A war without winners



Now is the time for America to develop a vision of how war ends.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 was a moment of clarity for the United States and its allies. An urgent mission lay before them: to help Ukraine fight Russian aggression and punish Moscow for its transgressions. While the Western response was clear from the start, the goal – the end of this war – has been hazy.

This ambiguity has been a feature rather than a mistake of US policy. As National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said in June 2022: “We actually refrained from establishing what we see as an endgame… We are focused on what we can do today, tomorrow, next week to strengthen as much as possible the hand of the Ukrainians, first on the battlefield and finally at the negotiating table.” This approach made sense in the early months of the conflict. The trajectory of the war was far from clear at that point.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was still talking about his readiness to meet his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, and the West had yet to supply Kiev with sophisticated ground-based rocket systems, let alone tanks and long-range missiles, as it does today. Furthermore, it will always be difficult for the United States to talk about its view of the purpose of a war that its forces are not fighting. Ukrainians are the ones dying for their country, so it is they who will finally decide when to stop – regardless of what Washington may want.

But now it's time for America to develop a vision of how the war ends. Fifteen months of fighting have made it clear that neither side has the capability – even with outside help – to achieve a decisive military victory over the other. Regardless of how much territory Ukrainian forces can liberate, Russia will retain the ability to pose a permanent threat to Ukraine. The Ukrainian military will also have the ability to keep any areas of the country occupied by Russian forces at risk – and to impose costs on military and civilian targets within Russia itself.

These factors could lead to a devastating conflict lasting years, which will not produce a definitive result. The United States and its allies therefore face a choice about their future strategy. They may start trying to bring the war to a negotiated end in the coming months. Or they could do it from here years ago. If they decide to wait, the fundamentals of conflict will likely be the same, but the costs of war – human, financial and otherwise – will have multiplied. An effective strategy for what has become the most consequential international crisis in at least a generation therefore requires that the United States and its allies shift their focus and start facilitating an outcome.

What to win does not seem

By the end of May, the Ukrainian military was about to launch a significant counteroffensive. After Kiev's successes in two previous operations in autumn 2022, and given the generally unpredictable nature of this conflict, it is certainly possible that the counter-offensive will yield significant gains.

The attention of Western policymakers is primarily devoted to providing the military equipment, intelligence, and training needed to make this happen. With so much apparently in flux on the battlefield, some might argue that now is not the time for the West to initiate endgame discussions. After all, the task of giving Ukrainians a chance for a successful offensive campaign is already straining Western governments' resources. But even if it goes well, a counteroffensive will not produce a militarily decisive result. Indeed, even a major frontline movement will not necessarily end the conflict.

More broadly, wars between states generally do not end when one side's forces are pushed beyond a certain point on the map. In other words, territorial conquest – or reconquest – is not, in itself, a form of war ending. The same is likely to happen in Ukraine: even if Kiev succeeded beyond all expectations and forced Russian troops back across the international border, Moscow would not necessarily stop fighting. But few in the West expect that outcome anytime soon, let alone the short term. Instead, the optimistic expectation for the coming months is that the Ukrainians will make some gains in the south, perhaps retaking parts of the Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions, or pushing back the Russian onslaught in the east.

These potential gains would be important and certainly are desirable. Fewer Ukrainians would be subjected to the unspeakable horrors of the Russian occupation. Kiev could regain control of major economic assets such as the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, the largest in Europe. And Russia would have suffered another blow to its military capabilities and global prestige, further increasing the costs of what has been a strategic catastrophe for Moscow.

The hope in Western capitals is that Kiev's battlefield gains will force Putin to the negotiating table. And it is possible that another tactical setback will dampen Moscow's optimism about continuing fighting. But just as losing territorial control is not equivalent to losing a war, it does not necessarily induce political concessions either. Vladimir Putin could announce another round of mobilization, step up his bombing campaign in Ukrainian cities or simply hold the line, convinced that time will work for him and against Ukraine. He might as well keep fighting even if he thinks he's going to lose. Other states chose to keep fighting despite recognizing the inevitability of defeat: think, for example, of Germany in World War I. In short, gains on the battlefield will not necessarily bring about the end of war.

