Analysis: How to end the war in Ukraine
Over the last year Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has produced a flood tide of commentary, with largely unconstructive volleys back and forth. Roughly speaking there are two main camps.
Realists and progressives blame Russia’s invasion principally, sometimes solely, on NATO expansion—a needless, provocative policy that, as they see it, posed an “existential threat” to Russia. Neoconservatives and many liberal internationalists, despite their political differences on other fronts, deny that NATO expansion had this effect, and even claim that it was wholly irrelevant to Putin’s decision to attack Ukraine. Instead, they see Putin’s ingrained imperial instincts and fear of a democratic Ukraine as the root cause of the war.
The trouble with this impasse is that each camp makes blame for the war an all or nothing affair. After a year of enormous violence and destruction, we need a far more nuanced understanding of the war—its causes, how it might be ended, and the challenges that will remain once it is over.
What Caused the War?
Start with the causes. There is a third way between the stylized contrast with which I began. This view acknowledges that NATO expansion poisoned the well for U.S.-Russia relations and that Russia understandably saw it (well before Putin came on the scene—indeed, as far back as the early 1990s, as recently declassified documents demonstrate) as a hostile move, even a threatening one, which Russian leaders also regarded as unnecessary. Expanding a Cold War alliance to Russia’s border was not the best nor the only way to build a post–Cold War security architecture in Europe—a case I made at length in these pages last March. The third view of the war, however, introduces a critical caveat: on February 24 last year, there was no chance that Ukraine would enter NATO any time soon, if ever. Hence, there was no existential threat facing Russia, as Putin and those sympathetic to the invasion aver.
At the April 2008 Bucharest Summit, NATO did open its doors to Ukraine, stating in the conclave’s closing declaration that Ukraine and Georgia “will become members of NATO.” But fourteen years later, the alliance had not even provided Kyiv with a Membership Action Plan, a step essential to moving its candidacy forward. NATO apparently could not muster the unanimity needed to admit Ukraine—and may never have been able to. It’s reasonable to assume that Putin understood this. Although NATO has been widely praised for its fulsome support of Ukraine since the outbreak of the war, in the years leading up to it, the alliance put Ukraine in a vulnerable position. By announcing its commitment to admit Ukraine, it raised the temperature between Kyiv and Moscow but then failed to follow through and offer protection. In consequence, Ukraine lacked the means to deter Russia’s invasion and could not count on other states to rush to its defense once it occurred.
In this third view, although NATO expansion did create the context for the invasion, it did not “cause” it. It was hardly the case that Putin was left with no choice but to invade a sovereign country—one that posed no clear and present threat to Russia, no less. Suggesting otherwise strips Putin of agency, which, as he has proved time and again, he surely does not lack. Nor is it convincing to contend that Ukraine had become a de facto member of the alliance well before the war, a claim that Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky did make six months following the invasion and that defense minister Oleksii Reznikov reiterated this January.
Here Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq and Putin’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, for all their differences—a crucial one being that the U.S. attack on Iraq was not driven by territorial claims—begin to shade into one another. Both were preventive (as opposed to preemptive) wars: wars of choice, which were unnecessary and wholly avoidable because they were undertaken based on a hypothetical, rather than evident, danger. Moreover, both wars aimed at what has now come to be known as regime change. Preventive wars, especially those that seek to supplant the governments of other countries, ought to be condemned because they make the world an even more dangerous place and moreover cannot be squared with international law, the United Nations Charter, or normative conceptions of war such as just war theory.
Ending the War
Realists and progressives boil their explanation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine down to NATO expansion—and then add warnings about escalation. However, they have rarely spoken about the course of action the United States should have taken after the invasion. While they oppose the Biden administration’s arming of Ukraine, they fail to specify what, if anything, they would have done instead once Putin attacked and occupied large swathes of the country.
