Why the War in Ukraine May Be a Long One
Why the War in Ukraine May Be a Long One
Ukrainian servicemen fire with a tank towards Russian troops near a front line, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Kharkiv region, Ukraine July 6, 2023. REUTERS / Vyacheslav Madiyevskyy
Q&A / Europe & Central Asia 20+ minutes

Why the War in Ukraine May Be a Long One

Sixteen months after Russia’s full-scale invasion, its attacks on Ukrainian cities continue, while Ukraine’s counteroffensive slowly advances. With NATO leaders convening soon, Crisis Group experts explain in this Q&A why a lengthy war may loom and what that means for NATO members and other states.

How do Ukrainian officials define victory, and what are their prospects?

Ukrainian officials, and their backers, tell two stories of what victory looks like. The first entails Ukraine regaining all of its territory and receiving reparations from Moscow for the damage caused, while the Russian leadership stands trial for war crimes and the crime of aggression. No senior Ukrainian official has suggested in public that a compromise over Ukrainian territory, whether that seized by Russia-backed separatists in 2014 or that captured since the full-scale invasion in early 2022, is possible. The logic is clear: to make such a suggestion would undermine both military morale and Ukraine’s position in any eventual negotiations. It would also be politically untenable when polls continue to show that vast majorities of Ukrainian citizens believe that their country can and will regain all of its internationally recognised territory. 

Kyiv’s commanders and troops have proven themselves capable and brave, and the new weapons are helping.

Still, the odds of Ukraine rapidly liberating all of its territory by force of arms remain low, despite the Western tanks and other equipment continuously entering its arsenal. As fighting in June demonstrated, Russians are dug in to defensive positions on both the eastern front, in Donetsk and Luhansk, and on the southern front, where Moscow holds a land bridge to Crimea and the Zaporizhzhye nuclear power plant, on the grounds of which it has established a military base. Kyiv’s commanders and troops have proven themselves capable and brave, and the new weapons are helping. But Russian lines are not collapsing, and Ukraine’s forward movement in its counteroffensive is slow. The U.S. decision on 6 July to provide Kyiv with cluster munitions, highly controversial (and banned by many countries) due to their history of killing and maiming civilians long after war ends, may indicate fears among Ukraine and its partners that progress is, indeed, too slow. Even if it speeds up, the summer’s fighting is highly unlikely to see Ukraine retake all of its lands in one fell swoop. 

Rather, the months that follow the counteroffensive may well resemble those that preceded it. That means an ugly, enduring, destructive and largely nonproductive fight all along the fronts, with small chunks of territory changing hands and neither party achieving the military dominance it needs to grab tactical or strategic advantage. In the meantime, both sides will build up forces until one or the other is ready to undertake the next big campaign. 

Even if Ukraine, which has surprised observers before, should reach its eastern border and break through Russia’s southern land bridge, it faces several problems. One is the question of how it would retake Crimea, which Moscow has held since 2014 and which hosts Russia’s Black Sea fleet. A blockade of the peninsula, possible only if Ukraine regains substantial land in the south, might be one way. It would limit escalation risks by avoiding a frontal Ukrainian assault on territory that – while unquestionably Kyiv’s under international law – is both highly prized and claimed by the Kremlin. (Ukraine already engages in shelling and missile strikes and these would presumably continue.) This tactic could additionally offer negotiating leverage with Moscow. But a blockade would be tremendously difficult, militarily and logistically. It would also risk grave humanitarian impact, while leaving the peninsula in Russia’s hands.

Despite the mutiny by the head of the Wagner private military company Yevgeny Prigozhin on 23-24 June, the Russian military still appears cohesive.

Another problem is Russia. Despite the mutiny by the head of the Wagner private military company Yevgeny Prigozhin on 23-24 June, the Russian military still appears cohesive – and has just been promised a pay raise. There is no guarantee that Ukrainian military successes in themselves would be enough to achieve Russia’s defeat on the terms Kyiv seeks. However far Kyiv gets, it runs the risk that Russia responds not with negotiation or capitulation, but with obstinacy, regrouping and looking to fight again, including with attacks across the border and airstrikes throughout Ukraine.

