, he wrote that “ultimately this war ‘will only definitively end through diplomacy.’” Five months later, that diplomacy has yet to materialize—a fact for which Russia bears primary responsibility.
But the United States could be doing more to enable diplomacy. As Ukraine has gained the upper hand on the battlefield, Washington has coalesced around the view that it should let the war play out because escalation risks can be managed, Ukraine will keep winning, and Russia will eventually be forced to accept defeat. Western military support should continue, in this view, so that Ukraine can take back its territory and frustrate Russia’s annexation efforts. The United States should not reward Putin’s nuclear saber rattling by backing down or by pressuring the parties to negotiate. No give-and-take is necessary. Russia can either accept the terms laid out by the G-7 now or it can accept them once it has been defeated on the battlefield.
It is possible that this optimistic scenario will come to pass. But the assumptions underlying it are questionable. And if they prove wrong, the result will be at best a protracted conflict and at worst a catastrophic escalation. Laying the groundwork for eventual negotiations could reduce the risk of these dangerous outcomes.
That doesn’t mean that Washington should seek to launch direct talks today. The parties are not yet ready. But the United States can do more to create the conditions for eventual negotiations to succeed. For instance, Washington could begin discussions with its allies and Ukraine about the need for all parties to demonstrate openness to the prospect of eventual talks, and to moderate public expectations of a decisive victory. The Biden administration could work with these partners to develop shared language to that effect and feature it more prominently in official statements. Making “this war will only definitively end through diplomacy” as much of a mantra as “supporting the Ukrainians for as long as it takes”—and emphasizing that one does not contradict the other—could help begin to change the narrative.
The United States can also make clear that a negotiated settlement would not be an act of capitulation. The G-7 statement anticipates an outcome—effectively, total Russian surrender—that seems highly implausible. Diplomacy, by definition, will entail some give-and-take, so it is important to be vague about the terms of a possible settlement at this stage.
Finally, the Biden administration should consider keeping all lines of communication with Moscow open, from the president on down, both to signal openness to an eventual negotiated end to the war and to have channels in place to facilitate peace talks when the time is right. There is no guarantee that these steps would lead to peace any time soon. But they could mitigate the risks of dramatic escalation and indefinite war. Letting the conflict play out may seem like a wise decision. But a negotiated outcome—still the Biden administration’s stated goal—will likely remain elusive unless it lays the groundwork for one now.