Kennan’s Warning on Ukraine
Ambition, Insecurity, and the Perils of Independence
In October 2022, progressive Democrats in the U.S. Congress sparked an uproar by releasing a letter urging President Joe Biden to pursue negotiations with Russia to end the conflict in Ukraine. The signatories called for a “proactive diplomatic push . . . to seek a realistic framework for a ceasefire.” The letter was quickly retracted and its release blamed on a staffing error. But the following month, General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, repeated the call for Ukraine to “seize the moment” and negotiate, arguing that Kyiv was unlikely to make further military gains for the foreseeable future. Supporters of Ukraine reacted furiously, asserting that negotiations inevitably meant compromise with—and thus victory for—Russia.
But asking whether negotiations are good or bad misses the point. Negotiations are merely a tool, and like any tool, are useful insofar as they can advance interests and lead to preferred outcomes. The better question, therefore, is, Can negotiating lead to a better result for the United States and Ukraine than not negotiating?
Right now, the answer is still no. No deal is possible between a Ukraine that is making steady battlefield progress and a Russia in denial of this reality. Even calling for talks today risks benefiting Moscow. But this impasse need not be permanent. By keeping up pressure on Russia, Ukraine and its partners in the West can begin to create the conditions for negotiations to succeed.
In determining whether an agreement is possible, negotiators often refer to a concept known as the “zone of possible agreement,” or ZOPA. The ZOPA is the gap between the negotiating parties’ real bottom lines—that is, the difference between the absolute maximum that one side could offer and the absolute minimum that the other could accept. In that gap lies the range of deals that is theoretically acceptable to both sides. The task of negotiators is to settle on one, with each side naturally seeking the best possible agreement for itself, which is often as close to the other side’s bottom line as is it can get.
For a ZOPA to exist, there must be potential deal packages that are better for both sides than their real bottom lines: in negotiating jargon, their “best alternative to a negotiated agreement,” or BATNA. BATNAs—which determine whether a ZOPA exists—are not immutable. They shift as the underlying situation changes, often by deliberate action. If one side’s BATNA worsens—say, because its battlefield prospects decline—the space for potential deals widens because an agreement becomes a relatively better choice for that party.
As matters stand, there is no ZOPA between Russia and Ukraine—the most Russia is willing to live with is less, and likely far less, than Ukraine is willing to accept. Ukrainian officials have indicated their intent to retake every inch of Ukrainian territory, including regions seized before the start of the latest conflict in February 2022. For their part, Russian officials have asserted that they are determined to hang on to key Ukrainian territories, such as Donetsk, Luhansk, and Crimea. These positions do not appear to be mere posturing. Rather, they reflect how both parties perceive their real interests right now.
To open up a ZOPA that contains feasible and desirable deals, Russia’s BATNA must deteriorate, militarily and otherwise, so that Moscow will agree to settle for less. At the same time, the BATNA of Ukraine and the West must not deteriorate, and ideally should improve—militarily, economically, and otherwise—so that Kyiv does not feel pressure to entertain bad deals. Advancing these objectives together, rather than endlessly calling for the parties to come to the table, is the best way to improve the prospects for a negotiated settlement. As Russia’s BATNA deteriorates and Ukraine’s BATNA improves, diplomats can work on crafting enforceable agreements that serve Washington’s and Kyiv’s interests.
Russia, Ukraine, and the West use intelligence and analysis to discern the other side’s real bottom line. To accurately assess the minimum offer that one’s counterparty will accept, a negotiator must understand how the other side sees its interests (and therefore what it values), and who among its various actors most influences those interests. These tasks are further complicated by the fact that both sides have strong tactical incentives to exaggerate their real bottom lines in order to skew talks in their favor, both during negotiations and during the leadup to them.
In the case of Ukraine and Russia, neither side’s real bottom line is easily discerned. Although the conflict is fundamentally driven by control of territory—all of which legally belongs to Ukraine—both Moscow and various Western officials have suggested that any negotiated agreement should address other factors, such as a cease-fire, sanctions relief, prisoner exchanges, security relations between Russia and NATO, and Ukraine’s attitude toward the alliance as well as the EU. At first blush, this larger agenda may seem to complicate prospects for a negotiated outcome. But multiple unresolved issues—which the parties likely weight differently from one another—can actually be a boon, as they can prevent talks from devolving into a bitter, zero-sum contest over a single disagreement.
It is hard enough for Ukraine and the West to assess their own interests and BATNAs to determine what package deals would be feasible and desirable. But to reach an agreement, Western and Ukrainian negotiators will also need to understand what interests are driving Russia’s behavior. That is easier said than done. Indeed, it is difficult to see how Moscow’s ill-begotten invasion could have advanced any realistic conception of the Russian national interest, given the enormous economic, diplomatic, and human cost that the country has paid to achieve so little. As a dictatorship, however, Russia is likely motivated more by President Vladimir Putin’s personal interests, which appear driven by his desire to rebuild the Russian empire and cement his hold on power. Some analysts have even suggested that Putin has lost control to Russia’s far-right fringe. It matters enormously to the West and Ukraine as they mull negotiations—and what kinds of deals might be feasible relative to each side’s BATNA—whether it is Russia’s national interest, Putin’s personal interest, or the interests of other factions that will determine Russian positions.
