foreign interests

Should Ukraine Give Peace Talks a Chance?

Elderly people receive food and gloves from a charity organization on a snow-covered street in Kyiv, November 19, 2022. Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has now killed more than 100,000 soldiers on each side along with 40,000 Ukrainian civilians, according to Pentagon estimates. It has cost Ukraine’s economy more than $1 trillion. The conflict’s collateral damages include energy crises and food shortages.

These grim realities, combined with winter’s imminent onset, have sparked debate over whether the U.S. should be doing more to resolve the conflict diplomatically. Last month, the Congressional Progressive Caucus released a letter imploring the White House to ramp up diplomatic efforts to end the war — only to withdraw that missive within hours amid widespread criticism.

Yet the CPC was evidently not alone in thinking that the U.S. should begin laying the groundwork for a negotiated settlement. In the weeks since the letter’s release, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan encouraged Ukraine to “show its willingness to end the war reasonably and peacefully” by laying out its terms for a peace settlement. Meanwhile, Sullivan has opened up a direct line of communication with his Russian counterpart, Nikolai Patrushev, in an attempt to manage the threat of escalation. Most dramatically, General Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told an audience in New York earlier this month, “There has to be a mutual recognition that military victory, in the true sense of the word, is maybe not achievable through military means, so therefore you need to turn to other means,” adding that the winter offered both sides “a window of opportunity for negotiation.”

Still, the Biden administration insists that it is for Ukraine to decide whether such an opportunity exists and that the U.S. should provide the country with another $37 billion in unconditional aid. (The White House has taken pains to distance itself from Milley’s remarks.)

This stance is a source of controversy both within the administration and the western alliance more broadly. In the discourse, meanwhile, the debate over the wisdom of near-term peace talks has too often been muddled by imprecision or poisoned by invective as proponents of diplomacy deride skeptics as warmongers and get caricatured as Putinists in turn.

It is, therefore, worth clarifying the substance of that debate.

First, we need to define our terms. Pursuing “diplomacy” in Ukraine can mean several different things. In a column for Foreign Affairs late last month, the RAND Corporation’s Samuel Charap and Miranda Priebe implored the Biden administration not to “rule out diplomacy in Ukraine.” Yet the authors stipulated that Washington should not “seek to launch direct talks today,” as neither Russia nor Ukraine was ready. Rather, Charap and Priebe counseled the U.S. to “create the conditions for eventual negotiations to succeed” by encouraging Ukraine to “demonstrate openness to the prospect of eventual talks,” moderating “public expectations of decisive victory,” and “keeping all lines of communication with Moscow open, from the president on down.”

As indicated above, in recent weeks, the White House has pursued the bulk of this agenda. Indeed, during his visit to Kyiv on November 4, Sullivan not only advised Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy to convey openness to negotiations but specifically encouraged him to reconsider his stated aim of liberating the Crimean peninsula from Russian annexation, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Zelenskyy did not take this advice. But following the meeting, he did appear to moderate his preconditions for negotiations. Before Sullivan’s trip, the Ukrainian government had declared that it would not engage in peace talks with the Russian government until Vladimir Putin’s regime had fallen in light of the war crimes Russia had perpetrated. Afterward, Zelenskyy included no mention of Putin’s ouster in a statement of his conditions for peace.

The White House could do more to solidify the foundation for an eventual settlement. At present, the Treasury Department’s official position is that a peace agreement between Russia and Ukraine would not necessarily afford Russia full relief from U.S. sanctions. Moderating that position, so as to increase Putin’s incentives for making peace, seems advisable.

More fundamentally, it is unclear how much the White House is doing internally to prepare for the challenges that peace talks might bring. One administration official recently told Politico, in an apparent complaint, that “there are not any planning venues, papers, negotiating strategies” currently being readied. It seems prudent to rectify that.

All of which is to say that if pursuing a diplomatic resolution merely means chipping away at obstacles to an eventual peace conference, the proposition seems difficult to oppose.

But such measures are insufficient for securing a cease-fire, let alone a near-term resolution of the conflict. Given Ukraine’s recent battlefield successes and the U.S.’s assurances about forthcoming aid, Zelenskyy has little incentive to offer significant concessions to Russia. And if Russia were willing to make peace in the absence of such concessions, the war would be over already. Therefore, achieving peace in the near term would likely require coercing Ukraine into offering territorial concessions to Russia. (Mainstream proponents for diplomacy, including signatories of the CPC’s letter, have either forsworn that proposition or refrained from forthrightly endorsing it.)

Such coercion should not be verboten. The U.S. has a right to set conditions on its largesse. The U.S. cannot sustain the Ukrainian resistance indefinitely without suffering real fiscal and military costs. And some officials in the U.S. and Europe believe that the U.S. can best serve Ukrainian interests by dragging it to the negotiating table sooner rather than later. That assessment cannot be refuted by moralistic denunciations.