Hence there is a second version of how Ukraine sees victory. This narrative is about the transformation of Russia, up to and including the country’s collapse and a change in its government. To be sure, the latter is not official policy in Kyiv or the capitals backing it. But Ukrainian officials and several Western experts with ties to their governments say peace is impossible absent fundamental change in Moscow. Some harbour hopes of the government’s downfall, though this cadre does not include the Biden administration, which has taken pains to make clear that such an outcome is neither its aim nor its desire. The failed Wagner mutiny, on one hand, indicates that the Kremlin can withstand shocks. On the other, it makes clear that internal turmoil is more plausible than Moscow seems to have anticipated. 

This scenario is understandably appealing to those who seek Ukraine’s success, in that it at least theoretically allows for all that Kyiv wants, including the international criminal prosecutions that would otherwise require a sitting government to, in effect, turn itself in. (Of course, a successor government might also hesitate to hand over a former Russian head of state.) In any case, this second scenario is neither particularly likely nor in the power of anyone outside Russia to effect, both because the Russian leadership’s response if it believes a foreign government is seeking its overthrow could be dangerously escalatory and because there is simply no clear path to carrying something like this out. It is therefore not a useful planning parameter.

What do Ukraine’s Western backers want, and how are they working to achieve it?

While their talking points focus on supporting Ukraine as long as necessary, the Western allies’ underlying goals for the conflict are fourfold and overlapping. Their core objectives are to: 1) enable Ukraine to force Russia’s retreat from as much of its territory as possible; 2) ensure that the latter does not emerge from conflict emboldened to attack elsewhere; 3) weaken Moscow militarily such that, even if so inclined, it will have trouble doing anything like invading Ukraine again; and 4) avoid direct military confrontation between Russia and NATO members.

Ukraine’s Western backers see the war’s outcome as bearing directly on their own security, with some viewing the stakes as existential.

All of these objectives emerge from Western threat perceptions. Ukraine’s Western backers see the war’s outcome as bearing directly on their own security, with some viewing the stakes as existential. Russia’s full-scale invasion of its neighbour convinced NATO and EU member states that Moscow is a threat not just to some non-NATO countries on its immediate periphery, but to alliance members and European security as a whole. Western leaders see Moscow’s massive 2022 attack, building on its 2008 actions in Georgia, as evidence that other neighbours – including NATO members – would also be at risk if Russia emerged from the conflict feeling that it had achieved its goals. NATO member states were particularly concerned about Russian nuclear threats throughout 2022, worrying that if these were successful in Ukraine, Moscow might feel emboldened to use them against alliance members. Any of these scenarios would present NATO with the choice of acquiescing to Moscow or direct conflict and further escalation. As Crisis Group has noted elsewhere, because of NATO’s conventional superiority, direct conflict with Russia could be seen by the latter as posing an existential threat and could substantially increase the risk of nuclear use. 

NATO leaders have thus come to agree that the best way to avert such scenarios is for Ukraine to deal Russia a clear defeat – reclaiming territory, breaking its will to seek further conquest and denying it the means to do so if it changes its mind – while at the same time avoiding direct NATO engagement that could lead down the path to the unthinkable risks.

NATO members are pledging to spend ever more on defence, and the alliance has new battlegroups in eight countries.

The resources, energy and political capital these countries have thrown into the effort are commensurate with their threat perceptions. They have levied huge sanctions on Russia, delivered a steady stream of ever more advanced weapons to Kyiv since Russia invaded, helped train Ukrainian forces and funded Ukraine’s government. NATO is also growing and the European Union taking on new security roles. Finland has joined the alliance, and Sweden is on the verge of doing so, a reflection of these countries’ decisions, in the wake of the Russian invasion, that as Europe’s security evolves, they want to be firmly with their transatlantic partners. NATO members are pledging to spend ever more on defence, and the alliance has new battlegroups in eight countries and more forces deployed on its eastern flank. The EU is not only coordinating military aid to Ukraine but itself venturing into more cooperative arms procurement, with the dual goals of better helping Kyiv and of ensuring its own capacity to deter Moscow. To support both Ukraine and Moldova, another country that could be in Russia’s sights, the EU has offered both candidate status in the bloc. 

The troop buildups can perhaps be thought of as insurance in case efforts to weaken Russia to the point that it no longer poses a threat prove inadequate. NATO member state officials also tell Crisis Group that even if the Kremlin is defeated, they must be prepared for Russia to rebuild and threaten again. NATO buildups and growing EU security assistance are also likely meant as a signal to Moscow, and indeed to the populations of NATO and EU countries, that these organisations’ member states are in this standoff for the long haul. There is every reason to believe NATO will send this message at its 11-12 July Vilnius summit, which will also surely affirm once again the allies’ previously stated intent to defend Ukraine from Russia as long as it takes. But in the spirit of continuing to avoid risks of direct conflict, an invitation for Ukraine to join the alliance seems unlikely, although some allies have spoken publicly in favour.

