By Eli Kravinsky; Image from Journal of Democracy
As Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine has dragged into the second year, optimism amongst the Western public has shifted to pessimism. Ukraine’s initial heroic defense in early 2022, and stunning counter offensives in late 2022 inspired confidence in Ukraine’s abilities. However, commentators have largely characterized Ukraine’s ongoing counter offensive as a stalemate. Accordingly, many have become dejected and advocated for Ukraine to negotiate an end to the conflict. Those who hold such views are categorically wrong for several reasons. First, many of the arguments claiming Ukraine is losing the war are based on misperceptions. Second, the invasion has kick-started the degeneration of Putin’s regime, meaning that time is still on Ukraine’s side. Third, Russia has given no real indications it would consider any sort of negotiated settlement preferable to the current situation.
Over the past several decades, the conventional wars that Western militaries have engaged in were all against vastly weaker opponents. These have largely consisted of rapid and cheap victories. This experience has conditioned us to expect a similarly rapid conclusion to the conflict in Ukraine. Given this experience, many see progress slower than lightning speed as indicative of stalemate or defeat for Ukraine. This view is incorrect, with some caveats. Some technologies, such as drones, have generally increased the pace at which war is fought. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine also reminds us that rapid maneuver at the onset of any conflict is crucial for success. However, conventional war remains more of a marathon than a sprint. Ukraine’s victory is extremely likely but will take time, even up to multiple years in the future.
Similarly, Western observers have been misled by our recent experiences fighting insurgencies abroad during the Global War on Terror. While these wars are generally slower-paced than conventional conflicts, the long duration of these types of conflict often indicates insurgent success. By simply not losing, insurgencies inch closer to victory because foreign powers are wary of long-term commitments abroad. Applying this heuristic, some assume Ukraine is losing simply because the conflict is ongoing. This is untrue because all evidence suggests Ukraine’s willingness to withstand the conflict outpaces that of Russia.
Ukrainian forces are still better equipped, organized, trained, led and more numerous than their Russian counterparts. While Russian forces have improved on some of their blunders earlier in the war, they are still outmatched by Ukraine. Ukraine’s current counteroffensive has not achieved the dramatic success its prior offenses had, this in no way means Ukraine is heading towards defeat. Offensives through extensive fortifications defended by mechanized forces, such as in southwest Ukraine are inherently difficult operations. Ukraine’s next major breakthrough will need more time. Fortunately for Ukraine, time is on its side due to the political and military dynamics within Putin’s Russia.
The failures of Russia’s invasion have devolved the Russian military into a mess of private armies and opened fissures between Russian soldiers and their political masters. As Russia’s regular armed forces have been hollowed out by poorly executed operations, Putin has increasingly turned into a panoply of irregular and semi-regular armed forces to supplement them. These include most (in)famously the Wagner PMC, but also other mercenary forces and units raised by local governments, major corporations and oligarchs. These forces contribute somewhat to Russia’s ability to stave off Ukrainian counter offensives but create the long-term risk that Russia’s invasion will turn into a conflict within Russia’s feuding armed forces. Wagner’s abortive coup was only the most recent example of this fracturing, and will not be the last.
Mr. Putin previously relied on deception, economic warfare and limited application of military force to achieve his goals abroad, but this strategy has reached its limit. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization shows no signs of decreasing its support to Ukraine. Europe has almost completely broken its dependency on Russian energy inputs without suffering a major blackout by reducing consumption and switching to non-Russian LNG imports. Russia has essentially become a pariah state, with Mr. Putin indicted by the International Criminal Court. Putin likely knows he cannot directly defeat Ukraine on the battlefield, so he is hoping he can indirectly defeat it politically by cutting off Western support. Given his lack of leverage over the West, Putin is likely relying on one last hail mary: that the U.S. will elect a president in 2024 who will scale down support to Ukraine. Many, such as Trump, DeSantis, and Ramaswamy have advocated for the U.S. to essentially abandon Ukraine. However, other Republican candidates have taken the opposite position and argued that Biden hasn’t gone far enough in his support for Ukraine. Even if U.S. support slackens, it’s unlikely that the ‘front-line states’ (the Baltics and Poland) would reduce their support. Proportionally to their GDPs, they have contributed even more than the U.S. has.
In recent months, calls for Ukraine to negotiate an end to the war have increased. Those making these arguments are mistaken in their assumption that the war is unwinnable or that Ukraine is losing. Additionally, they fail to admit Russia is generally unwilling to negotiate or that any negotiated settlement now would be far more inhumane than the status quo.
Putin has elevated his invasion of Ukraine into an existential struggle for Russia. He has denied Ukrainian statehood as his kleptocratic regime has taken on an increasingly fascistic and chauvinistic tone. Given these domestic narratives, negotiation would be incredibly difficult for Putin. Additionally, the fracturing of Russia’s armed forces has created an ultra-rightwing faction who increasingly critique Putin for not fighting the war more ruthlessly. As time goes on they will likely become increasingly more powerful. Even if he wanted to, could Putin negotiate given that a major segment of his military has taken on such a hardline position? Could Ukraine and the West trust his word? Russia broke the commitment it made to respect Ukrainian sovereignty in 1994 when Ukraine gave up its ex-Soviet nuclear arms. Putin’s behavior indicates he is unbound by any sense of international obligation or morality.
While all prefer peace to war in Ukraine, we need to specify peace on what terms. A negotiated settlement now would make Russia’s crimes in Ukraine permanent. The tens of thousands of Ukranian children Russia has kidnapped, brought to Russia, and subjected to pro-Russian propaganda in internment camps would stay kidnapped. Sovereign Ukrainian territory would be ceded to an aggressor state. Russia’s war crimes would go unpunished. Negotiating with Putin would reward his aggression and teach him that invading one’s neighbors pays off. As we have learnt in 2008 and 2014, limp-wristed responses to Russian aggression bring about more aggression.
That all said, it would be unwise for Ukraine to categorically reject negotiation with Russia. The only other potential outcomes to this conflict would be Ukraine occupying Russia, Ukraine capitulating, and ‘freezing’ the conflict. Given Russia’s capabilities, achieving all of Ukraine’s stated war goals may be impossible. It’s likely that Ukraine can recover its sovereign territory but it may not be able to force Russia to hand over Russian war criminals or pay reparations. Ukraine should negotiate with Russia in the future when it has driven Russian forces off of all or most of its sovereign territory. While it would be premature to predict that Putin’s regime will fall, it is within the range of possibility that it will. Its successors might be even more rapidly aggressive, but they may alternatively be more willing to grant Ukraine’s war goals than Putin is. Alternatively, if Putin’s regime continues to fracture and degenerate then he may simply be forced to negotiate on Ukraine’s terms.