This in effect suggests that Russia should have been allowed to conquer, or at least partition, Ukraine. It amounts to punishing the Ukrainian people for the original sin of NATO expansion, a plan that was hatched in Washington. Russia’s commitment to Ukraine’s territorial integrity seems not to matter either, even though Russia, along with the United States and United Kingdom, signed the December 1994 Budapest Memorandum. The signatories to that agreement formally recognized Ukraine’s sovereignty within its then-existing borders and undertook not to violate them. More specifically, they pledged to “respect the independence and sovereignty and existing borders of Ukraine” and “to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity and political independence of Ukraine.” But apparently this commitment seems of little account, or it was vitiated by the West’s decision to expand NATO, never mind the Memorandum’s categorical, unconditional language.
Before the war some critics of Biden’s policy toward Ukraine favored transforming it into a neutral state. Though that was certainly an opportunity that the United States and its NATO allies missed, from the Ukrainian standpoint, “neutrality” would not have really been that in reality. Given that Russia was both vastly more powerful and adjacent to Ukraine, neutrality would effectively have consigned Ukrainians to its sphere of influence, with the degree of domination by Moscow remaining as the sole uncertainty. Kyiv would have had to accept, in act of faith, that Russia would prove to be a benign hegemon. Moreover, what worked for neutral Finland—which also shares a long border with Russia—during the Cold War would not have worked for Ukraine. Russia has never viewed Finland—which maintained its non-bloc status during the Cold War—the way it views Ukraine, even though Finland was part of the Russian empire, though as an autonomous “Grand Duchy,” from 1809–1917. In Putin’s reading of history, and that of the many Russian nationalists who support his war, Ukraine has been connected to Russia for centuries by history, language, culture, and faith—a point Putin hammered home in a seven thousand-word essay written in July 2021 entitled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.” In the narrative of Russian arch-nationalists, therefore, Ukraine is really not a separate country. This is not a new perspective, nor one that Putin has adopted recently. At the Bucharest summit, for instance, Putin, according to the Russian newspaper Kommersant, told George W. Bush that “Ukraine is not even a state. What is Ukraine? A part of its territory is Eastern Europe, another part [Ukraine east of the Dnipro River], and a significant one, is a donation from us.”
Many realists and progressives call for a diplomatic settlement to end the war, which is understandable considering the death and destruction it has wrought and the lingering danger of nuclear escalation. But they have failed to explain how precisely it would be feasible to end the bloodletting and arrive at a political settlement through negotiations. This is scarcely a trivial omission considering that the warring parties have articulated wholly incompatible preconditions for talks. Russia has declared its openness to negotiation—providing Kyiv accepts the loss of the four provinces (Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia) that Putin annexed and declared part of Russia following a referendum, never mind that Russia has not fully occupied three of them.
Moscow has never wavered from this position. In late September 2022, in advance of the ceremony for the treaties which formalized these provinces’ incorporation into the Russian Federation, Putin declared that they would be part of Russia forever and would indeed be defended “using all available means.” Since then Russian officials have repeatedly stated—as recently as late February 2023—that while they were ready for talks with Ukraine, the status of these lands would never be up for negotiation—a point that Putin reiterated three days before China’s president Xi Jinping arrived in Russia for negotiations on March 20. Ukraine has rejected this stance, which it sees as a formula for partition through consent. It wants all its occupied territories back, including those lost in 2014, which includes Crimea, and President Volodymyr Zelensky has said that his government would not concede any of them to Russia as part of a settlement. Polls show that Ukrainians overwhelmingly support his position, even if it means having to fight a long war and the diminution of Western assistance. Though Kyiv may eventually accept a deal that resurrects Ukraine’s pre-invasion boundaries, both variants are flatly unacceptable to Moscow—as is Kyiv’s insistence that war crimes trials be included in any diplomatic settlement.
