The prospects for peace in Ukraine are currently the subject of vigorous discussion. Three main positions structure the debate. On the one hand, some argue that the best way to achieve peace is by offering Russia a way out through negotiations and mutual concessions. This view is shared by John Mearsheimer, who believes that the war in Ukraine is the United States’ fault and that the latter should put an end to its support to the Ukrainians. Other voices, both progressive and conservative, believe that the United States should enter into direct negotiations with Russia to find a peace settlement, which would necessarily involve compromising Ukraine’s territorial integrity. This idea seems to have the moral upper hand since its advocates claim to be in favor of imminent peace. It is all the more attractive as the risk of an uncontrolled escalation of the conflict could lead to a direct or even nuclear confrontation between the United States and Russia. In the words of two experts: “Forcing a cornered nuclear-armed state led by a man who sees his misguided war as an existential struggle into a complete and humiliating retreat poses far greater risks than the benefits of trying to recapture every square mile of Ukrainian territory occupied by Russian forces. A negotiated cease-fire, with strong enforcement, is the best option.”
Others argue that there can be no negotiation whatsoever with President Putin, given his neo-colonial war aims in Ukraine. From this point of view, the only possible way to end the war is by reaching a total military defeat for Russia and provoking a regime change in Moscow. President Zelensky expressed this maximalist position by declaring that his government was ready to dialogue with Russia, “but with another Russian president,” and that his war goals included the liberation of the entire territory of Ukraine, including Crimea. President Biden momentarily supported this view by declaring that Putin “cannot stay in power,” before his aides later clarified that Washington was not seeking regime change in Russia. The Deputy Prime Minister of Canada also echoed calls for regime change.
A third way is to be found in the joint position of Western countries: peace will potentially be negotiated, when Russia agrees to end its aggression, and respects Ukraine’s territorial integrity. The G7 member states agreed to demand that Russia “immediately and unconditionally ceases all hostilities” and withdraws from the entire Ukrainian territory, “delimited by its internationally recognized  borders.” While some question the need for the liberation of Crimea and a part of Donbas, Germany considers this position to be naïve. President Macron supports this position, saying that “Vladimir Putin must stop this war, respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity and return to the table.” Therefore, the Western strategy is to provide Ukraine, thanks to its successes on the battlefield, with the means to impose the best possible terms in any peace negotiations.
Who is right? What is the best hope for peace in Ukraine? The best way to answer this question is by understanding the origins of the conflict and by relying on the theories of war termination. On this basis, the best chance for lasting peace in Ukraine should include a thorough review of Russia’s imperial ambitions, the development of a credible Ukrainian deterrent, or even the external imposition of such a deterrent force. Otherwise, the conflict is likely to be protracted at a higher or lower level of intensity.
Russia’s Neocolonial Revanchism
The origins of the war in Ukraine are debated, but two main causes stand out. The first one is the Kremlin’s neo-colonial vision, which views Ukraine as a fake and illegitimate state. As President Putin stated in July 2021: “true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia […] Together we have always been and will be many times stronger and more successful. For we are one people.” This vision is ingrained in the thinking of the Russian president; he stated it during the NATO-Russia Council at the Bucharest Summit in April 2008; he invoked it in the lengthy speech that preceded the invasion; and he repeated it in the eighth month of the war, affirming that “Russia, which created today’s Ukraine, could have been the only real and serious guarantor of Ukraine’s statehood, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.” This denigration of Ukraine is part of a neo-imperial vision from Russia that deplores the break-up of the Soviet Union and wants to restore Russia’s great power status by subjecting its neighbor to its domination and imposing itself militarily to better redefine Europe’s security architecture.
This revanchist neo-imperialism feeds on a deep sense of humiliation. As Joslyn Barnhart argued in The Consequences of Humiliation, great powers that feel they have been treated unfairly by ill-intentioned third parties are likely to use military force to try and restore their status, for example by seeking to restore their spheres of influence on weaker states. There is no doubt that the Russian leadership feels that it has been flouted and that it deserves a sphere of influence over Ukraine. Putin has repeatedly accused the West of mistreating Russia, complaining that a “humiliated” Russia had been forced to accept the West’s will against its own interests. As he said in 2014: “It is impossible to keep humiliating one’s partners forever in such a way. That kind of relationship eventually breaks down”. The invasion of Ukraine is therefore above all the result of a revanchist sentiment that is deeply rooted in Russian imperial nationalism.
