How to Get a Breakthrough in Ukraine
The Case Against Incrementalism
Whenever the United States faces a foreign policy crisis, critics claim that the U.S. government is doing either too much or not enough. So it is with Ukraine. Many fault the Biden administration for failing to provide Ukrainian forces with the heavy weapons—mainly tanks, long-range missiles, and combat aircraft—that they say are needed to expel Russian troops from Ukrainian soil. Others, worried about Western staying power and the rising human and economic costs of the war, urge the administration to pressure Kyiv into negotiating a deal with Russia—even if that means giving up some of its territory.
Neither argument is convincing. The Ukrainian military has surprised everyone with its capacity to defend the country and even retake a good part of the territory it lost at the outset of the war. But ejecting Russian troops from all its territory, including Crimea, will be exceedingly difficult, even with greater Western military aid. Achieving such an outcome would require the collapse of dug-in and reinforced Russian defenses and would risk starting a direct war between NATO and Russia, a doomsday scenario that no one wants. As for negotiations, Russian President Vladimir Putin has given no indication that he is prepared to give up his imperial dream of controlling Ukraine. And it would be just as difficult to convince the Ukrainian government to cede territories to a brutal occupying force in return for an uncertain peace. Given the strong incentives on both sides to continue fighting, a third outcome is much more likely: a prolonged, grinding war that gradually becomes frozen along a line of control that neither side accepts.
The idea that wars always end in either victory or a negotiated settlement is belied by history and certainly by the existence of multiple frozen conflicts along Russia’s border. Indeed, Ukraine itself provides a prominent example of this. Despite years of on-and-off peace efforts, the war in the Donbas was largely frozen for the eight years preceeding Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The current war may be no different: after more than ten months of brutal fighting, and months of punishing attacks on its civilian populations, the Ukrainian government will not accept Russian control over any of its territory, particularly after witnessing the looting, rapes, and assassinations that have occurred in Russian-held areas. But Russia is equally unlikely to voluntarily give up Ukrainian territory it wrongly believes belongs to Moscow.
So far, Washington and its allies have appropriately focused on the immediate tasks of helping Ukraine and avoiding escalation. But there is a pressing need to consider the longer term, and to develop policies toward both Russia and Ukraine based on the emerging reality that this war is likely to continue for quite some time. Rather than assuming that the war can be ended through triumph or talks, the West needs to contemplate a world in which the conflict continues with neither victory nor peace in sight. In such a world, the United States and its allies will need to continue providing Ukraine with military support to defend against further Russian aggression. They will need to contain Russia’s larger ambitions by maintaining economic sanctions and isolating Moscow diplomatically. And they will need to ensure that the conflict does not escalate. At the same time, they will need to lay a long-term basis for security and stability in Europe. That will require integrating Ukraine fully into the West while forging a containment policy that emphasizes both deterrence of Russian aggression and efforts to engage Moscow to avoid the escalation of the war to a broader military confrontation that no one wants. Balancing a Ukraine policy with a Russia policy will be challenging over the long-term, but both endeavors will be essential to the future of European security.
The war in Ukraine has been full of surprises. Despite the Biden administration’s public unveiling of intelligence showing Moscow’s preparations for an invasion, many were stunned that Russia used more than 175,000 troops to attack a neighboring country that had done it no harm and had not in any way constituted a threat to its security. And even for those who anticipated a full-scale invasion, events did not go as expected: many were surprised that Russia failed to quickly seize control of Ukraine and overthrow its government. Contrary to expectations, Russia’s military was beset by weak and deeply flawed planning, communications, and logistics, which allowed vastly outgunned and outnumbered Ukrainian forces to hold off the Russian advance toward Kyiv. And then, aided by Western military and intelligence assistance of a scale unimaginable before February, Ukraine continued to surprise the world by shifting the course of the war over the summer and retaking about half the territory it had lost in the initial Russian assault. Meanwhile, the West was able to deliver, with suprising resolve and unity of purpose, a punishing economic blow to Russia. Especially notable was Europe’s willingness to end its reliance on Russian fossil fuels at a cost that few had thought European governments would be willing to bear.