What are Russia’s war aims, and how does it sell them domestically? 

Russia’s intentions in Ukraine can be looked at through the lens of its new foreign policy concept. In that document, Moscow offers a view of the world in which it is embarked upon a long-term campaign of limiting and countering U.S. power and influence globally and pushing back against a U.S.-led West that is bent, according to the text, on destroying Russia. The Kremlin’s long-term plans include aligning with and leading other countries harmed by U.S. hegemony to achieve nothing less than a full reshaping of the global order.

The new concept barely mentions Ukraine, but other Russian rhetoric leaves no doubt that Ukrainian battlegrounds are where Russia is looking to advance its vision. While it is not entirely clear what victory in Ukraine means for Russia, official comments indicate that the Kremlin remains intent on achieving its longstanding goals of a Ukraine beholden to Russia and a West that accepts Russia’s sway over at least the countries that once made up the Soviet Union, save Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Moreover, by claiming in 2022 to have annexed four Ukrainian regions (none of which Russia fully controls), in addition to Crimea, which it has claimed since 2014, Moscow is also demanding that Ukraine cede land. The proposed deal Russia offered the U.S. and NATO in late 2021, when Western states were seeking to ward off its full-scale invasion, adds a further dimension to Russia’s wish list. It includes what amounts to demilitarisation of countries that have joined NATO over the last three decades. 

Even if its underlying goals have remained the same, the Kremlin’s rhetoric about the war has evolved. At first, the Russian leadership defined the invasion as a special operation to “denazify” (that is, change) the government in Kyiv, demilitarise Ukraine and liberate Russian speakers in its east. Now, it is telling Russians that Russia is under attack by NATO, and that Moscow “cannot lose” and survive. By this argument, continuing to fight a losing war is better than a negotiation that amounts to defeat. In the name of this existential war, Moscow has criminalised all criticism of the state and its armed forces, and indeed, most discussion of the war and its realities. It is only Prigozhin and other openly pro-war commentators who have been able to publicly disparage the government’s handling of the war without risking prosecution. Despite his armed insurrection, Prigozhin was seemingly exiled to Belarus (though reports on 6 July suggested he had returned to Russia), while Russians who peacefully protest war or repression continue to face prison terms.

How has Moscow miscalculated? 

Thus far, Moscow’s decision to wage war seems to have backfired, undermining rather than advancing its strategic goals. If Moscow initially expected Ukrainian acquiescence and surrender, instead it has faced over a year of brutal fighting, Ukrainian success on the battlefield and the decimation of Russian ground forces. If Moscow aimed to compel Ukraine to turn away from the West and weaken NATO, the invasion has done the opposite. Notwithstanding the battering the Russian army has taken, NATO leaders now view Russia as a long-term threat they need to prepare for. NATO capitals are thus determined that the alliance retain vastly superior conventional capacity to deter Russian coercion, now and in the future.

With weapons provisions to Ukraine continuing to grow, the real, mutually recognised red line seems to be direct engagement of forces.

Still, Russia benefits to some degree from NATO’s legitimate concern about the threat of escalation. With weapons provisions to Ukraine continuing to grow, the real, mutually recognised red line seems to be direct engagement of forces. Much as Russia claims that it is fighting NATO, in reality Ukraine’s supporters have taken great care to avoid getting involved themselves. For its part, Moscow, too, has taken no military action against them. Thankfully, neither Western powers nor Russia show any interest in the war escalating into a confrontation that might well spell nuclear disaster. 

Against this backdrop – with NATO-backed Ukraine displaying both mettle and resolve but still fighting hard for every yard it is able to gain – Moscow still seemingly sees itself as having the upper hand if it can just hang on long enough. It perceives support for Ukraine to be fragile and believes that, under pressure, Western states will eventually slow or end their aid, forcing Ukraine to sue for peace, even if that means Kyiv surrendering sovereignty and swathes of territory. This eventuality, in Moscow’s calculus, will leave Russia in a position to dictate terms to both Kyiv and its partners. It bases this assessment on two principal considerations. 

