It's Debatable

Intervention or Restraint? A Washington debate on pressing issues for policymakers.

Would a Peace Deal Between Russia and Ukraine Do More Harm Than Good?

While a serious negotiated settlement could end Ukrainians’ suffering, a premature peace deal could be the worst possible outcome for Kyiv.

By , a senior fellow with the Reimagining U.S. Grand Strategy program at the Stimson Center, and , deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
French deputies and senators applaud during a videoconference with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (on screen) at the Assemblée Nationale in Paris, on March 23.
French deputies and senators applaud during a videoconference with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (on screen) at the Assemblée Nationale in Paris, on March 23.
French deputies and senators applaud during a videoconference with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (on screen) at the Assemblée Nationale in Paris, on March 23. EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP via Getty Images
It's Debatable

Matthew Kroenig: Hi, Emma! Spring has finally arrived in Washington. The weather has been beautiful, but it is hard to enjoy given the real tragedy unfolding in Europe. What do you make of the latest?

Emma Ashford: Hey, Matt, glad you’re getting to enjoy the spring weather. Of course, spring in Washington also means a return to incessant struggle with tree pollen and the omnipresent threat of slow-moving tourist groups!

But like most folks in Washington, I’ve spent much of my time these last few weeks following the progress of the war in Ukraine. We’re entering the fifth week of the war and are starting to see clearer signs of how this initial phase of the conflict will conclude. Russian forces have made significant gains in the south and east of Ukraine, but they are struggling to cement those gains and firm up their control over the areas they are currently occupying. One notable example is the key city of Mariupol: Despite having completely destroyed it and having created a devastating humanitarian crisis, the Russians have still not fully captured the city.

Matthew Kroenig: Hi, Emma! Spring has finally arrived in Washington. The weather has been beautiful, but it is hard to enjoy given the real tragedy unfolding in Europe. What do you make of the latest?

Emma Ashford: Hey, Matt, glad you’re getting to enjoy the spring weather. Of course, spring in Washington also means a return to incessant struggle with tree pollen and the omnipresent threat of slow-moving tourist groups!

But like most folks in Washington, I’ve spent much of my time these last few weeks following the progress of the war in Ukraine. We’re entering the fifth week of the war and are starting to see clearer signs of how this initial phase of the conflict will conclude. Russian forces have made significant gains in the south and east of Ukraine, but they are struggling to cement those gains and firm up their control over the areas they are currently occupying. One notable example is the key city of Mariupol: Despite having completely destroyed it and having created a devastating humanitarian crisis, the Russians have still not fully captured the city.

Elsewhere, the large-scale Russian push to surround Kyiv appears to be either stalled or in a period of consolidation as Russian forces hold positions to try to improve their supply lines and fortify their existing gains. There is even some evidence that Ukrainian forces might be retaking territory in areas like Irpin, north of Kyiv. But as always in these cases, the fog of war is thick. The best we can really conclude is that we’re probably entering the terminal stages of the opening of this war and are likely to see at least a short pause in operations in the near future. Having failed in their original goal of fighting a quick, decisive war in their initial push, the Russians are then liable to resume with a more brutal, grinding campaign.

What have you been watching most closely?

MK: As Vladimir Putin’s advance stalled, he has turned to intentional targeting of civilians. Joe Biden called Putin a “war criminal,” and Moscow has threatened that formal diplomatic relations are on the “verge of rupture” as both sides expelled diplomats.

EA: But we should be clear, I think, how bad an idea that would be. The United States has had continuous diplomatic relations and communications channels with Russia since it first formalized relations with the Soviet Union in 1933. Since the advent of nuclear weapons, both sides have consistently acknowledged how important it is to keep those lines of communication open, particularly in times of crisis. So, while the rhetoric is heating up, we should be clear that we don’t intend to rupture diplomatic relations.

Russia’s campaign has stalled, but I don’t see any evidence that either side is seriously looking for diplomatic offramps.