Although Ukrainian forces were able to make dramatic gains in the early fall of 2022 and show no sign of letting up the fight, the dynamic of war shifted again in the final months of the year. Ukraine enters 2023 battered and deeply bruised, not least by Russia’s unrelenting missile attacks against its power grid and other civilian infrastructure. Along with reportedly more than 100,000 Russian troops, huge numbers of Ukrainian military personnel and civilians have been killed in the war. Moreover, unlike in the first 10 months of war, there will probably be no significant changes to the current lines of confrontation over the coming months. For one thing, Russia lacks the personnel and materiel to go on the offensive anytime soon, and its missile and drone attacks against Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure have only hardened Ukrainians’ determination to resist. At the same time, Ukraine will find it increasingly difficult to breach Russian defenses at an acceptable cost. Ukrainian forces may continue to launch successful offensives through specific Russian lines, for example, in the south toward Melitopol and the Sea of Azov. But unless Russian defenses collapse completely, Ukraine lacks the personnel to hold such gains for long without exposing itself to Russian counterattacks elsewhere.
Since the fall, Western strategists have sought to preempt a military standoff in two ways. Some, such as the leaders of several Baltic countries, have called for arming Kyiv with more of the heavy weapons it would need to expel Russian forces from all Ukrainian territory; others, including Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, have suggested that Ukraine’s political leaders should consider a negotiated solution that falls short of complete victory but would at least end the fighting. Neither approach stands much chance of success.
There is a limit to what Washington and its allies can and will provide in terms of weapons and military assistance. Part of that limit is the reality that even the United States is running out of excess capabilities to provide to Ukraine. Take artillery shells. In the past year, Ukraine fired as many of them in a week as the United States can produce in a month. Similar shortfalls exist for more advanced weapons. Germany sent its modern IRIS-T air defense system to Ukraine in October, but it has struggled to supply the quantity of surface-to-air missiles necessary for Ukraine to maintain an effective defense. Given the extensive military aid it has already provided and dwindling available supplies, the West is likely to ship a significantly smaller amount of weaponry to Ukraine over the next six months than it did over the last six months.
Ukraine has fired as many shells in a week as the United States can produce in a month.
In addition to supply constraints, Washington and its allies have also been held back in furnishing some sophisticated weapons to Ukraine because of the extensive training that would be required and the risk that such weapons could fall into Russian hands if used in the war theater. Combat aircraft, from F-16s to newer-generation models, fall into the first category. In the second are sophisticated drones such as the Gray Eagle, which, if they were captured by Russian forces, would give Russia crucial insights into U.S. military capabilities and technology.
Then there is the danger of escalation. Moscow has repeatedly warned Washington not to send long-range missiles to Ukraine, including the MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile System, or ATACMS, which has a range of 300 kilometers (186 miles) and could strike deep into Russian territory. U.S. President Joe Biden has consistently rejected calls to send these highly capable missiles to Ukraine, arguing that doing so would divide NATO and risk setting off a direct military confrontation with Russia, even a third world war. It is easy to dismiss these fears, as many seasoned observers do. But it is crucially important that the United States take the risks of escalation seriously and continually weigh the risks of not doing enough to help Ukraine against the consequences of doing too much, including the possibility that Russia might use tactical nuclear weapons. The undeniable reality is that there is an inherent limit to how much Ukrainian and American interests overlap in responding to Russia’s aggression.
Of course, the Pentagon and White House are continually reassessing Ukraine’s needs and what the United States can do to meet them. Systems initially ruled out, including longer range artillery and advanced air defenses such as the Patriot, have since been sent to Ukraine. The latest such change concerns armored vehicles, with the U.S. and France agreeing to supply Kyiv with armored fighting vehicles and light tanks. But while these weapons and equipment will help Ukraine, they are unlikely to tilt the balance of power on the battlefield sufficiently to end the war.
