With the retreat of the Russian troops in Cherson, hopes for further peace negotiations are awakened. But what could an end to the Ukraine war actually look like?

Russia’s blitz on Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, has failed. The creeping artillery war to conquer the eastern region of Donbass came to a bloody standstill.

Forced to give up part of territory south of the city of Kharkiv, Russia this week announced a withdrawal from Kherson — the only provincial capital it had captured since invading in February.

With every setback, Russian President Vladimir Putin seeks new avenues of repression on Ukrainian soil. Its relentless bombardment to destroy Ukraine’s infrastructure represents the latest attempt.

Residents of the capital have been told that they will have to be evacuated in the event of a power failure and the consequent disruption to water and sanitation services.

The power outages have not weakened Ukraine’s will to fight. But they remind that eight months after his unprovoked invasion, Putin is still looking for ways to tighten the screws. Many now fear that, like Stalin in 1941, he might blow up a dam on the Dnieper to slow his opponents’ advance.

The ever-evolving Russian attack also raises a thorny question: How much longer will America and Europe continue to give Ukraine the billions in military and economic aid it needs every month to hold off Russia?

“As long as it is necessary,” say Western politicians. But many of their citizens refuse to fund a conflict with Russia indefinitely.

On November 5th, tens of thousands of people gathered on the streets of Rome and demanded an end to the fighting. “We don’t want war. No guns, no sanctions. Where is the diplomacy?” asks a poster.

Questions are also raised in America. Left-leaning Democrats recently launched a call for negotiations, only to quickly withdraw it afterwards.

While lower-than-expected vote gains for “America-first” Republicans in the Nov. 8 midterm elections, they are a reminder that two years from now, the US political landscape could—and will—change dramatically after the upcoming presidential election the Ukraine policy.

Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, made an unannounced trip to Kyiv on November 4 and pledged America’s “unwavering” support.

At the same time, he encouraged Ukraine to reflect on future peace terms. In the meantime, it has become known that he was in contact with the Russian opposition to warn them against the use of nuclear weapons.

On November 9, Biden declared that Russia and Ukraine would “lick their wounds” after the Battle of Kherson and might then be willing to compromise. He emphasized that he did not want to patronize Ukraine.

In camera, Western and Ukrainian officials are now considering the possibilities for a sustainable outcome of the negotiations. Will Ukraine become a new Finland, forced to cede land to its occupiers and remain neutral for decades?

Or another West Germany that is divided in the war and integrates its democratic half into NATO? A much-discussed template is Israel, a country under constant threat with no formal alliances, but which has been able to defend itself with extensive American military assistance.

The exact conditions for a successful negotiation now depend on what is happening on the battlefield. There is a high probability that many more battles will have to be fought before either side is ready to end the war.

Russia and Ukraine are estimated to have lost and wounded around 100,000 soldiers each, but both parties still hope to maneuver themselves into a more favorable position.

The withdrawal from Kherson is a humiliation for Putin. However, it gives Russian forces a more defensible line along the Dnieper. The Russian President shows no signs of wanting to throw in the towel.

He mobilized hundreds of thousands of other recruits. Some of them were sent into battle with little training or equipment to defend the front lines; the remainder could be used for a renewed push next year.

For their part, Ukraine are hoping to maintain their momentum. Your army will be reinforced this winter in the form of thousands of recruits being trained by Britain and other western countries. Western arms continue to arrive, meanwhile.

On November 4, the Pentagon announced a $400 million additional weapons package that includes 45 refurbished T-72b tanks and 1,100 drones. The first new NASAMS anti-aircraft batteries were deployed this week.

The West’s stockpiles of weapons are not unlimited. Thus the armies of Europe have already significantly depleted their supplies; even in mighty America there are concerns about the future combat capability of their own country.

However, the biggest bottlenecks appear to be in Russia: it has used up most of its precision bombs and missiles and is struggling to replace them due to sanctions.

New weapons are coming from countries like Iran, possibly also from North Korea. (China has so far responded to American warnings not to take part in the war).

With his campaign to destroy Ukraine’s power grid, Putin hopes to force the country into submission, or at least transform it into a weakened, crumbling state.

Again, previous conflicts have shown that aerial bombardment of civilians without an effective ground campaign rarely ensures victory. Almost 90% of Ukrainians want their country to keep fighting.

In Russia, on the other hand, according to the Levada Center opinion research institute, this proportion is only 36 percent, while a full 57 percent are in favor of peace talks. At the same time, support for Putin remains unchanged at 79 percent.

It seems that the Russians want the war to end but don’t blame Putin for the lack of impartial news. However, his support is dwindling as attempts to incite the population to fight increase.

Ukraine’s more ardent Western supporters believe that Ukraine will become stronger and Russia weaker with time. Putin’s hope is that “General Winter” will give him a boost – if not by weakening Ukraine’s will to fight then by undermining Western willingness to show solidarity with Ukraine while heating bills in Europe are soaring.

