It’s not time yet to negotiate an end to the Ukraine war
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has said that he would like to end Russia’s war in his country before winter sets in. But to do that, he needs to negotiate from a position of strength. Considering the sacrifices forced upon his citizens by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s illegal aggression, the destruction of Ukraine’s cities and infrastructure well beyond what legitimate targets of war would justify, and the added misery that winter will bring, Zelensky’s desire makes complete sense. Unfortunately, of the three major factors that affect how long the war goes on, he controls only one.
The first factor is Putin’s perseverance in waging his unjustified war. Putin forced war upon Ukraine and launched his aggression believing, falsely, that he could end it in less than a week. He figured that his forces could seize Kyiv and other areas of Ukraine quickly, force the Zelensky government out, emplace his own puppet regime, and make Ukraine the vassal that Putin wants it to be. Unable to subjugate Ukraine with this initial Plan A, Putin shifted to Plan B: slow death by permanent partition — expanding and solidifying his hold on the Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts and seizing Ukraine’s southern coast ports and cities to cut off the country’s economic lifeline. Putin did not change his overall aim; he just modified how to accomplish it. In doing so, he has created conditions where, if the negotiations begin in the near term, he has the upper hand.
The second major factor is Ukrainian resistance. Ukraine’s citizens have fought, with allied arms and ammunition, to thwart Putin’s initial plans and force him to change strategies. Ukraine fighters not only have held their lines against ferocious Russian artillery, missile and ground attacks but also have pushed Russian forces out of many areas they initially seized. The Ukrainians have lost in some places, but today’s Ukraine battle map looks nothing like the map of March 21, 2022 — Russia’s high-water mark. Ukrainian fighters have shed their blood to force Putin to give up Plan A, and they are fighting hard to force him off Plan B.
The third major factor prolonging the war is materiel. The U.S., NATO and other allies are Ukraine’s logistics base. Without allied help, Ukraine likely would have folded already. But the promises of the allies — the U.S., NATO and others — have not been fulfilled at the pace necessary to allow Ukraine to fight to its fullest capacity. Sustained fighting, whether defensive or offensive, needs an uninterrupted and steady flow of arms, ammunition and equipment. The allies have provided much support, more than Putin had calculated they would. But this support has not been a steady flow. From the U.S., the flow is a pulsating surge and ebb. And from NATO, most steady has been the gap between promises and delivery.
In war, measuring the effectiveness of logistics is simple: Do you have on hand what you need to sustain the pace of operations required to succeed? By that measure, the delays in delivery of allied support have fallen short and prolonged the war.
With what the allies have provided, the Ukraine military has forced Russia into a grinding, glacial pace of operations in the northeast Luhansk province, held the Russian gains in the Donbas and South to about what they held at the end of March, and prevented Putin from taking Odessa. But Ukraine forces have not had at their disposal the arms, ammunition and equipment needed to initiate a counter-offensive in the South as they did successfully around Kyiv and along their northern boundary with Russia.
Some are already claiming that the Ukraine military cannot force Putin’s aggression back to its pre-February positions. It’s too early for such a conclusion. Moreover, it plays into Putin’s slow-death approach to Ukraine’s prosperity and self-determination. True, the war will end in some form of negotiations. But the key issue is who will have the upper hand when those negotiations begin. The allies must improve the flow of logistics to Ukraine so that its fighters can push Russia back in the South significantly enough for Putin to realize he cannot succeed in the fighting.
Winning the Ukraine war means achieving a “democratic, independent, sovereign and prosperous Ukraine.” This aim demands a successful defense in the Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts and a sufficiently successful counter-offensive in the South. That will allow the Zelensky government to negotiate from a position of strength and ensure that Ukraine has a viable economy when the war does end.
President Zelensky has told President Biden that this is a war “we must win.” If not, Ukraine’s independence is not the only loss. So, too, will be the strategic opportunity to prevent raw aggression from becoming a global norm.
None of us likes seeing what is happening in Ukraine. But if Putin is not stopped there, the probability of China, Iran and North Korea calculating that aggression could serve their interests increases. America and its allies will not prosper in this kind of world, and the challenges to the current international order will likely lead to more fighting around the globe.
James M. Dubik, Ph.D., a retired lieutenant general of the U.S. Army, is a senior fellow at the Institute for the Study of War. He served in military command and operational roles in Bosnia, Haiti and Iraq, and helped train forces in Afghanistan, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Honduras, and many NATO countries.