If a full military victory by Ukraine is unlikely anytime soon, the prospects for a negotiated peace seem even further off. Although Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly stated his willingness to “negotiate with all the participants in this process about some acceptable outcomes,” he is clearly insincere. He has always preferred discussing his territorial goals directly with the United States rather than engaging seriously with the Ukrainian leadership; moreover, he has also insisted that the four Ukrainian oblasts, or provinces, that Russia illegally claimed to annex in September, along with Crimea, which it seized in 2014, are unalterably part of Russia. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, for his part, has declared that Kyiv will never accept any Russian claims on Ukraine’s territory and that any final peace would need to recognize Ukraine’s 1991 borders. No amount of Western cajoling will change Zelensky’s stance, which enjoys overwhelming support from the Ukrainian public—despite, or perhaps because of, the extraordinary suffering the war has inflicted on them.
With neither outright victory nor negotiated peace likely anytime soon, the war will grind on for the foreseeable future. Russian defenses in the east and south are solidifying along the 600-mile frontline that now divides Russian and Ukrainian forces. Both sides will probe for defensive weaknesses, but barring a broader collapse of one or the other, the line of confrontation is likely to remain more or less where it is now. Exhaustion and a lack of personnel and materiel might even produce long pauses in fighting that could lead to a negotiated disengagement or cease-fire agreement, even if temporary or provisional. Not all wars end—or end in permanent peace settlements. The Korean War ended in an armistice, and the 1973 Yom Kippur War resulted in “disengagement agreements,” which in the case of Israel and Syria are still in effect. Russia is no stranger to living with frozen conflicts, including in Georgia and Moldova.
If such a grim future awaits the Ukrainians—a situation in which a state of war remains present, with or without intense fighting—the West will need a multipronged, long-term strategy that neither gives up on Ukraine’s future nor avoids dealing with Russia on issues of mutual interest. While it is exceedingly difficult to imagine working with Putin and his regime, the West may not have much of a choice over the long-term. Putin has been weakened by the accumulating failures of this war, but he has spent 22 years consolidating power to ensure that no one can challenge him successfully. Nor is a revolution from below very likely, given Moscow’s continued capacity for repression of the Russian people. And even if Putin were to be removed from power, his successor could well be someone who shares his vision of a Greater Russia and perhaps even believes that he hasn’t been tough enough.
Despite Putin’s brutality, moreover, both Kyiv and Washington have stayed in direct contact with Moscow since the war began. Ukraine and Russia have negotiated prisoner exchanges. With the assistance of Turkey and the United Nations, Russia and Ukraine reached a deal on grain exports that has largely held. And the United States and Russia negotiated the swap of the American basketball star Brittney Griner for the Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. In a long war strategy, the West will need to reinforce such contacts, even if there are very few points of agreement with Russia.
To develop an effective approach to dealing with a prolonged war, the West must also keep providing sufficient support to Ukraine to defend the territory it now controls—and to liberate more wherever possible. As Ukraine over time pursues its economic future in the European Union, the United States and NATO countries need to offer a security commitment to ensure that Ukraine has the weaponry it needs to defend itself against Russia over the long term, just as the United States has done for Israel for decades. Washington should also explore with its allies the possibility of augmenting Ukraine’s promised EU membership with eventual membership in NATO itself.
The 600-mile frontline is likely to remain where it is for the foreseeable future.
Meanwhile, Western leaders need to get back to the business of containing the Russian threat. That will require maintaining all the financial, trade, and economic sanctions they have put in place since Russia first invaded Ukraine in 2014. It also means continuing their efforts to end dependence on Russian energy exports. And it entails doing everything possible to prevent Russian access to technologies necessary to sustain its economy, including in the defense sector.