MK: Who is we? The threat was from Moscow, not from Washington.

Biden is in Europe trying to rally the allies at a NATO summit. The alliance announced it will double its force presence on NATO’s eastern flank with new battlegroups going to Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia.

It has also been interesting to see how other major powers are responding. While much of the world has rallied to Ukraine’s defense, some big countries, like China, India, and South Africa, are trying to carve out a neutral position.

EA: Let’s stick with the immediate questions for now. First up, the progress of Russia’s military campaign does seem to have stalled out, whether voluntarily or involuntarily. The Russians are still gaining some ground in the south, but slowly, and elsewhere mostly seem to be focused on rebuilding supply lines, encircling cities, and relying on long-distance artillery. The Russians have also apparently suffered a substantial death toll. Estimates vary, but NATO officials say that the Russians have lost between 7,000 and 15,000 troops, roughly 5 to 10 percent of their overall numbers in Ukraine. The impact on Russian morale cannot be overstated, and it’s not clear to me that they can make further advances on the ground without some regrouping and resolving some of the problems that have plagued them so far in the conflict.

For obvious reasons, we know far less about the status of Ukrainian forces. They appear to be holding well around the major cities and have enjoyed some big, splashy successes—such as a successful and fiery strike on a Russian landing ship in Berdyansk this week. But we do know that the conflict is hitting Ukrainian civilians hard. The Russians are not using precision-guided weapons and are instead mostly engaged in indiscriminate bombardment using missiles and artillery. The results have been horrific.

MK: Russia’s campaign has stalled, but I don’t see any evidence that either side is seriously looking for diplomatic offramps. Instead of backing off when his initial plan failed, Putin has been doubling down. I suspect he will continue to try to break the stalemate through sheer numbers and attrition. At the same time, the Ukrainians have been surprised by their initial successes and will continue to press the fight. They have even apparently retaken some ground from the Russians, including the town of Makariv to the west of Kyiv, according to some reports. The battle lines are unlikely to move significantly in the coming days, but it won’t be for lack of trying.

EA: Unfortunately, a more static conflict is not necessarily a conflict that’s better for Ukraine. Indeed, though the Ukrainians have done an amazing job so far in resisting the Russian advance—far better than anyone might have predicted—a longer, grinding campaign will be bloodier. So, despite what you’re saying about neither side seriously looking for offramps, I do see the start of a move from both Kyiv and Moscow to think about ways this conflict might be resolved. Indeed, when you think about the ways that this war might be resolved (e.g., Russian victory, negotiated settlement, regime collapse in Moscow), that negotiated settlement is probably the most likely and least bad option of the bunch.

MK: A rapid deal is not necessarily what is best for all parties. Volodymyr Zelensky does not want to give Moscow concessions that were unacceptable to him before the war began. NATO’s goal is to ensure that this war results in a major strategic defeat for Putin and that the West emerges from this crisis in a stronger position. No one wants to reward Putin’s aggression.

EA: Look, it’s not going to be easy. Any peace treaty will necessarily reward Russia in some sense. But that is the nature of war: Battlefield gains dictate the eventual political concessions. There has been some Ukrainian movement on the question of neutrality, a core Russian demand, but less on the question of territorial concessions, which is probably a must for the Russians. On the Russian side, we’ve seen some indications that Moscow is no longer pushing for regime change in Kyiv (i.e., the ridiculous demand for “de-Nazification”), but that’s about it. The two sides are still far apart, and a deal isn’t likely to come soon. I’m just saying that it might be better for all parties if it did.

MK: An early peace deal might be the worst possible outcome. The world will quickly focus its attention elsewhere, thinking the problem has been solved. Putin will renege on the deal (as he usually does) and resume the war against Ukraine. Zelensky will lose public support after caving to Putin and could be removed from office. And Putin will get his desired regime change the easy way.