Furthermore, neither side believes that it is losing the war. To the contrary, each is convinced that it will eventually prevail: Russia because it can mobilize more troops and has more weaponry and can therefore force Ukraine to succumb to the law of numbers, Ukraine because of the nearly $32 billion in military assistance it has received since the invasion from the United States since the war began, as well as £ 2.3 billion from the United Kingdom and € 3.6 billion from the European Union. Ukrainians also believe that surrendering their homeland’s territory is an unacceptable price to pay for peace, and are convinced that they have the will to fight on for a full victory—a view I have heard numerous times during my trips to wartime Ukraine.
The lack of a potential mediator is an additional obstacle to a diplomatic solution. Some have recommended that the United States initiate discussions with Russia, implying that Washington, D.C., might mediate an end to the war. But Moscow does not, to put it mildly, see the United States as a disinterested party—most recently, Biden’s visit to Kyiv days before the war’s one-year mark confirmed that view. Putin regards the United States as a co-belligerent. China, India, and Turkey have been mentioned as candidates, but they understand the difficult political and military conditions that stand in the way of a political settlement and have therefore not formally volunteered as peacemakers.
China, which has been touted as the most likely mediator, has so far shown no inclination to reassess its pro-Russian position or even to open a dialogue with Kyiv even though, at the end of March, Zelensky invited Chinese president Xi Jinping to Kyiv following the latter’s March 20–22 talks in Russia with Putin. (Xi has yet to follow through on his declared intention to call Zelensky following his meeting with Putin.) Even if Beijing were to try its hand at mediation, as French president Emmanuel Macron urged it to do during his April 2023 discussions with Xi in China, it would not be able to make much headway unless Putin and Zelensky indicate a willingness to rethink their minimum preconditions for a settlement. Beijing will also find it hard to persuade Russia to surrender (at least some) Ukrainian territory while also maintaining its prized strategic partnership and “no-limits friendship” with Moscow. China’s alignment with Russia does not rule out the possibility of its serving as mediator, but that relationship will doubtless make Kyiv wonder about Beijing’s capacity to act impartially. All of this makes the realist/progressive emphasis on a negotiated settlement infeasible, at least given where things stand now.
On the other side, neoconservatives and many liberal internationalists seem to favor a fight to the finish: Russia’s defeat and expulsion from Ukrainian lands it has annexed since February, and perhaps even Crimea, which it annexed in 2014. The idea of negotiations is anathema to them—indeed comparable to 1930s-style appeasement. In their eyes, the risks and costs of continued war appear secondary. One must not worry about such matters when the cause is just: Ukraine is the victim, and the West is its righteous savior. Moreover, fretting about nuclear escalation given the gravity of Putin’s transgressions seems, in this view, distasteful, if not pusillanimous. One prominent historian, Timothy Snyder, a forceful and eloquent supporter of Ukraine’s cause, has opined that American discussions about escalation are shameful because they represent not merely an inclination to succumb to Putin’s intimidation tactics but also a preoccupation with U.S. security at Ukraine’s expense.
But costs and risk do matter in war: they always have and always will, and democracies in particular, as Vietnam showed, cannot sustain wars if the two are ignored. And in Ukraine, it is reasonable to assume that costs and risks may increase if the war drags on. As for the supposed shame of dwelling on the hazard of nuclear escalation, any U.S. president who fails to take account of that prospect would be acting irresponsibly; and few, if any, Americans would be embarrassed, let alone ashamed, by their leaders’ concerns about it. Besides, the United States would not be the on the receiving end were Russia to resort to the nuclear option. Because the horrific consequences for Russia of retaliation in kind by Washington are entirely predictable, Putin is far more likely to target Ukraine with tactical nuclear weapons, something that ought to trouble any dedicated supporter of Kyiv.
