The Flawed Discourse Over the War in Ukraine

The Flawed Discourse Over the War in Ukraine

The debate over the Russo-Ukrainian War has displayed several recurrent deficiencies as it has developed over the past nine months.


Questions surrounding U.S. policy toward the Russo-Ukrainian War provide ample grounds for debate. The war has presented Washington and its Western allies with difficult decisions and unavoidable tradeoffs. The commendable urge to support Ukraine's courageous resistance against a ruthless invasion must be coupled with recognition that Ukraine’s national interests are not identical to those of its supporters. The principle of not letting naked aggression be rewarded needs to be balanced against the risk of escalation into a wider war. Additionally, aid to Ukraine involves resource tradeoffs, and keeping states in an anti-Russian posse may conflict with other things the United States wants from the countries concerned.

Although any policy on the subject will give commentators something to object to, a policy is most likely to be sound if it is based on a public debate that employs clear and correct conceptions of how military operations and diplomacy relate to each other in war. In this respect, the debate in the United States has displayed several recurrent deficiencies as it has developed over the past nine months.


Overreacting to Short-Term Developments

An example of this shortcoming is the unhappy history of an open letter from thirty progressive members of Congress urging negotiations to end the war. The letter gained most of its signatures during the summer but was not released until October. It quickly incurred negative reactions, including from some lawmakers who had signed it earlier but then said they would no longer support it after it was released. The points in the letter were just as valid as before; what changed was that Ukrainian forces scored impressive victories in the interim, especially in retaking territory in Kharkiv Oblast.

Of course, diplomatic positions regarding the ending of wars have always reflected battlefield outcomes, but this sort of reaction to one successful offensive is a short-term approach to a long-term problem. The success and stability of whatever peace agreement ends the war in Ukraine will depend on the degree to which it resolves long-term issues, including the issues underlying Russia’s decision to launch the war.

The tide of wars, including the current war, can change quickly—faster than peace negotiations might be completed. Many wars exhibit a self-correcting military dynamic in which one side’s battlefield success is followed by a period when, for reasons such as extended supply lines or the opposition’s consolidation of defenses, it is more difficult for it to score further successes. This is the situation Ukrainian forces face today following the recapture of the provincial capital of Kherson.

As a reminder of fast-changing tides, recall that in the opening days of the war, when Russia’s initial invasion brought its forces within miles of Kyiv, the assumption of a quick Russian seizure of Ukraine was widespread, and one Western response was to offer help in evacuating President Volodymyr Zelensky and his government from the Ukrainian capital. Reacting narrowly to those short-term military developments would certainly have been a mistake.

Reducing Everything to a Single Dimension

Much discourse about the war attempts to boil issues down to the seemingly simple question of whether one is for or against steadfast support for Zelensky, his government, and the Ukrainians striving to regain control of their homeland. This is the tone of, for example, a recent Washington Post editorial, which argued that “it’s too early even to be talking about talking” about a peace settlement because, in this “contest of will” against Russia, there must be no “slackening of commitment” in support for Ukraine. The editorial mentions as a hazard some signs among Republicans, soon to form a majority in the House of Representatives, of opposition to continued financial and military aid to Ukraine.

But the various political, diplomatic, financial, and military aspects of policy toward the war in Ukraine are not reducible to a single dimension or position. There is nothing contradictory about advocating active diplomacy aimed at a peace settlement while continuing robust material aid to Ukraine. Indeed, it is logical to view such aid as primarily intended to strengthen the Ukrainian side’s bargaining position in any peace negotiations. Conversely, it would also be logically consistent—though not necessarily the best policy—to combine opposition to peace negotiations now with the scaling down of material support for Ukraine, on the assumption that resources must be conserved for a long-term war effort.

Insufficient Attention to the Other Side’s Interests

It is unsurprising for commentators to focus on what one’s own side in a war, or the side one is supporting, most wants. Of course, it would be nice to negotiate an end to the war when the tide on the battlefield is running in favor of the good guys, and a peace settlement can be expected to reflect that tide. But the adversary wants the same thing for itself, and both sides wanting that is a recipe for no peace negotiations and for endless war.

Delaying negotiations in the hope of extending military successes not only makes the mistake of assuming that past performance will be extended into the future. Doing so also fails to account for the adversary having just as much of a vote on when, and under what conditions, negotiations should begin. Peace negotiations are most likely to begin, and to succeed, not when the war is going markedly well for one side, but rather when there is a mutually hurting stalemate.

James Traub, in an essay arguing for just such a delay, cites the U.S.-British negotiations that ended the War of 1812. He writes that when the British entered the negotiations, they were “confident of victory” and “stalled, hoping for good news” from several British military campaigns then underway in North America. But when the news turned out to be not so good for Britain, it made concessions at the conference table.

Two observations should be made about Traub’s use of this bit of history. First, the policy he is recommending for the United States—i.e., not being serious about negotiations now, in the expectation that future military successes will strengthen Kyiv’s bargaining position—is the same policy the British had in mid-1814. That policy failed in the way Traub himself describes, and it could similarly fail for the United States regarding Ukraine.

Second, the historical reference itself demonstrates an insufficient appreciation for the other side’s interests and calculations. Although the military action around Lake Champlain and Baltimore in late 1814 did affect Britain’s negotiating posture, that posture had at least as much to do with the advice of the Duke of Wellington—even before news of those late campaigns made it across the Atlantic—that Britain did not have a basis for its earlier strong demands.

More fundamentally, for Britain, the War of 1812 was a sideshow to the main event, which was its war against France. Britain’s willingness to accept a compromise peace had more to do with events in Europe than battles in North America. Those events included the initial downfall of Napoleon, the resulting end of the naval activities that had drawn the United States into war, and the threat of Napoleon leaving Elba to resume a ground war in Europe.

For Russian president Vladimir Putin, the war in Ukraine is nothing like what the war against the United States was for Britain in 1814. Far from being a sideshow, it is a cause on which Putin has largely staked his political future. Military setbacks will not lead him to docilely trim back his objectives.

The Delusion of ‘Victory’

The Russo-Ukrainian War will not end with anything that can legitimately be described as a victory for one side or the other, although this concept and even the term continue to be employed. Russia has already demonstrated that victory is beyond its means. It is unrealistic to expect that Ukraine could secure control over all of its pre-2014 territory through military means, which would be the one outcome that could undeniably be described as a victory for Kyiv.

Nearly all wars end with some sort of bargain being struck, sometimes tacitly but often and more usefully through explicit negotiation. Even outcomes that get described as “victory” almost always involve such a bargain. “Unconditional” surrenders are not really unconditional; when Japan signed a surrender agreement in 1945, the bargain was that the U.S. occupation of Japan would be benign and Japan would cease armed resistance.

The only exceptions to this are when one side is entirely exterminated or when one side withdraws completely and unilaterally from the contested area. The first will clearly not happen in Ukraine, and it is unrealistic to expect Putin to do the second.

Paul Pillar retired in 2005 from a twenty-eight-year career in the U.S. intelligence community, in which his last position was National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia. Earlier he served in a variety of analytical and managerial positions, including as chief of analytic units at the CIA covering portions of the Near East, the Persian Gulf, and South Asia. Professor Pillar also served in the National Intelligence Council as one of the original members of its Analytic Group. He is also a Contributing Editor for this publication.