It is a great pity that President Volodymyr Zelensky’s visit to Washington was not postponed for a few weeks, when the outcome of the Ukrainian offensive will be entirely clear. Whatever the outcome, there will be critically important issues that the US and Ukrainian presidents will need to discuss—above all, that of US and Ukrainian strategies and goals when it comes to negotiations with Russia.
However, since this issue is extremely painful and difficult, the strong temptation for both administrations will be to kick it down the road as far as possible. That has indeed been true of much of the Biden administration’s approach to Ukraine and Russia since it first took office.
The Ukraine war’s course thus far—as well as the whole of military history—should caution us against making firm predictions for the result of any military campaign. At present however, the Ukrainian attempt to cut or threaten Russian land communications to Crimea appears to be failing. In three months, the Ukrainian army has only succeeded in piercing the first of several lines of Russian defenses, at enormous cost in casualties.
Attempts to portray the Ukrainian recapture of the village of Robotyne as a great victory are unhappily reminiscent of British and French offensives on the Western Front during the First World War, when the seizure after months of fighting and at dreadful cost of miserable hamlets like Passchendaele were also celebrated as great victories, for want of anything else to celebrate. Moreover, in what has become a battle of attrition, it is not at all clear that time favors Ukraine. Not merely is Ukraine a much smaller country than Russia, with a much smaller industrial base, but the shifts in military technology that helped Ukraine when Russia was attacking are now helping Russia when it is Ukraine that is trying to advance.
All the same, until the autumn rains or the onset of winter bring this phase of the war to a close, we must leave open the possibility that the Ukrainians may still make significant advances—if not to the Sea of Azov itself, then far enough to bring the main road and railway line to Crimea under bombardment.
Regardless of whether the present battle leads to Ukrainian or to Russian success, the basic question for Kiev and Washington will remain the same: How—and on what terms and with what goals—to begin negotiations with Moscow on a suspension of hostilities.
The Biden administration has indeed stated that the goal of US help to Ukraine is “to bring Putin to the negotiating table.” Administration officials have also stated anonymously that given the likelihood that the Russian government, faced with the likely loss of Crimea, would escalate radically, the aim should not be for Ukraine to try to conquer the peninsula, but to pose enough of a threat that Russia would be forced to agree to withdrawal from the other Ukrainian territories it has seized.
However, the Biden administration has also said that only Ukraine can decide on the terms of a peace agreement with Moscow; and since the Ukrainian government has repeatedly stated that it will not agree to leave any territory at all in Russian hands even as part of a provisional cease-fire, this means that the US administration has in fact negated its own publicly stated goal. For there is no chance whatsoever that Putin or any other Russian president will agree to give Crimea to Ukraine, unless Russia had already been completely defeated.
If on the other hand (as presently seems more likely), the Ukrainian offensive fails, leading to the prospect of an indefinite stalemate, the same issue of negotiations over territory will emerge—the difference being that in this case the military balance will favor the Russian side. In this case, the question that Washington and Kiev will have to ask themselves and each other is how long the Ukrainian army can afford to hurl its troops against Russian defenses, and how long, and to what extent, the United States and its allies are prepared to help them to do so.
Faced with this prospect, one must have immense sympathy for President Zelensky. Not only is it very hard to ask any country to give up part of its sovereign territory even as part of a temporary cease-fire, but should Zelensky move in this direction, he would face the very real threat of massive extreme nationalist demonstrations against him—and even perhaps of coup attempts.
That is why the initiative for a cease-fire and peace talks will have to come from Washington (albeit perhaps in response to a peace proposal from a neutral country like Brazil or India, and in coordination with key US allies in Europe). Only if Zelensky could claim that he was under irresistible pressure from the United States would he be able to deflect the storm of domestic anger that would otherwise be unleashed against him if he agrees to even a temporary territorial compromise.
To take such a step would require a degree of moral courage on the part of the Biden administration—which may seem an absurd thing to expect. But after 19 months of incessant (and well-deserved) praise for the physical courage and resilience of Ukrainians, a bit of moral courage would seem the least we can respect from our own leaders.