The Memo

The Memo: Peace in Ukraine? Not anytime soon, experts say

The war in Ukraine is in its third month and neither side is on the brink of victory or defeat.

So how does the war end? 

Even experts steeped in knowledge of Eastern Europe admit they don’t know.

“I have no idea,” said Michael McFaul, who served as U.S. ambassador to Russia under former President Obama.

“I think the answer is: Only Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky know the answer,” said James Jay Carafano, a foreign policy expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “They are the only guys who can really decide when to stop fighting, and there are things pushing and pulling them in both directions.”

For the moment, U.S. and Western resolve to help Ukraine hold the line against Putin looks strong. There is an unusual degree of bipartisan agreement in Washington, with Republican criticism of President Biden relatively muted so far.

On Capitol Hill Thursday, Senate passage of a bill that would provide $40 billion in assistance to Ukraine was postponed after Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) objected to a deal struck between Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). The aid package is still expected to pass in the end, however.

The American public has been highly engaged in the war — unusually so, for a conflict in which no U.S. troops are fighting. 

Horrific scenes that have emerged from the suburbs of Kyiv and other areas of Ukraine have stoked American emotions. An Economist-YouGov poll earlier this week indicated 72 percent of Americans believe Russian troops have committed war crimes.

The same poll showed that 64 percent of Americans believe the U.S. government’s response to the Russian invasion has either been “about right” or “should be tougher” — hardly indicative of a public desire to ignore or move past the conflict.

Still, the war has clearly moved into a new phase — one that might go on for some time.

When Russian President Vladimir Putin began his assault on Ukraine in late February, Moscow’s aim was clear. Russian troops advanced toward Kyiv, trying to seize the capital and topple Zelensky.

But Ukraine, backed by the West, fought back. Russia has, for the moment, retreated from the capital.

Russia regrouped and is now focusing its efforts on eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists have battled Ukrainian government forces for years. The Kremlin has described its aim as the “liberation of Donbas,” referring to the regions of Luhansk and Donetsk.

In recent weeks, Russia has made some advances — but only small ones. The Ukrainian defenses have been stretched but staunch. And, in some areas, it is the Ukrainians who appear to have pushed the Russians back.

But with neither side having a clear upperhand, what happens now?

“My guess is that Putin falls back on massive artillery strikes,” said Robert Wilkie, a former Veterans Affairs secretary and under-secretary of Defense during former President Trump’s administration. “I see this reducing itself to a lot of artillery shells flying back and forth.”

There is no real sign that the Russian public is rising up in outrage about the cost of the war, despite heavy casualties and the failure to make quick progress. Putin, temperamentally disinclined to back down, is not yet so weakened that he needs to sue for peace.

When it comes to Zelensky, the issues are just as stark— why would he give up some of his country to Russia to make peace if he doesn’t have to?

“You think you have a chance of winning, so why stop?” said Yoshiko Herrera, a Russia expert and professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

She noted that alleged Russian war crimes and reports of thousands of people being forcibly deported from eastern Ukraine is likely to stiffen resolve in Kyiv even further.

“Ukraine is suffering a lot in terms of the shelling and killing of civilians by Russia. But there are so many reports of atrocities. That makes it look like, if they allow Russia to hold any of their territory, Ukrainians will be massacred,” Herrera said. “I think the Ukrainians are energized and somewhat optimistic about pushing the Russians back to the line of control that existed before the war.”

But any such victory is still some way off. If it appeared likely, it is possible Putin could strike back by a mass mobilization of Russians into the armed forces, or even using nuclear weapons.

U.S. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told a Senate committee this week that Putin was “preparing for a prolonged conflict in Ukraine.”

Haines also warned against thinking Putin would be satisfied just to copper-fasten Russian control of the Donbas. She said he still intends to achieve goals in Ukraine beyond that eastern region.

Testifying alongside Haines, Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said that neither side was winning: “We’re at a bit of a stalemate here.”

It’s not just Americans who think so.

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said on Wednesday that while the war would “not last forever,” no peace deal or cease-fire was “on the immediate horizon.”

Those predictions also fuel the idea that the most likely ending to the war is a politically and morally muddy one — perhaps in which Putin holds parts of eastern Ukraine as well as Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014. 

That would be painful for Ukrainians — and also far short of Putin’s presumed aims at the outset of the war.

“The most likely scenario is that it all ends incredibly inconclusively,” Carafano said.

There are likely many months to go, and many lives still to be lost, before even that kind of end point is reached.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

Tags Barack Obama Charles Schumer Joe Biden Michael McFaul Mitch McConnell Rand Paul Robert Wilkie russia Russia-Ukraine war ukraine Ukraine Vladimir Putin Vladimir Putin Volodymyr Zelensky War

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