Wagner – Putin’s Secret Army: An Insider’s Account

Putin claims he is ready to negotiate (on the assumption that the West should recognize his theft of Ukrainian territory) but that the Western “masterminds” have prevented Ukraine from negotiating.

After Russia conquered the Crimean Peninsula and part of the Donbas in 2014, the two sides held extensive talks. In the spring, when Russia besieged Kyiv, they spoke again.

After Russia’s withdrawal from Kyiv in April revealed widespread atrocities against civilians, Ukraine declined further negotiations.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy this week indicated his readiness to resume talks on the condition that Russia would be open to returning Ukrainian territory, paying reparations and taking responsibility for war crimes.

The West is unclear about its own goals. At times, Biden spoke of wanting to oust Putin from power; another time he was concerned with creating “ways out” for the Russian ruler.

In an op-ed piece in The New York Times in May, he summed up his goals: “a democratic, independent, sovereign, and prosperous Ukraine that has the means to deter and defend against further aggression.”

The question of Ukraine’s national borders was left out. Western politicians believe that Ukraine must decide this issue itself; The goal is a stronger negotiating position for the country.

Recently, pro-Ukraine statements have become more specific. In an Oct. 11 statement, the leaders of the G7 industrialized countries offered their “full support for Ukraine’s independence, territorial integrity and sovereignty within its internationally recognized borders.”

They demanded a “complete and unconditional withdrawal” of Russia from all occupied territories. Among other things, they pledged to find ways to use confiscated Russian assets to help finance Ukraine’s reconstruction.

“The G7 statement basically calls for a complete surrender by Russia, which is not a plausible diplomatic outcome. Diplomacy, by definition, means give and take.

The expectation should not be that there will be another Versailles Treaty,” warns Samuel Charap of the RAND Corporation, an American think tank, referring to the punitive measures imposed on Germany at the end of the First World War.

He believes the West, Ukraine and Russia should start talks, if only to lay the groundwork for future more substantive negotiations: “Fighting and talking at the same time should be the norm.”

Not everyone shares this opinion. “Keep up the pressure. One should not be in a hurry to draw lines on a map. That would be bureaucratic suicide.

Someone will equate it with the German-Soviet non-aggression pact on Twitter,” replies Dan Fried of the Atlantic Council, another American think tank, alluding to the partition of Poland in 1939.

Few Western leaders question Ukraine’s bid to regain territory lost since Russia invaded in February. Many support efforts to retake parts of the Donbas seized in 2014.

Meanwhile, opinions differ on the recapture of Crimea. Many fear the prospect of losing the peninsula could lead to a dangerous escalation by Putin.

In the Biden cabinet, for some, the war poses a matter of principle: since territory should never be taken by force, any Russian gains must be reversed.

Others question Ukraine’s ability to recapture more territory and say the time for diplomacy is near. Either way, America is in no hurry to formulate diplomatic positions that could lead to splits in the pro-Ukrainian camp.

Another pressing concern is the nature of future Western security guarantees for Ukraine. They must be watertight, as Russia is likely to remain a threat to Ukraine for as long as Putin is in power – if not longer.

Several Central and Eastern European countries support Ukraine’s rapid admission to NATO, citing the alliance’s commitment to mutual defense as a decisive deterrent to Russia. Despite its nuclear threats, Russia has so far refrained from openly attacking NATO territory.

However, the Biden administration plans to extend its nuclear safety net to a country in latent or actual conflict with Russia.

Biden has always been careful to keep the risk of a direct NATO-Russia conflict as low as possible, as he fears an associated “Third World War”. Several NATO members in western Europe share this caution.

Thus, attention has turned to interim or alternative solutions. In September, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a former NATO secretary general, and Andriy Yermak, Zelenskyy’s chief of staff, proposed a “Kiev Security Pact” that would provide security support without a mutual defense pact. Some in Ukraine saw this as a betrayal.

Modeled on Western support for Israel, which Zelenskyy has already commented on, the pact would strengthen Ukraine’s armed forces and turn current ad hoc support into a systematic, long-term commitment.

Ukraine’s allies would pledge several decades of investment in the country’s defense industry, massive arms transfers, training, joint exercise exercises and intelligence support.

Neither Russia’s consent nor Ukraine’s neutrality would be required for this, and NATO membership would remain within the realms of possibility. Under certain circumstances, there could be military intervention in support of Ukraine.

In the event of an attack, the signatories would “use all elements of their national and collective power and take appropriate action, which may include diplomatic, economic and military means.”

A larger group of countries, including Asian allies, would step up that military support with sanctions against Russia, including the possibility of reimposing any current sanctions that could be lifted as part of a deal.

Even that might be too big of a deal for Team Biden. It is unclear, for example, which obligations Ukraine would assume, for example in the form of reforms to strengthen democracy or to combat corruption.

The parallel with Israel is not precise, since it has nuclear weapons and occupies Arab land, among other things. For Mykola Bielieskov of the National Institute for Strategic Studies, a think tank in Kyiv, the Israeli model is “not just about mobilizing our partners from the outside; it also includes explaining to people what it means to live next to a crazy neighbor, next to existential threats”.

