Calls for a Diplomatic Settlement in Ukraine Are Misplaced

Calls for a Diplomatic Settlement in Ukraine Are Misplaced

Calls for a Diplomatic Settlement in Ukraine Are Misplaced

There is not a shred of evidence that suggests Moscow and Kyiv are ready to begin real negotiations.


The war in Ukraine has lasted for more than five months. As the bloodletting and destruction continue, the West faces rising inflation, and many economists warn that recessions may be coming. With winter coming, Europe is panicking about gas supplies. And on the military front, there are fears that the war could spread or escalate, spiraling into a clash between the world’s two nuclear superpowers.

For these and other reasons, the calls for a political settlement are understandable. The reality, however, is that there is not a shred of evidence that shows that Moscow and Kyiv are prepared to even start preliminary negotiations aimed at ending the war, let alone agree to a cease-fire. And believing that a larger deal involving the disposition of territories could be around the corner is just plain fantasy.

The Logic Underlying Calls for a Settlement

The calls for diplomatic settlement, which have been made on military and humanitarian grounds, differ in logic and substance.

Some proponents of negotiations argue that Ukraine lacks the military muscle to oust Russia from its territory. They believe fighting on in hopes of achieving that goal will produce more carnage and destruction, increase Ukraine’s economic burden, and make its postwar recovery, already a Herculean task, even harder. They understand that any deal that Ukraine strikes with Russia now will require surrendering some of the land the Russian army has occupied since the February 24 invasion, but insist that Ukraine will find itself in a far worse predicament if it does not make this difficult choice now. And they are skeptical that the advanced Western weaponry that flowing into Ukraine, in particular the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), will result in anything that can be categorized as a Russian defeat.

Others make the case for a diplomatic solution on humanitarian grounds alone. They point, for example, to the 12 million Ukrainians who have become either refugees or are internally displaced (including two-thirds of the country’s children) and to the destruction of Ukraine’s schools, hospitals and health clinics, homes and apartment buildings, and infrastructure. They also call attention to the wider ill effects attributable to the war. These include skyrocketing global food prices that threaten to increase hunger and malnutrition in places where people are already impoverished, the potential of a debt crisis in poor and middle-income countries as Western central banks raise interest rates to curb inflation, and the hardships created by surging in energy prices. The recent decline in global food prices doesn’t reassure them, especially as experts warn that prices would surge again. Costs are still 23 percent higher than a year ago, and the July 22 agreement brokered by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and UN Secretary General António Guterres to allow grain exports from Ukraine and Russia is subject to uncertainties.

Of course, these are sound reasons to urge an end to the war. Yet whatever outsiders may think about the military outlook, or the magnitude of the suffering created by continued fighting, neither warring party believes that it is losing—or will lose. Both Russia and Ukraine believe they will ultimately prevail, and neither worries about a drawn-out conflict, confident that time favors their side.

The View from Moscow

Let’s start with Russia’s perspective. The Russian army now occupies all of Luhansk province and is gearing up to conquer the part of neighboring Donetsk still under Ukraine’s control. Beyond that, Russia has captured Kherson province, much of Zaporozhizhia, and part of the Black Sea coast, giving them a land corridor that connects the Donbas to Crimea. Putin seems to believe that Russia, thanks to its numerical superiority in soldiers and firepower (especially artillery, which it has used to destroy towns), will occupy all of Donbas—the region that made up of Donetsk and Luhansk—and that it can then gain additional territories elsewhere in Ukraine—perhaps the rest of Zaporozhizhia, which would turn Ukraine into a landlocked country.

Neither Western economic sanctions nor large Russian losses in troops and weaponry seems to have shaken Putin’s confidence. As he sees it, Russia has already all but partitioned Ukraine, and he boasts that his army hasn’t even begun to fight in full force. Some experts have predicted that public protests in Russia, a collapse of its political system, or even the Russian Federation itself could end the war, but none of these is remotely likely. There have been demonstrations, some of them substantial, but nothing on a scale or with a frequency that would threaten the Russian state. And the political order Putin built remains intact despite the strain produced by Western sanctions and the war and assertions that the Russian economy is “imploding” are eye-catching but far-fetched formulations that confuse distress with disaster. There is as, Adam Smith observed in 1777, “a great deal of ruin in a nation.

