What if Ukraine wins?
Why America should make its priorities clear as soon as possible
Later this week, President Biden will head across the Atlantic to attend the extraordinary summit convened by NATO in Brussels. He’ll then travel to Warsaw for consultations with Polish leaders. Poland finds itself on the front lines of the crisis brought about by Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression against Ukraine: thousands of American troops have been deployed to the country and some 2.1 million Ukrainian refugees have made their way there since the start of the war on February 24.
It’s safe to say that Putin has yet to achieve his political and military objectives in Ukraine. Nor does it appear the Russian military will do so any time soon; what progress it has achieved has been slow and costly. Indeed, the Russian military has suffered grievous losses of both equipment and personnel – including a number of generals – that it can’t easily replace. What’s more, Ukrainian forces now appear to be mounting counteroffensives and hitting the Russian military’s vulnerable supply lines.
While Russian and Ukrainian diplomats keep talking, diplomacy to end the war has nowhere to go right now. Given its own military’s performance in the field, Ukraine has no reason to capitulate to Putin’s demands. For his part, Putin has yet to give up the extravagant strategic objectives he laid out in the weeks and months before he launched his war of aggression against Ukraine. Ultimately, both sides appear willing to fight rather than back down any time soon.
It's for important for Kyiv and Moscow to keep talking at the negotiating table even as they keep fighting on the battlefield. Despite what we tend to tell ourselves, diplomacy is not a necessary or inherent alternative to armed conflict; indeed, diplomacy and military force often complement one another. Accordingly, the United States and its allies needs to be realistic about how much diplomacy can achieve here and how fast it can achieve it. That includes skepticism about Russian good faith. As the world saw in Syria, Moscow uses diplomacy and cease-fire deals to serve its military ends rather than the other way around. This cynicism has worked for Putin in the past, and there’s every reason to believe he’ll reach for it again in Ukraine. Right now, then, the prospects for a negotiated settlement to this war are not good at best and non-existent at worst.
Still, it now seems as likely as not that Ukraine will win this war – if we define victory as the preservation of Ukrainian sovereignty and a full Russian withdrawal from the Ukrainian territory it’s seized since February 24. But it seems equally if not more likely that Putin will escalate in the near term rather than give up on his deluded war aims, an escalation that could entail more brutal bombardments and sieges of Ukrainian cities like Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Mariupol, the use of chemical weapons, or cyber-attacks on the United States and its NATO allies.
As they prepare for potential escalation from Putin, the United States and its allies need to think about what a Ukrainian victory might look like. Again, this “victory” would almost certainly entail a negotiated settlement that sees a complete Russian evacuation from the Ukrainian territory taken since the start of the war – or what Secretary of State Blinken called an “irreversible” Russian military withdrawal. Such a withdrawal would lead the United States to lift many of the sanctions it’s imposed on Russia for the invasion, but there are other complicated issues involved in a potential negotiated end to the conflict in the wake of a Ukrainian victory.
The United States and its allies need be ready to answer three main questions that will arise during negotiations and in the wake of an agreement to end the war:
1. What security guarantees will Ukraine receive? A Ukrainian negotiator close to President Zelensky has publicly stated that a “tangible security guarantee” for Ukraine is on the negotiating table. Such a guarantee would have to be “much more concrete” than the 1994 Budapest Memorandum that saw Kyiv give up the nuclear weapons it inherited from the late Soviet Union in exchange for security guarantees from the United States, Great Britain, and Russia. But Ukrainian negotiators claim such a guarantee would allow Kyiv to “delay our NATO ambitions.”
It's not at all clear how these guarantees would differ from full-blown NATO membership for Ukraine, especially if they’re given by the United States or other nuclear-armed NATO members like France and the United Kingdom. To avoid the fate of the Budapest Memorandum guarantees, these new guarantees would need to be real collective defense guarantees akin to those at the heart of NATO and the U.S.-Japan mutual defense pact. Indeed, Ukrainian negotiators have spoken of a “rigid agreement with a number of guarantor states undertaking clear legal obligations to actively prevent attacks.” Nor is it clear whether or not Russia would be part of these guarantees, and it’s equally easy to see how both Moscow’s inclusion and exclusion from them would create problems.
In short, the United States and a number of its NATO allies need to decide if they’re willing to give Ukraine the sort of security guarantees it desires as part of a negotiated settlement to the current conflict. Kyiv has already spoken of Turkey as a potential guarantor of Ukraine’s security, but for these guarantees to be credible against threats from Moscow they’d probably have to involve at least one nuclear-armed NATO member nation. Whether that’s Great Britain, France, or the United States – or all three countries – should be worked out ahead of time and in coordination with the Ukrainian government.
Such guarantees will be easier to give if Russia pulls back to its 2014 borders as part of a negotiated settlement. But if Kyiv continues to hold off the Russian military and starts smashing it piece by piece, there’s not likely to be a durable agreement if Ukraine does not receive some sort of solid assurance against future Russian aggression.
2. What becomes of U.S. and allied sanctions against Russia? As Secretary of State Blinken noted, the United States and its allies will lift many sanctions against Russia if Moscow pulls its military out of Ukraine in an “irreversible” fashion. At the same time, however, it’s clear that not all sanctions and other economic measures against Russia will be lifted even if there’s a negotiated settlement that sees the Russian military leave Ukraine.
