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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Two Years On: What is the Path Forward in Ukraine?

It is a given that there will be negotiations; the question is when, and at what cost.

 

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Credit: Ministry of Defense Ukraine

This is an edited and abridged transcription of Kelly Beaucar Vlahos, Anatol Lieven, Michael Kimmage, and George Beebe’s remarks during a Quincy Institute event on February 21, 2024.

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos: My name is Kelley Vlahos and I am a senior advisor at the Quincy Institute and editorial director of our online magazine Responsible Statecraft. I am very honored today to be moderating this important panel event commemorating the two-year marker of the Russian invasion and ensuing war in Ukraine. We are very lucky to have with us here Quincy’s senior expert on Russia and grand strategy, Anatol Lieven, and George Beebe to talk in part about their new brief, The Diplomatic Path to Secure Ukraine, and Catholic University’s top scholar on modern U.S.–Russia relations, Michael Kimmage, will help flesh out and press them both on key assertions and their brand new paper. Moreover, our scholars will talk about the existing points of tension in the debate over the Ukraine war today. Is Russia winning? Is it an ongoing threat to Ukraine’s neighbors? Are the two sides ready to talk? Has the West discouraged talks and therefore encouraged Kiev to fight a war it ultimately can’t win? Most importantly, what will Europe's security landscape look like after the war? How will Russia fit into that matrix? Is it ready to negotiate and who ultimately will decide where all the pieces fit?

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So Anatol, I’d like to start with you. Can you talk a little bit about recent events on the ground, including the fall of the eastern city of Avdiivka, and how you do not see, as detailed in your paper, a clear way through for Ukraine other than at the negotiating table? 

Lieven: Well, the fundamental reality is that Russia has more than four times Ukraine’s population, especially since so many Ukrainians fled the country. And, even before the war, it had 14 times Ukraine’s GDP, and the Russian economy has now been largely reconfigured. Ukraine has also, of course, the state itself, with a very large amount of Western military and economic aid; it is, in fact, wholly dependent…. This aid cannot be guaranteed, in the long run, however much one might wish this were true. I mean, if you look at what’s happening in the U.S. Congress, if you look at public opinion polls in Europe, nobody can credibly make this promise for years and years to come. And we’ll have to sustain Ukraine for years and years to come if this war continues. 

Although we have given Ukraine weapons, we have not been able to give them as yet nearly enough munitions shelves to sustain their fight. Russia is firing vastly greater [amounts of] ammunition on the battlefield than Ukraine. But above all, what we cannot do, unless we send our own troops to Ukraine (which every Western government has promised not to do), we cannot give Ukraine more troops, more soldiers to use those weapons. 

Vlahos: So, Michael, at the end of January, which was not very long ago, Victoria Nuland and James O’Brien, the Acting Deputy Secretary of State and Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, respectfully, traveled to Kiev. Upon their departure, Nuland said, “I leave Kiev tonight more encouraged about the unity and the result about 2024 and its absolute strategic importance for Ukraine. I also leave more confident that,” she continued, “as Ukraine strengthens its defenses, Mr. Putin is going to be in for some nice surprises on the battlefield, and Ukraine will make some very strong success.” Meanwhile, at a talk at the German Marshall Fund recently, O’Brien expressed his optimism about the future for Ukraine, saying “We believe Ukraine will be stronger by the end of 2024, and in a better position to determine its future.” So these are two top officials representing the United States government and Ukraine and in Europe: What do you make about their comments? Can there be some truth to the Ukrainian army turning things around? 

Kimmage: I will offer two qualifications at the moment, and we can revisit them later if George and Anatol wish, and one is the naval side of the war, which is a very, very surprising series of developments, because Ukraine’s Navy was, putting it politely, modest in 2022. And it remains modest. But you’ve seen some pretty substantial Ukrainian victories over the last couple of months in the Black Sea that enabled Ukraine to export more of its grain than it was able to a year ago. And in some respects, this is not just a headache for Russia, it’s been something of a strategic setback that Crimea is becoming less and less of a viable military asset for Russia. It’s a territorial war, in most of its respects, but that does tell the narrative in a somewhat different direction. 