Regardless of the diplomatic framework, Russia’s blitzkrieg has shown that the West must support Ukraine in building an integrated and multi-layered air defense system that includes fighter jets, surface-to-air defense batteries and shoulder weapons.

Currently, the weapons only arrive piecemeal and often cannot exchange data. In addition, there is concern that Ukraine could run out of certain types of anti-aircraft ammunition. Should this be the case, Russia could deploy significantly more air forces to support the ground forces.

The hodgepodge in Ukraine’s arsenal, dubbed by some as “Mr. Potato Head” arsenal also causes problems elsewhere. For example, Ukraine has no fewer than 14 different types of artillery pieces, of which an average brigade deploys four different types.

“It’s a logistical nightmare for them, especially when it comes to the ammunition,” says Nick Reynolds of the British think tank RUSI. Some of the weapons are already badly worn out and the European defense industry, weakened by decades of austerity, is barely able to produce spare parts. “The lights are red when it comes to this support,” adds Reynolds.

How long the war lasts depends primarily on Putin. He is in a bind both in Ukraine and at home. More moderate technocrats worry about the strain on the economy; “National patriots” like Yevgeny Prigozhin, who commands the Wagner mercenary group, have called for “purges” of supposedly treacherous generals.

Germany is groaning under the historically high energy costs – also at the pump. For commuters or people in the country, doing without a car is not an option. However, our e-paper shows that despite the high prices, you can exploit some potential savings.

A diplomatic pause could temporarily come in handy for Putin – especially if it allows him to consolidate territorial gains. This may also explain why he recently toned down his nuclear rhetoric and suddenly portrayed the Ukrainians as victims of Western aggression.

“The West throws the Ukrainians into the fire”; Russia, on the other hand, “has always treated the Ukrainian people with respect,” Putin said Nov. 4. (His propagandists and officials continue to speak of the “de-Satanization” of Ukraine.)

This shift marks another emergence of Putin as the champion of a global movement that seeks to overthrow Western dominance. Through all these efforts, Putin wants to win over undecided actors, especially in the Global South.

At the same time, it aims to placate friends like China and India, who have made clear their disapproval of his nuclear recklessness. Above all, Putin is keen to find an important listener in the rich world: Donald Trump, who, along with his congressional allies, has questioned American aid to Ukraine and recently confirmed his candidacy for the presidency.

Despite all the setbacks, Putin still has ample opportunities to harm Ukraine and divide the West. At the military level, there is a risk that he will increase his air force and mobilize more troops.

In the covert “grey zone,” he can sabotage undersea gas pipelines and internet connections to the West, conduct major cyberattacks, jam communications satellites, and amplify disinformation. An attack on Ukrainian grain ships would also be conceivable.

And last but not least, there is the use of tactical nuclear weapons. The price for the measures is high: they would increasingly turn Russia into an outsider, weaken Putin at home and provoke harsh retaliatory measures.

There is more at stake for Putin himself than for the West. But the task weighs most heavily for the Ukrainians, who distrust the idea of ​​negotiations with Russia and see military victory as their only option – even if years will pass before this is achieved.

Ukraine hopes that with every further territorial gain, the chance of finally shaking off Putin increases. It is precisely this prospect that worries many in the West: a defeat of the Russian army could prompt Putin to launch a nuclear retaliation. For this reason, too, Team Biden has long since stopped talking about a “victory” for Ukraine.

As has often been the case with Israel, America may in the future begin to rein in Ukrainian ambitions. This does not require an open approach; it is enough to hold back the necessary armaments – which is already the case to a certain extent.

For example, the United States is refusing the delivery of Western aircraft, Patriot anti-aircraft missiles and long-range ATACMS missiles, fearing an escalation of the Russian nuclear program.

This explains what prompted some Ukrainians to spread a bittersweet message addressed to his troops by Finnish Commander-in-Chief Carl Gustaf Mannerheim in 1940 at the end of the “Winter War” against the Soviet Union. The Finns, greatly outnumbered, inflicted heavy casualties on Soviet forces, Mannerheim wrote.

Nevertheless, territory had to be ceded when the help of friends dried up. His statement ends with the words: “We proudly recognize the historic duty we will continue to fulfill: the defense of Western Civilization, which has been our heritage for centuries. But we also know that we have paid every last penny of our debt to the West.”

The fate of Ukraine depends not only on the bravery of its soldiers and the stamina of the Ukrainian people, but also on external factors beyond their control.

It’s the inscrutable moves of the Russian despot and the determination of her friends. The benefits of the war for the West are already evident.

Russia has been enormously weakened and the European flank is now much easier to defend. For Ukraine, whose losses are devastating, the outcome remains uncertain.

The article first appeared in The Economist under the title “On what terms could the war in Ukraine stop?” and was translated by Cornelia Zink.

Also interesting:

The original of this post “What are the prerequisites for an end to the Ukraine war?” comes from The Economist.