One week ago, it looked as if spring might bring peace to Ukraine. Headlines hailed “significant progress” in talks between Kyiv and Moscow. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Russia’s demands were becoming “more realistic.” Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov declared that the two sides were “close to agreement” on “specific formulations” for an independent but neutral Ukraine. Cautious optimists dreamed of an imminent cease-fire; incautious ones, of Russian withdrawal by May.
Such hopes now seem misplaced. A week of Russian war crimes and intransigence has called the sincerity of the Kremlin’s diplomacy into question. Far from granting a cease-fire, Moscow has refused to even forswear attacks on humanitarian corridors in the besieged and bombed-out city of Mariupol. Russian diplomats still make some noises about progress. But their statements may be for promotional use only. To retain the Russian public’s support for war, Moscow may feel compelled to telegraph a fraudulent interest in peace.
Even if Russia is negotiating in earnest, its official demands are far from modest. The Kremlin has backed down from its quixotic calls for regime change in Kyiv and the full dissolution of the Ukrainian military. But it is still asking the Zelenskyy government to commit to neutrality between Russia and the West and to recognize both Russian sovereignty over Crimea and the independence of the separatist “republics” in eastern Ukraine. Kyiv deems such concessions beyond the pale. And Moscow’s actual territorial ambitions likely outstrip its ostensible ones. Russia’s brutal campaign against Mariupol is likely aimed at securing a continuous stretch of land from Crimea to Russia. According to U.S. officials, Vladimir Putin’s “plan B” — if conquering Kyiv proves impossible — is to annex the large slice of eastern Ukraine made up of the bulk of the Donbas region and almost all of Ukraine’s Black Sea coastline.
Ukraine would concede such territory only under extreme duress. Yet Putin is unlikely to hand back the Donbas unless his army came under the same. The costs of the Russian leader’s adventure are already exorbitant whether measured in blood, money, or strategic imperatives. An estimated 40,000 Russian troops have been killed or wounded. Western sanctions have plunged the Russian economy into its deepest recession since the 1990s. And some of that economic damage will be irreversible. Russia is a petro-state that finances 40 percent of its federal budget with fossil-fuel revenues. Europe has been its best customer, consuming 70 percent of Russia’s natural-gas exports. Now the E.U. is racing to wean itself off Russian fuel by decade’s end. And that consumer demand cannot be easily replaced since transporting natural gas to other regions will require the construction of expensive new pipeline infrastructure. Meanwhile, the NATO allies’ defense spending is poised to increase, and anti-Russian sentiment has become ubiquitous in Ukraine.
In a sense, then, Putin’s war is already lost. Russia will emerge from this conflict weaker in economic, martial, and strategic terms. To spin his fiasco as a victory, whether to himself or his public, Putin will want land. The Donbas is his consolation prize. A mere stalemate won’t persuade him to settle for less.
If Putin’s maximalism is the primary obstacle to peace, it is hardly the only one. Ukraine’s leadership has its own reasons to resist compromise. Before the war, Zelenskyy was deeply unpopular. His fearless defiance of Russian aggression won him the confidence of his constituents. Whether he can retain their support while making bitter concessions to Putin is far from clear. And even if this were not a concern, Zelenskyy’s legal capacity to grant even Russia’s least controversial requests is uncertain. Zelenskyy has voiced his willingness to forfeit NATO membership. Yet Ukraine’s NATO aspirations are embedded in its constitution; removing that provision would require supermajority support in the nation’s parliament. In any case, Zelenskyy feels so insecure in his authority that he has said any peace agreement with Russia would need to be ratified in a nationwide referendum. In a poll taken early this month, 80 percent of Ukrainians said they were not “ready to accept” Russian sovereignty over the Donbas even if doing so “guaranteed an immediate end to the war,” while 56 percent were not prepared to trade the right to pursue NATO membership for instant peace.
The West also seems reluctant to accept the compromises necessary for a negotiated settlement. Ukraine has signaled willingness to commit to neutrality but only if this is paired with security guarantees: If Ukraine is going to forswear any military alliance with the West, it demands some other form of protection against Russian aggression. The Zelenskyy government is not interested in any peace deal that merely enables Russia to consolidate its gains and take another stab at conquering Kyiv in a few years’ time. Therefore, it has said it will not forfeit NATO membership unless Germany, Turkey, and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — the United States, United Kingdom, France, China, and Russia itself — all commit to its defense in the event its security is threatened by any outside power in the future.
In other words, it will trade hypothetical NATO membership for actual security guarantees functionally identical to those associated with NATO membership. Under the Ukrainian proposal, were Russia to invade it again, the United States would be compelled to go to war with the world’s other nuclear superpower.
Western officials were reportedly blindsided by this proposal and reluctant to concede to such a “huge undertaking.” One U.S. defense official told the Financial Times the request was “impossible.” After all, why would Russia “have made all this war mess” if it was willing to accept a Ukraine with Washington’s full military backing?
Separately, Russia is sure to insist that any peace agreement includes sanctions relief. But if that agreement includes territorial concessions, the NATO allies may be reluctant to end their economic war on Russia. Nations on the alliance’s eastern flank have argued that should Putin gain anything from his war in Ukraine, his appetite for imperial expansion will only grow. In such a circumstance, facilitating the reconstruction of Russia’s war machine through trade normalization will be a tough pill for Poles, Estonians, and hawkish members of the U.S. Congress to swallow.
Thus, there is a little hope for an imminent diplomatic resolution of the conflict. And there is little prospect of a military one either. Ukraine has arrested Russia’s progress toward Kyiv, but Putin’s army is making gradual gains in the Donbas. A war of attrition looms.
Each side has cause for believing it will gain leverage through a protracted conflict. Ukraine’s forces are fighting for their nation’s existence; Russia’s are merely fighting for a single sociopath’s wounded pride. And the former have already put a dent in the Russian army’s manpower and morale. Yet Russia retains overwhelming military advantages. And Ukraine’s unexpected martial strength rests on a crumbling foundation.
To this point, Ukraine has managed to deny Russia dominance of its airspace. This feat has been critical to the nation’s resistance. Were Russia to secure control of the Ukrainian sky, it could easily destroy the Turkish-made drones Ukraine has been using to demolish Russian tanks and artillery. The only thing standing in the way of that outcome is a Ukrainian air force that currently commands just 55 fighter jets, a tiny fraction of Russia’s fleet. “Without resupply,” Dave Deptula, a former lieutenant general in the U.S. Air Force, told the New York Times, “they will run out of airplanes before they run out of pilots.”
One month into Putin’s war, both sides have lost all hope of total victory. Russia will exit this conflict a weaker power; Ukraine will leave it bloodied and broken. But Ukraine’s will to defend its sovereignty is intact. And Putin’s capacity to stymie all dissent against his self-destructive war crimes is the same. By all appearances, this catastrophe has only just begun.