After 111 days of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the international community is focused on whether peace with Moscow could be made possible via a compromise with Kyiv.
While Poland, the UK, the Baltics, and many U.S. politicians insist on enduring and unconditional support of Ukraine, global media outlets keep suggesting that the West isn’t all that united on this.
Here are some of the recent headlines in major publications:
- Tough Questions for West as Ukraine Cities Teeter (The New York Times, June 12)
- What next? Ukraine's allies divided over Russia endgame (Reuters, June 13)
- It is in the best interests of Ukraine, and the West, to end this war as soon as possible (The Guardian, June 9)
These, and other similar articles, explore various scenarios for Ukraine and the West in this war, which is clearly dragging on longer than some expected.
This thinking is bolstered by some world leaders: from French President Emmanuel Macron urging to avoid “humiliating Russia,” to EU Foreign Affairs Chief Josep Borrell saying that the EU will have to find a way to co-exist with Moscow, despite Russian atrocities in Ukraine.
NV has compiled scenarios of peace with Russia that are short of a complete victory, along with expert risk analysis.
Favorable compromise: talks with Russia after it is forced to withdraw to its positions as of Feb. 24
This is the option Borrell mentioned in his recent interview, responding to a question whether the EU “should help Ukraine win the war.”
“Our military aid should arrive to the (Armed Forces of Ukraine) as soon as possible, because they are not fighting with bills of sale, but with guns, allowing them to resist Russian aggression,” the EU’s top diplomat said.
“All wars end with ceasefires and negotiations, and it is necessary for Ukraine to enter this phase with a strong position so that Russia cannot remain in the territory it occupied and occupied after Feb. 24.”
He added that “it’s reasonable” for the EU to “help Ukraine get back the territory it lost” in the invasion.
Borrell also noted that he doesn’t see a way to begin peace talks with Russia at the moment.
“It takes two to tango, and as the Russians are not responsive to calls for dialogue yet, diplomacy remains in the waiting room,” he noted.
“Nevertheless, eventually Russia will have to answer the decide if it wants to stop, what they could get and at what cost.”
Head of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen and President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola have also ruled out attempts to “appease” Russian dictator Vladimir Putin at this stage.
Speaking at the World Economic Forum in May, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger suggested an even less appealing return of the Feb. 24 status-quo.
“Negotiations need to begin in the next two months before it creates upheavals and tensions that will not be easily overcome,” Kissinger claimed.
“Ideally, the dividing line should be a return to the status quo ante. Pursuing the war beyond that point would not be about the freedom of Ukraine, but a new war against Russia itself.”
Counterargument: Russia won’t tolerate even a minor defeat
In its recent article What if Ukraine Wins, Foreign Affairs magazine explored this exact scenario as the more likely shape a Ukrainian victory could take. While the authors think it’s unlikely Kyiv manages to liberate Donbas and Crimea entirely, Ukraine could very well push Russian forces from Dnipro’s west bank near Kherson and establish a containment perimeter around Russia-controlled areas in the east and south, and secure access to the Black Sea.
“Over time, Ukrainian forces could move forward, breaking up the land bridge that Russia has established to Crimea, the territory in southeastern Ukraine that Russia seized and annexed back in 2014,” the article reads.
“Essentially, Ukraine could restore the status quo ante that existed before Russia launched its attack in February.”
The authors acknowledge that “this would not be the world-changing victory about which some Western pundits dream.” At the same time, a smaller and militarily weaker state successfully defending itself from “an imperial power” would still have “ripple effects in the region and the rest of the world—by demonstrating that successful resistance against powerful aggressors is possible.”
The risk in this scenario stems from Russia refusing to accept any kind of defeat or sign some kind of non-aggression agreement with Ukraine.
“Any Ukrainian victory will only spur more Russian intransigence in its wake,” Foreign Affairs wrote.
“As soon as it can rebuild its military capacity, Russia will use a narrative of humiliation to stir domestic support for a renewed effort to control Ukraine. Even if he loses the war, Putin will not let go of Ukraine.”
This means that even a limited Ukrainian victory demands expanded Western security assistance to Kyiv.
“Kyiv’s partners have rightly refused to compromise on Ukrainian sovereignty and independence,” Foreign Affairs pointed out.
