Russia, like other empires, will need a military defeat to give up its expansionist goals.
The United States and its allies are seeking ways to promote a sustainable peace in Europe — one that ends Russia’s brutal assault on Ukraine and strengthens a global prohibition on such wars of aggrandizement. Tragically but realistically, Russia, like most historic imperial powers, will need to be defeated militarily before it abandons war as a means to dominate its neighbors. Any negotiated peace before such a defeat will simply let Russia rebuild its forces and renew its assault. Yet even as the West should maintain full support for Ukraine’s defense, such as the tanks much discussed this month, it should encourage negotiation toward specific goals.
Russia’s Long War on Ukraine
Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine was no new war, but simply the latest round in a decades-long conflict over whether Ukraine may exist outside of Russia’s control. Far beyond President Vladimir Putin, many Russians and their leaders still hold the view, bred through centuries of czarist and Soviet rule over Russia’s neighbors, that Moscow by right dominates its neighbors. When Ukraine declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Russian leaders never understood this to mean independence from Russia. As exemplified by then-President Boris Yeltsin, even relatively liberal-minded Russians who sought an end to the Soviet Union intended Russia’s historical dominance to continue — most of all, over Ukraine.
Ukraine pursued what its first president termed a “civilized divorce” beneath the umbrella of the post-Soviet Commonwealth of Independent States. Yet Russia’s elites saw that organization as the means to sustain Russian political and economic control over neighboring states — a fundamental disagreement over the nature of the Soviet collapse.
Thus, after 70-odd years in which Russian imperial rule had been subsumed under the Soviet Union, Ukraine’s post-Soviet assertion of independence triggered immediate responses. Russian leaders began to challenge the Ukrainian border, including Crimea, and Ukrainians’ control over former Soviet military assets in their country. Ukraine tried to forestall problems by maintaining a delicate balance in its relations between the European Union and NATO on one hand and Russia on the other. Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution tilted that balance more decisively west. Ten years later, the 2014 Maidan uprising marked the end of Ukraine’s balancing act, as Kyiv opted for EU partnership over membership in Russian-led Eurasian Customs Union. In response, Russia seized Crimea and supported a war by “separatists” in eastern Ukraine. With those actions, Putin made it clear he would not tolerate a Ukraine that was independent of Russian influence.
The 11-month-old Russian invasion is an extension of this three-decade conflict. In the eight years between Russia’s two invasions, Ukraine has sustained its efforts to integrate with the European community and resist Russian domination, and the European Union and NATO have refused to bow to Russian pressure to leave Ukraine as a “neutral” buffer between themselves and Russia. And Russian leadership has persisted in its belief that Ukraine belongs to Russia. The past year of brutal warfare has not changed that.
Negotiations Themselves Are Not the Problem
Negotiations are invaluable in ending wars. Indeed, it is difficult to think of a war that ended without some sort of negotiation. But negotiations are not the only — or, often, the most effective — way to end war. The negotiations that ended World War II were preceded by a thorough military defeat of one side, both in Europe and the Pacific. Only those military defeats enabled the radical changes in thinking within Germany and Japan that opened the doors to negotiated settlements that could keep the peace in the ensuing decades.
The utility of negotiations depends upon the aims of the negotiating parties and the issues being negotiated. Ukraine and Russia have been negotiating in some form or another for 30 years. In 1994, they joined in negotiating the Budapest Memorandum that had Russia and the United States provide security guarantees to Ukraine in exchange for Kyiv relinquishing its nuclear arsenal. In 2004, Putin signed a treaty with Ukraine recognizing the borders between the two states. And after Russia’s invasion of 2014, Russia and Ukraine negotiated a series of Minsk agreements that were supposed to end the fighting. They did not, because none of them met the aims of the Kremlin leaders.
In Russia’s war against Ukraine, the Kremlin is fighting to preserve what it believes is its rightful empire. And sadly, Russia, like empires before it, is unwilling to give up its empire so long as it believes it is capable of maintaining it. Well-meaning suggestions for early negotiations suppose that Russia can be persuaded to voluntarily surrender the right it asserts to control Ukraine. Any truce achieved through such an effort would represent simply Russia’s tactical pause to rearm and renew its war.
Finding the Path to Peace
Because of the Kremlin leaders’ mindset, Russia will continue to try to dominate Ukraine until it sees that it simply cannot (and that it is better off not trying). The only way to bring that change is for Ukraine to defeat Russia’s invasion. Ukrainian forces need to push the Russian military out of all Ukrainian lands it has seized since 2014. That will send a clear message to the Kremlin and to Russians that the days of empire and territorial conquest are over. More importantly, that will discourage them from attacking Ukraine again. Only that change will permit a real peace process — one that can prevent, rather than simply postpone, further war, and one that seeks to establish a security system in Europe that guarantees sovereignty and safety for all.
Since Ukrainian victory is vital for future peace, the United States and its allies should move immediately to provide Ukraine the equipment it needs to win. The recent weeks’ debate over providing tanks, which military analysts say are critical to Ukraine’s defense, underscores the risks that hesitation and delay will simply prolong the war and increase human suffering.
While Russia cannot be talked into surrendering its sense of entitlement over Ukraine, that does not mean negotiations do not have a role in this war. The United States should encourage negotiations for humanitarian reasons. For example, negotiations to allow grain shipments from Ukrainian ports have helped alleviate a global food crisis. Ukraine and Russia have successfully negotiated prisoner exchanges. Other negotiations should be considered that would secure Ukraine’s nuclear power plants and energy corridors to keep power flowing to civilians.
Finally, the United States should work to ensure that communications with Russian leadership remain open — an enduring need to prevent misunderstandings that could be catastrophic between nuclear powers.
The United States and Ukraine’s other allies should do what is necessary to help end the war sooner, rather than later, and thus reduce human suffering. But they should seek a realistically sustainable peace, rather than a truce that simply postpones — indeed, virtually guarantees — further war. This means helping Ukraine defeat Russia and working to establish a European security architecture that maintains the peace going forward.