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Strategy for a Ukraine Peace

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to how peace in Ukraine might look. I was hoping for a while that Ukraine would take back at least some of the territory that Russia has occupied in Kherson and Zaporizhia, but that is looking unlikely. Let’s suppose, then, that the military situation remains substantially the same. What can we hope for in a negotiated settlement?

The bad news is, Ukraine is probably not going to get any of its territory back. Putin has already put a legal façade on his occupation with the plebiscites that he held there, and he can add to his prescriptive right just by continuing to occupy and administer them. The only way he will surrender any ground is on the basis of a very substantial concession from the West. I’m not even sure what that would look like now. Keeping Finland out of NATO? I don’t think NATO would agree to that, but it’s the sort of thing that might at least get Russian attention.

Short of some dramatic negotiation like that, the only hope would be for Ukraine to reconquer the territory. As I stated at the outset, this does not appear likely. Russia’s military is not the mighty machine we imagined it to be at some point in the past, but holding on to a territory that they have had time to fortify heavily against a military with Ukraine’s capability seems entirely within their strength. I don’t think a few advanced weapons would help Ukraine, either; they would need a much stronger military, and willingness to accept heavy casualties, to take it back.

Ukraine could just prolong the war until Russia’s economy breaks down and their military loses the strength to defend, but I don’t think that’s likely. It would require major ongoing support from the West, including a huge investment from the U.S., which is not forthcoming in the current political climate. Nor do I think it should be. It’s unfortunate to lose territory in a just defensive war, but that doesn’t mean that prolonging the war indefinitely, with its attendant financial and human costs, is an appropriate response.

Is the war lost, then? I don’t think so. It is lost on that point, but Ukraine and the West still have negotiating strength. I’m sure Russia would like to get out of the war, which can’t possibly be very popular, and which is hurting the Russian economy. What would Ukraine want in exchange for accepting Russian annexation of those territories? A better defense guarantee from the West. I don’t think membership in NATO is in the cards, but there are other things that Ukraine could demand. They could insist on a guarantee of their territorial integrity on the part of NATO, for instance. That would mean that a subsequent Russian invasion would automatically trigger a NATO declaration of war. This is not the same as NATO membership, because there would be no NATO bases in Ukraine and no integration of Ukrainian troops into NATO. It would obviously not be as strong a defense as being in NATO, but I think it would be adequate. I’m pretty sure Putin would not have dared to invade last year if he had the virtual certainty of NATO’s involvement as a consequence. He might have — he might have thought that he could conquer Ukraine before NATO got there — but even that would not necessarily have stopped NATO from continuing the war on behalf of a conquered Ukraine. I don’t know how strong NATO is militarily, but the alliance definitely has far more resources than Russia, and that is a conflict that Russia could not hope to win the long term. (I’ll leave aside the threat of nuclear war, which obviously would be an additional check on Russian aggression, on the grounds that I don’t think anyone believes NATO would want to start a nuclear war in defense of Ukraine.)

Ukraine might not be able to get a firm NATO guarantee out of a treaty with Russia, but it’s the sort of thing that would make for a good treaty. There are many other variations on this theme that the two sides could discuss. One thing I’ve learned from studying peace negotiations is that there is virtually no end to possible compromises, even on issues that seem like they only admit of two options. A slightly expanded Russia, with Putin able to claim that he won the war, in exchange for some kind of defense guarantee for Ukraine that is much more solid than the flimsy one the U.S. sold them in Budapest in 1994 when they gave up their nuclear weapons. I think this would make for a reasonable compromise for both sides. It would “reward” Putin’s aggression, of course, but that was already rewarded when the attack was made and took substantial ground. There is no way to undo that now short of an even bigger and bloodier war, which would be fought for some relatively petty reasons. (No territory is ever petty to the people who live on it, but, considering the anti-war literature that has been produced on the futility of fighting over various bits of land, these particular bits of land offer nothing extraordinary to justify any great sacrifice on their part.)

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