The path to peace in Ukraine will start on Ukrainian terms
As the war in Ukraine approaches its 11th month, it is a good time to take stock of the enduring impact of the conflict and to look forward to the prospects for a negotiated settlement that will provide the basis for near-term and sustained security for the Ukrainian people. At the same time, taking into account the larger implications of the conflict, a settlement with strong and visible Western support can serve as an effective means of deterring Russia and any like-minded actors from engaging in such an unwarranted and catastrophic invasion in the future.
To start, Russian battlefield setbacks and the recent surge in air attacks on infrastructure targets have only served to highlight the continuing challenges, with successful Ukrainian counteroffensives and attendant high Russian casualties.
While the Kremlin leadership always attempts to put a positive spin on military operations in Ukraine, the cumulative toll becomes clearer every day. The sustained, and unexpected resilience of the Ukrainian forces continues to confound the Russian military, as they have yet to establish tactical, operational air, land or maritime superiority.
Second, in terms of diplomacy and global opinion, Russia remains isolated in very stark terms on the world stage. The downright embarrassing reception that Russian leadership had to weather at the recent Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting (particularly by Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi) and the G20 summit meeting in Bali (which had to be delegated to the Russian foreign minister) are further evidence of the international opposition and limited opportunities for engagement directly related to the war.
Furthermore, the Kremlin’s bet on “war fatigue” and expectation that Western support for Ukraine would lessen over time has simply not played out. The United Nations General Assembly vote condemning Russia’s “attempted illegal annexation” of four Ukrainian regions in October was little different from the initial UNGA vote condemning the invasion in early March — with only four nations supporting Russia against more than 140 opposed. In contrast, the strong leadership, consistent effectiveness and widespread arms, materiel and other support provided by NATO, the G7, the European Union and other states such as Japan and Australia reflect the strong and enduring international headwinds that Russia is facing.
The Ukraine war has also had a widespread, severe and growing impact on the Russian economy. According to the World Bank, the economy will contract by 4.5 percent in 2022, with a recession continuing in 2023 “due to the sanctions and reduced fiscal expansion.” A related dilemma for the Russian economy is the hundreds of billions of dollars worth of assets still frozen in foreign banks. There is a growing current of opinion that a large portion of these assets should be seized and applied to the reconstruction of Ukraine, an option articulated by the E.U. leadership in recent weeks. The Russian economy is also suffering from the ongoing exodus of hundreds of thousands of talented young people, which will inhibit economic growth well into the future.
At the strategic level, it is also worth emphasizing that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will have an impact far from eastern Europe in terms of global security. Other nations at risk for military confrontation have already modified their threat calculus because of the overwhelming opposition to the war and the aggregate costs imposed on Moscow. Taiwan, Georgia, the eastern flank of NATO and others have a strong stake in the outcome of the war, and allowing Russia to emerge from the war with anything resembling a victory will make them and others more vulnerable to potential aggressor states.
With all these factors as background, we can ask ourselves what a worthwhile negotiated settlement for the war would look like. First, as highlighted repeatedly by the White House, the NATO secretary general and others, any agreement is up to the Ukrainians. Because of this, and Kyiv’s consistent position on territory, compensation and war crimes prosecutions, we should recognize that extraordinary security guarantees will be a necessary precondition for any ceasefire and settlement.
There are good reasons for this, including the success that Ukraine has had in defending its nation and retaking more than half of the territory taken by Russia since February, and the history of continued offensive Russian operations against Ukraine going back to 2014. Kyiv has a well-justified reluctance to agree to a cessation of hostilities that would allow Russia to retain its post-Feb. 24 territorial gains, reconstitute and rearm its struggling ground and other forces and renew offensive operations at a time of their own choosing.
To address this reality, it will be necessary for Ukraine’s Western allies to provide something well beyond a weak “Minsk III” type of agreement. Specifically, while it is probably not realistic to have security guarantees provided directly by the NATO alliance, for the Ukrainian leadership to accede to a deal with Moscow the rigor of security guarantees will need to be on the order of NATO’s Article V. This could take the form of multilateral/bilateral security guarantees with teeth, as well as related “tripwire” forces stationed as part of the ceasefire agreement from nations suited for this role (several come to mind, such Canada, Japan or Australia). This would serve as a strong deterrent, as Russia would have to tangle with nations’ security guarantees, their troops on the ground and the attendant complications — as they consider any renewal of offensive operations against Ukraine after a period of rearmament.
So those are the imperatives for ending the war, and while it may take some time to begin genuine negotiations, continued strong support from the West across the board is the best course of action to get them started.
And one final incentive — as the war in Ukraine continues, it becomes clearer as time goes on that Kyiv does represent a genuine threat to Russia, although not in the sense that most would assume. Ukraine presents a threat to Putin and his inner circle because of their warfighting skills, but more importantly because of what they stand for: an open, free and authentic democracy, and a proud people determined to choose their own destiny and to protect that right for future generations of Ukrainians. That reality represents a genuine, long-term and existential threat to the Kremlin leadership.
Vice Admiral (retired) Robert B. Murrett is a professor of practice at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School and deputy director of the Institute for Security Policy and Law.