Still, if Russia has gained large portions of Ukrainian land and has much more of everything that makes for military power than Ukraine—GDP, troops, weaponry, armament factories—why are Ukraine’s leaders and a majority of Ukrainians so confident that their army will eventually push out Russia?

How Things Look from Kyiv

President Volodymyr Zelensky and other top Ukrainian leaders also believe they will eventually win. They point to Russia’s unsustainable losses in troops and equipment, the increasing difficulty it is having replenishing its ranks, the economic pain Western sanctions have inflicted, and the sophisticated weaponry Ukraine has received from the West, especially the United States. Ukraine’s recent destruction of many Russian ammunition dumps and command stations, using the US-supplied HIMARS, and its recent push into Russian-occupied Kherson province have only strengthened Kyiv’s optimism.

The Zelensky government seems confident that the high morale among Ukrainians will hold up because they understand theirs is a fight for national survival and are therefore willing to sacrificeunlike the Russian troops pressed into service. In a June poll conducted by the University of Chicago, 89 percent of Ukrainians opposed conceding territory to Russia in exchange for an to end the war. Sixty-six percent said that it was “extremely likely” or “very likely” that their army would force Russia to retreat to the pre–February 24 lines. And more than half believed that Russia would even be expelled from Crimea and the parts of Donbas it occupied in 2014.

Yes, the war has forced Ukraine to seek $5 billion a month in foreign assistance just to cover its budget deficit and destroyed so much of Ukraine’s economic assets that the estimated bill for rebuilding the country is at least $750 billion. But just as military casualties haven’t persuaded Ukraine to seek a settlement, neither have the economic costs of the war. Ukrainians are suffering on multiple fronts but are unwilling to bargain with Russia. Those urging a settlement on humanitarian grounds seem not to understand Ukrainian thinking.

What Matters Are the Assessments in Russia and Ukraine

Could Ukraine’s Western supporters, especially some European governments, start pressing it to cut a deal with Russia, given that the war is creating economic and political serious problems for them? US inflation is now the highest in 40 years, and the eurozone is experiencing record inflation. The IMF has downgraded its growth forecasts and indeed warned recently that the world “may be soon be teetering on the edge of global recession.” Russia has reduced natural gas flows to Europe—it now supplies only a third of what it did in 2021—and this could lead already high prices to spike. Perhaps then, France, Germany, and Italy might renew their calls for negotiations between Moscow and Kyiv. Perhaps Ukraine fatigue will take hold in the United States. So far, however, Western unity has held: Ukraine hasn’t faced pressure to resolve the war diplomatically. In fact, the public narrative of American and Europe leaders has it that the goals of the fighting and the terms of any peace deal are Ukraine’s alone to determine and that, regardless of what they are, the West will stand behind them. There have been occasional signs of dissonance—from French President Emmanuel Macron, for instance—but nothing amounting to a breaking of ranks.

Currently, the assessments of outsiders don’t matter, even if their pessimistic forecasts could prove accurate. All that matters now is Russian and Ukrainian leaders’ undiminished confidence that they will be victorious. So long as at least one side does not change its upbeat view, there can be no negotiation toward a political settlement, which will necessarily require difficult compromises by both of them.

Ukraine isn’t prepared to sign a deal that hands any of its territory to Russia. But Russia would insist that any peace agreement include precisely such provisions. Barring Russia’s total defeat, Putin won’t sign an agreement that doesn’t yield substantial territorial gains and a political arrangement that guarantees that Ukraine will be a neutral country rather than a member of NATO—terms that are sufficient for him to tout at home as proof that Russia won the war. Ukraine’s minimum condition for a just cease-fire, according to Zelensky, is a return to the status quo ante bellum. Given its current military position, Russia will not forfeit all that it has gained at great cost.

The upshot is that this war will continue until at least one side concludes that fighting will prove fruitless, perhaps even disastrous. Neither is anywhere near that point, and it could take many months, maybe even longer, for one or both to get there. Meanwhile, the carnage will continue, economic pain will increase in the West and beyond, and the risk of a direct confrontation between the West and Russia will continue to lurk in the background.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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