Mission Impossible?

After more than a year of fighting, the likely direction of this war is coming into focus. Frontline location is an important piece of this puzzle, but it is far from the most important. Rather, the key aspects of this conflict are twofold: the persistent threat that both sides will pose to each other, and the unresolved dispute over areas of Ukraine that Russia has claimed to annex. These are likely to remain fixed for many years.

Ukraine has built an impressive fighting force with tens of billions of dollars in aid, extensive training and intelligence support from the West. The Ukrainian Armed Forces will be able to keep any areas under Russian occupation at risk. In addition, Kiev will retain the ability to attack Russia itself, as it has consistently demonstrated over the past year.

Of course, the Russian military will also have the ability to threaten Ukrainian security. Although its armed forces have suffered significant casualties and equipment losses that will take years to recover, they are still formidable. And as they demonstrate daily, even in their current sorry state, they can cause significant death and destruction to Ukrainian military and civilian forces. The campaign to destroy Ukraine's power grid may have failed, but Moscow will retain the ability to strike Ukraine's cities at any time using air power, land assets and sea-delivered weapons.

In other words, no matter where the front line is, Russia and Ukraine will have the ability to pose a permanent threat to each other. But evidence from the past year suggests that neither has or will have the capability to achieve a decisive victory – assuming, of course, that Russia does not resort to weapons of mass destruction (and even that may not guarantee victory). In early 2022, when its forces were in much better shape, Russia failed to take control of Kiev or overthrow the democratically elected Ukrainian government.

At this stage, the Russian military seems incapable of seizing all of the areas of Ukraine that Moscow claims as its own. Last November, the Ukrainians forced the Russians to retreat to the east bank of the Dnieper River in the Kherson region. Today, the Russian military is not in a position to cross the river to take the rest of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions. Their attempt in January to push north into the plains of the Donetsk region near Vuhledar – an offensive far less exhausting than a river crossing – ended in a bloodbath for the Russians.

The Ukrainian military, for its part, has defied expectations and may continue to do so. But there are significant obstacles to achieving more progress on the ground. Russian forces are heavily engaged in the most likely axis of advance in the south. Open source satellite imagery shows that they have created multi-layered physical defenses – new trenches, anti-vehicle barriers, obstacles and linings for equipment and materiel – across the frontline that will be difficult to breach.

The mobilization announced by Vladimir Putin last fall eased the manpower problems that previously allowed Ukraine to push into the Kharkiv region, where Russia's poorly defended lines were vulnerable to a surprise attack. And the Ukrainian military is largely untested in offensive campaigns that require the integration of multiple capabilities. It also suffered significant losses during the war, most recently in the battle for Bakhmut, a small town in the Donetsk region. Kiev also faces shortages of critical munitions, including for artillery and air defenses, and the mix of Western equipment it received has strained maintenance and training resources.

These limitations on both sides strongly suggest that neither side will achieve its stated territorial objectives by military means in the coming months or even years. For Ukraine, the objective is extremely clear: Kiev wants control of all of its internationally recognized territory, which includes Crimea and the parts of the Donbas that Russia has occupied since 2014.

Russia's position is not so categorical, as Moscow remains ambiguous about the location of the borders of two of the five Ukrainian regions it claims to have annexed: Zaporizhzhia and Kherson. Regardless of this ambiguity, the bottom line is that neither Ukraine nor Russia is likely to establish control over what they consider their own territory. (This is not to say that the claims of both parties must have equal legitimacy. But the manifest illegitimacy of the Russian position does not seem to dissuade Moscow from maintaining it.) Put another way, the war will end without a resolution to the territorial dispute. Either Russia or Ukraine, or more likely both, will have to settle for a de facto line of control that neither recognizes as an international border.

a war forever

These largely unchanging factors could well produce a protracted hot war between Russia and Ukraine. In fact, history suggests that this is the most likely outcome. A study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, using data from 1946 to 2021 compiled by Uppsala University, found that 26% of interstate wars end in less than a month and another 25% within a year.

