Main Image Credit War of words: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks at a Congressional reception in Munich, Germany, on 17 February. Image: US Department of State / Wikimedia Commons
The question is not what concessions Ukraine should eventually make, but what might compel Russia to negotiate in the first place.
There are two prevailing propositions about the termination of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The first argues that Ukraine will have won when it reclaims all its territory. The second suggests that wars end through negotiation and that to secure a peace, concessions must be made. Neither narrative takes sufficient account of Russia’s current outlook, which is that it will eventually win the war and that negotiations are only desirable insofar as they undermine Ukraine’s support or capacity to resist. Until that changes, the war will continue.
Russia’s theory of victory has been through several transformations, from an anticipated occupation of Kyiv within 10 days, to an expected military victory in Donbas, to the hope that Europe would succumb to economic warfare, to the prayer that eventually Ukraine’s partners will run out of munitions, money or attention if the war protracts into 2024. The latest theory may be as tenuous as its predecessors, but it will take longer to disprove by action unless Russia can be convinced that its premises are flawed.
Throughout the war, the Kremlin has proven responsive to its understanding of its prospects. Faced with massive losses to hold its position outside Kyiv, the Russian military retreated. Confronted by the steady attrition of its most motivated assault troops in Kherson, the Russian military conducted a withdrawal far more orderly than any of its advances. The key, therefore, is to show the Kremlin that its prospects in a longer war are poor.
The irony is that the best means of shortening the war is to demonstrate unequivocally that Ukraine and its partners are preparing for a long one
Until the Kremlin assesses its prospects to be deteriorating, it will not negotiate in earnest. Were Ukraine’s partners to compel Kyiv to offer negotiations, Russia would concede nothing, demand everything, and settle for limited concessions. These concessions would be banked as progress before Moscow continued the war, since there would be nothing to compel Moscow to do otherwise.
Given this context, debates among diplomats and academics as to what concessions might secure guarantees from Moscow are currently irrelevant. The viability of any serious negotiations must be built upon the battlefield successes of the Ukrainian army. The route to a negotiated solution lies in convincing the Kremlin that its battlefield position will continue to deteriorate, and that Ukraine’s partners intend to sustain their support for as long as it takes to reclaim Ukraine’s territory.
The irony is that the best means of shortening the war is to demonstrate unequivocally that Ukraine and its partners are preparing for a long one. This means shifting from monthly pledges of additional equipment to assurances of ongoing deliveries over the next year, with the requisite industrial investments to make those assurances credible. It also means stopping the public speculation as to stalemate and concessions, and communicating clearly to the Kremlin that unless it comes forwards with proposals, it will be driven from Ukraine.
For those of us who have had the experience of dealing with Russian officials before and during the war, it was noticeable how prior to the conflict they were eager to communicate. Since the war began, we have stopped being the audience for what they say in meetings. The audience is back in Moscow, and the contents of their speeches are combative rather than constructive. The measure for whether our military policy is succeeding is whether the audience for perorations in the back-channels changes.
Rather than endlessly theorising on what we are prepared to give up, the focus should be on our demands
If the audience for Russian outreach does change, then diplomacy may have a chance. But here the discussion of diplomacy among Ukraine’s partners also needs to shift. Rather than endlessly theorising on what we are prepared to give up, the focus should be on our demands. Undoubtedly, in a negotiation, some of these positions will be traded in exchange for mutual concessions. But the starting position in any negotiation should not be that we are willing to sell off the entire point of defending Ukraine before talks even begin.
The question of what outcome we want and therefore what Ukraine’s partners seek to gain from negotiations, rather than merely what they are prepared to concede, is intimately connected to the question of how support for Ukraine can create the leverage and conditions in which such an outcome can be delivered. A positive negotiated conclusion to the conflict therefore requires a much closer collaboration between foreign and defence ministries across Ukraine’s partners. The notion that it is for the military to deliver victory and for the diplomats to deliver a lasting political settlement is a false dichotomy that led to disaster in Afghanistan. The two outcomes are intimately related and require joint military and diplomatic planning. After decades of extolling the virtues of interdepartmental collaboration, it is high time some actually took place.
Appreciating that the conditions for a successful negotiation must be created on the battlefield, it must also be acknowledged that this will take time. The most optimistic estimates suggest that the liberation of Ukrainian territory will see fighting continue throughout 2023. Such a favourable outcome is far from assured. Irrespective of the rate of progress, until the trajectory towards this outcome is recognised by the Kremlin, premature expectations of compromise will merely protract the war and the resultant suffering.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Dr Jack Watling
Senior Research Fellow, Land Warfare