This revanchism is at the heart of Putin’s livid reaction to NATO’s open-door policy and the Maidan uprising in 2014. As Mearsheimer argues, these events are catalysts rather than causes of the Russian aggression. The possible candidacies of Ukraine and Georgia to NATO’s Membership Action Plan (MAP) at the Bucharest Summit in 2008 fueled Russian revanchism. Similarly, NATO’s military operations as well as the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq have stirred Russian resentment. Russia also criticizes what it views as a so-called legal universalism that has different requirements depending on the country. The Kremlin justified the war in Georgia and the consequent secession of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as well as the illegal annexation of Crimea with the precedents of Kosovo, East Timor, and South Sudan, and drew many parallels between its invasion of Ukraine and that of Iraq. However, these catalysts should not be mistaken for causes of Russian neo-imperialism, which was evident long before these events in Ukraine.
Moreover, Russia’s war goals go beyond Ukraine’s potential NATO membership. Rather than seeking to impose its veto power, the Kremlin could have been content with the French and German opposition to the accession of Ukraine and Georgia, arguing that the “two countries are not yet ripe“, a position implicitly reiterated by President Macron on the eve of the invasion. By annexing Crimea and supporting the secession of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, Putin had already ruled out any possibility of Ukraine’s accession to NATO, given that obtaining the MAP is conditional upon the peaceful settlement of any existing international territorial dispute. Thus, when President Zelensky committed to neutrality in his proposal for a peace agreement last March, the Russian president rejected it, as he did another similar proposal at the beginning of the invasion. Because its goal is to absorb Ukraine into the Russian Empire, and not just prevent it from joining NATO. Incidentally, the five conditions set by President Zelensky to negotiate peace do not include any reference to NATO.
Russian revanchism, however, makes Moscow unlikely to compromise on its neo-colonial war aims. President Putin does not see his invasion as aggression, but rather as resistance to Western imperialism. He has thus flouted the 1994 Budapest Memorandum and the 1997 Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation, and Partnership by violating Ukrainian sovereignty and has continued to escalate the conflict in Ukraine, going so far as to annex territories it does not control, strike civilian targets, conduct sabotage operations and cyberattacks in Europe, and threaten to use nuclear weapons. This escalation justifiably raises fears of the worst but giving in to Russian demands for territorial concessions and regime change in Kyiv would only fuel the revanchism that underpins them and perpetuate the aggression. Instead, it is necessary to act on the revision of Moscow’s neo-colonial objectives in order to find a peaceful solution to the war.
The Failure of Deterrence
The second most important cause of the war in Ukraine is the failure of deterrence. When Moscow made its demands in December 2021, it affected both Ukraine and other Eastern European states. Moscow has insisted that Ukraine should not join NATO, but also that NATO troops and weapons be withdrawn from Poland, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, and the Balkan states. On February 24, however, Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine and not that of NATO members. The difference between the latter countries and Ukraine, of course, is that they enjoy the security guarantees provided by the United States in case of external aggression. If Ukraine had possessed such guarantees, it is hard to imagine that President Putin would have launched an invasion against it.
President Biden virtually gave the green light for the invasion of Ukraine when he said that the US would not defend Kyiv if it was attacked. In December, Biden ruled out the deployment of US combat troops, instead preferring to bolster NATO’s military presence on the eastern flank, arm Ukrainian forces, and punish Russia with economic sanctions. The chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and the primacy accorded to the Chinese strategic threat may explain this reluctance. However, it was mainly due to the lack of defense obligations towards Ukraine, its limited geostrategic importance to the United States, and the fear that it would start an open war with nuclear power for a secondary national interest.
It is impossible to assess exactly what might have happened if Ukraine had received a MAP in 2008 or if, on the contrary, NATO had formally denied it possible membership. But if Kyiv had benefited from a US security guarantee, or more plausibly from a policy of strategic ambiguity similar to that of the US towards Taiwan, deterrence against a Russian invasion would have been greater. Instead, President Biden withdrew US troops that were training Ukraine’s armed forces, signaling that the US would not use military power to oppose aggression. As Kori Schake argued two weeks before the invasion, “Russia knows it won’t confront US forces if it invades Ukraine, and we have effectively conceded to Russia a sphere of influence to prey on countries beyond NATO’s boundary.”