Some proponents of supporting Ukraine’s maximal goals state, or strongly imply, that Russia’s defeat would provide the added benefit of precipitating Putin’s ouster and perhaps even the collapse of the Russian state. They seem to view this outcome in a positive light, but the more that Russian officials come to believe that the West’s true objective is to topple their government or, worse yet, precipitate Russia’s disintegration, the more determined they will be to fight on. Moreover, those in the West who favor “regime change” in Russia—a goal the Biden administration has disavowed but other Western leaders (and some pundits) have advanced—appear to assume that it will set the stage for the emergence of a stable, non-imperial Russian state or, better yet, a democracy. They overlook the possibility that what follows Putin, and especially the unraveling of the Russian state, could instead be prolonged, possibly violent, upheaval—that in a country of 141 million people, eleven time zones, and thousands of nuclear weapons. No serious person should imagine that the United States, alone or with its allies, could manage the resulting chaos and somehow transform the mayhem into anything that would qualify as success. To think otherwise amounts to hubris, even delusion.
The deeper the West gets pulled into the war, the greater the danger of escalation, even though no one can calculate its probability with credible confidence. One can analyze speeches and statements by Russian officials or examine the latest iterations of Russia’s military doctrine or national security strategy, but these are not reliable guides to how Russian leaders might act under pressure as events move rapidly and in ways they find hard to comprehend. And in Russia, where decisions about escalation will be made by one man, Putin, the evidentiary problem is even greater because we cannot know what he thinks now or how his thinking might evolve as circumstances change. The hard truth is that we do not, and cannot, predict the probability of escalation reliably because we will never have the necessary information. Therefore, the West’s engagement in this war will evolve without any reliable basis for foreseeing, and therefore averting, what could be a catastrophic turn of events. No amount of debating the risks of escalation will release us from this predicament.
So what can be done to enable a settlement in Ukraine? One positive aspect discussions about the war share is the conviction that the sooner it ends, the better for everyone, especially Ukrainians. Since the invasion, 30 percent of Ukrainians have become refugees outside their homeland or internally displaced persons within it. Ukraine’s economy shrank by more than 30 percent in 2022, real wages plunged by 24.5 percent, the unemployment rate was also 24.5 percent, and the monthly budget deficit alone is reckoned at $5 billion. Russia’s serial strikes on Ukraine’s power grid, which began in early October, left millions of city dwellers without light, heat, or even water for weeks on end in wintertime and raised concerns about a public health crisis that might require the evacuation of big cities.
The misery suffered by Ukrainians has not made a diplomatic settlement more likely: the people remain prepared to pay a high price to attain a just peace. This brings to mind another view I have heard, in various versions, in Ukraine: Ukrainians have no choice but to continue fighting because, unlike Russians, if they lose this war, they could well lose their country Any visitor to Ukraine’s war-ravaged areas will encounter this sentiment and be disabused of the notion that the hardship has become so unbearable for Ukrainians that they are ready to accept peace on Russia’s terms. As for Russia, though few, if any, of its people believe that evacuating conquered Ukrainian land would threaten their country’s existence, that does not matter because Vladmir Putin has not shown the slightest inclination to give ground.
Still, impediments, no matter how formidable, ought not to preclude discussions about ways to end this cruel, ruinous war. The suggestions I make below to this end are necessarily sketchy and certainly not the only ones imaginable or feasible; they are intended merely to serve as a starting place for discussion, and they are certainly not meant to be recommendations to Kyiv.
One way to move ahead is to seek a solution that leaves each party significant territorial gains. Consider one example, purely illustrative, which I proposed in a recent Foreign Affairs essay: Russia would retain Luhansk as well as Donetsk (which together comprise the Donbas), though only the part of the latter it now occupies. It would, in addition, return to Ukraine the areas of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia provinces it presently holds. A deal along these lines would necessarily require Russia to forfeit the land corridor it has created to Crimea, which, in turn, would restore the Azov Sea shoreline to Ukraine. Ukraine would, in addition, recover its entire Black Sea littoral. Neither side would race to embrace these terms because they demand significant concessions from each of them, but the pot could be sweetened by offering Kyiv substantial financial assistance for economic reconstruction and a pledge by the West to raise the sum in question, although not solely from its accounts: China, Japan, South Korea, the oil-rich Persian Gulf states, and international financial institutions would chip in. Russia could be coaxed by a pledge to phase out Western sanctions over a reasonable stretch of time.
