How to Get a Breakthrough in Ukraine
The Case Against Incrementalism
When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, few observers imagined that the war would still be raging today. Russian planners did not account for the stern resistance of Ukrainian forces, the enthusiastic support Ukraine would receive from Europe and North America, or the various shortcomings of their own military. Both sides are now dug in, and the fighting could carry on for months, if not years.
Why is this war dragging on? Most conflicts are brief. Over the last two centuries, most wars have lasted an average of three to four months. That brevity owes much to the fact that war is the worst way to settle political differences. As the costs of fighting become apparent, adversaries usually look for a settlement.
Many wars, of course, do last longer. Compromise fails to materialize for three main strategic reasons: when leaders think defeat threatens their very survival, when leaders do not have a clear sense of their strength and that of their enemy, and when leaders fear that their adversary will grow stronger in the future. In Ukraine, all these dynamics keep the war raging.
But these three tell only part of the story. Fundamentally, this war is also rooted in ideology. Russian President Vladimir Putin denies the validity of Ukrainian identity and statehood. Insiders speak of a government warped by its own disinformation, fanatical in its commitment to seize territory. Ukraine, for its part, has held unflinchingly to its ideals. The country’s leaders and people have shown themselves unwilling to sacrifice liberty or sovereignty to Russian aggression, no matter the price. Those who sympathize with such fervent convictions describe them as steadfast values. Skeptics criticize them as intransigence or dogma. Whatever the term, the implication is often the same: each side rejects realpolitik and fights on principle.
Russia and Ukraine are not unique in this regard, for ideological belief explains many long wars. Americans in particular should recognize their own revolutionary past in the clash of convictions that perpetuates the war in Ukraine. More and more democracies also look like Ukraine—where popular ideals make certain compromises abhorrent—and this intransigence lies behind many of the West’s twenty-first-century wars, including the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. It is seldom acknowledged, but closely held principles and values often make peace elusive. The war in Ukraine is just the most recent example of a fight that grinds on not because of strategic dilemmas alone but because both sides find the idea of settlement repugnant.
Wars begin and persist when leaders think they can secure a better outcome by fighting rather than through normal politics. Countries fight long wars for at least three calculated reasons. First, rulers who fear for their survival stay on the battlefield. If Putin believes defeat could end his regime, he has an incentive to keep fighting, whatever the consequences for Russians.
Second, wars persist in conditions of uncertainty—for instance, when both sides have only a fuzzy sense of their relative strength or when they underestimate the damaging consequences of the conflict. In many cases, a few months of battle dispel this fog. Fighting reveals each side’s might and resolve and clears up misperceptions. Rivals find a way to end the war by reaching an agreement that reflects the now visible balance of power. Most wars, as a result, are short.
But in some cases, the fog of war lifts slowly. Take the current situation in Ukraine. Ukrainian forces have exceeded everyone’s expectations, but it remains unclear whether they can drive Russian troops out of the country. A cold winter could erode Europe’s willingness to keep delivering funds and weapons to Ukraine. And the battlefield effects of Russia’s partial mobilization in September will only be apparent months from now. Amid such persistent uncertainties, rivals can find it harder to strike a peace deal.
Finally, some political scientists and historians argue that every long war has at its heart a “commitment problem”—that is, the inability on the part of one side or both to credibly commit to a peace deal because of anticipated shifts in the balance of power. Some call this the Thucydides Trap or a “preventive war”: one side launches an attack to lock in the current balance of power before it is lost. From Germany’s effort to prevent the rise of Russia in 1914 to the United States’ desire to stop Iraq from becoming a nuclear power in 2003, commitment problems drive many major wars. In those circumstances, bargains can unravel before they are even made.
The principles and obsessions of Ukrainian and Russian leaders fuel the conflict.
At first glance, the war in Ukraine looks to be full of commitment problems. Whenever a European leader or a U.S. general suggests it is time to settle with Russia, Ukrainians, and their allies retort that it is Putin who cannot credibly commit to a deal. The Kremlin is hell-bent on gaining territory, they say, and its leader is politically and ideologically locked into his war aims. Settle now, Ukrainians warn, and Russia will simply regroup and attack again. Ukrainians, moreover, are in no mood to compromise with their oppressor. Even if Moscow could get a Ukrainian negotiator to agree to a cease-fire, the chances of the Ukrainian public or the Ukrainian parliament’s accepting even the tiniest loss of people or territory are slim. A popular backlash would scupper any negotiated deal.
Neither Russia’s resolve nor Ukraine’s, however, are traditional commitment problems stemming from strategic calculations and perceptions of shifts in power. Rather, immaterial forces make an accord difficult. The principles and obsessions of Ukrainian and Russian leaders fuel the conflict. There is no imminent deal because both sides prefer fighting to conceding.
Ukraine’s strident resistance to any suggestion of compromise is not unusual. The same intransigence recurs throughout history whenever colonized and oppressed peoples have decided to fight for their freedom against all odds. They reject subjugation for many reasons, including a mix of outrage and principle. Concessions—to imperialism, to domination—are simply abhorrent, even for the weak. As the anticolonial political philosopher Frantz Fanon wrote in his 1961 classic, The Wretched of the Earth, “We revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe.”
