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Winning the Peace in Ukraine
Why security guarantees and NATO membership for Kyiv represent the sole avenue for stability and security in Europe after the fighting stops
Over the past year, much of America’s political and policy debate on the war in Ukraine has focused on what weapons we’ll supply to Kyiv, how quickly we’ll get them there, and in what quantities. But the United States not only needs to give Ukraine the tools to beat back Russia’s brutal invasion – we need to start thinking about what a truly stable peace might look like if and when the fighting stops.
That’s not the same as pressing for immediate negotiations between Ukraine and a Putin regime in Moscow still bent on conquest, much less accepting some sort of cease-fire in place. The former would be futile at best given the current battlefield situation, and the latter would only allow Putin to regroup before relaunching hostilities. Virtually all past experience — in Syria and elsewhere — suggests the Kremlin does not see diplomatic talks, negotiated cease-fires, or even formal nuclear arms control treaties as more than temporary expedients to be discarded once they have outlived their tactical usefulness.
Nor should the United States and its allies expect Kyiv to sit down with a regime that denies its very right to exist as a sovereign and independent nation, one that by every indication remains determined as ever to wipe Ukraine off the map. For Ukrainians, this war is genuinely existential — a reality reinforced by every mass grave unearthed in newly-liberated territory and every Russian missile strike against residential apartment blocks. It would be strategically unwise (among other things) for any responsible Ukrainian political leader to seek anything less than full withdrawal of Russian forces from all of Ukraine occupied since 2014.
On its own, however, expelling Russian troops from Ukraine won’t win the peace.
Nor will economic reconstruction prove sufficient, important as that will be to Ukraine’s overall recovery from this unprovoked and brutal assault. Some progress has already been made organizing reconstruction efforts, with the European Union largely taking the lead. Membership in the EU itself should be seen as an important component of Ukraine’s economic recovery – even if EU leaders still refuse to fast-track Kyiv’s application. For its part, the United States should lean on the EU and its member nations to bring Ukraine in as soon as possible. American diplomatic and aid efforts should also impress on Kyiv the importance of carrying out the reforms required to join the EU as quickly as possible.
Economic reconstruction will be pointless, however, if Ukraine remains vulnerable to Russian aggression – and Ukraine will be even more vulnerable if the Kremlin remains in possession of the chunks of Ukrainian territory it’s seized since 2014. Unless the United States and its allies want what would amount to a glorified cease-fire in Ukraine, they will need to give Kyiv concrete security guarantees when the current war ends. NATO membership for Ukraine represents the best available option, but one that likely will require guarantees from NATO’s nuclear-armed members – namely, the United States, France, and the United Kingdom – in the interregnum between Kyiv’s application and its formal accession.
These guarantees in turn require a full return to Ukraine’s internationally recognized pre-2014 borders, whether through liberation or negotiation. Any diplomatic agreement to end the war should also include Moscow’s explicit recognition of Ukraine’s right to join NATO or any other security arrangement Kyiv sees fit. Mere “assurances” of Ukrainian security of the type offered in the woefully inadequate Budapest Memorandum of 1994 clearly won’t cut it, and any government in Kyiv would be foolish to rely on anything less than explicit, formal security guarantees from NATO or its nuclear-armed member states.
Indeed, these security guarantees will be the linchpin of any stable and lasting peace that emerges from the war. They will meet Ukraine’s need for insurance against future Russian aggression and deter Moscow from undertaking such aggression at the same time. For all his bluster, Putin himself has scrupulously avoided direct military confrontation with or aggression against NATO member states both before and during the current conflict. At minimum, it appears that he understands the disastrous consequences that an open fight with NATO and the United States would have for both Russia and his own regime.
It's a clarifying moment for America’s war aims in Ukraine: as the war has played out, Ukrainian victory and a formal post-war alliance with Kyiv have become the sole acceptable outcome for American interests – and the only way to ensure a stable, lasting peace results from the bloodshed. This means a defeated Russia, yes – but also a Russia that won’t be able to rampage across Europe and relaunch its war against Ukraine. It’ll also demonstrate in stark terms that naked aggression does not pay, and in fact that it yields exactly the scenario that an aggressor fears most.
