War is a great destroyer of audacious plans, with dreams of quick victory often turning into nightmarish quagmires. Vladimir Putin learned this harsh lesson soon after launching his criminal invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The Russian autocrat and many of his political allies expected that the attack would be a romp. Their underlying premise was that Ukraine was not a real nation, just a Western-created house of cards waiting to be blown over by a strong show of force by the Russian army.
In reality, Ukrainian nationalism proved robust. The Russian advance met fierce resistance, with Ukrainians receiving strong material and diplomatic aid from NATO countries. NATO itself started to expand, with the previously standoffish Scandinavian countries Finland and Sweden applying for membership (Finland formally joined this year).
Putin’s fantasy of a knockout punch turned into the dismal mutual bleeding of a protracted stalemate inside Ukraine. This war has started to destabilize Putin’s regime. In June, Putin had to crush the mutinous mercenaries of the Wagner Group (whose leaders died on August 23 in a convenient plane crash). The very fact that Putin has to spend time quashing a serious domestic insurrection is indicative of a war that has gone haywire.
Putin is not the only victim of hubris. Earlier this year, Ukraine supporters in the NATO countries were touting a spring counteroffensive (which didn’t actually get underway until June 2023) as a chance to deliver the coup de grâce that would finish Putin’s adventure. In early June, a Daily Telegraph correspondent predicted success: “Putin’s demoralised conscripts are utterly unprepared for the shock action now hitting their lines.” In actuality, Russian defenses have proven formidable, and the counteroffensive has led to a massive loss of Ukrainian and Russian lives. Given the fact that Russia has more than three times as many people as Ukraine, a continuing bloodbath on this scale is unsustainable for the smaller country.
Writing in the The New Statesman, Lily Lynch offered a bleak assessment of the thwarted counteroffensive:
Eighteen months into the war in Ukraine the breathless hype that characterised early media coverage has curdled into doom. This is the deepest trough of despair that the wartime media has entered yet: the past month of reporting has given us new admissions about a war that increasingly appears to be locked in bloody stalemate, along with a portrait of Ukraine and its leadership shorn of the rote glorification and hero worship of the conflict’s early days. The deadlock has increasingly resembled brutal, unabating, First World War-style combat, with the Ukrainian army rapidly depleting artillery ammunition supplied by the West.
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Evidence of this disenchantment with the counteroffensive can be found in leaked reports to major news outlets. On August 17, The Washington Post reported: “The U.S. intelligence community assesses that Ukraine’s counteroffensive will fail to reach the key southeastern city of Melitopol…a finding that, should it prove correct, would mean Kyiv won’t fulfill its principal objective of severing Russia’s land bridge to Crimea in this year’s push.”
Even those still cheering on the counteroffensive offer a dismal scenario of a war with no immediate end in sight. Writing in the Financial Times, British retired general Richard Barrons claimed that “the Russian army can be beaten. Not in 2023, but in 2024 or 2025.” Barrons is, in effect, predicting a war that could go on longer than the combat in the Korean War, which lasted from 1950 to 1953. Military men promising that we’ll soon see “the light at the end of the tunnel” are rarely reassuring—but even more disheartening are analysts like Barrons who think we should take courage from making it less than halfway through the tunnel.
The war has already taken a devastating toll on Ukraine’s environment and its population (both military and civilian). The New York Times offered a credible estimate of 70,000 killed with another 100,000 to 120,000 wounded. Amazingly, Western military and intelligence analysts are critical of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for being too cautious about sending his soldiers to be chewed up in this slaughter house. The Times reports, “American officials say they fear that Ukraine has become casualty averse,” while the Post reports, “Joint war games conducted by the U.S., British and Ukrainian militaries anticipated [major casualties] but envisioned Kyiv accepting the casualties as the cost of piercing through Russia’s main defensive line, said U.S. and Western officials. But Ukraine chose to stem the losses on the battlefield and switch to a tactic of relying on smaller units to push forward across different areas of the front.” Both Russia and Ukraine have been thwarted on the battlefield, and the Ukrainians are becoming, for the best of reasons, wary of high casualties. The time is surely ripe for a diplomatic push.
Unfortunately, the passions ignited by war always make negotiations difficult. As the Times reported on September 1, a strong “taboo” against public discussion of diplomacy pervades the NATO countries. According to the paper, “German officials are eager for a negotiated solution and are talking about how Russia might be brought to the negotiating table, but are only doing so in private and with trusted think tank specialists.”
This taboo exists for understandable reasons. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is an appalling violation of international law. The Russian army and its mercenary allies have committed horrific war crimes. The danger of any diplomatic solution is that it will inevitably mean that the architects of the war, Putin and his national security advisers, go unpunished. Ukrainians have every moral right to want a return to their nation’s full territorial integrity.
But an interminable bloodbath on Ukrainian soil is also horrific. The status quo is bad for Ukraine and the world. Part of the tragedy of war is that bringing wars to an end often involves accepting less-than-ideal solutions.
There’s evidence that the taboo on negotiations might finally be weakening. The pessimistic leaks to the press are one sign. Last Tuesday, The New Yorker published a lengthy profile by Keith Gessen of foreign policy analyst Samuel Charap, a vocal advocate for resuming diplomacy. The publication of the profile is symptomatic of a shift in elite opinion.
In truth, there is every reason to believe the Biden administration has been conducting diplomacy all along, albeit covertly. In times of intense uncertainty and crisis, like the Wagner Group mutiny, American officials have worked back channels to Russian counterparts. In June a group of former government officials, including then–head of the Council on Foreign Relations Richard Haass, held unsanctioned and unofficial talks with Russian diplomats. The Biden administration said the meeting was not authorized—but it follows the classic pattern of a back-channel communication.
If diplomatic messaging is already being done on the sly, there’s now good reason for it to come out of the closet. A call for open talks could force the issue and make clear that the United States and Ukraine and its allies are willing to go the extra step for peace.
Diplomacy is a process, not a solution. It also requires both sides. There are serious reasons to think that Putin himself may not be ready to negotiate. But the best way to find out is to put the question to the test. If negotiations fail, then that failure can also be added to Putin’s list of crimes.