The parallels between Ukrainian resistance and the United States’ own revolution are especially striking. Then, as now, a superpower hoped to strengthen its grip on a weaker entity. In the 1760s and 1770s, Great Britain tried again and again to restrain the autonomy of the 13 colonies. British forces were militarily superior, and the colonists had no formal allies. Arguably, partial sovereignty and increased taxes were the best possible deal the colonists could demand from the hegemon. Still, many Americans rejected this bargain. Why? In a letter to Thomas Jefferson in 1815, John Adams wrote that the true revolution occurred in the “Minds of the People.” This was effected, he wrote, “in the course of 15 years before a drop of blood was shed at Lexington.” It came about, he observed a few years later, through a “radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections” of the colonists. To many, compromising on these principles by conceding to a British king was out of the question. In Ukraine, its autonomy assailed for nearly a decade by Putin, a similar resolve has emerged. Many Ukrainians refuse as a matter of principle to accept Russian claims to their land or to bend in the face of Russian aggression—especially when it means leaving their compatriots on the other side.
There are also parallels to an old, now neglected idea in the study of war: “indivisibility,” or an object, place, or set of principles that people convince themselves cannot be divided or compromised in any way. Some scholars used the concept to explain why holy sites and ethnic homelands can prompt long and divisive wars. Others dismissed it as a boutique explanation for a narrow class of conflicts, and indivisibilities drifted from academic attention. The concept is powerful, however, and applicable to a wide variety of conflicts. When the brave fighters in Ukraine or anti-imperial revolutionaries in colonial America and in European colonies in Africa refused to concede liberties, it was because they considered the tradeoffs too costly. A radical change in principles and popular sentiment made surrendering land and freedom politically infeasible.
The parallels between Ukrainian resistance and the U.S. revolution are striking.
This phenomenon is far from rare, and it seems particularly prevalent in democracies. Arguably, principles and unacceptable compromises are one of the main reasons democratic countries end up waging long wars. Take the United States’ two-decade campaign in Afghanistan. Repeatedly, from 2002 through at least 2004, Taliban officials sought political deals with Hamid Karzai, who was then the Afghan president. But according to insiders interviewed by the historian Carter Malkasian, the George W. Bush administration’s view was that “all Taliban were bad.” Looking at the same period, the journalist Steve Coll noted how U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld announced that negotiation was “unacceptable to the United States” and that the U.S. policy toward the Taliban was “to bring justice to them or them to justice.” In both Malkasian’s and Coll’s accounts, the Bush administration steadfastly forbade Karzai from pursuing any settled peace.
Of course, the U.S. government had strategic reasons to doubt the Taliban’s sincerity. And in seeking the total military defeat of the Taliban, administration officials wanted to establish a reputation of strength and send a signal to other adversaries not to attack the United States. But it would be foolish to ignore the fact that, for almost two decades, U.S. leaders rejected the idea of negotiating with the Taliban as a matter of principle, not just one of calculated strategy.
The United States is not alone in its refusal to deal. Again and again, in confronting insurgents and terrorists in Iraq, Northern Ireland, the Palestinian territories, and a dozen other places, democratic governments have refused for years to even consider dialogue. Jonathan Powell, the British government’s chief negotiator in Northern Ireland from 1997 to 1999, lamented this situation in his 2015 book, Terrorists at the Table. He argued that demonizing the enemy and refusing all dialogue was shortsighted and invariably the cause of needless deaths. In Northern Ireland, the British government eventually realized that it needed to pursue a political process. Peace is impossible, Powell contends, if ideological barriers prevent leaders from negotiating.
Yet events in Ukraine have not reached a point where Ukrainians can countenance compromise. Recently, realists such as Henry Kissinger and Stephen Walt have urged Ukraine to overcome its ideological barriers and trade some degree of sovereignty for peace. The difference between such realists and the idealists who want Ukraine to keep fighting is simple: they disagree on the cost of the concessions Ukraine might have to make to produce a deal and on the level of Russia’s ideological commitment to the conquest of its neighbor.
Make no mistake, there is a strategic case for the Ukrainians to fight on and for the West to support them. Still, resistance to Russia—and rejection of the kinds of distasteful compromises that might bring the war to a swift end—should also be understood as evidence of the abiding power of ideals and principles in geopolitics.
Such values and ideas will continue to play a leading role in the wars waged by democracies in the future. The West has grown steadily more rights-based over time: it has become obligatory in many countries to abide by and defend certain liberal principles, whatever the consequences. The philosopher Michael Ignatieff calls this shift the Rights Revolution. These ideals should be celebrated, and Western governments should continue to try living up to them (even if they often fail). But if this tendency makes the West less inclined toward realpolitik—trading rights and principles for peace, or cutting deals with unpalatable autocrats—wars such as the one in Ukraine may become more frequent and more difficult to end.
Now Is Not the Time for Talks, but America Must Lay the Groundwork