Ukraine’s Way Out
Strategic prudence argues in favor of pocketing successes rather than pressing the fight and running the tantamount risks.
The war in Ukraine is entering a more dangerous phase. Even though Russia appears to have downsized its goals after Kyiv blunted Moscow’s initial invasion, the Kremlin is now determined to enlarge the chunk of eastern and southern Ukraine that it grabbed in 2014. Meanwhile, NATO allies are pouring in arms, providing intelligence, and savoring the prospect of a “victory” that entails expelling Russia from Ukraine.
With both sides doubling down, NATO must engage in a forthright dialogue with the Ukrainian government about its goals and how best to bring the bloodshed to a close sooner rather than later. Russia has already been dealt a decisive strategic defeat. Ukrainian forces have rebuffed the advance on Kyiv and retain control of most of the country; the West has hit Russia with severe economic sanctions; and NATO has reinforced its eastern flank, while Finland and Sweden now seek to join the alliance. For NATO and Ukraine alike, strategic prudence argues in favor of pocketing these successes rather than pressing the fight and running the tantamount risks.
So far, the United States and its allies have shied away from pushing Kyiv to limit its strategic objectives. NATO has instead focused on providing Ukraine the means to defend itself—more anti-tank and antiaircraft missiles, more drones, more artillery, more intelligence. The Biden administration legitimately argues that Ukrainians must decide their own war aims. It’s also true that Kyiv is fully justified, on both moral and legal grounds, to seek to restore Ukraine’s full territorial integrity by retaking Crimea and the section of the Donbas that Russia occupied in 2014.
But Kyiv’s right to fight for complete territorial sovereignty does not make doing so strategically wise. Nor should Ukraine’s remarkable success in repelling Russia’s initial advance be cause for overconfidence about the next phases of the conflict. Indeed, strategic pragmatism warrants a frank conversation between NATO and Ukraine about curbing Kyiv’s ambitions and settling for an outcome that falls short of “victory.”
Several considerations call for such restraint. First, the longer the war continues, the greater the death, destruction, and dislocation it will reap. Russia’s invasion has already taken tens of thousands of lives, forced some 12 million Ukrainians to flee their homes (about 6 million have left the country), and destroyed some $60 billion of Ukraine’s infrastructure. Sanctions against Russia and the war’s disruption to supply chains are fueling rising prices in many countries and could spawn a global food shortage.
Second is the risk of escalation. If Russian forces fare well in the east and the south, the Kremlin could eventually decide to enlarge its own war aims and seek to swallow more of Ukraine. Alternatively, if Russian forces falter in the coming weeks and Vladimir Putin faces a further defeat, he could well look to use weapons of mass destruction, or to trigger a wider conflict to change the course of the war. Accidental escalation is also a real risk, with Russia already carrying out strikes near NATO territory and Russian and NATO forces operating in close proximity.
Third, even though the West has demonstrated impressive unity in supporting Ukraine and standing up to Russian aggression, the West’s solidarity may wane over time. Inflation is spiking on both sides of the Atlantic, fueled in part by the knock-on effects of the war. Rising prices are weighing down President Joe Biden’s popularity—despite his strong handling of the war—and his earlier focus on improving the lot of working Americans has effectively been sidelined. Bipartisan cooperation on standing up to Putin could erode.
Differences are starting to emerge among transatlantic allies. The leaders of France, Germany, and Italy last week talked up the need for a cease-fire and a negotiated settlement. Meanwhile, Washington and London appear to be backing Ukraine’s intention to achieve, in the words of its foreign minister, “the liberation of occupied territories.”
Electoral outcomes since the war began do not bode well for the West’s collective staying power, either. Viktor Orbán, the self-proclaimed defender of “illiberal democracy,” won reelection in Hungary. He has so far blocked the European Union’s effort to impose an oil embargo on Russia. Although the centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron was reelected in France, the hard-right and pro-Russian candidate, Marine Le Pen, garnered more than 40 percent of the vote. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz initially outlined a bold shift in German foreign policy to counter Putin’s move into Ukraine. But Berlin has since wavered on following through, and the Scholz government has been weakened by a political setback in regional elections over the weekend.
In the U.S., buoyed by Donald Trump’s endorsement, J. D. Vance recently won a hotly contested Senate primary in Ohio. His views of the war in Ukraine are rather blunt: “I think it’s ridiculous that we are focused on this border in Ukraine. I got to be honest with you, I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine one way or the other.” Amid rampant inflation, the “America First” wing of the Republican Party is poised to surge in the November midterms.
Finally, the West needs to begin looking beyond the war to salvage a relationship with Russia that keeps the door open to a modicum of collaboration. Even if a new cold war is opening, dialogue will be even more important than it was during Cold War 1.0. In a more interdependent and globalized world, the West will need at least a measure of pragmatic cooperation with Moscow to tackle common challenges, such as negotiating arms control, arresting climate change, managing the cybersphere, and promoting global health. To that end, bringing the war to an expeditious close through a cease-fire and negotiated settlement is far preferable to either a war that drags on or a new frozen conflict that ends in a hostile stalemate.
Critics charge that any outcome short of total defeat would embolden Putin. Allowing him to claim victory by retaining control of even a small slice of Ukraine, the arguments run, would only encourage his next land grab. So, too, might China interpret any outcome shy of a rout of Russia as encouragement for testing the West’s readiness to defend Taiwan.
But Putin will remain a troublemaker no matter how this war ends. And he has already been dealt a setback more than sufficient to drive home the costs of further adventurism. The Russian military is reeling as the country’s economy shrinks. Ukrainians have soundly rejected any future that entails subjugation to Moscow’s sphere of influence. And Russian aggression has prompted previously neutral Finland and Sweden to head for membership in NATO, an alliance that has integrated more than a dozen countries (encompassing some 100 million people) that were once part of the Soviet bloc.
Putin’s back is up against the wall. Pushing him further is both unnecessary and unnecessarily risky. And China can hardly be interpreting the blowback against Russia—in particular, Russia’s detachment from the global economy—as anything but a stark warning against Beijing’s own expansionism.
Putin’s errant invasion of Ukraine has produced no winners, but one clear loser: Russia. Even as the West continues to provide Ukraine the means to defend itself, it’s time for the Atlantic democracies to turn their focus to bringing the war to an end.