For either side to rationally accept a deal, that deal must look more appealing than its BATNA. Crucially, each side’s BATNA is shaped by its own perceptions, which need not make sense to other observers. At the moment, Ukraine, buoyed by its recent battlefield successes, sees military victory as its best alternative to a negotiated deal. This does not mean that negotiations are worthless to Kyiv, only that from its perspective talks would need to deliver the same or a better outcome at lower cost. By contrast, Moscow may have lost faith in its ability to achieve a total military victory, but it appears to still believe that it can hang on to key Ukrainian territories by stubborn military resistance and degrading Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure. It may well view the costs, including the domestic political costs, of saying yes to a realistic deal as higher than the costs of continuing the war.
Ukraine’s forces have fared far better—and Russia’s far worse—than anyone had imagined before the conflict.
One way to open up a ZOPA, then, is to change Russia’s bottom line by worsening its perception of the alternatives to a negotiated deal and thus making a deal more attractive. It is clear that Moscow’s view of what it can accomplish without negotiations has already darkened, thanks to a combination of fierce Ukrainian resistance, Western military assistance, economic sanctions, German rearmament, and NATO’s planned expansion to include Sweden and Finland. Whereas Russian officials flippantly spoke in the invasion’s early days of capturing Kyiv and replacing Ukraine’s government, today they show little conviction in their ability to maintain even the tenuous territorial foothold they have outside Crimea and the Donbas.
Policymakers in the West and Ukraine must bear in mind that Russia is also trying to undermine Ukraine’s BATNA. Moscow understands that Ukraine has gained confidence in the possibility of an outright military victory as Russian forces have been pushed back. Russia has tried to dent that confidence by signaling its commitment to the fight—for example, through the formal annexation of Ukrainian territory by sham referendums and the conscription of Russians into the armed forces, despite the latter move’s unpopularity at home. Russia’s nuclear threats also likely aim to shake Ukraine’s confidence. Using nuclear weapons would not be in Moscow’s broader interest, given the risk of retaliation, but if such threats prompt Western officials to reassess and moderate their bottom line, they will have served their purpose.
Indeed, the fact that so many Russian threats are targeted at the West rather than Ukraine points to another complicating factor in this conflict. The options to worsen Russia’s BATNA—whether economic or military—are not solely in Ukraine’s hands. Kyiv’s military prospects depend not just on the skill and bravery of its troops but also on Western assistance. Likewise, the BATNA-eroding sanctions that constrict Russia’s economy and war-making capabilities are imposed by the United States, Europe, and other partners. And although the West and Ukraine are generally well aligned—Kyiv wants its territory back, and Washington and Brussels want to demonstrate that nuclear-armed aggressors cannot simply take land by force—differences between them are apparent. Ukraine, for example, has stressed that it intends to retake all its territory, including Crimea and the Donbas, whereas U.S. officials have conspicuously expressed their support for Ukraine to retake only those territories seized by Russia on or after February 24, 2022.
The dilemma for Ukraine, then, is that actions it might take to worsen Russia’s BATNA could also backfire and worsen its own by widening differences between Kyiv and its Western supporters. Any efforts by Ukraine to draw NATO further into the conflict—for example, Kyiv’s rush in November 2022 to attribute a missile strike in Poland to Moscow rather than its own errant air defenses—risk increasing Western worries about escalation. Similarly, Ukraine’s request to join NATO, which was met with U.S. and Western European reticence, risked benefiting Moscow by revealing fissures among its adversaries.
On the flip side, when U.S. and European officials publicly express worry about escalation or nuclear war with Russia, or call for Kyiv to negotiate with Moscow without clear prospects for a desirable deal, they may inadvertently signal that Russia’s efforts to worsen Ukraine’s BATNA are succeeding. Such statements risk conveying that the West is reassessing what a Ukrainian military victory would cost, making territorial compromise look more favorable by comparison. It is little wonder, therefore, that Moscow has said it is willing to negotiate, whereas Ukraine has mainly refused. Moscow’s real goal is likely not to open discussions but to widen the perceived gap between Ukrainian and Western interests and weaken the latter’s support for continued conflict.
Given the clear lack of overlap between what Ukraine and the West would find acceptable and what Russia would demand, there is little reason to believe that going to the negotiating table right now would produce an outcome that would benefit either Western or Ukrainian interests. But Western officials should take heart. In the battle of BATNAs, Ukraine is winning. Ukraine’s forces have fared far better—and Russia’s far worse—than anyone had imagined before the conflict, and Moscow’s hopes for what it can achieve militarily worsen with every inch of territory that Ukraine retakes and holds. If the United States and Europe wish to see Russia leave Ukraine as a result of a negotiated settlement, they must, paradoxically, convince Moscow of their commitment to enabling Ukrainian soldiers to expel Russian troops by force and redoubling other penalties on Russia’s aggression. Doing so means maintaining pressure on Moscow, supporting Ukraine unwaveringly, and keeping disagreements with Kyiv private. Only when such work begins to open up a ZOPA can diplomats succeed in creative dealmaking.