First, Moscow looks at Western states’ domestic political pressures and forthcoming elections, notably the 2024 U.S. presidential race. Front-running Republican candidate Donald Trump has made comments suggesting that he is sympathetic to Russian President Vladimir Putin and that he would be able to end the war rapidly. Trump’s political allies on the far right of the U.S. House of Representatives back him in this messaging. His closest (though struggling) challenger, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, has sent mixed signals when it comes to supporting Kyiv. Even some U.S. legislators who are more supportive of Ukraine face increasing questions from constituents about the scope and aims of U.S. involvement. Moscow draws hope from arguments in the U.S. and Europe that call for Washington to focus on China, not Russia and Europe, and assertions that taxpayer money might be wasted or misused in Ukraine. Debates in Europe over plans to supply military assistance have also fed Russian confidence that Western unity is uncertain. 

Secondly, Moscow believes that Western states will find pressure from non-Western quarters uncomfortable. It looks to the expressions of frustration from many non-Western capitals about the war, and also to the trade ties it has been able to maintain with these countries, which have allowed its economy to stay afloat amid massive Western sanctions. Although most countries have voted at the UN General Assembly to condemn Russia’s invasion, few have broken relations with Russia, joined Western sanctions or even publicly censured the Kremlin’s actions beyond the UN resolutions. 

One reason for this attitude, as Crisis Group has noted elsewhere, is that leaders around the world do not see alienating Moscow as serving their countries’ interests. Few show any enthusiasm for joining a Moscow-championed fight to erode U.S. hegemony. But neither do they relish picking a side in a conflict between major powers that is taking place far from their shores. Many leaders in countries whose economies have suffered the downstream effects of the war apportion at least some blame to the West for the impact of unilaterally imposed sanctions. History plays a role: in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, people recall Soviet support for independence struggles during the Cold War, and despite the many differences between the Soviet Union and today’s Russia, credit the Kremlin; many resent the West’s colonial predation. 

Plus, there are more recent grievances over the West’s perceived double standards, given its own disastrous military interventions. Climate funding and vaccine hoarding during the COVID-19 pandemic are also sore spots. Many governments are keen to see an end to the war and its attendant costs and dangers, including the risk of a defeated Russia becoming unstable, and some will press Kyiv and Washington to compromise as a result. 

Debate and dissent are hallmarks of democratic political systems, not necessarily forms of weakness.

But Moscow almost certainly underestimates Western resolve and misunderstands the underlying drivers that have made its support so solid. First, debate and dissent are hallmarks of democratic political systems, not necessarily forms of weakness. While it is possible that the 2024 U.S. election will bring Trump back into office, there are also many reasons to believe that it will not – from Trump’s legal troubles to the advantages of incumbency enjoyed by President Joe Biden to the political weaknesses that helped take Trump down in 2020. Even if he does secure the Republican nomination and retake the White House, his record on Ukraine is sufficiently erratic that it is hard to know how he would behave in office; nor is it easy to predict how DeSantis might act if elected, and if he would be willing to breach what has been staunch congressional backing for Kyiv. As for Europe, support for Ukraine has already proven strikingly resilient since February 2022. Even the new right-wing government in Italy has swung behind Kyiv. 

The strength of Western resolve stems from the West’s own security calculus, as laid out above. Indeed, a nervous Europe may even be more prone than before to back the U.S. on other issues; U.S. officials report that Russia’s invasion has led to more, albeit still far from full, European alignment with Washington’s more hawkish stance toward China’s economic and military rise. U.S. Republicans once sceptical of aid to Kyiv have largely (with the notable exceptions mentioned above) become convinced of the strategic importance of Ukrainian victory. This fundamental security argument is also why NATO states are unlikely to be much swayed by pressure from the Global South. Much as discontent in non-Western capitals may perturb Western leaders, the West’s security is more immediate. Indeed, U.S. officials now speak of the need to compartmentalise in their relationships with Global South counterparts – keeping a respectful distance from those governments when they take positions on Ukraine that differ from the West’s. 

Finally, the Wagner insurrection can only have bolstered the West’s sense that its strategy is on the right track. Prior to the revolt, the Kremlin seemed to be doing its utmost to send both its population and the world the message that Russia is prepared to fight forever. That message may have been a sincere reflection of Kremlin beliefs. It may have been bravado intended to stir up Western doubts. Or it may have been a combination of the two. But one way or another, Prigozhin’s mutiny weakened the Kremlin’s case. Although his gambit failed, his forces’ rapid progress through Russian cities before turning around on the road to Moscow revealed a brittleness in Russian structures. It gave the lie to claims that war was, in fact, strengthening Russian society. Indeed, the crowds cheering Prigozhin raised questions about Putin’s own popularity. 