But it’s important to be clear that this is what we are talking about when we talk about seeking a near-term diplomatic resolution of the conflict: pressuring Ukraine into consigning some portion of its populace to Russian rule. Any serious argument for or against that idea will need to grapple with the following questions.

1. What are Ukraine’s odds of making further territorial gains?

It would be terrible to immediately condemn millions of Ukrainians to perpetual occupation by a brutal autocratic regime. But it would be even worse to do so after another year of bloodletting. Thus the advisability of compromise in the present depends in part on the probability of Ukrainian advances in the future. And assessments of that probability vary greatly between NATO officials.

All agree that winter will cool the conflict. Neither military is likely to hazard a major offensive amid freezing temperatures, snowstorms, and muddy terrain. For as long as six months, hostilities are likely to consist primarily of Russian missile attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure and Ukrainian attempts at sabotage and targeted assassinations behind enemy lines.

There is less agreement, however, about what the balance of forces will look like come springtime. Some NATO analysts believe that Ukraine will struggle to make further breakthroughs for at least three reasons. First, the winter pause will give Russia time to execute its mobilization of 300,000 troops and restock ammunition. Second, Russian missile attacks on Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure could compromise its martial capacities. Third, and most important, the territories that Ukraine has yet to liberate are better defended than those the nation has already reconquered. Such areas are more urbanized, closer to Russia’s border, and better fortified, since Russian troops have occupied them longer.

To some, it is therefore plausible that Ukraine is at (or near) the peak of its military strength and would therefore benefit from seeking peace before the spring.

But other officials tell a different story. The quantity of Russian troops may be poised to increase, but the quality of its conscripts is highly suspect. And winter could further degrade the morale of Russian forces. Given the poor positioning of Russian troops and the Russian army’s logistical struggles, there is a significant risk that Russia will lose many soldiers to exposure before winter’s end. Furthermore, winter will give Ukraine time to restock its own supplies of defensive and offensive weapons.

Already, Ukraine’s air-defense systems are becoming more adept at intercepting missiles and drones and might therefore be able to mitigate the impact of Russian missile attacks. U.S. officials believe that Russia’s capacity to launch such attacks might be eroding as its supply of long-range, precision-guided missiles dwindles.

“Ever since the war began, Ukraine has overperformed expectations and Russia has underperformed,” said Daniel Fried, a former National Security Council director and current Atlantic Council fellow. “So having been wrong about the military balance so far, all of us ought to be modest about saying that they’re at a stalemate.”

2. How interested is Putin in peace?

Of course, forcing Ukraine to the bargaining table will accomplish little if Russia believes that prolonged conflict is in its interest. Formally, the Kremlin has signaled interest in a negotiated cease-fire. But western officials doubt the sincerity of those gestures.

A recent analysis from the Royal United Services Institute argues that “a ceasefire is tactically advantageous for Russia,” as it would enable the nation to stabilize control of its occupied territories free from the challenge of Ukrainian sabotage.

It wouldn’t be unusual for western leaders to erroneously assume the malign duplicity of an adversarial regime. But it also wouldn’t be unusual for Russia to negotiate in bad faith.

To seek a diplomatic resolution now — after the liberation of Kherson and before the full impact of either Europe’s natural-gas squeeze or Russia’s mobilization has been felt — would require Putin to put a premium on peace. Given the extraordinary costs of his lawless war, the Russian leader might be ready to cut his losses for the sake of shoring up his regime’s stability. But at present, that regime looks fairly secure. And the war’s monstrous toll in both blood and money could actually strengthen Putin’s aversion to settling before his mobilization has had a chance to shift the balance of power in Ukraine.

3. How large are the humanitarian costs of appeasing Putin?

To cede Ukrainian territory to Russia would not mean granting regional autonomy to Russian-speaking (and, therefore, presumptively Russophilic) Ukrainians, as some westerners were once inclined to believe. Rather, in many areas, it would involve acquiescing to unstable, neocolonial occupations of hostile populations. Whatever pro-Russian sentiment existed in eastern Ukraine before February, the slaughter of 140,000 Ukrainians by an invading army has pretty well exhausted it. Dispatches from occupied Ukrainian cities paint a nightmarish picture, in which illegitimate governments maintain power through the routine torture and execution of dissidents, resources are plundered, and Ukrainian culture (as distinct from Russian culture) is forcibly suppressed.

It is possible that Russian rule in these regions will assume a less brutal character in peacetime or that a settlement could include some mechanisms for safeguarding the rights of Ukrainians who find themselves under Russian occupation. But at present, there is reason to suspect that any peace settlement that cedes much of the Donbas to Russia will not bring peace, as conventionally understood, to those areas.