An effective long-term containment policy will require the continued political isolation of Russia. Moscow’s exclusion from sporting and cultural events helps to ensure that isolation, as do votes in the UN General Assembly that demonstrate the lack of support for its illegal war against Ukraine. But a more concerted Western effort is necessary to demonstrate to the countries in the global South that alignment with Moscow—or nonalignment itself—ultimately erodes the foundations of peace and security on which the international order is based. That does not mean that all countries need to adopt the economic strategy of the West; it does mean convincing them that Russia is at fault and that its behavior is the fundamental cause of their economic plight. As part of that effort, Washington and its Western partners can do much more to address the food, energy, and economic crises that have emerged in the wake of Russia’s unprovoked actions—starting by relieving debts and providing food aid to countries most in need.
Finally, containment of Russia will require the West to maintain a strong deterrence posture against not just military threats but threats to its own institutions and societies as well. This means that Europe will have to increase its defense spending more than it already has in response to Russian aggression since 2014. The United States will need to stay engaged in Europe even as it devotes more and more effort to the China challenge in the Indo-Pacific. In addition, NATO and EU countries need to bolster their individual and joint efforts to thwart Russian interference in their elections and respond forcefully to economic intimidation, political interference, and other forms of hybrid warfare. Although parts of Russia’s military have been decimated, Moscow remains a significant threat to the West.
In addition to deterring Russia and isolating it politically and economically, however, the West will also need to maintain communication channels with the Kremlin to avoid a direct NATO-Russia war and to maintain strategic stability. There can be no broader negotiations between the West and Russia as long as heavy fighting continues, but as in the Cold War, there may be opportunities for both sides to pursue confidence-building measures that can help avoid a confrontation that neither wants. One important step would be to begin talks on extending the New START treaty, which expires in 2026, and provides for intrusive inspections of and information exchanges about nuclear weapons in both Russia and the United States.
For the United States and its partners, a long-term containment strategy for Russia is hardly a new idea. After all, the West pursued such a policy toward the Soviet Union for four decades before it produced the “mellowing” of Soviet power that diplomat George Kennan had hoped for when crafting it. But during the Cold War, particularly after the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the United States also pursued diplomacy to avoid the worst outcomes, especially an all-out nuclear war. Even President Ronald Reagan, who criticized détente for giving away too much to the Soviet Union, pursued diplomatic relations at the darkest moments before Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, such as in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet downing of a South Korean civilian airliner in 1983.
As with his Soviet predecessors, Putin needs to be denied the ability to expand his evil empire, but Russia isn’t going to disappear. The West needs a policy toward Kyiv and toward Moscow. It can’t afford to have one and not the other. A free Ukraine is important to the West. And an imperial Russia remains a threat to Europe. Neither containment nor engagement of Russia is sufficient on their own to defend the West while avoiding larger conflict.
Even a nonimperial Russia minding its own business would have security interests. All states do. It is not weakness for the West to acknowledge that. Russia doesn’t need “security guarantees” as French President Emmanuel Macron suggested in December. But it is reasonable for its legitimate interests, such as the defense of Russia’s internationally recognized borders, to be respected. It can secure itself with its nuclear deterrent, but it does have an interest in lessening military buildups, and thus the potential for unwanted escalation, along the NATO-Russia border, as does the West.
Eventually, the West and Russia will need to adopt some version of the agreements the United States and its allies forged with the Soviet Union between 1975 and 1990 to limit the worst outcomes and create more stability in Europe. The 1975 Helsinki Final Act committed all parties to recognize existing borders and seek change only through peaceful means. The Vienna Document, signed in 1990 and updated periodically in subsequent years, was a set of confidence-building measures that limited military activities, mandated the exchange of information on military holdings, and required prior notification of significant troop movements. Its verification and inspection provisions were designed to eliminate the possibility that any country could engage in the large-scale use of military force without prior notice. Such understandings aren’t possible right now. They may not be possible as long as Putin is in power, although the West should test that. But they remain the only viable means of engaging with Russia over the long run, even as Washington defends itself and helps Ukraine defend itself over what is likely to be a long and difficult war.
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