Observers who believe the best outcome in Ukraine is a ceasefire or peace agreement between Russia and Ukraine are forced to contemplate a bleak landscape.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has articulated his goals for the current war: retaking Crimea and returning to Ukraine’s 1991 borders in the east. In other words, he wants to annul Russian gains since 2014 completely and have Ukraine join NATO and the EU. In contrast, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s peace proposal of December 2023 called for the denazification and demilitarization of Ukraine, no NATO membership, and unconditional surrender. He did not mention returning Crimea or any territory in eastern Ukraine.
The positions of Ukraine and Russia are clear; the same cannot be said for the third indirect participant in this war: the United States. Before the conflict began, U.S. President Joe Biden reportedly told Zelensky that Ukraine’s membership in NATO “was in its own hands.” However, news reports from last summer’s NATO summit suggest that the U.S. was blocking Ukraine’s membership. Moreover, the U.S. did not set out what would constitute Ukraine’s “winning.” In fact, its actual role in the conflict thus far is unclear: is the Biden administration committed to helping Ukraine win a decisive victory, or is it doling out just enough war material and funding to keep the war going?
In the absence of a clear U.S. policy on Ukraine, Americans should consider some factors.
Eastern Ukraine: The United States presumably favors Russia’s returning all the territories it has occupied since 2014. There are two problems with this: the first is that Russian forces are well-entrenched in those areas and, as last summer’s failed Ukrainian counter-offensive demonstrated, will be difficult to dislodge. The second is even more intractable: since the time of Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century, much of eastern Ukraine was a part of Russia, and many of its inhabitants were ethnic Russians. Both Ukraine and Russia are well aware of these facts and, indeed, for several decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, maneuvered carefully to avoid an open conflict. That situation changed irreversibly in 2014, making today’s delicate balancing act very unlikely. The U.S. would be ill-advised to advocate giving all of these areas back to Ukraine, which has suppressed the Russian Orthodox Church and taken other steps to discriminate against ethnic Russians. Leaving the territory in the hands of Russia would, in effect, confirm the Russian invasion, something the U.S. and the West are loath to do. But it is hard to see how a Ukrainian takeover would lead to peace or stability.
Crimea: The situation of Crimea is less ambiguous. Crimea was only given to Ukraine in 1955, so is not historically part of Ukraine. Further, it houses the headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Ukraine has been attacking the fleet, as well as the bridge that connects Crimea to mainland Russia. If the U.S. were to include the return of Crimea to Ukraine as a vital part of any peace settlement, this would mean that we are endorsing the Ukrainians’’ attacks on the Black Sea Fleet – a dangerous escalation with no clear benefit to the U.S. Taking on the Black Sea Fleet has never been included in any recent U.S. National Security Strategy, whether under Bush, Obama, Trump or Biden.
NATO accession: The U.S. appears to be conflicted on this issue. While no concerns have been voiced publicly, some U.S. concerns are presumably related to Ukraine’s corruption level, the clear Russian opposition, and NATO’s policy of not admitting members with ongoing territorial disputes. It is worth mentioning here that one of Putin’s stated goals is to make Ukraine a neutral state, e.g., not a member of NATO. In fact, in March 2022, Zelensky reportedly offered Ukrainian neutrality as an element of a peace deal with Russia.
Denazification, demilitarization, and unconditional surrender: Russia’s advocacy of these goals is not surprising, but they hardly form the basis for an agreement that would satisfy either Ukraine or the U.S.
American supporters of the war in Ukraine argue that the U.S. cannot fail to support Ukraine, as that would invite Russian aggression against other NATO member states, particularly those formerly part of the Soviet Union. That point ignores the fact that Ukraine has suffered tremendous losses since the outbreak of the war. On top of the direct casualties from the war of attrition, over 6 million Ukrainians have fled the country, and there is no way of knowing how many will eventually return. This decline in population reflects not only the long-term demographic downward trend common to other European countries but also the results of low-level conflict in eastern Ukraine since 2014. In 2020, before the current war, the population of Ukraine had already fallen to the level of 1950, shortly after the devastation of World War II.
On January 16, 2024, the Ukrainian parliament passed a law to create an electronic conscription registry, most likely as the first step to replenishing its military units. This mirrors steps taken by Russia last spring. The difference, of course, is that Russia is much, much larger than Ukraine, and Putin has more coercive measures in his arsenal, such as ways to get prisoners to volunteer for the front lines, than does Zelensky. And, despite all the reports of damage to the Russian economy, Russia has greatly increased its production of war materiel since the outbreak of the war, in contrast to lagging production in NATO member countries. The bottom line: if there were a clear path to Ukrainian victory, it might make sense to urge continued U.S. support. But there is no clear path.
For decades, Ukraine and Russia kept the peace because both understood that, while there were no obvious ways to resolve their relationship, war was an obviously undesirable solution. Stopping the fighting is in the U.S. interest; finding an acceptable outcome, however, will not be easy.