Like it or not, America has committed itself to Kyiv’s cause and its ultimate victory. Over the past year, the United States and its allies have pledged advanced HIMARS and GLSDB rocket artillery, infantry fighting vehicles like the Bradley and Stryker, advanced surface-to-air missile systems like the Patriot and IRIS-T, and now a slew of modern tanks like the Leopard 2, Challenger 2, and M1 Abrams to Ukraine. There’s no turning back now.
What’s more, Ukrainian defeat or territorial compromise (save perhaps a negotiated settlement of Crimea’s status) would prove disastrous for America’s own strategic interests. We retain a vital interest in the unambiguous defeat of Putin’s aggression, yes, but equally important an aggressor nation cannot simply be rewarded with territory. That would invite instability in Europe, as the Kremlin would inevitably seek a second round with Kyiv, and court it worldwide as well.
What are the implications for the United States in the near term?
First and foremost, the United States and its allies should be clear in their own minds that the overall goal of their policy is the liberation of all of Ukraine’s pre-2014 territory. That can occur either by military means or through negotiations, but in both cases Ukraine will need to possess the capability needed to push Russian forces out. Serious diplomacy will only stand a chance once Ukraine poses a credible military threat to Russia’s position in the Donbas and Crimea; to advocate talks in the absence of such a threat is to essentially call for Russian victory that would do grave damage to American interests.
The implications for American and allied policy are clear: provide Ukraine with all the military tools it needs to win as soon as possible. That means F-16s, ATACMS long-range missiles, and other capabilities necessary to threaten Russia’s military position in Ukraine. Even if the Pentagon doesn’t think Ukraine needs them now, the United States and its allies should at least begin training Ukrainians on these weapons systems so they’ll be ready to use them when American and European policymakers inevitably change their minds.
Once the United States and its allies go all-in on military support for Ukraine, they’ll possess real diplomatic leverage with the Kremlin for perhaps the first time in the conflict. Backing Kyiv to the hilt will send an unmistakable and incredibly important signal to Putin that the United States and its allies are committed to Ukraine irreversibly and for the long haul. Russia cannot win in Ukraine, and it would be better for Putin to negotiate a graceful exit from Ukraine if he wishes to avoid utter humiliation. Right now, however, the Kremlin still thinks Russia can outlast the United States and it allies – perhaps hoping Republicans in Congress will dial back military aid to Ukraine, or anticipating upcoming elections put pro-Putin politicians in charge of NATO nations. It’s up to the United States and its allies to prove Putin dead wrong.
Finally, the groundwork for Ukraine’s eventual NATO membership and interim security guarantees needs to start being laid both domestically and in Europe. That already appears to be happening somewhat organically, with figures ranging from the newly elected president of Czechia to the previously opposed former secretary of state Henry Kissinger endorsing Ukrainian membership in the alliance.
It would be wrong to assume that Ukrainian NATO membership – or even interim security guarantees from the United States, France, and UK – would proceed as smoothly as the recent accession of Sweden and Finland. Long-standing political divisions within NATO that came to light during the Leopard tank affair will likely re-emerge if and when the alliance considers potential Ukrainian membership. The Kremlin’s propaganda machine will undoubtedly go into overdrive and raise the specter of nuclear war, aided and abetted by self-declared realists in the United States and Europe who still insist that Russia’s drive for empire must be accommodated.
In reality, security guarantees and NATO membership for Ukraine represent a long-term investment in stability and security for Europe. The United States and its allies can win the peace by making Ukraine an unappealing and unappetizing target for future Russian aggression and imperial aggrandizement. As Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin noted this past January, Russia would not have invaded Ukraine in 2014 or 2022 had Kyiv already been a member of NATO.
For two decades, Putin’s Russia has sown death and destruction around the world while doing its best to tear down democracies – including the United States. Ukrainian victory against Russia and membership in NATO represent the best chance the United States and its allies have had to defang Putin and deter Russian adventurism in a long while. It wouldn’t just remove an acute threat to European security and American interests, it’d also protect the fledgling democracy taking root in Ukraine and enhance America’s own strategic position worldwide.
It’s an opportunity we can’t afford to lose.