The Only Solution to the War in Ukraine Is on the Battlefield
The War in Ukraine just entered its fourth month. Gone are the dark days of February, when Russian forces seemed to be on the verge of occupying Kyiv, and yet so, too, the Western unity forged in the face of Russian aggression seems gone. This is most evident in a growing gulf between the governments of France and Germany on the one hand, which seem to be increasingly embracing a policy of pressuring for a cease-fire even if it means sacrificing Ukrainian territory, and Britain, Poland, and the Baltic States on the other, which remain committed to Ukraine’s cause. The United States’ position is less clear.
Nominally, the Biden administration remains committed to a Ukrainian victory, but in further evidence that Joe Biden does not lead his party, many of the most prominent voices of the center-left establishment have begun singing a different tune. They are echoing the calls by France and Germany for a recognition that “victory” is either too dangerous or difficult to achieve and that the United States and Ukraine would be best off recognizing this and pressing for concessions.
It is telling that these calls came from two such mutually antagonistic elements of the establishment as Henry Kissinger and the New York Times Editorial Board. Kissinger and the Times did battle for much of the 1970s over Vietnam, Detente, Chile, Angola, and Africa, with the paper denouncing Kissinger’s realpolitik. Yet when it comes to Ukraine, they are now on the same page.
In Davos, the 99-year-old Kissinger warned that Russia was being isolated from the West, arguing that “Parties should be brought to peace talks within the next two months. Ukraine should’ve been a bridge between Europe and Russia, but now, as the relationships are reshaped, we may enter a space where the dividing line is redrawn, and Russia is entirely isolated.” His words were echoed by the editorial board of the Times, which on May 19th published an editorial entitled “The War in Ukraine Is Getting Complicated, and America Isn’t Ready.”
The Times proclaimed that “in the end, it is still not in America’s best interest to plunge into an all-out war with Russia, even if a negotiated peace may require Ukraine to make some hard decisions.” suggesting that indefinite support for Ukraine is not a given and that the dangers of a confrontation between the United States and Russia are real.
The flaw with this sort of “Realism” is that it is not particularly realistic. Before the war, it was quite easy to acknowledge that any Russian government would feel offended by the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO. Yet suggesting that war could easily have been avoided had Ukraine merely pledged not to join the alliance or for a U.S. President to make such a promise is to depart from realism into the realm of fantasy. Any promise made by a Ukrainian government could have been repudiated by its successor, which would mean Russia would need to maintain a constant threat of force to deter Ukrainian voters from reconsidering the arrangement every election.
In turn, those constant Russian threats would incentivize Ukraine to arm itself to resist repeated Russian invasion threats, which would leave Russia with the choice between invading before Ukraine could arm itself or allowing it to build up defenses, an unpalatable scenario for Russian leaders. The same flaws applied to a promise by a U.S. President. If a U.S. president pledged to reject any appeals by Ukraine to join NATO, it is certain that plenty of Senators from both the opposing party and the president’s own party would repudiate it, perhaps even flying to Kyiv to do so and pledge to reverse it later. It is hard to believe that if Donald Trump had made the compromises Mearsheimer or Kissinger called for, Democrats would not have accused him of selling out to Putin, and figures like Lindsey Graham might have joined in.
The fact is that while Russia has real grievances when it comes to the Ukraine situation, unilateral concessions without resolving the underlying problem – which is a Russian government that defines the West as an enemy geopolitically and culturally – would have exacerbated rather than defused the situation. The same is true of territorial or political concessions now.
Let’s say that Kissinger and German Chancellor Scholz, and the NYT Editorial Board get their way. Biden pressures both sides into agreeing to a cease-fire in which Russia withdraws, and Ukraine agrees not to attack the disputed territories in the Donbas and Crimea prior to February 24th. Instantly issues arise. Russia will suggest that any recognition of the Donbas applies to the entire administrative boundaries, 45% of which Kyiv still controls. They may use this as an excuse not to withdraw from other areas. Kyiv will reject this.
Even assuming territorial disputes could be resolved, the issue remains of Ukraine’s orientation. Ukraine will not simply trust that since the Russians have agreed to stop, for now, they will not start advancing again. They clearly had their eyes on Kyiv, and Putin has called Ukraine a fake nation run by Nazis. Ukraine will, without a doubt, seek to build up its forces, including advanced anti-air weapons and long-range missiles. Even if Russia were satisfied with its gains, which there is no reason to believe they would be given they clearly sought to take Kyiv early on, Russia would be faced with exactly the situation Kissinger and Mearsheimer highlighted: a hostile, Western-aligned Ukraine on their border rapidly arming.
Ultimately, what the realists miss is that even if this war does end in a territorial outcome that leaves Crimea in Russian hands or in some other way differs from whatever a “Ukrainian victory” looks like, this war was triggered by an unstable balance of power. That unstable balance could only be restored on the battlefield. The reason Russia may be willing to forgo demanding Kyiv in exchange for the Donbas or Crimea, as Kissinger or the NYT suggest, is not because Putin is reasonable but because he cannot get Kyiv and was militarily defeated there. Had he captured it on February 26th, this would not be a compromise.
For Russia, this war is about clarifying its strength to Ukraine and its neighbors. More important than territory was Putin demonstrating to the Ukrainians that if Russia wanted something, NATO could not stop Russia from taking it. Only by proving this point could Putin, in his view, undermine the appeal of NATO to Ukraine, which was based on the belief NATO membership meant invulnerability to Russian pressure. This objective is all the more important, with Sweden and Finland looking to join NATO.
There is only one way to arrive at a territorial settlement of this war. It will continue until Putin takes enough territory that he is satisfied or until he is unable to take any territory at all. Both outcomes will be sped up by maximizing Ukraine’s ability to resist. Any sign of weakness or abandoning Ukraine will tell Putin that if he holds out for more, Western support will decrease. It makes him less likely to agree to any sort of settlement.
This outbreak of Realism in the United States and Europe is based on wishful thinking. The true realist approach is to recognize that only one man, Vladimir Putin, will decide when this war ends, and his decision will be determined solely by the situation on the battlefield. The only way for anyone to influence that is to control the battlefield.