Another way to compensate Ukraine for any concessions it makes as part of a diplomatic solution is by fast-tracking its membership in the European Union, though Kyiv would have to work hard to meet the EU’s benchmarks for eligibility. In addition, Ukraine would defer, though not rule out, NATO membership. In return, Russia would agree to a 100-mile (this distance is again illustrative, not definitive) troop- and armament-free zone all along its border with Ukraine. Ukraine would also receive from the West a pledge of open-ended military training and arms supplies so that its capacity to deter Russia and to defend itself in the event of an attack would be vastly improved.
Even though this deal would not shut Ukraine out of NATO, it would nevertheless be deeply unpopular in the country: Ukrainians feel that their valiant resistance to Russia has earned them the right to join the alliance, and that sentiment cannot be waved away. Likewise, Russia would balk at the demilitarized zone proposal on the grounds that it infringes on its sovereignty. But Putin might agree if Ukraine were also willing to accept such an arrangement on its side of the border. This formula, too, would also include the sweeteners mentioned above: a commitment by the West to help underwrite Ukraine’s reconstruction and to phase out its economic sanctions on Russia.
The inducements I have suggested, particularly those aimed at changing minds in Moscow, will also surely face opposition in the West, especially from Poland and the Baltic countries. But the West is too deeply involved in the war, which could continue for years, to take the position that it will not, as a matter of principle, ever be party to any concessions, even if such concessions help to end the war. At some point, Western leaders, as Putin no doubt hopes and perhaps anticipates, may run up against “Ukraine fatigue” on the home front or fraying NATO unity—or both—and be forced to confront even more difficult choices that could involve even bigger compromises.
The terms of a prospective peace are easy to sketch but will be difficult, perhaps even impossible, to sell to the warring parties, certainly in the short term. But as the war continues, battlelines evolve, and the human and material costs mount, the positions of Moscow and Kyiv may shift. This much is clear: discussions about the parameters of a settlement need to begin in earnest now, and without the shopworn accusations of appeasement or warmongering that have generated more heat than light.
There are of course other ways to move toward the bargaining table to reach a durable political settlement. The proposals outlined here can be added to or subtracted from in various ways. But this much should be evident: no party will get everything it wants unless it wins an outright victory—and that is not in the cards. Each will face political blowback at home given the compromises necessary to end the war, and Russia and Ukraine will have to overcome the canyon of mutual animosity and mistrust. But none of these difficulties justify a failure to think about and propose terms that could eventually yield a diplomatic solution.
Building the Peace
As I have argued recently, I believe that Ukraine could eke out a victory, albeit one that may not result in the return of all the territories seized by Russia. Yet no matter how this war ends, Ukraine will be left to face colossal challenges—ones that it will be unable to manage on its own, not least because large parts of the country have been destroyed. No one country can, or will, foot the entire reconstruction bill, and even assuming that the legal complexities involved in using frozen Russian assets (estimated at $300 billion or more) to help finance reconstruction can be overcome, the money they yield won’t be nearly enough to cover all the costs of rebuilding Ukraine—which are mounting by the day. Leaving a Ukraine that has been turned into a demolition site by the Russian war machine to fend for itself will hardly be good for peace and stability in Europe, to say nothing of the future of Ukrainians. Ukraine’s descent into prolonged upheaval and violence could draw into the melee countries eager to stake territorial claims, notably Poland and Russia, but also Hungary. If that happens, many of the 8 million Ukrainian refugees in various European countries might not return for fear that they will have no place to live, work, or educate their children, and additional refugee waves could create unsustainable burdens for Europe and transform its politics for the worse.