“But they also must think through ‘the day after’ Ukraine wins. Rather than quixotic expectations of Russia bowing to a Ukrainian victory or simply exiting the international stage, sustainable security for Ukraine will demand painstaking effort and carefully calibrated increases in political, financial, and military investment.”
Another scenario is an immediate ceasefire and peace talks, including potential Ukrainian territorial concessions
This is the course of action Italy, France, and Germany favor. The governments of these countries have indicated their support for a prompt ceasefire, which would essentially consolidate Russian territorial gains it managed to amass during the last three and a half months.
Ukraine could stand to lose parts of Kherson, Zaporizhzhya, Kharkiv, Donetsk, and Luhansk oblasts – in addition to Crimea and previously-occupied areas of Donbas.
Hungary and Cyprus supported the EU urging Kyiv to immediately cease hostilities and begin negotiations with Moscow.
This plan has several variants.
The Italian plan: ceasefire to maintain the current status quo and attempt to negotiate with Russia.
On May 19, Italian PM Mario Draghi said that “a ceasefire must be reached as soon as possible.” At the same time, he advocated ramping up economic pressure on Moscow to force it to negotiate.
The Italian government developed a peace plan for the war in Ukraine, which was then sent to the UN and G7. According to the Italian newspaper La República, the document contains the following steps to secure Russian withdrawal from Ukraine:
- Ceasefire and a demilitarized zone along the front lines, under UN supervision;
- Talks about Ukraine’s future status, including EU membership, but no NATO accession;
- Bilateral Ukraine-Russia treaty on Crimea and Donbas. The proposal suggests these “contested territories” be given full autonomy, under nominal Ukrainian sovereignty;
- A multilateral European security agreement, which would regulate potential conflicts on the continent and build trust through arms control.
Italy suggests an international monitoring group (including Italy, France, Germany, Turkey, the United States, China, Canada, the UK, Poland, and Israel) should oversee the peace process, along with the EU, UN, and other international organizations.
It’s worth noting that Russia outright refuses to discuss autonomy for these “contested territories” under nominal Ukrainian sovereignty.
The deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council, Dmitry Medvedev, called the Italian peace plan “a stream of consciousness from European graphomaniacs,” and emphatically ruled out the notion of Ukrainian sovereignty over Donbas and Crimea.
“It’s a direct affront to Russia, a threat to its territorial integrity, and a casus belli for a full-scale war,” Medvedev said about the proposals on Crimea.
“There is no, and never will be, political will in Russia to even discuss Crimea.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called the Italian proposal “frivolous,” further indicating Moscow’s unwillingness to return any occupied lands to Ukraine, even after a ceasefire.
Counterargument: This scenario discounts the consequences of a Ukrainian defeat
Andrew Michta, Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Germany, dissected this European approach in a recent article for Politico.
“The rising ceasefire chorus in the West also exposes a paucity of strategic imagination as to what Europe could look like if Kyiv were given sufficient weapons and support to defeat the Russian army in the field,” said Michta.
This German and French approach “allows Kyiv to continue to fight but offers no clear path to victory.”
“At this stage, any ceasefire would allow Putin to hold on to conquered territory, and the remaining Ukrainian rump state — bereft of its industrial basin in the east and with Russia’s continued Black Sea blockade — would be unable to sustain itself economically,” he added.
“More importantly, in a few years, Putin would regroup, rebuild his military and be able to launch another round of conquest to seize all of Ukraine — especially if the ceasefire deal included lifting sanctions on Western imports critical to his weapons production.”
At the same time, a victory that restores Ukraine whole “not as a post-Soviet state but as a thriving democratic polity and closely integrated into Europe’s economy — would fundamentally change the power dynamics both in Europe and globally,” Michta argues.
According to him, a Ukrainian victory would:
- Put an end to three hundred years of Russian imperial aspirations and its role as a key European player;
- Shift the center of European political gravity from the French-German dyad towards a Central European constellation, including Germany, Poland, Scandinavia, the Baltics, and Ukraine itself;
- Free U.S. resources to focus on future Indo-Pacific competition with China.
“Let’s have the courage to help Ukraine win,” Michta tells those eager for immediate peace with Russia at any cost.