But the study also found that "when wars between states last longer than a year, they span more than a decade, on average." Even those that last less than ten years can be exceptionally destructive. The Iran-Iraq war, for example, lasted nearly eight years, from 1980 to 1988, and resulted in almost half a million combat deaths and about the same number of injuries. After all its sacrifices, Ukraine deserves to avoid such a fate.

A long war between Russia and Ukraine will also be highly problematic for the United States and its allies, as a recent RAND study co-authored with political scientist Miranda Priebe shows. A protracted conflict would keep the risk of possible escalation – whether to Russian nuclear use or a Russia-NATO war – at its current high level. Ukraine would receive almost total economic and military support from the West, which will ultimately cause budgetary challenges for Western countries and readiness issues for their militaries.

The global economic fallout from the war, including volatility in grain and energy prices, would persist. The United States would be unable to focus its resources on other priorities, and Russia's dependence on China would deepen. While a long war would also further weaken Russia, this benefit does not outweigh these costs.

While Western governments must continue to do all they can to help Ukraine prepare for the counteroffensive, they also need to adopt an end-of-war strategy – a vision for an endgame that is plausible under these far-from-ideal circumstances. . As a decisive military victory is highly unlikely, certain endings are no longer plausible. Given the persistence of fundamental differences between Moscow and Kiev on core issues such as borders, as well as intense grievances after so many civilian casualties and deaths, a peace treaty or comprehensive political agreement that normalizes relations between Russia and Ukraine also seems impossible. The two countries will be enemies long after the end of the hot war.

For Western and Kiev governments, ending the war without negotiations may seem preferable to talking to representatives of a government that has committed an unprovoked act of aggression and horrific war crimes. But interstate wars that have reached this level of intensity do not tend to simply disappear without negotiations. If the war persists, it will also be extremely difficult to turn it back into a localized low-intensity conflict like what took place in the Donbas from 2014 to 2022. During this period, the war had relatively minimal impact on life outside the conflict zone in Ukraine.

The length of the current front line (over 600 miles), the attacks on cities and other targets far across the line, and the ongoing mobilization in both countries (partial in Russia, full in Ukraine) will have systemic effects – perhaps even nearly existential – about the two belligerents. For example, it is hard to imagine how the Ukrainian economy can recover if its airspace remains closed, its ports remain largely blocked, its cities under fire, its men of working age fighting at the front and millions of refugees unwilling to return to the country. We are past the point where the impact of this war can be confined to a specific geography.

Since negotiations will be necessary but an agreement is out of the question, the most plausible ending is an armistice agreement. An armistice — essentially a lasting ceasefire agreement that doesn't bridge political divisions — would end Russia's heated war with Ukraine, but not their broader conflict. The archetypal case is the Korean armistice of 1953, which dealt exclusively with the mechanics of maintaining a ceasefire and left all political issues off the table. Although North and South Korea are technically still at war, and both claim the entirety of the peninsula as their sovereign territory, the armistice has largely remained in place. Such an unsatisfactory result is the most likely way to end this war.

In contrast to the Korean case, the United States and its allies are not doing the fighting in Ukraine. Decisions in Kiev and Moscow will ultimately be far more decisive than those taken in Berlin, Brussels or Washington. Even if they wanted to, Western governments could not dictate terms to Ukraine – or Russia. However, even while acknowledging that Kiev will ultimately make its own decisions, the United States and its allies, in close consultation with Ukraine, can begin to discuss and present their vision for the outcome.

To some extent, they've been doing this for months: US President Joe Biden's May 2022 op-ed on the The New York Times made it clear that his government sees this war ending at the negotiating table. Its top officials have regularly echoed that view ever since, though the language of helping Ukraine for “as long as it takes” often garners more attention. But Washington has avoided providing more details. Furthermore, there does not appear to be ongoing efforts either within the US government or between Washington, its allies and Kiev to think through the practicalities and substance of eventual negotiations. Compared to efforts to provide resources for the counteroffensive, virtually nothing is being done to shape what comes next. The Biden administration must begin to fill that gap.