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The second point, and I think this is maybe more of a philosophical debate about what the war is, and how any side is going to prevail. The Russian challenge, I think, could be stated as follows: that after two years of war with all the advantages that Russia has,—larger population, larger economy, larger military—Russia occupies about 17 percent of Ukrainian territory. Russia has taken the city of Mariupol—that’s the kind of biggest urban victory that Russia has had, although the city is devastated—but Russia has not been able to hold them. And not to mention Odessa, Lvia, these are all, I think, substantially out of reach for Russia, and urban warfare is unbelievably costly. So I don’t see how Russia wins the war unless they can get the cities, because without having the cities, you can’t really change the political calculus of the war. 

None of that points to Ukrainian victory. But none of it points to stalemate, either. 

Vlahos: You correctly note the disparity between Russian and Ukrainian economic and military power, especially in the troop imbalance. But if Western will were strengthened, wouldn’t the addition of Western economic and military resources to the Ukraine side of the ledger result in a situational change, if not dramatically? What would you say if Congress decides to unleash more aid, billions of new dollars, in fact—would it not help Ukraine? Would it infuse the resources it needs? Or is it too late? 

Lieven: I don’t think it’s too late. And obviously, by the way, you know, George and I support continued aid to Ukraine. We just argue that it must be linked to a negotiating strategy. The question is, can any aid that the West can actually get sustain Ukraine in the long run, given this imbalance? And if not, and if this Western aid cannot be guaranteed in the long run, then why not negotiate now, if Ukraine is likely to be in a worse position, a weaker position, to negotiate a year or two years down the line? Now, obviously not to accept defeat in Ukraine, that’s a completely different issue. But to give up, which, by the way, it may already have done, the much more extensive ambitions with which Putin began the war. 

Vlahos: George, I’m going to go to you and to the paper. In your new brief, you say, “Although Ukraine’s position in the war is eroding over time, both Ukraine and the West still retain leverage in attempting to advance their interests. The threat of deeper American military involvement in Ukraine—either by intervening more directly in the fighting or by providing more advanced weapons to Kiev—is something that Moscow clearly wants to preclude. Making clear to the Kremlin that Washington might have no alternative to such involvement absent a settlement would serve as a powerful incentive for Russian compromise.” So can you talk a little bit about how we would get to this place? 

Beebe: What this invasion has done is it’s greatly deepened Russia’s dependence on China. And although Russia is willing to live with that situation in the short term, in the long term, the prospect of a permanent junior partnership to China is not one that’s particularly attractive to Russia. So, these are all incentives to try to find some sort of understanding with the West that accommodates Russia’s security concerns, and gives it the kind of role in the world that I think they’re seeking. Now, one obstacle to that is that the Russians right now deeply doubt that the United States and West are actually willing to engage with Russia, in that kind of discussion. 

Now, the Russians right now say they’re willing to talk. Why are they willing to talk? In part because they think they’re winning. They think they have an advantage right now. They have more cards in their hand; therefore, they’re in a position where they can talk. Are they willing to talk about compromise? Not yet. But getting them to the table, I think, is probably less of a problem under the current circumstances than it was when they were at a disadvantage on the battlefield. The real question is, is the United States confident enough to engage with the Russians out of these circumstances?

Lieven: If I could just add, Biden officials, administration officials, have said often that the U.S. goal is just to strengthen Ukraine at the eventual negotiating table, which implies at some stage of negotiations. Well, if we are correct, and actually Ukraine’s hand at the negotiating table is now actually weakened, that does strongly suggest that, you know, the earlier we start talking, the better.

Vlahos: Michael, what do you make of Putin’s more recent comments where he says Russia is open to talk? I think he made these comments during the Tucker Carlson interview. I mean, is this some gaslighting going on? Or, I mean, is it a signal for Washington? 

Kimmage: Well, not entirely. I mean, I think going back to 2014, when the U.S., you know, as one of its responses to the annexation of Crimea, proposed the diplomatic isolation of Russia. And then you have sort of sanctions and that effort to isolate Russia, kicking it out of the G8 at the beginning of the 2014 war, that effort at isolating Russia has been much more forthright, from 2022 to the present. And, you know, the climate here is certainly not one that favors any kind of contact, not to mention, negotiations and serious discussions, even contact with Russians is often problematic at this point. So that’s more of, I think, a Western problem than a Russian problem to that degree. So not entirely gaslighting, but definitely not something that I would take at face value.