Is a long war likely, and can negotiations avert it?

The clash of Russian and Ukrainian and Western perceptions is a recipe for a long war, with all the misery, danger and destruction that will come with it. Such a war, waged by Russia, the country with more nuclear weapons than any other in the world, against a neighbour supported by three other nuclear powers (the U.S., the UK and France), poses obvious escalation risks, even if neither Russia nor NATO members want direct confrontation.

[Ukraine] is entirely reliant on Western funds and arms.

The conflict is costly in other ways, too. Ukraine has been decimated, and it has no hope of recovering while its ports are blockaded, hundreds of thousands of its men and thousands of its women are fighting, and millions of citizens, most of them women, are outside the country. It is entirely reliant on Western funds and arms, with significant financial costs to Western countries and perhaps at some point political consequences as well. The war has diverted trade and wreaked havoc on the global economy, driving inflation and food insecurity. It has further strained multilateral diplomacy, for instance trashing any hope of serious cooperation between Western and Russian diplomats on conflict management in places, like the South Caucasus, where that might be useful. It has also created new stresses for capitals around the world that – as noted above – must suffer both the economic ill effects of the war and the political headaches of being whipsawed between Washington and Moscow. 

These costs are not lost on either the parties or outside actors, and yet (perhaps not surprisingly given the lack of meaningful openings with either side) no credible peace proposals have yet emerged. To be sure, a plethora of would-be peacemakers have made a pitch. China has proffered a vague, unrealistic recitation of principles, which fails among other things to address the challenge posed by Russia’s view that control of Ukraine and other neighbours is somehow crucial to its security. Brazil and Mexico have suggested contact groups to bring the parties to the table, another unstructured gambit. The African leaders who visited both countries in June said they sought to listen, but they also apparently hoped to facilitate more prisoner exchanges and the return of children taken from Ukraine to Russia, as well as unblock grain and fertiliser trade across the Black Sea; they were met with Russian airstrikes while in Kyiv and no reported signs of compromise in either capital. 

The best mediation has been able to deliver is the deal brokered in the summer of 2022 by Türkiye and the UN Secretary-General to get Ukrainian wheat and Russian agricultural chemicals to market. While critical, the grain deal has proven hard to keep fully on track (as evidenced by African leaders looking to solve the problem of Black Sea trade) and has teetered on the brink of collapse since its inception, with Moscow consistently claiming it is not seeing benefits and threatening to pull out.

In recent months, some have argued that Kyiv and NATO capitals should start thinking about how to reach ... some sort of ceasefire.

Nevertheless, given the risks and costs of a sustained war, analysts and policymakers understandably continue to look for alternatives. In recent months, some have argued that Kyiv and NATO capitals should start thinking about how to reach, if not a negotiated settlement, at least some sort of ceasefire or armistice to end the bloodshed once the front lines settle after the Ukrainian counteroffensive. 

Fundamentally, these arguments, although they differ in many specifics, call on Western states to somehow broker talks between Kyiv and Moscow once the current phase of fighting is over, in effect pressing Ukraine to make Russia an offer. Some proponents believe that a ceasefire can be followed by negotiations that could, at the least, postpone enduring decisions on territorial control, even as Western states promise Ukraine continued security support. Others argue that the best that can be done is an armistice that accepts current lines of contact on the model of the arrangements that have governed the Korean peninsula for decades.

The main problem with such an approach is that successful negotiations require one, or ideally both, of the parties to feel they would profit more from a settlement than continued combat. As of now, the one point of convergence is that both sides believe they have more to gain by fighting on – either to prevail on the battlefield or to strengthen their hand ahead of negotiations – than by entering genuine peace talks. Moscow has shown no sign of interest in negotiations except on its own terms. Admittedly, this stance is not unusual. In most wars, the parties proclaim maximalist positions until the moment when they back down at the negotiating table. But the Kremlin appears to have been particularly firm in its engagement with interlocutors, including during recent visits by non-Western leaders and diplomats, such as the above-referenced African delegation. While calls for negotiations are openly debated in the West and excoriated in Ukraine, there is no public talk of concessions in Russia at all – just of inevitable victory once the West comes to its senses. 