The costs of waiting

Taking steps to get diplomacy off the ground need not affect efforts to help Ukraine militarily or impose costs on Russia. Historically, fighting and talking at the same time has been a common practice in warfare. During the Korean War, some of the most intense fighting took place during the two years of armistice negotiations, when 45% of US casualties were incurred. Starting to plan for the inevitable diplomacy can and should take place in parallel with the other existing elements of US policy – ​​as well as the ongoing war.

In the short term, that means continuing to help Kiev with the counter-offensive and starting parallel discussions with allies and Ukraine about the outcome. In principle, the opening of an avenue of negotiation with Russia should complement – ​​not contradict – the momentum on the battlefield. If Ukraine's gains make the Kremlin more willing to compromise, the only way to know that would be through a functioning diplomatic channel. The creation of such a channel should not deter either Ukraine or its Western partners from putting pressure on Russia. An effective strategy will require coercion and diplomacy. One cannot come at the expense of the other.

And waiting to prepare the ground for negotiations has its costs. The longer the allies and Ukraine go without developing a diplomatic strategy, the harder it will be to do so. As the months go by, the political price of taking the first step will rise. Any move by the United States and its allies to open up the diplomatic avenue – even with Ukraine's backing – would have to be delicately managed lest it be portrayed as a reversal of policy or an abandonment of Western support for Kiev.

Starting preparations now also makes sense because conflict diplomacy will not produce results overnight. Indeed, it will take weeks, if not months, to get allies and Ukraine on the same page over a negotiation strategy — let alone to reach an agreement with Russia once negotiations begin. In the case of the Korean armistice, it took 575 meetings over two years to finalize the nearly 40-page agreement. In other words, even if a trading platform were set up tomorrow, months would pass before the guns fell silent (if the trades were successful, which is far from a given).

Devising measures to make the ceasefire hold will be a thorny but critical task, and Washington must ensure it is ready to assist Kiev in that effort. Serious work must begin now on how to prevent what Ukrainian officials, including Zelensky, wryly describe as “Minsk 3”, a reference to the two failed ceasefire agreements that were negotiated with Russia in the Belarusian capital in 2014 and 2015, after his previous invasions. These agreements failed to put a lasting end to violence and did not include effective mechanisms to ensure compliance by the parties.

Using data from conflicts between 1946 and 1997, political scientist Virginia Page Fortna showed that strong agreements that organize demilitarized zones, third-party guarantees, peacekeeping, or joint committees for dispute resolution and contain specific (versus vague) language produced ceasefires. more lasting. These mechanisms reinforce the principles of reciprocity and deterrence that allow sworn enemies to reach peace without resolving their fundamental differences. As these mechanisms will be challenging to adapt to the Ukraine war, governments need to work to develop them now.

Although an armistice to end this war is a bilateral agreement, the United States and its allies can and should help Ukraine in its negotiation strategy. In addition, they must consider what measures they can take in parallel to provide incentives for the parties to come to the table and minimize the chances that any ceasefire will collapse. As Fortna's research suggests, security commitments to Ukraine – some guarantee that Kiev won't face Russia alone if Moscow strikes again – must be part of that equation. All too often, the discussion of security commitments boils down to the question of Ukraine's membership in NATO.

As a member, Ukraine would benefit from Article 5 of NATO's founding treaty, which requires members to treat an armed attack against one of them as an attack against them all. But NATO membership is more than just Article 5. From Moscow's perspective, joining the alliance would turn Ukraine into a stage for the United States to deploy its own forces and capabilities. So even if there was consensus among allies to offer Kiev membership (and there isn't), granting Ukraine a guarantee of security through NATO membership could well make peace so unattractive to Russia that Putin would decide to continue. fighting.

