Is Russia winning its war against Ukraine? Should the United States and its allies push Ukraine to negotiate with Russia?

Aslı Aydıntaşbaş

Russia is not winning in Ukraine—but neither is it losing.

Despite early predictions of economic collapse, battlefield exhaustion, and international isolation, Russians have, by and large, managed to muddle through. Economically, the country has avoided a collapse; militarily, it has ramped up weapons production; and diplomatically, in a post-Gaza world, Moscow hardly seems isolated.

Meanwhile, the West’s ability to support Ukraine for “as long as it takes” is increasingly looking doubtful to the rest of the world. The U.S. Congress is handwringing on further aid; Europeans are having difficulty in stepping up their military production capabilities to make a difference on the battlefield; the U.S. public is losing its enthusiasm for supporting the war. The Republican presidential front-runner, Donald Trump, is already signaling that he hardly cares about Ukraine or trans-Atlantic unity.

Given this harsh reality, we must be honest with ourselves and with Ukrainians. The strategic decisions available for the United States are limited, and not confined to two binary choices: either force Ukraine to negotiate with Russia or declare to support it forever. The real strategic opening is everything in-between, involving compromises, half-measures, and half-baked solutions that last for decades.

That’s how wars end—with deeply unsatisfactory results.

NATO allies must manifest their support for Ukraine through bilateral security arrangements but not hide that NATO membership is unattainable for now. They should start thinking about how this war ends and encourage Ukraine to be open to cease-fire talks with Russia, even though Russian occupation of parts of Ukraine continues. And more importantly, they should work with Kyiv on the extensive reforms that will anchor Ukraine to the European Union.

Michael E. O’Hanlon

Russia is not winning the war so far. Its original ambitions of taking over Ukraine and unseating its government were stymied. Even its more modest goals of fully controlling five provinces in Ukraine and keeping the country out of Western institutions appear unlikely to succeed over time. That said, war takes unexpected twists and turns. The North was not yet winning the American Civil War at the two-year mark; neither was the Entente in World War I nor were the U.S./U.K./USSR forces in World War II. Russian President Vladimir Putin still hopes to win through a fracturing of Western political will, a depleting of Ukrainian manpower, and what he (wrongly) considers the Russian people’s superior martial virtues and stoicism. He has a high tolerance for other people’s pain and will keep trying.

It is too soon to push Ukraine to negotiate. For one thing, there is no other willing party to negotiate with. For another, even if my idea (with Lise Howard) of an alternative security architecture for Ukraine proved acceptable to Moscow, there is no common sense of territorial compromise. (Our idea would envision an Atlantic-Asian Security Committee that oversaw the permanent stationing of numerous Western trainers, including Americans, on Ukrainian soil—partly as a tripwire against Russian aggression—with the additional provision that someday, a post-Putin Russia might be invited to join too. Ukraine understandably wants all its land back; Russia wants at least what it has now (about 17 percent of pre-2014 Ukraine). Someday, we all may have to settle for something like the current status quo as a cease-fire line. But that would be regrettable for the sake of global order and of human decency and is premature. Better that some Ukrainians first come to such an idea themselves, and at least some Russians, too.

Steven Pifer

Russia is not winning. Its military has suffered 315,000 casualties, according to CIA Director William Burns; others place Russian losses at a higher level. In addition, Russia has lost 2,600 main battle tanks, some two-thirds of its modern force, and is having to draw from stocks of 60-year-old tanks. The Russian Navy had to withdraw most of its Black Sea Fleet warships from occupied Crimea. For all that, Russia occupies little more Ukrainian territory than it did at the beginning of 2023 and far less than it did in the first half of 2022. To be sure, Ukraine faces a difficult year in 2024 and will find itself largely on the defensive. However, the past two years have shown how costly, and often how futile, offensive operations can be for the Russians.

A key question for Kyiv will be the continuation of European and U.S. support. That can keep Ukraine in the fight. The West should understand what it has at stake: a Kremlin emboldened by victory would pose an even greater threat to Europe.