As for Ukraine, while the counteroffensive continues, once it is over, and assuming it has achieved some success, Kyiv also will see no reason to negotiate. Rather, Ukrainian leaders will surely believe, and argue, that if Ukrainian forces can liberate whatever territory they regain with the aid provided to date, then they will be able to recapture more with more weapons. 

Leaving aside Russia’s unwillingness to compromise, could Kyiv be persuaded to take a different stance? Western analysts who call for ceasefire negotiations believe it is at least possible. They suggest that NATO capitals offer incentives to coax Ukraine into initiating talks once its counteroffensive ends. The prospect of peace itself would be the big draw, though Western powers cannot themselves guarantee that. What they can offer is continued aid and security guarantees (meaning, in this context, the promises of continued military assistance) that Ukraine will need to rebuild and to prevent new Russian incursions. One argument holds that Western inability to guarantee continued support over the long term should provide Ukraine with a different kind of incentive to come to the table while it still has the West behind it.

It is certainly plausible that Moscow would come to the table if Ukraine asked.

But these recommendations underline the second problem with a push for negotiations: if pursued at the wrong time, they could undermine, rather than foster, a sustainable peace. It is certainly plausible that Moscow would come to the table if Ukraine asked. But it would almost certainly do so believing itself to be in an advantageous position, primed to push for maximalist goals and happy to walk away if those are not granted. Ukraine and its partners, meanwhile, would come to the table expecting Moscow to recognise its weakness and offer substantial concessions. With both sides thinking that they have the upper hand, negotiations would likely rapidly fizzle. A breakdown would not, of course, be the first such failure of the war, but if it is the product of Western carrot-and-stick promises of security coupled with even implicit threats that assistance may stop it is likely to foster an escalatory dynamic. Russia would be emboldened and Ukraine determined to demonstrate its tenacity, including potentially through more escalation when fighting resumes. 

Negotiations of this sort would also be deleterious for Ukrainian domestic politics. Even were President Volodymyr Zelenskyy so inclined, it would likely be impossible for him to initiate talks geared toward accepting loss of territory without running a serious risk of losing power. Privately, Ukrainian critics of the Zelenskyy government have long accused it of planning to surrender land and drop demands for reparations. Some opposition activists have also made public attacks of this sort. These play on popular sentiment: polls indicate that most Ukrainians have remained firmly opposed to territorial concessions throughout the months of war – even when it comes to Crimea, which Western officials behind closed doors admit they have a hard time imagining Ukraine regaining. The fierceness of popular conviction is hard to overstate. Ukrainians polled want to keep fighting for full territorial integrity even at the cost of the Western support that has made this struggle possible. 

Ukraine and its partners might face somewhat different incentives if, indeed, the Ukrainian military sees gains reversed in coming weeks, even with the wealth of Western aid received to date. In that case, it is possible that at least some in Kyiv may be interested in something like an armistice that enables them, with Western help, to rearm, even recognising that Russia would do the same. The result could be a pause in the fighting, but almost certainly not a sustainable peace. 

Would offering Ukraine NATO membership help bring the war to an end?

Proponents of talks represent one school of Western thought about how to end the war sooner, but there are others, including one that advocates for Ukraine’s NATO membership. 

This issue is delicate for NATO. Kyiv has already asked that the alliance accept it as a member. Indeed, as of 2018, the Ukrainian constitution states the intention to join both NATO and the EU, reflecting the country’s abandonment of its previous pledge of neutrality. NATO has long been ambivalent about Ukrainian membership. That ambivalence was reflected in 2008, when members agreed that Ukraine and Georgia would both eventually join the alliance but failed to specify conditions or a timeline.

Since the full-scale invasion, an increasing number of NATO member states have publicly said they favour rapid membership for Ukraine, even as some capitals have disagreed, blocking the unanimity required to offer it a berth. Membership would be hugely consequential. As a NATO member, Ukraine would be defended by Article V of the NATO charter, which calls on all member states to view an attack on any one of them as an attack on all of them. The charter does not require NATO members to do anything specific in response, but rather says each must do as it deems necessary, up to and including use of armed force. Historically, this injunction has been seen as a hard security commitment, under which NATO members would, indeed, take up arms to defend one another. 