Add to these postwar costs of economic reconstruction those related to demining a country that has been seeded with tens of thousands of mines that according to some estimates cover nearly a third of its territory. HALO, the NGO that conducts demining operations worldwide and is already at work in Ukraine, estimates that the work will take a month’s worth of effort for each day of war fought. Demining is a very expensive undertaking, but without it, normal life in Ukraine will not be possible.
The end of the war will also require decisions by the West about the nature of its relationship with Russia, particularly as regards economic sanctions. Given the brutal war Russia has waged, many will urge that it be kept isolated and under sanctions, and for this Putin has only himself to blame. Yet the urge to persist with the punishment indefinitely must be weighed against the political costs. Important global problems cannot be addressed, let alone solved, while keeping Russia quarantined without letup, a policy that the rest of the world, especially India and China, will not support and that may even create divisions between the United States and some of its European allies. Moreover, continuing with sanctions and isolating Russia, even after the war ends, on the grounds that it is a “rogue” or pariah state sits uncomfortably with the view, widely held in the West, that the best future for Russians and the world is a democratic Russia. The continued punishment of Russia may further strengthen authoritarian forces and weaken democratic ones. Persisting with a punitive policy will reduce the opportunities to engage the emerging generation of young Russians so as to foster liberal values. It would also likely deepen Russia’s dependence on China. Moreover, Russia is a massive, nuclear-armed country, and it’s hard to see how punishing it indefinitely could be good for conventional and nuclear arms control.
My point is not to minimize the gravity of Russia’s crimes in Ukraine but to suggest that the West will eventually have to weigh the long-term consequences of maintaining sanctions and isolating Russia. At the very least, Western leaders should at some point give Russian leaders a clear idea of what they must do to obtain relief from sanctions, not as a favor to Russia but because isolating it will harm Western interests and impede progress on urgent global problems.
What might a relationship between Russia and the West that moves toward some semblance of normalcy look like, and how could we get there? Though Western sanctions are unlikely to be lifted rapidly even if Russia retreats to the pre-2014 lines in Ukraine, they eventually will be, and a timeline could be fashioned and the preconditions specified. Negotiations that culminate in arms control and confidence-building accords (such as the now-defunct Open Skies Treaty, which the United States withdrew from in November 2020 during the Trump presidency) are beneficial to both sides, and steps could be taken to prepare the groundwork for resuming them. Large strides have been made in reducing nuclear weapons since 1987 (the year the landmark Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty was signed), including after Putin took the helm in Russia. In time, further arms reduction agreements, with the necessary verification provisions, could be pursued. There have been many close encounters in recent years between American and Russian military aircraft and warships in the Arabian, Mediterranean, Black, and Baltic seas. Talks that develop protocols to reduce the risk of accidents could avert crises that might segue into armed confrontations.
Bilateral trade could also resume, with appropriate safeguards to prevent the sale of military-related technologies, and prohibitions on investments in Russia scaled back and eventually removed. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has made the West’s relationship with Russia worse than it has been since the end of the Cold War, so changes like these may take years, and of course none of them will be possible so long as the war continues. Indeed, continued war will only increase the severity of the West’s economic punishment of Russia. Still, Western leaders must devise postwar strategies toward Russia that stake out areas of cooperation based on common future interests. When the Cold War ended and a new dawn seemed to beckon, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev suggested that a new European security order be created by dismantling NATO in the wake of German reunification and the collapse of the communist states of Eastern Europe (now East-Central Europe). He envisioned a pan-European security order, including Russia, as “our common home.” We are further than ever from that goal, but that should not rule out for all time discussions with Russia on more modest ones.