Controls on so-called dual-use exports that can serve both civilian and military ends will likely remain in place, at least for some important sectors like aerospace and possibly semiconductors. Likewise, sanctions against Russia’s oligarchs will likely stay put. The general effort to disentangle the United States and its allies from Putin’s economy will continue even after the current conflict ends. Accordingly, the United States and its allies around the world need to be clear in their own minds as to what sanctions will remain in place and why they will do so.
Coordination with allies in Asia as well Europe will be vital; Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, for instance, all cut off semiconductor exports to Russia in the wake of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Should these restrictions remain in place even after a negotiated settlement? That’s an open question, and discussions on the future of these export controls should begin now. Likewise, the United States and European Union should start cooperating on the EU’s plans to wean itself off Russian energy if they haven’t begun yet. Germany has already cut a deal with leading gas producer Qatar, but debates continue within the EU itself over how fast it can or should reduce its imports of Russian oil and gas.
Then there’s the question of accountability for the crimes against humanity Putin has been committing in Ukraine. Making war crimes prosecutions a part of a negotiated settlement would only serve to scuttle it, but personal sanctions on Putin and his cronies should remain in place until there’s some accountability for their actions in Ukraine or, more likely, indefinitely. The United States and European Union should also explore new mechanisms to bring Russian war crimes perpetrators to justice. Germany, for instance, has put Assad regime officials on trial for crimes against humanity under the principle of universal jurisdiction; the European Union and United States could assemble and publicize the evidence for war crimes cases against Russian military units and leaders - effectively serving notice that Russians suspected of war crimes could be arrested and prosecuted if they travel overseas.
3. What role the United States and its allies play in rebuilding Ukraine? There’s already been talk of a “Marshall Plan” for Ukraine once its war with Russia ends. Though well-intentioned, these calls are typically vague and mainly express a laudable desire to help Ukraine rebuild. And there will be much to rebuild – the International Monetary Fund recently projected that Ukraine’s gross domestic product could drop by at least ten percent this year thanks to the Russian invasion. That ten percent drop includes the physical destruction of Ukrainian schools, hospitals, and apartment blocks by Russian missiles, bombs, and artillery that we’re seeing on our screens every day. On top of these reconstruction costs, moreover there will be the cost of resettling Ukrainian refugees at the conclusion of the conflict.
To put the scale and scope of the likely reconstruction and relief effort in perspective, the United States alone spent over $35 billion in non-military reconstruction and relief programs in Iraq from 2003 to 2011. Any effort to rebuild Ukraine will undoubtedly require more money given the country’s larger size and the scope of the damage done by Russia in just a few short weeks.
Rebuilding Ukraine will need to be an international effort, but the United States can play a critical role kickstarting the work. Congress, for instance, could formulate and pass a Ukraine reconstruction and relief fund. The Biden administration could use this money as a down-payment for a wider international reconstruction, relief, and resettlement fund. Here, the European Union has already announced its intent to create what it will call a “Ukraine Solidarity Trust Fund” to help the country rebuild. For its part, the United States could play an important role in bringing other allies like Japan and South Korea into the reconstruction fold. But it should strenuously avoid the all-inclusive international donor conferences that have yielded so little for so many humanitarian crises in recent years.
Getting Ukraine’s agricultural industry up and going again once the war with Russia ends should be a priority for reconstruction and relief funds. Global food prices are already on the rise and further shortfalls in Ukrainian grain production could prove disastrous for many nations dependent on Ukrainian agriculture to feed their own populations. While there are some domestic policy changes the United States and EU can make to alleviate the problem – most notably permanently or temporarily reducing our own agricultural subsidies – reviving Ukrainian agricultural production should remain the American and European policy focus here.
Finally, the United States and its allies – particularly in Europe – need to learn the right lessons from the reconstruction and relief experiences of the last two decades. Ukraine isn’t Iraq or Afghanistan, the two most recent U.S. and European attempts at reconstruction and nation-building. At first glance, reconstruction in Ukraine seems like it will mostly involve rebuilding things Russia knocked down or blew up. Moreover, Ukrainians will likely prove as motivated to rebuild their country as the have been to fight for it. But these differences shouldn’t breed complacency about the difficulties inherent in the task at hand, either.
Ultimately, however, there’s no reason for the United States and its allies to give Putin at the negotiating table what he can’t win on the battlefield. They should resist calls to force a compromise on Ukraine that favors Russia in the name of building an “off ramp” for a brutal and untrustworthy autocrat who’s shown no interest in taking one. At minimum, the United States and its allies should make clear that they expect any negotiated settlement to the war to include the full and complete complete evacuation of Russian forces from positions seized since the start of the war as well as the verifiable demobilization of those forces once they leave Ukraine.
It's important to recognize that we’re still a long way away from Putin realizing that he cannot achieve his political and military objectives in Ukraine. In the meantime, we should expect Putin to escalate rather than negotiate an end to his war on terms acceptable to Ukraine or the United States and its allies. Still, the United States needs to start thinking about what a Ukrainian victory and negotiated settlement look like and what we and our allies should do to make sure it happens.