The U.S. should be preparing Ukraine to compromise
According to Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, his nation’s successful defence in the two and half months since Russia’s invasion has expanded what they will accept in any peace deal. Kyiv now demands control over all Russian occupied territories as well as reparations for war payments:
Most Western observers see Ukraine’s tough negotiating stance as an unmitigated good. Of course, Ukraine, the victim of aggression, wants to control all its territory, and it’s fair that Russia pays for damage it inflicted. Furthermore, if the NATO goal in Ukraine is to weaken Russia, as U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin says, it makes sense to encourage Ukraine to take a position that makes peace unlikely anytime soon — in other words, to let them carry on fighting.
According to this logic, no amount of Western aid — over $20 billion is allocated with another $40 billion from the United States alone coming — is too much. In Western eyes, Ukraine should not compromise, but Russia should: telling Ukraine to settle for half a loaf is simply immoral.
But unconditional and seemingly bottomless western support for Ukraine risks prolonging the war. Peace talks are now moribund, but might revive when the war turns static. At that point, U.S. support for Ukraine should be used to encourage a peace deal.
Battlefield success might allow Ukraine to reclaim some of its lost territory and even get payments from Russia. But the balance of military power makes that unlikely. More likely is a bloody stalemate that does not meaningfully move Russia’s position: basically, that Ukraine gives up Crimea permanently, allows autonomy or independence for occupied areas of Donbas, and becomes neutral by forswearing NATO membership.
U.S. and European leaders repeat the talking point that the terms and timing of peace should be up to Ukraine. Western support should be automatic and unquestioning, they imply. But there are both strategic and humanitarian reasons why this is the wrong approach.
First, trying to weaken Russia is probably counterproductive, past a point, to NATO countries’ security. Russia has dashed itself on the rocks in Ukraine, losing a chunk of its fighting force, degrading its military morale, and demonstrating shocking military deficiencies. This weakness makes it quite unlikely to invade another country soon. Maybe some further humbling could help, but Russia is not going to disappear as an energy exporter that can fund a substantial military force and large nuclear arsenal. Endless sanctions and continual proxy wars will create a resentful garrison state, with more revanchist nationalism and desire for payback.
Second, encouraging Ukraine to hold out for a full victory may be bad for the country itself. Of course, Ukraine should be best positioned to judge what’s best for it. But, on the other hand, Ukraine’s political situation may make it impossible for any Ukrainian leader to accept the limits of what war can achieve. And what Ukrainians want depends in some sense on what their sponsors will bankroll.
Pre-invasion Ukraine is instructive. Since 2014, when Russia seized Crimea and stoked insurgency in Donbas, Ukraine’s perilous circumstances suggested a compromise with Russia, by accepting neutrality, giving up on Crimea, and implementing Minsk II, which effectively meant allowing rebel areas autonomy. This was never a great deal for Ukraine, except compared to the alternatives: being endlessly menaced or invaded.
After this deal, the U.S. went on about “ironclad support” and held out the prospect of NATO membership. This was gross negligence, not just because Ukraine’s prospective NATO membership was at once a chimera and provocative to Russia, but because it tempted Kyiv’s belief that western support would prevent the need for painful compromise.
The western impulse is to give Ukraine everything it wants, no strings attached, to punish Russia. But the quest to punish makes for poor foreign policy, especially when another country’s lives are on the line. The time has come to use western aid as leverage for a peace deal. It won’t be a just outcome for Ukraine, but it is necessary in order to prevent further suffering.
Benjamin H. Friedman is Policy Director at Defense Priorities