Squaring that circle will be challenging and politically complicated. A potential model is the 1975 US-Israel Memorandum of Understanding, which was one of the main preconditions for Israel agreeing to peace with Egypt. The document states that, in light of "the longstanding commitment of the United States to the survival and security of Israel, the United States government will view with particular gravity threats to Israel's security or sovereignty by a world power." In the event of such a threat, the US government will consult Israel "as to what support, diplomatic or otherwise, or assistance it may lend to Israel in accordance with its constitutional practices." The document also explicitly promises "US corrective action" if Egypt violates the ceasefire. This is not an explicit commitment to treat an attack on Israel like an attack on the United States, but it comes close.

A similar guarantee to Ukraine would give Kiev a greater sense of security, encourage private sector investment in the Ukrainian economy and increase the deterrence of future Russian aggression. While Moscow now knows for certain that the United States will not intervene militarily if it attacks Ukraine, such a statement would make the Kremlin think more than twice — but it would not raise the prospect of new American bases on Russia's borders. Of course, Washington would need confidence in the durability of the ceasefire for the likelihood of the compromise being tested to remain low. Avoiding war with Russia must remain a priority.

When the time comes, Ukraine will need other incentives, such as reconstruction aid, Russia's accountability measures, and sustained peacetime military assistance to help Kiev create a credible deterrent. In addition, the United States and its allies must complement the coercive pressure being applied to Russia with efforts to make peace a more attractive option, such as relief from conditional sanctions – with snapback for non-compliance – which could lead to a compromise. The West must also be open to dialogue on broader European security issues, so as to minimize the chance of a similar crisis with Russia erupting in the future.

the diplomatic route

The first step in making this vision a reality in the coming months is to step up an effort within the US government to develop the diplomatic pathway. A new US military command element, the Security Assistance Group – Ukraine, has been dedicated to the relief and training mission, which is led by a three-star general with a staff of 300. However, there is not a single employee in the US government whose full-time job is conflict diplomacy. Joe Biden should nominate one, perhaps a special presidential envoy who can get involved beyond the foreign ministries, which have been sidelined in this crisis in almost every relevant capital. Next, the United States is expected to begin informal discussions with Ukraine and among allies in the G-7 and NATO on the outcome.

In parallel, the United States should consider establishing a regular channel of communication about the war that includes Ukraine, US allies, and Russia. This channel would not initially be aimed at achieving a ceasefire. Instead, it would allow participants to interact continuously rather than in one-off meetings, similar to the contact group model used during the Balkan wars, when an informal group of representatives of key states and international institutions met regularly. Those discussions are likely to start out of the public eye, much like the US's initial contacts with Iran over the nuclear deal, signed in 2015.

These efforts may well not lead to an agreement. The chances of success are slim – and even if the negotiations produced an agreement, no one would be completely satisfied. The Korean armistice was certainly not seen as a triumph of US foreign policy at the time it was signed: after all, the American public had become accustomed to outright victories, not bloody wars with no clear resolution. But in the nearly 70 years that followed, there was not another outbreak of war on the peninsula. Meanwhile, South Korea emerged from the devastation of the 1950s to become an economic powerhouse and, eventually, a thriving democracy. An equally prosperous and democratic postwar Ukraine, with a strong Western commitment to its security, would represent a true strategic victory.

An armistice-based outcome would leave Ukraine – at least temporarily – without all of its territory. But the country would have the opportunity to recover economically, and the death and destruction would end. It would remain locked in a conflict with Russia over the areas occupied by Moscow, but that conflict would play out in political, cultural and economic domains where, with Western support, Ukraine would have advantages. The successful reunification of Germany in 1990, another peacefully divided country, demonstrates that focusing on non-military elements of the contest can produce results. Meanwhile, a Russian-Ukrainian armistice would also not end the West's confrontation with Russia, but the risks of a direct military confrontation would dramatically decrease, and the global consequences of the war would be mitigated.

Many commentators will continue to insist that this war must be decided on the battlefield alone. But this view dismisses how the structural realities of war are unlikely to change even if the frontline changes, an outcome that is far from guaranteed. The United States and its allies must be able to help Ukraine simultaneously on the battlefield and at the negotiating table. Now is the time to get started.

Samuel Charap is a political scientist at the RAND Corporation.

Translation: Eleutério FS Prado.

Originally published on the portal Foreign Affairs.

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