Coming to Terms

Adapted from “The Diplomatic Path to a Secure Ukraine,” a paper that was published in February by the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

More than two years into Russia’s invasion, it is increasingly clear that the Ukrainian army is not capable of reconquering the territories lost to Russia; instead, without continued and massive Western aid, the Ukrainians will suffer eventual defeat owing to Russia’s huge economic and demographic superiority, and the long-term continuation of such aid cannot be guaranteed. Sanctions have not cratered Russia’s economy or crippled its war effort. Russia has corrected many of the problems that plagued its forces during the war’s first year and pursued an attrition strategy that is steadily exhausting Ukraine’s supply of fighters, emptying Western weapons stockpiles, and sapping U.S. and European political patience. Current trends are pointing not toward a lasting stalemate but toward Ukraine’s eventual collapse.

The United States should seek negotiations now. As the shake-up in Ukraine’s military leadership earlier this year and news reports of the exhaustion of Ukrainian troops portend, its time may indeed be much shorter than most Western analysts realize. The soldiers on the front lines speak of back-to-back deployments, falling numbers of troops, declining supplies of ammunition, and apparently inexhaustible Russian reserves. Western aid should therefore be continued, as the alternative is likely to be a situation in which Russia will dictate, rather than negotiate, terms of a settlement. But this aid should also be envisioned not as a means to secure victory but as a source of leverage in negotiations.

The only viable terms for such a compromise are that Russia abandons its hopes of conquering more Ukrainian territory and reducing the whole of Ukraine to a client state—and in return, the West meets Russia’s basic concerns about its own security and provides a path toward reestablishing normal economic relations.

The Biden Administration, for its part, is trying to sustain the Ukrainian defense in what has become a war of attrition, while deferring any serious talk of negotiations. The hope is that this strategy can succeed until at least after the U.S. elections, when it is likely either Joe Biden will be reconfirmed in office and be in a stronger domestic position to negotiate with President Vladimir Putin, or Ukraine will be Donald Trump’s problem.