Disagreement over the terms of peace is spreading among Western allies. Does Ukraine have to accept territorial losses? And what is the price Russia is paying for its destructive aggression? Politicians and experts disagree.
According to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the war in Ukraine can be won on the battlefield, but can only be ended through negotiations. But when and under what conditions should the fighting be stopped?
According to the West, it is up to Ukraine to decide. Nevertheless, three months after the start of the war, the western countries take a stand in its final phase.
Ivan Krastev of the Center for Liberal Strategies, a think tank in Sofia, explains that the camp has split into two major groups. The “peace faction” demands a cessation of fighting and the fastest possible initiation of negotiations. In contrast, the “Justice faction” believes that Russia has to pay a high price for its aggression.
The discussion primarily revolves around territorial issues: should Russia be given the land it has already conquered? Or should territorial gains be pushed back to the February 24 baseline, but possibly further to the international border to reclaim territory it seized in 2014? There is much more to debate, not least the costs, risks and benefits of prolonging the war and Russia’s role in the European order.
There is a spirit of optimism in the peace camp. Germany has called for a ceasefire; Italy presents a four-pronged political solution plan; France speaks of a future peace agreement without “humiliation” for Russia. Opposite them are Poland and the Baltic States, supported by Great Britain.
And America? Ukraine’s main supporter has yet to formulate a clear objective beyond strengthening Ukraine’s negotiating position. America has now spent nearly $14 billion on the war, and Congress recently approved a further $40 billion.
Over 40 countries have made military donations to the United States. But even these resources are not unlimited. America has supplied artillery, but not the long-range missiles demanded by Ukraine.
Statements by US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin add to the unclear situation. After his visit to Kyiv last month, he spoke out in favor of justice: the West must help Ukraine “win” and Russia “weaken”.
Three weeks later he seemed inclined towards the peace camp and after a phone call with his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu called for an “immediate ceasefire”. The Pentagon insists that there has been no change in policy.
Justice advocates suffered another blow in a New York Times editorial that dismissed Russia’s defeat as unrealistic and dangerous. Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger then said that negotiations should begin within two months to avoid “difficult unrest and tensions”.
Ideally, there would be a return to the February 24 baseline; “Continuation of the war beyond this point would not mean the freedom of Ukraine, but a new war against Russia itself,” he declared at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Russia plays an important role in the European balance of power and must not be pushed into a “permanent alliance” with China.
So far, such upheavals in the West have been cushioned by the motto that the future is left to the Ukrainians. In turn, Ukraine’s decisions are determined by what the West offers them.
“Europe, the whole world, should stand together. We are as strong as you are united,” emphasized Zelenskyj in Davos. He assured that “Ukraine will fight until it regains all its territory”. But at the same time it seemed to leave room for compromise. Talks with Russia, he said, could begin as soon as the February 24 line of withdrawal is restored.
America, Europe and Ukraine have to constantly adjust their positions to their expectations of one another. “The Ukrainians negotiate with their Western partners as much as they do with the Russians – probably even more,” says Olga Oliker of the International Crisis Group think tank. The blurring also reflects the uncertainties of the war.
Is Ukraine winning because it saved Kyiv and pushing Russia out of Kharkiv, or is it on the losing side because Russia has taken Mariupol and may soon encircle Severodonetsk?
The peace faction fears that as the fighting goes on, the human and economic impact on Ukraine and the rest of the world will grow. Justice advocates counter that sanctions against Russia are only just beginning to take hold; and that Ukraine can win with more time and additional and better weapons.
Underlying all these developments are two contradictory fears. One assumes that Russian forces are still strong and will prevail in a grueling war.
The other assumes that they are no longer stable. If Russia hits an impasse, it may storm NATO or use chemical or even nuclear weapons to avoid defeat. In the long run, according to French President Emmanuel Macron, Europe must find a way to live with Russia.
Estonia’s Prime Minister Kaja Kallas counters: “It is much more dangerous to give in to Putin than to provoke him.” American and European officials have quietly helped Ukraine to formulate negotiating positions. This includes the West’s demand for security guarantees.
With the exception of a firm commitment to Ukraine’s immediate defense, the proposals include the possibility of reinstating any lifted sanctions against Russia and promptly rearming Ukraine in the event of another attack.
At the moment there is a certain optimism in Ukraine. The country has repelled the Russian conquest, and new weapons from the West are ready at the front. But from the sandbag-lined presidential seat, Mykhailo Podolyak, Zelenskyy’s chief negotiator, voices concern about “fatigue” in some European countries.
“They don’t say it outright, but it feels like they’re trying to force us to surrender. Every truce is a frozen conflict”. He also complained about Washington’s “inaction”: arms were not being supplied in the quantities that Ukraine needed.
The end of the war will depend in large part on Russia. But the Russians don’t seem to be in a hurry to sign a truce. They are determined to conquer all of the Donbass in the east and talk about taking more land in the west.
“The paradox of the situation is that both sides still believe they can win,” says political scientist Volodymyr Fesenko in Kyiv. “Only when we are actually dealing with a stalemate and Moscow and Kyiv recognize it as such can we speak of a compromise. And even then it will probably only be temporary.”
The article first appeared in The Economist entitled “When and how might the war end in Ukraine?” and was translated by Cornelia Zink.
Originally posted by The Economist, “The paradox is that both sides still believe they can win”.