President Biden could have maintained ambiguity about his security commitments to Ukraine. He could also have threatened to provide Kyiv with the weapons and training it needed to stop a Russian invasion ahead of it. These instruments would have strengthened American deterrence. They would have also better prepared Western capitals for the massive amounts of weapons and ammunition needed to wage a protracted war of attrition against a great power.
The Biden administration and its allies have severely underestimated the Ukrainians’ ability and willingness to fight, and they overestimated the Russians’. As a result, the White House signaled its willingness to negotiate with Moscow, said it would not send troops to evacuate Americans stranded in Ukraine, and reaffirmed that it had “no intention of fighting Russia.” This confirmed to the Kremlin that it would not have to confront the US military if it invaded Ukraine. It was only after the unexpected successes of the Ukrainian army and the astonishment in the face of Russia’s weaknesses that the United States and its allies considerably increased the supply of weapons and training to Kyiv. For deterrence to work, this should have been done or threatened to be, before Russian aggression. In the absence of a revision of Russian ambitions, Ukraine’s security, therefore, depends on establishing deterrence to avoid future aggression.
How Wars End
The prospects for peace in Ukraine depend not only on the causes of the war but also on the circumstances under which the belligerent parties can reach a peace agreement. In How Wars End, Dan Reiter proposes a negotiation model for assessing how, when and why belligerents agree to end wars, providing a better understanding of how the war in Ukraine might end. Put simply, wars end either with a victory when one of the parties is militarily forced to give in or, more frequently, with a settlement when a third party forces the belligerents to respect a peace agreement.
First of all, it must be agreed that a total victory on either side is very unlikely. On the one hand, the war exposed the weaknesses of the Russian military, unable to defeat the Ukrainian military for a multitude of reasons related to capabilities, strategy, manpower, logistics, intelligence, leadership, and morale. Russia, therefore, falls back on increased conflict costs, whether through popular mobilization, the use of strikes targeting Ukrainian energy infrastructures, or the threat of nuclear weapons. The first two options seem unlikely to bend the Ukrainian resistance; they even accelerate its external military support, including the provision of air defense systems and aid for energy infrastructure. The use of a nuclear weapon in Ukraine, even a tactical one, could lead to direct US involvement in the war. Biden warned Moscow that there would be a “decisive” US response, without elaborating, but both EU’s chief diplomat and the former CIA director said that the allies would annihilate Russian forces in Ukraine. A Russian nuclear strike on an uninhabited territory, on the other hand, would send a signal that the conflict is existential in Russia’s eyes. This could have a very strong divisive effect on the West, but would further isolate Russia on the international stage. This would not allow the Russians to have a better chance of defeating the Ukrainians on the battlefield.
A total victory for the Ukrainian side is similarly implausible. For Clausewitz, absolute victory means the annihilation of enemy armies, forcing the total surrender of the adversary. Kyiv does not have the ability, let alone the will, to crush the Russian military beyond its borders. The ultimate objective is limited to the liberation of its territory to recover the 1991 borders. The West refuses to provide the Ukrainians with weapons capable of reaching the depths of Russian territory (medium- or long-range missiles, fighter jets, etc.). Therefore, Ukraine does not have the capacity to completely defeat Russia. At most, Kyiv can hope for the liberation of the entirety of its territory if the external support it enjoys is maintained until then – a very uncertain scenario given the possible fatigue of the West if the war drags on for a long time and their probable divisions if the Ukrainian forces are able to liberate Crimea, which would raise fears of escalation. Regardless, even if the entire Ukrainian territory were liberated, Russia would retain the ability to rebuild its forces and attack again.
In the absence of a total victory for either of the belligerents, a negotiated peace is therefore the most feasible outcome of the war. However, the conditions are not currently ripe for a peaceful settlement. Both Kyiv and Moscow believe they can achieve battlefield gains during the coming year, and the costs of a defeat for both countries are considered to be exorbitant. This explains their current reluctance to negotiate. The prolongation of the war of attrition may eventually lead to a situation where Kyiv or Moscow would see it more costly to continue the fight than to concede. Such an outcome could be accelerated by the erosion of Western support, fears of survival in Vladimir Putin’s regime, or the use of nuclear weapons. The Kremlin thus multiplies the threats of escalation, feeds disinformation, and supports pro-Russian Western political parties in order to divide the West. Kyiv, for its part, relies on the successes of its counter-offensive to demand the supply of increasingly sophisticated weapons and counts on the training of its troops elsewhere in Europe to continue its military successes. Both belligerents hope to negotiate a possible peace from a position of strength.