I think the West should and will, therefore, continue to try harder before it accepts a bad deal. And there is still hope. We have seen other intractable military stalemates (like the Western Front in World War I Europe) eventually result in lopsided victories.

What about Biden’s trip and the future of European security? I am sure we agree that European security will fundamentally change after this war. Ukraine will not be the same. There will be a different NATO, a different European Union, a different Russia, etc. But I suspect we disagree about what that all should look like.

EA: At least you’re not arguing that Biden should go to Kyiv to make a point like some folks are doing. It takes an impressive lack of common sense to suggest that the benefits of Biden giving a speech from the war zone would outweigh the extreme risks of sending him into that situation in the first place!

Biden must make the case that even as the United States is bolstering NATO directly today, it’s time for Europe to step up with a robust military capability.

Biden’s trip to Belgium and Poland is the perfect opportunity for him to show not only how committed his administration is to European security today, but also that they are thinking about how to shape the European security environment for the future. I’d like to see Biden publicly push U.S. support for homegrown European defense capabilities, promise that the United States will facilitate the growth of a more robust European military capability, and commit to not standing in the way of that development the way the United States has all too often done.

If you go back to the 1990s, for example, you can find the late Madeleine Albright, Bill Clinton’s secretary of state, explicitly expressing opposition in speeches to a common European security and defense policy, demanding that it not duplicate or diminish NATO’s role. Nicholas Burns, George W. Bush’s ambassador to NATO, once described an independent European military capacity as “one of the greatest dangers to the trans-Atlantic relationship.” Former National Security Advisor John Bolton once described the NATO Rapid Reaction Force as a “dagger pointed at NATO’s heart”!

Times have changed. Biden must make the case that even as the United States is bolstering NATO directly today, it’s time for Europe to step up with a robust military capability.

MK: The United States has stood in the way of Europe developing military capabilities? Almost every president from Dwight Eisenhower to Donald Trump complained that the Europeans should do more for their own defense. It has been great to see Germany, Poland, and Romania all pledge to increase defense spending in recent weeks. I agree that Biden should encourage this trend; Washington should also continue to lead the coordination of a new and more robust NATO defense posture in Eastern Europe.

But the way you put it makes it sound like you are saying that Washington should abandon the continent and let Europe do it on its own. That would be a mistake.

EA: There are 100,000 U.S. troops on the ground in Europe right now, give or take. That’s hardly abandonment! But they shouldn’t stay there forever. The United States needs to focus on Asia, and European states are more than capable of filling the gaps in Europe. The trick for the Biden administration is not to repeat the mistakes of its predecessors, which—as you point out— repeatedly called for greater European commitments to NATO, while simultaneously complaining about any steps in that direction and avoiding discussions of burden-shifting.

If Ukraine can hold its own against a poorly prepared Russian military, then its richer, better-armed NATO neighbors should be able to do so, too. 

I believe Biden should make a public commitment to help strengthen European defense capabilities over a period of a decade or so and transition both the primary responsibility for European defense and leadership responsibility to these states. Think of it like a division of labor. The United States can’t be everywhere at once; this conflict has highlighted not only that the Russian threat still exists but also that it is manageable for NATO’s European members. After all, if Ukraine can hold its own against a poorly prepared Russian military, then its richer, better-armed NATO neighbors should be able to do so, too.

MK: OK. Let me make sure I understand. So, 100,000 U.S. troops in Europe is too many, because the United States needs to focus on Asia. Where do you propose stationing those 100,000 (mostly U.S. Army) troops in Asia?

EA: You know as well as I do that it isn’t the troops that are the issue. It’s all the supporting technology, air assets, logistics, and the resources required to keep them there and ready to fight. It’s the budgetary costs of a potential permanent increase in U.S. military presence in Eastern Europe. No one is suggesting that it’s a direct trade-off of deployments. But it is nonetheless a trade-off, in that the U.S. military budget—and available capabilities—are not limitless.

Well, unless you think the United States is capable of fighting Russia, China, and Iran all at the same time? Oh, I forgot, you actually do think that!