Macron’s proposal: neither defeat nor victory, as to not “humiliate” Russia
Everyone is still trying to wrap their head around what exactly Macron meant by his calls to avoid “humiliating” Russia.
On June 3, Macron said that once hostiles end, “we must be able to chart a path towards a diplomatic solution,” and that requires Russia not to be humiliated.
This comment he made during an interview with a French news outlet became rather notorious and demanded further explanations.
“Some have interpreted Macron’s call — first issued in a speech to European Parliament and repeated in a recent interview with French media — as implying that Ukraine should be pushed into a ceasefire and territorial concessions,” the Financial Times wrote recently.
Several French experts and political scientists have suggested that the French president was talking about post-war EU-Russia relations, assuming that “Russia will somehow be defeated.”
“However, the ambiguity of Macron’s pronouncements on Russia has obscured all this, leading to consternation not just in Kyiv, but also in Warsaw and the Baltic states, just at the time that Ukrainian forces are fending off the Russian onslaught in the eastern Donbas region,” said Michel Duclos, advisor to the Paris-based Institut Montaigne.
“Imagine if someone had told France ‘Let’s not humiliate the Kaiser’ in the middle of the battle of Verdun.”
A June 13 Reuters article echoes this sentiment:
“Germany and France have remained more ambiguous, vowing to stop Putin from winning rather than to defeat him, while at the same time backing tough new sanctions.”
An unnamed ally of Macron’s explained the ambiguity this way: “The question being asked is whether we return to the Cold War or not,” the source said,.
“That's the difference between Biden, Johnson, and us.”
“We'll have to deal with Mister Putin at some point unless there's a palace coup,” he added.
“And even more so because this war needs to be as short as possible.”
The German approach is rather similar. A German government source told Reuters that the team of Chancellor Olaf Scholz was dissatisfied with German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock publicly supporting the U.S. policy to “weaken Russia.”
Commenting on Macron’s statement, Borrell said it “reflects reality.”
“Russia will continue to exist even after the peace talks, and we will have to determine how to continue to coexist with it,” Borrell claimed.
“It will be very difficult after what Russia has done in Ukraine - the invasion, the aggression, the destruction, everything we see from the television screens and I have personally seen on the ground. But no matter what, we will have to try to coexist with Russia on this continent.”
Counterargument: Macron forgets about the Georgian affair and Putin’s goals
Former head of UK MI-6 John Sawers criticizes the French approach to peace with Russia in a recent piece for the Financial Times, titled “Macron is playing a risky game in Ukraine.”
Sawers points out that an immediate ceasefire would simply “lock in” Russian territorial gains in this war.
“There is no reason to think that Vladimir Putin would agree to pull back; indeed, the occupiers are busy “Russifying” the occupied zones, imposing Russian as the language in schools, taking control of the media and putting stooges in nominal charge of local administration,” he said.
Sawers recalls that “Putin has played this game before,” when French President Nicolas Sarkozy managed to secure a ceasefire in Georgia, at the cost of Tbilisi losing two of its regions to Moscow.
Georgia has never regained that territory or full sovereignty.
“The Ukrainians want to fight on and they need our continued support — advanced weapons and ever tougher sanctions on Russia. That means several more months of ugly fighting. But a premature ceasefire will help Putin snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. No western leader should be his enabler.”
In a recent interview, Russian political scientist Andrey Piontkovskiy said that Macron became on the four Western leaders (along with Italy, Germany, and Hungary) who are in “Putin’s corner,” attempting to make Ukraine capitulate.
“It’s not a peace deal, it’s simply an effort to consolidate another step in capturing Ukraine,” said Piontkovskiy.
“Putin’s war aim remained constant since day one – dismantling the Ukrainian state. It doesn’t matter if his initial plan to achieve it was different – through seizing Kyiv and installing some kind of a puppet government there. Right now, he’s pursuing his goals by capturing Kherson and Zaporizhzhya oblasts, imposing a humiliating peace deal on Ukraine, which would cause a deep crisis in the country’s society, besides taking even more land.
When Putin is waging a war of destruction, (the world) needs to worry not about escalating the conflict, but about supporting Ukraine as much as possible.”