However, any negotiated peace would be highly fragile given the absence of credible commitments on either side to ensure its implementation. Neither Moscow nor Kyiv can trust the credibility of the other when it comes to respecting a ceasefire that would seal the conflict below their respective objectives. Moscow would not be credible if it committed to respecting Ukraine’s territorial integrity given its neo-colonial revanchism and its many violations in the past, while Kyiv would not be credible if it committed to avoiding moving closer to the West. In fact, both sides have so far promised exactly the opposite, one by annexing territories outside its control, the other by advocating for joining the EU and NATO. Whether the conflict ends with the December 2, 1991 borders, the February 23, 2022 ones, or otherwise, the Ukrainians will have no guarantee that the Russians will not attack it again, and the Russians can no longer hope that Ukraine does not fall into the Western camp. Post-war Ukraine will seek prosperity in the EU and security from the United States.
In the absence of a total victory or credible commitments, any negotiated peace, therefore, requires the intervention of a third party capable of guaranteeing its terms. This third party can be neutral, like the UN, or partial, like NATO. While it is hard to imagine the Kremlin accepting a UN peace operation preventing it from further aggression, an international force could save face by consolidating some territorial gains – provided that Kyiv accepts them. Nothing is less certain in this regard, with Ukrainian forces maintaining the ascendancy on the ground and the Kremlin refusing to make any concessions. For Lawrence Freedman, President Putin calculates that only the continuation of the war will ensure the survival of his regime.
The alternative to a peace mission agreed to by both belligerents is a peace enforcement operation led by an external force. Since Russia has no formal ally capable of such a thing, only Kyiv could hope for an international force, under the aegis of NATO or a US-led coalition, to guarantee the inviolability of its borders. This international force should be such as to deter any further aggression, thus requiring massive military capabilities. For such a situation to be possible, the risk of escalation into a direct confrontation with Russia would have to be considerably mitigated, with a prior local military defeat of Russia for example.
While this prospect may seem implausible, it is nonetheless possible given the way wars are concluded. The alternatives are no less uncertain: a substantial and credible revision of Russia’s war objectives – in other words, a new regime in Moscow that would abandon neo-colonial designs on Ukraine – or the development of a Ukrainian military capability able to single-handedly deter further Russian aggression. In the absence of external security guarantees, such a force would require unconventional weapons or considerable asymmetric capabilities, similar to the Israeli model, making any external attack prohibitive. Without these alternatives, the problem of costs and credibility inherent to conflict resolution will persist.
There is no easy path to peace in Ukraine. The three discussed scenarios – a dramatic revision of Russia’s neo-colonial war aims, the development of credible deterrence capabilities by Ukraine, or the intervention of a third party capable of guaranteeing the inviolability of Ukraine’s borders – appear to be all equally implausible. Nevertheless, an examination of the root causes of war and of the conditions that lead to peace does not allow us to foresee more realistic alternatives.
In these circumstances, the West must now prepare for the post-war period. Because the implementation of any of these three scenarios will have significant consequences for the European security architecture. Regime change in Moscow could lead to great internal instability, would not necessarily end the war nor Russian imperialism, and could even push the US to support pro-democracy forces in Russia. The development of a Ukrainian deterrent force would necessarily require major support from Western allies, as well as military intervention in Ukraine, whether under peacekeeping or peace-enforcement force. The status quo, meanwhile, will continue to drain Western military capabilities as the war of attrition continues, while reducing this support would pave the way for continued Russian aggression and the endorsement of an international order that flouts the right of a people to self-determination and the territorial integrity of states. Thus, while it is agreed to highlight the trap into which President Putin has plunged Russia, the consequences of his war of aggression will require a redoubling of Western efforts in order to achieve an unlikely peace.
The original version of this text was published in French on Le Rubicon. Check it out here!