The biggest challenge the West will face in Ukraine after the guns cease firing is how to ensure that winning the war (assuming Kyiv succeeds in attaining some form of victory) is not followed by losing the peace. In large swathes of Ukraine, apartment buildings, hospitals, schools, waterworks, and shopping centers have been demolished or badly damaged. How will 8 million refugees and roughly the same number of internally displaced persons resume something resembling the life they once had? For that, they will require places to live, schools to educate their children, shops, jobs, and hospitals. Many thousands of soldiers will return from the front; reintegrating them into society, ensuring that their basic economic needs are met as they find jobs, and helping them cope with the medical and emotional problems common among veterans will also require immediate resources well beyond Ukraine’s means. If the West remains keen on nation-building, Ukraine offers a justifiable venue.
But a large-scale commitment to Ukraine will necessarily divert attention and resources from urgent problems elsewhere in the world. The debt burden for low-income countries reached a record $860 billion in 2020 for various reasons—including interest rate hikes by Western central banks to tame inflation—and the burden has only increased following the war. In September 2022 the International Monetary Fund estimated that low-income countries will require nearly $500 billion during the next three years alone, a sum that exceeded its 2021 forecast by more than 10 percent. Poor countries also need help to shift from hydrocarbon-based energy toward greener sources. In the month following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) reported a $17.9 trillion shortfall for 2020–2025 in the funding needed to meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, and the war will doubtless increase it because of the assistance the West has provided Ukraine and the magnitude of that country’s future needs. Refugee relief may already rank lower on the West’s list of priorities because of the focus on helping Ukrainian refugees. The global refugee crisis, however, persists: over 100 million people have been displaced worldwide and countries in the Global South host 84 percent of them. To be sure, Ukraine’s needs are vast and important, but refugees elsewhere tend to live in circumstances that are far more difficult.
Apart from helping rebuild Ukraine’s economy, the West will have to decide how to ensure the country’s postwar security. Ukrainians will insist that after standing up to Russia and paying a steep price in blood and treasure, their country has earned the right to NATO membership. The alliance will likely be receptive, but may nevertheless be unable to muster the unanimity required to admit new members—even if Washington lobbies in Ukraine’s behalf. Kyiv’s (reluctant) fallback choice may turn out to be a security guarantee, one that the United States participates in (along with the UK and a subset of willing NATO countries) or provides by itself. That option—protecting postwar Ukraine—will prove more controversial than Ukrainians generally imagine if only because it will obligate the Western guarantors to commit themselves to defend, through war if necessary, a country that shares a 1,426 mile land border with Russia.
As I suggested in my ideas for a negotiated settlement, there is an easier way to protect Ukraine, though it will create an outcry in the country because it falls short of NATO membership and even a security guarantee. The United States and its allies could make an open-ended commitment to continue training Ukraine’s army and provide it weaponry so that it possesses the military wherewithal for deterrence and, failing that, self-defense. It may well be that no Russian leader will want to attack Ukraine again after the invasion; but that, understandably, is a gamble Ukrainians will not be eager to take after what they have been through. Still, the West may decide that this—training and providing arms—is the best it can do, even though Ukrainians will see this solution as a betrayal, a sentiment that some NATO countries, particularly Poland and the Baltic trio, will share. The alliance, which showed remarkable unity during the war, may find itself divided on the question of how best to ensure Ukraine’s continued security.
The war in Ukraine could continue for a year, perhaps longer. It has already forced the West to confront complicated choices, and additional challenges, some of which are not yet apparent, lie ahead. But two things seem clear. First, no matter how the war is resolved, none of the parties will achieve the outcome they deem ideal, so they must consider realistic and acceptable long-term compromises, hard though that will be. Second, the pathway may consist of short-term deals that stop the fighting, even if tenuously. Ukrainians, however, are committed to victory and are convinced that it is within reach, and the West, above the United States, has stated publicly that it will stand behind Kyiv. This will make it difficult for Washington to propose compromises that Kyiv opposes, unless the latter faces no choice. Yet, no matter the West’s declarations of fealty, international politics remains a pitiless arena in which words can end up meaning nothing—something that is well understood in Kyiv. For these and other reasons, we need a debate on the war that, in tone and substance, improves on what is currently on offer and charts a way forward so that the fighting ends.