Beebe: Yeah, I think Michael has raised some excellent points. He himself says we’ve sort of rhetorically painted ourselves into a corner on this, and we have to find some elegant way out of it. But he acknowledges that there are those ways you can fudge some of these things when you need to. 

Ukraine still has very urgent, very real security needs that have to be addressed. But what that does is it says, what it forces us to contend with a different question: How can we address Ukraine’s quite real security needs through some other mechanism than a military alliance, either multilateral through NATO or bilateral through the United States or Germany or Britain, etc. NATO membership is not the only way toward that. And I do think when you look at, for example, the kinds of mechanisms that we used during the Cold War to try to mitigate the dangers of escalation of NATO–Warsaw Pact confrontation, for example, their ideas there that worked fairly well during that time, that can be adapted to the circumstances we're facing today. Are they, you know, rock solid guarantees that there’s not going to be a war? No, but seldom does life offer, you know, that kind of guarantee. These are steps that could mitigate the dangers of another invasion by Russia that would not have advanced warning, things that would incentivize Russia to act in its own interests, and in so doing, assure that Ukraine is not subject to repeat invasions. So we need to do more to explore those. 

Vlahos: As recently as the Munich Security Conference, President Zelensky has been insistent that Russia will fortify and be able to attack other European countries within five years if the West has not replenished weapons and continued aid to the war. This claim has not been dispelled by world leaders, including Biden, who up until recently has also warned that not giving aid might result in Putin rampaging to other capitals, and also, possibly a direct U.S. conflict or involvement in the war involving U.S. troops. After nearly two years of war, do you think the Russians have the willingness and capability for such gambits today?

Beebe: Russia does not does not pose a realistic threat to invade NATO or a NATO country. But do they pose a threat to Western coherence and unity? Absolutely. Yes, they do. Now, what do we do about that? That’s a different question. And I would argue that the West needs to get its own act together. It needs to focus on its own strength, resilience, prosperity, and confidence. As it does, it will be less susceptible to this kind of threat from the Russians. 

Lieven: I think the other point to be made is that our countries were not created to serve NATO; NATO was created by our countries to defend us against a Soviet attack. If there isn’t going to be a Soviet attack, then, you know, we shouldn’t simply shape our futures by the need to maintain the unity of NATO. I think NATO should continue. But it isn’t a goal in itself, it is a servant of our national interest. 

Kimmage: I think, if one wants to be empathetic at all to this line of argument, it would be in the following terms. I think I agree with Anatol that this is a way of mobilizing public opinion for policy positions that have little to do with a Russian invasion of NATO and everything to do with supporting Ukraine. So that’s, you know, usual politics of the early Cold War. 

Vlahos: How much does the upcoming U.S. presidential election have Washington’s willingness to sit down and talk or not? Are you concerned, as observers of the U.S., Russia, Ukraine, that the election itself is going to impose some sort of timeline on when the Biden administration wants to sit down? 

Kimmage: I don’t think that it is going to have too much of an effect. You know, I don’t know how self-confident the Biden team is about Biden getting reelected. That’s very, very hard for me to judge, but if they’re competent at their jobs, and I think they are, they shouldn’t allow domestic political timelines of this kind to get too much in the way of their basic aspirations. 

Beebe: Well, I agree with Michael that domestic political electoral considerations should not drive U.S. policy here, but I do think they are a significant factor. It nonetheless seems to me that the White House wants to put this war on hold until after November. They don’t want that news on the battlefield, they’d like to see the situation sort of frozen in place. And they’re sort of crossing their fingers that they can make it through this period without catastrophic news coming out of Ukraine. Congress is not playing along with that. Right now, the House of Representatives is at this point, not willing to provide the kind of aid to Ukraine that would facilitate that Biden strategy. And as a result, I think we could wind up in the worst of all worlds: we could be in a situation where the Biden administration has failed to put, you know, the Ukrainian war on hold, we have to deal with the catastrophe sooner rather than later in the context of a very consequential presidential election, which, you know, tends not to facilitate calm, rational, sane approaches to things. So I’m very concerned about this interesting intersection of domestic politics and foreign policy in this case. 

Lieven: We have to hope that the Biden administration is right, but I wouldn’t bet on it.