For years, debates about Ukraine’s accession concerned issues of interoperability and Kyiv’s ability to satisfy the alliance’s eligibility criteria, but today they focus largely on the war. Proponents of rapid Ukrainian accession (including the Baltic states and Poland) argue that it would compel Russia to withdraw from Ukrainian territory and end the war, as the Kremlin would not want to risk a fight with NATO. Opponents (including the U.S. and Germany) base their objections on the same logic: they see too high a risk that Ukraine’s accession would bring on a fight between Russia and NATO, both if Russia does not stand down and NATO members are then obligated to fight and, even short of that, if Moscow, which has long been vocal about Ukrainian NATO membership being a red line, views admission itself as an act of war.

Thus, the fundamental disagreement is whether Russia would be deterred by a NATO security commitment to Ukraine and thus stand down, or if it would deem the alliance’s promise to Kyiv either less than fully credible or as throwing down the gauntlet before Moscow, leading to war between Russia and NATO. Here, proponents of membership would have a stronger case if the alliance as a whole had not spent the past year and a half bending over backwards to avoid direct engagement in the war. By making clear that they wish to avoid the risks of escalation, they have rendered questionable any near-term promise to fight on Ukraine’s behalf. In any case, with key NATO members unwilling to take the risk, membership is not now on the cards. 

Joining the EU, which also offers, at least on paper, a security commitment from other member states, is likely to be on a plodding path for this same reason. Moreover, with Ukraine now a candidate country, it is faced with a concrete set of reforms and tasks that it must fulfil in order to become a member. Meeting these requirements, in and of itself, will take time. Several countries have been candidates for over a decade (Türkiye has been one since 1999).

If talks are not the near-term answer, what can Ukraine and its partners do to improve the odds of a shorter war and a sustainable peace? 

Western states (at least, the U.S., France and Germany) have indicated that they might already be signalling to the Russians that if Moscow is ready to make concessions, they will encourage Ukraine to negotiate. Talk in Washington in particular suggests that if Russia shows signs of backing down in the face of Ukraine’s counteroffensive, and on that basis offers talks, at least some in the Biden administration would favour helping nudge Ukraine to the table. But what Western capitals will not do is suggest to Moscow they would push Ukraine into talks absent any hope of Russian concessions, which they believe would be unproductive at best and harmful at worst.

The question then is what might lead Moscow to show signs of willingness to compromise. For now, that appears a tall order. It may well be that nothing can persuade the Kremlin to end a war on which President Putin appears to have staked his legitimacy. But if there is any hope of changing calculations in Moscow, it likely lies not only in inflicting continued pain upon Russian forces on the battlefield, already in evidence, but also in helping Moscow come to believe that a settlement is not a death sentence and, indeed, could bring benefits. As Western officials probe for the kinds of assurances that might fit the bill, it will be crucial for them to keep lines of communication to Moscow open. They are doing so, seemingly relying, for example, on the respect Central Intelligence Agency Director Bill Burns enjoys in Moscow, where he once served as ambassador. Burns reached out to Russian counterparts in June to assure them that the Wagner coup had no U.S. backing. 

Some elements of the West’s reassurance seem intuitive. For example, officials should be reiterating more consistently a line that is heard occasionally (especially in private) but also often contradicted: ie, that at least some sanctions, notably those affecting ordinary Russians most, will be lifted once a sustainable peace is signed. Officials could also dial down rhetoric about international criminal prosecutions for Russian leaders or actions to set up tribunals to carry out such a mandate. One can hardly imagine Russia’s (or any state’s) government willingly giving itself up for trial if it has any choice in the matter at all. Moreover, moves toward prosecutions lend credence to the Kremlin’s claim that defeat in the war is tantamount to the destruction of Russia – or at least its government. Crisis Group’s research suggests that the U.S. and many of its allies, cognisant of this reality, might have sought to slow such initiatives, facing criticism from Kyiv and other friends as a result. Backing off rhetoric and certain activities (such as the creation of a new aggression tribunal), even as efforts to gather evidence and prepare cases proceed, will help deliver the message that Ukraine and Western states are not, in fact, seeking the collapse of Russia as a country or its government.

The upset the Ukraine war has exposed in much of the world at the West’s track record is all too understandable.