All this said, some proponents of diplomacy maintain that territorial concessions may be unnecessary for securing peace and that Putin might be placated merely by a Ukrainian pledge for “neutrality” between west and east or some other modified version of the Minsk agreements that ended the first phase of the war in 2014. If this is true, the prospects for near-term peace would brighten considerably. But it does not strike me as credible that Putin is prepared to settle for something approaching the status quo ante after sacrificing 100,000 Russian soldiers and while still possessing much of eastern Ukraine.

4. How can Ukraine’s future security be preserved?

Ukraine will demand that any negotiated settlement ensure its future sovereignty. And Russian promises will not suffice. Putin has demonstrated that they carry no weight. It is difficult to see how Zelenskyy can sell the Ukrainian public on a peace deal in general — and one involving territorial concessions in particular — if that deal does not include some sort of tacit security guarantee from western powers. That could take the form of a guarantee to defend Ukraine in the event of a future invasion or an arrangement akin to that between the U.S. and Israel in which the west continues to underwrite Ukraine’s martial development.

It is as yet unclear precisely what kinds of guarantees the west is prepared to extend to Ukraine — let alone what sorts of arrangements Putin is prepared to accept. If one posits that Putin is ready to countenance some kind of permanent security alliance between the west and Ukraine — a prospect that he ostensibly launched this war to preempt — a near-term peace settlement becomes more plausible. If this is not the case, however, a near-term diplomatic resolution is hard to envision. An economically devastated postwar Ukraine cannot protect itself from a future Russian invasion without either security guarantees or open-ended military aid from larger powers. And Ukraine will need to be far more desperate than it is at present to accept a peace settlement with “security guarantees” no more formidable than those in the Budapest Memorandum.

5. How much more economic damage will Ukraine suffer from a prolonged war?

In June, the European Investment Bank estimated the cost of repairing Ukraine’s war damage at $1.1 trillion. And Russian attacks on Ukrainian power plants and transmission lines have only escalated since then. It’s far from clear that Ukraine’s allies are prepared to assume any significant percentage of that cost. At present, House Republicans are scoffing at Joe Biden’s proposal for a mere $14.5 billion in humanitarian aid for Ukraine. Thus, if the economic costs of sustained conflict multiply in the coming months, Ukrainians’ long-term well-being — and the security of their state — might be better served by reaching a settlement sooner rather than later.

6. How likely is Putin to respond to total defeat by deploying nuclear weapons?

Finally, there is the question of how Putin would respond to a Ukrainian triumph. Which is to say, if Russia is routed in a conventional war, will the Kremlin reach for its atomic trump card?

Putin has threatened to deploy nuclear weapons multiple times since the war’s onset. And Moscow has long insisted on its right to respond to attacks on Russian soil with atomic weapons. Putin plainly does not believe that this applies to all of the Ukrainian territory that he has dubiously annexed, since Russian troops have retreated from such areas without leaving mushroom clouds in their wake. But he might respond differently to the reconquest of Crimea, which has been de facto Russian territory for eight years and headquarters of the nation’s Black Sea Fleet.

Were Russia to resort to using nuclear weapons, the U.S. has indicated that it would retaliate through a conventional military attack against Russia, thereby inaugurating a direct confrontation between the world’s two nuclear superpowers. Needless to say, the potential costs of such a development are astronomical.

Ukraine’s odds of retaking Crimea remain low. And there is reason to doubt that Russia would resort to nuclear weapons even if Ukraine did manage to pull off such a feat. Deploying atomic weapons in Ukraine would have little strategic logic. Currently, NATO has kept its assistance to Ukraine within tight limits out of a desire to avoid an escalation that might bring it into direct conflict with Russia. An atomic strike would likely remove those limits. And it would risk alienating nations that have heretofore supported Russia (such as China) or maintained a degree of neutrality (such as India). In his recent meeting with Biden, Chinese president Xi Jinping reportedly reiterated his “opposition to the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine.” Perhaps in response to pressure from Beijing, Putin had already forsworn the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine in a late-October statement.

Still, given the threat that a military collapse in Ukraine might pose to the stability of Putin’s regime, it is hard to be confident about what he would do if faced with total defeat. So the risks of holding out for Ukraine’s full liberation extend beyond its potential for failure to its potential for excessive success. (Although, of course, there are considerable risks to establishing a precedent through which nuclear powers can annex territory by way of nuclear blackmail.)

I am not confident enough in my own answers to these questions to have a strong opinion about the best way forward for U.S. policy. It seems to me that prospects for a near-term peace agreement are slim but that the costs of protracted conflict will be exorbitant — above all, for Ukraine.

What I can say with certainty is that those in power have an obligation to examine these questions, unblinkered by patriotic fervor or grand strategic ambitions, then follow whichever course of action appears most favorable for restoring a measure of peace and justice to Ukraine.

Should Ukraine Give Peace Talks a Chance?