MK: I agree a division of labor is necessary, which is why the U.S. Army should remain in Europe. There is no place to put a large army in the Indo-Pacific, which is primarily a theater for air and naval combat. European allies should do more, but NATO needs a leader. European allies should take on more responsibility alongside, not instead of, an active and engaged United States.

EA: OK. But it’s relevant in terms of the broader U.S. global position, too. It seems to me that the Ukraine crisis is also highlighting that the U.S. position in Asia might not be as strong as we had been led to believe. Yes, Japan and South Korea joined the U.S. sanctions, but what has been notable is the extent to which other Asian states, particularly India, are sitting on the fence here.

Isn’t India meant to be one of the linchpins of your “Alliance of Democraciesagainst China and Russia? Why is one member of your new freedom-loving alliance coddling Moscow and setting up a ruble-rupee exchange mechanism to evade sanctions? India’s historical nonalignment can only take it so far. If it’s going to be a reliable partner for the United States, should it really be tilting toward Russia during one of the most consequential periods in recent history?

If Narendra Modi wants the free world to rally to his side in the event of a major war with China, it would be smart for him to support Ukraine now.

MK: The big geopolitical takeaway from this war is the exact opposite. The United States and its democratic allies are much stronger and more united, and the autocrats (at least Putin’s Russia) much weaker than anyone understood before the war. The democratic world is rallying together to support Ukraine against Russia. South Korea’s new conservative administration is talking about breaking from its past hedging strategy and joining the Quad (we might need to rename it the Quint!) alliance against China. Some authors are even writing about the emergence of a new Pax Americana.

To be sure, India’s position on this war has been puzzling. It did not condemn Russia’s invasion in the United Nations Security Council, and, instead of joining in sanctions against Russia, it is looking to profit from discounted trade with Moscow. India will still be part of an anti-China alliance for good geopolitical reason. But, with its self-serving and amoral approach to the war in Ukraine, New Delhi is doing much damage to its reputation in the democratic world. If Narendra Modi wants the free world to rally to his side in the event of a major war with China, it would be smart for him to support Ukraine now.

EA: There’s two ways to look at this. One is—as you say—that the United States and its European allies are unexpectedly strong and unified. I think that’s true. But the other way to look at it is that the United States and its European allies are also a relatively small proportion of the world. There are 7 billion people on this planet; only about 1 billion of them live in countries that have sanctioned Russia. The BRICS ambassadors went ahead with this week’s meeting, including the Russians. Maybe not a surprise from a right-wing populist leader with authoritarian tendencies like Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, but South Africa and India are among the world’s most populous democracies.

So, while the outsized strength of Western economies permits them to engage in extremely effective economic measures against Russia, it’s important to remember that a sizable fraction of the world isn’t backing the Western position. Just like India, they’re taking a wait-and-see approach or trying to benefit where they can. And I’m not sure that India’s government cares all that much about its reputation.

It’s not just the democracy thing. Even for me, as a realist, the Indian position seems remarkably short-sighted. Whether it’s being driven by narrow economic self-interest, concerns about weapons shipments, or just by nostalgic historical ties to Russia, India is ignoring the ways in which this may end up strengthening China in the long run.

But even if it’s short-sighted, we forget at our peril that not all states are keen to join Cold War-style alliance blocs.

MK: To paraphrase a quote often attributed to Leon Trotsky, they might not be interested in choosing sides in a new cold war, but a new cold war is interested in them.

Emma Ashford is a senior fellow with the Reimagining U.S. Grand Strategy program at the Stimson Center, an adjunct assistant professor at Georgetown University, and the author of Oil, the State, and War.

  Twitter: @EmmaMAshford

Matthew Kroenig is deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and a professor in the Department of Government and the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. His latest book is The Return of Great Power Rivalry: Democracy Versus Autocracy From the Ancient World to the U.S. and China. Twitter: @matthewkroenig

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