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How Can the West Realistically Help Create a Ukraine Settlement?

Russian Tu-160 bomber. Image Credit - Creative Commons.
Russian Tu-160 bomber. Image Credit - Creative Commons.

How should the West use its influence over Ukraine to bring about a negotiated settlement? In the wake of the Russian failure to seize Kyiv and unseat the Ukrainian government, the idea that the war will end in a negotiated settlement should hardly be controversial. Ukraine is unlikely to force the collapse of the Russian government, and Russia is unlikely to destroy Ukraine with nuclear weapons. Consequently, the Russian and Ukrainian governments will need to come to some kind of agreement for hostilities to cease.

War, Peace and a Settlement in Ukraine: How Will Things Turn Out? 

The useful questions about which sensible people can disagree are “what kind of settlement?” and “to what extent should the West pressure Kyiv to achieve that settlement?”

Calls for the West to end or limit weapons transfers to Ukraine essentially boil down to an argument that Ukrainian bargaining power in the conflict should be sharply reduced in order to force Kyiv to come to a negotiated settlement. These arguments would make some sense if there were any sign that Moscow was negotiating in good faith about terms that Kyiv could accept, but there is little evidence of this thus far. 

Arrangements in which Ukraine makes substantial territorial concessions, agrees to demilitarize and agrees not to pursue a Western security guarantee simply ensure that Russia can intervene whenever it likes, probably with greater success than its current endeavor. There are conceivable military situations in which it would be necessary for Ukraine to accept quasi-permanent diplomatic subjection to Moscow, but the current conditions on the battlefield do not approach such dire straits.

We can also imagine situations in which it would absolutely make sense for the West to use its leverage to exert pressure on Ukraine. If the Russian armed forces collapse (unlikely, but it’s happened before), NATO should take extreme care in supporting Ukrainian operations in Russia proper.  If Ukraine manages to encircle substantial Russian forces in the Donbas and isolate them without hope of support, the West might well want to encourage Kyiv to use such force as political and diplomatic leverage rather than follow through on their military destruction. 

If victorious Ukrainian armies begin to conduct reprisals against Russian sympathizers in Crimea or the Donbas, the West should absolutely step in to prevent atrocities. 

Finally, if a gap emerges between military realities in the field and political realities in Kyiv (for example, if the Zelensky government develops a wildly over-optimistic assessment of the military situation, or if it feels it cannot make necessary concessions for domestic political reasons), the West should take steps to bring what the militarily and politically feasible into alignment. 

More broadly, the cause of peace is not served by measures that allow the aggressor to escape the costs of aggression. Russia doesn’t get to decide on its own that it has eaten enough of Ukraine and wants to end the conflict; if Ukraine believes it can retake captured territory and inflict punishment on fielded Russian military forces, the decision to continue the campaign should depend on sound military judgment in Kyiv and the capitals of the NATO alliance. 

The problems introduced by simply allowing an aggressor to declare a ceasefire anytime it likes are so obvious that they need not be debated in any serious detail. We may reach a point at which Russian forces are so exhausted that they can no longer conduct offensive operations; this will NOT necessarily be the point at which Western military support for Ukraine should cease or even slow.    

How Will the War in Ukraine End?

The West (which in the context of this crisis has come to mean NATO, Japan, and other democratic countries in Europe and elsewhere) holds an enormous amount of leverage over the course of this conflict.  NATO countries are underwriting the Ukrainian military, to the extent that Kyiv may enjoy greater capabilities in key areas than Moscow. 

NATO countries are also deeply involved in the economic isolation of Russia, an isolation that in the long term will have devastating effects on the Russian economy. But to say that the West should use its influence in order to stop the fighting necessarily demands the question “what kind of peace?” 

Forcing Ukraine to surrender to Russian demands serves no relevant principles or judgment nor any kind of long-term anti-war position. Similarly, unconditional support of Ukraine poses dangers that may not be immediately apparent but that are readily noticeable on the horizon. \

The West should heed B.H. Liddell Hart’s injunction that “the purpose of war is to make a better peace.” We can only understand “a better peace” in reference to our values; the preservation of Ukraine and its democratic institutions, the re-opening of Ukrainian trade, the security of minority groups within Ukraine in both its occupied and unoccupied regions, the stabilization of Ukraine’s relationship with Russia, and probably a pathway to Russia’s reintegration into global society. 

The West has enormous leverage and has much at stake; it should use that leverage judiciously produce the “better peace” that it desires.

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Robert Farley is a Senior Lecturer at the Patterson School at the University of Kentucky. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020).

Written By

Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.