Diplomacy by non-Western capitals able to speak to the Kremlin might also play a role, even if it has yielded little thus far. The upset the Ukraine war has exposed in much of the world at the West’s track record is all too understandable. But the reasons Western capitals are reluctant to push Ukraine toward peace talks absent a sign that the Kremlin is ready to compromise are sound enough. Asian, African, Latin American and Middle Eastern countries with ties to Moscow are probably not going to jeopardise trade or other relations by applying pressure on Moscow; again, few see much benefit in picking sides. But at least impressing upon the Kremlin, even behind closed doors, how much frustration there is at the war and urging Moscow to think about reaching a settlement would be helpful. Ukraine’s own role in outreach to countries in these regions can help, too. Kyiv is to be lauded for its initiative in opening at least ten new embassies on the African continent. 

Another potential carrot for Russia with concomitant benefits for European NATO members and their non-NATO neighbours – from Georgia and Moldova to Ireland – would be the promise that a deal on Ukraine would be coupled with comprehensive discussions of European security. These are impossible at present because they are of no interest to any prospective party. But once the shooting stops, such deals will be crucial to make the deterrence-based model for the future of European security less onerous, dangerous and expensive for both sides. 

Deterrence, even when it holds, is inherently precarious.

Deterrence, even when it holds, is inherently precarious. The European commitment described above means that whatever happens in Ukraine, and however much Russia is weakened, they have set themselves the imperative to build up substantial forces individually and in combination. Meanwhile, Moscow, for as long as it has the wherewithal, will also build up. Both will view the other with suspicion and fear attack. Arms control deals can mitigate the dangers implicit in this standoff by limiting Russian and, concurrently, Western capacity. They would make it simply more difficult to go to war by constraining deployments both in terms of territory and equipment, particularly if they create meaningful automatic penalties that ensure that violations by any party will result not in the deal’s collapse, but in punishing repercussions, whether those are buildups by other parties, sanctions or other agreed-upon measures. 

Arms control can also help keep down the huge expense that the deterrence model will create for both sides. NATO’s buildup cannot be done on the cheap. Russia, too, has shifted to a war economy. Already, it is spending tremendous amounts to keep the war going; it would face even steeper costs if it were to try matching the transatlantic states in building up forces.

A central question is how to provide security to Ukraine and other non-NATO states without extending the Article V mutual defence commitment to them.

Moscow’s incentives aside, if deterrence is the path forward, Europe will also need to take steps to make its approach more sustainable than in the leadup to the 2022 invasion. A central question is how to provide security to Ukraine and other non-NATO states without extending the Article V mutual defence commitment to them. The key may be to look to other forms of security assurances. For example, to make Europe and its neighbourhood safer, NATO members can pair agreements on force limits with binding commitments to regional countries, including not just Ukraine but also Georgia and Moldova. These can pledge weapons, economic support and other aid if these states are attacked, along the lines of what Ukraine has received since February 2022. While alliance enlargement remains contentious in many capitals, promises of support would seem both feasible and quite credible, given the experience of the past sixteen months. 

Meanwhile, if it makes sense to offer talks on the European security architecture in time, the priority for now is making clear that the transatlantic countries are in it for the long haul, because they believe that their own security is at stake and that the Kremlin is hoping in vain for Western stamina to fade. As NATO allies meet in Vilnius, they will no doubt seek to send that very message, but it needs to continue to resonate for months to come, however battlefield dynamics evolve, through surprises in Russia (as the Wagner mutiny showed remain possible), and through elections and debates in Western countries. 

One way to make Western resolve clear is through explicit pledges to Ukraine that NATO member states will continue to supply Ukraine with arms, money and other aid. NATO as an alliance does not sign agreements, but its member states can ink bilateral deals with Ukraine cementing this understanding. As noted above, such arrangements with Ukraine and other regional states will eventually be needed to make a broader peace more sustainable. Now, however, they are a way of ensuring that NATO’s commitment – and that of its members – is genuinely unwavering.

In addition to security pledges to Ukraine, allies could consider clearly indicating to Moscow that its attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure and civilian casualties will result in the delivery of more and more advanced weaponry to Kyiv, as recently proposed by German diplomat Wolfgang Ischinger. NATO can also begin to coordinate assistance to Ukraine of all sorts (up until now, it has coordinated non-lethal aid to Ukraine but stayed clear of facilitating lethal aid delivery). None of this implies any qualitative change in what states are now doing – rather, it makes the effort explicitly a NATO endeavour. Moreover, by spelling out specific repercussions for specific actions, NATO can make clear to Moscow that its policy is affirmative, not merely a series of ad hoc reactive moves, and thus increase its chances of effectively deterring future Russian escalation.

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