The United States and its allies should not press Ukraine to negotiate. Nothing suggests that Moscow is prepared to discuss anything but its own terms: replacement of the government in Kyiv, demilitarization, neutrality, and acceptance of “geopolitical realities,” that is, Russia’s absorption of Crimea, Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson—in other words, a capitulation that would leave the remainder of Ukraine open to future assault whenever Moscow chose. Ukrainians will not and should not be expected to accept that. The West should instead provide Kyiv with what it needs to drive the Russian military out and/or secure a settlement on terms Ukraine and Ukrainians can accept.

Melanie W. Sisson

Russia is not winning its war against Ukraine. Experts on post-Soviet Russia’s use of force in its foreign policy explain that Putin’s strategic objective is to prove that there is a Russian sphere of influence that must be accepted and respected. Russia’s war has failed to achieve this in every regard. It has revealed more military weaknesses than strengths. It has galvanized Ukrainian nationalism. And it has firmed rather than frayed the West’s attachment to Ukraine. None of this diminishes the importance of Ukraine’s ongoing fight for its rightful territory, but progress in military battles and the war’s outcome should not be conflated.

Western leaders and commentators acknowledge as much when calling Russia’s attack on Ukraine an attack on the future of Europe. Although the West continues to promise material support for Ukraine’s war effort, it has not yet arrived at a common vision for that European future and for Ukraine’s standing within it.

To contend that the United States and its allies should push Ukraine to negotiate with Russia under these terms is unreasonable. Ukrainian decisionmakers can only be expected to negotiate if they believe that continuing the fight is fruitless, or that ending it is a necessary step on a plausible path toward a desirable future. In the absence of either material exhaustion or confidence that negotiation offers something to gain, it should come as no surprise that Ukrainians will prefer to continue to fight for what they have left to lose.

Angela Stent

Russia is not winning the war with Ukraine but has managed to capture small amounts of Ukrainian territory since Kyiv’s disappointing 2023 counteroffensive. Moscow is conducting a war of attrition with heavy casualties and now has access to artillery and missiles from North Korea and drones from Iran. It will have to continue mobilizing men if it is to launch another offensive in 2024. Ukraine is not winning the war either and will focus on defense in 2024, perhaps launching another counteroffensive in 2025. It has recently been attacking inside Russian territory and bombing energy facilities. However, if U.S. financial assistance and weapons dry up in 2024, this would increase Russia’s chances of defeating Ukraine, even if Europe provides financial assistance and more advanced weapons.

The United States and its allies should not push Ukraine to negotiate with Russia. The Kremlin has shown no interest in negotiations unless Ukraine accepts the incorporation of four “annexed” territories into Russia—territories that Russia does not fully control. Putin still says that the goal of his “special military operation” is to “denazify” (i.e., regime change) and demilitarize Ukraine and ensure that it ceases to exist as a country. Ukraine is fighting an existential war for its survival as an independent, sovereign state. Even if there were a temporary cease-fire, Russia would likely regroup and relaunch hostilities. Serious negotiations can only begin if Russia moderates its war aims. But Putin is betting on elections in the United States and Europe bringing to power leaders who will no longer support Ukraine.

Tara Varma

Two years into the war, the good news is that Russia isn’t winning—at least not in terms of what a decisive victory would be: clear military advantage leading Moscow to win over Ukrainian territory, which is one of its key objectives. One should note that Russian self-avowed goals in Ukraine have evolved since the invasion in 2022, though Putin insists they remain the same, namely “denazification, demilitarization and [Ukraine’s] neutral status.” The initial full-scale invasion stemming both from the east and the north indicated a willingness not only to take Kyiv but actually the whole of Ukraine.

The not-so-good news coming from Kyiv is that the counteroffensive launched in the summer of 2023 hasn’t delivered the expected result of taking back Russian-occupied territory in the east. The strain on the Ukrainian army and population is enormous—but so is the responsibility of the United States and Europe to keep providing Ukraine with the weapons and funds it needs. While U.S. support is being weaponized in the context of the 2024 presidential campaign, Europe cannot afford a similar situation to happen. It has an existential interest in Ukraine prevailing in the war and has approved accession negotiations for Ukraine into the European Union. Americans and Europeans have also been resolute and clear that it is for Ukraine to set the terms of negotiations and/or victory. While the West supports them diplomatically, financially, militarily, and materially, Ukrainians are the ones on the frontlines and must remain the sole decision-makers on future steps.

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