The war for Ukraine is now four weeks old and its initial results have taken most by surprise.
Russia, which was thought to have had a competent military prior to the conflict, has been remarkably inept in its war plans. It has so far suffered 7,000 deaths, which is probably an undercount, and lost millions of dollars in equipment in its botched invasion.
Another unexpected surprise was how capable Ukraine has been of defending itself. Many expected that Russia would be in Kyiv by now, and not stuck in a stalemate with most major cities still free from Russian control.
But while such surprises appear to be good news, the situation in Ukraine is unfortunately about to get far more violent. The decision to invade was largely Putin’s call, which means he now owns the outcome. He took a remarkable gamble in Ukraine, and by nearly all accounts it has not paid off. Instead of being welcomed as liberators, he now finds himself in the middle of a potential quagmire with a sinking economy at home. If he were to bring his military home with no policy wins, he would lose all legitimacy among the Russian people and quite possibly his seat in power.
This means that before admitting defeat, Putin will first attempt to terrorize the civilian population into submission.
This strategy is not new, as Russia used it in Syria and Chechnya once its military got bogged down there. And as demonstrated in those conflicts, Russia has little qualms committing war crimes if it is the only way it can continue making progress on its war objectives.
Unfortunately, America has been notably absent in the diplomatic ongoings of the conflict, with most negotiations being conducted between Ukraine and Russia themselves. Rather than seek a negotiated peace, America has pursued a hard line, seeking to bury the Russian economy under an unprecedented set of sanctions as well as support Ukraine with billions of military aid.
As explained by Secretary of State Blinken, America expects “a strategic defeat” of Putin and Russia, despite any “short-term tactical gains it may make in Ukraine.” The administration will pursue this goal by “remaining united in holding Russia accountable through the devastating sanctions, the diplomatic isolation and other measures.” He also mentioned that “…we’ve already seen that Russia’s failed at its chief objectives. It’s not been able to hold Ukraine. It’s not going to be able to hold Ukraine in the long term — again, no matter what the tactical victories it may achieve are.”
Such an approach is entirely wrong. It may be true that Russia lacks the resources to control Ukraine for the long term, but it does have enough to do a tremendous amount of damage in the short term.
Instead of escalating the conflict, America should be making every sensible attempt to find a diplomatic off-ramp to the crisis.
The good news is that it appears there is one. What Putin wants in return for a cessation of hostilities is simple and was recently laid out by Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
One demand is that Ukraine makes credible commitments that its geopolitical orientation remain neutral. This is arguably the most important issue that Russia has with Ukraine and is what motivated the invasion in the first place.
The other Russian demand is on the status of those territories that Russia captured in 2014. This means that Russia wants sovereignty over Crimea and for Donetsk and Lugansk to become independent republics.
These demands should be supported by America, if not openly welcomed. They are minor compromises that have the potential to avoid a great deal of human suffering. America can certainly live with a neutral Ukraine considering it did so for 30 years with no issues. And while it may be unpleasant for America to help facilitate the transfer of former Ukrainian territories, the truth is that they are already under Russian control any way and America would be merely recognizing the reality on the ground.
The bottom line is that America has no security interests in Ukraine, but only humanitarian ones. This means that it should not seek a victory over Russia but an end to the hostilities in Ukraine. So instead of sending more military aid which will only inflame the conflict, America should pursue a diplomatic solution, and help facilitate a negotiated peace based on Russia’s stated demands.
Brian Clark is a foreign policy analyst with a research interest in American grand strategy. His work has been published in The National Interest and The American Conservative.