Ukraine War: Selling Stalemate and Prolonging Pain

Ukraine War: Selling Stalemate and Prolonging Pain

Freezing the Russo-Ukrainian war with a “fight-and-talk” approach may be more challenging than its proponents appreciate.

 

A few months back, Chatham House issued a report underlining the hawkish consensus on the Russo-Ukrainian War: no compromise with Moscow; it must be soundly defeated and punished. Now, the war optimism that swept Western media across 2022 appears to have vanished. An increasing number are discussing the prospects of a ceasefire, and Zelensky himself is under pressure to begin negotiations with Russia.

The same experts who boldly forecasted the defeat of a feckless and incompetent Russia are changing tact. Now, the claim is that the war is a stalemate that neither side can win. Given this, it is time to freeze the conflict akin to the negotiated end of the Korean War. This idea was first proposed to the mainstream in May 2023 in a Politico article. Now, after the failure of the Ukrainian counter-offensive, it is again being discussed. But is it realistic? 

 

The Preconditions of Korea’s Frozen Peace

The freezing of the Korean War was based on three factors. The first was the military stalemate of positional and attrition warfare along the thirty-eighth parallel, the original borders between North and South before the war. Here, ceasefire negotiations proceeded in parallel to continued military offensives, in which neither side made substantial gains nor inflicted enough losses to exhaust their opponent. 

The second factor was the agreement of the great powers (China, the USSR, and the United States) that ending the war was in their interests. Each side could make face-saving claims. China had defended its interests in the region while America rescued the South from communist rule. After the death of Stalin, the new Soviet leadership no longer saw the value of keeping America bogged down in Korea. The great powers then forced their proxies to agree to negotiations. Crucially, both North Korea and South Korea received credible security guarantees that encouraged them a frozen peace could be held. While America stationed 30,000 men in the South and kept powerful naval and airpower assets nearby, the USSR supplied the military technologies and advisors needed to secure the North. 

The third was ideological. One of the key obstacles in the negotiations was the exchange of prisoners of war. North Korea and China were adamant that their prisoners be repatriated, while many in South Korea and America demanded they be freed and allowed to choose between returning or defecting. With McCarthyism in the ascendency in America, the prisoner swap clause took on added significance in U.S. domestic politics. Bipartisan resistance to forced repatriation delayed progress on negotiations for eighteen months. The election of President Eisenhower on the mandate of a negotiated settlement shifted America closer to a deal and away from anti-communist moralisma key precondition to striking a deal on the prisoners and securing the frozen peace. 

Why the Ukraine War Cannot Be Frozen—Yet

These three preconditions do not currently apply to the war in Ukraine. First, it is an error to characterize the war as a stalemate based purely on the observation that little territory is changing hands. In a war of attrition, the aim is to exhaust the enemy and force them to agree to terms. Territory gained is far from the main indicator of success; military achievement can also be measured in the quantity of men and materials destroyed. In this regard, Ukraine has just given up an unsuccessful offensive that incurred heavy manpower and equipment losses. Ukrainian manpower is running low, and Zelensky is considering a new mobilization that would surely strain the country’s economic capacity and morale. Ukraine’s civilians face a harsh winter during which Russia is certain to target the energy system once again. Furthermore, Ukraine’s Western backers are struggling to keep up with the regular munitions supplies as well as other items such as drones and armored vehicles. U.S. backing is likely to be disrupted due to the collapse of bipartisan support for funding and new demands in the Middle East. 

Meanwhile, Russian military production in artillery and drones, the bread and butter of this war, is not only sufficient but also supplemented by purchases of Iranian drones and North Korean shells. The Russian losses, often wildly exaggerated, are at least 35,780, according to Mediazona, which has tracked the number based on open-source data. New recruitment drives have brought around 335,000 volunteers into the Russian army since January 2023, reducing the need for a second mobilization. While the Russian military is set to reach 750,000 personnel, the Russian economy grows, with little sign of elite or mass discontent inside the country. Its current operation in Andiivka is reminiscent of the battle of Bakhmut, a Russian victory that got little attention in the West but serves as a model of their slow, grinding, but successful approach to attritional warfare. 

The above picture is far from a stalemate. In fact, a new level of NATO intervention may soon be required to secure a stalemate and avert Ukrainian defeat. Now, it is anyone’s guess how long Ukraine can hold on and what actions NATO could take to help. Given these dynamics, Russia has absolutely no incentive to agree to a ceasefire, which would only undermine their entire military strategy and give Ukraine time to recuperate and ready itself to fight at a future date. 

Another missing precondition is the agreement of the great powers. Ukraine is no longer fighting a proxy of Russia, as it did between 2014 and 2022, but facing Russia head-on. It is unclear whether China can induce Russia to come to terms or even that it is in its interests to do so. Russia’s alliance with China does not resemble North Korea’s dependence on the USSR; Moscow has far more space for independent action. The West may well pressure Ukraine to negotiate, but Kyiv would likely resist. The absence of Western soldiers on the frontline is a major difference to South Korea and complicates any attempt to twist Kyiv’s arm. Thus, Russia appears ready to fight on for years until it has a direct line to Washington or has achieved the collapse of the Ukrainian state. 

Another sticking point is whether the West can offer Ukraine a security guarantee acceptable to Russia. On the one hand, Moscow has vehemently opposed Ukraine’s NATO membership, and its central war aim is to “demilitarize” the countrywhich means no NATO troops or heavy weaponry should be stationed in the country. On the other hand, Moscow was ready to agree to Ukraine’s neutrality combined with NATO-style “security guarantees” in the March 2022 negotiations. In any case, with the upper hand militarily, Russia will never agree to Kyiv’s ten-point peace plan. It will wait for Washington to prod Ukraine into a different stance that accepts some form of demilitarization and neutralityan outcome that the Biden administration may delay until after the Presidential Elections.

The third preconditiondialing down ideology to make a dealalso looks uncertain. Here, the most obvious area of ideological fervor is the demand for Russian leaders to stand trial for war crimes and, most crucially, what is to be done with seized Russian assets, which are said to amount to around $300 billion. There is a good chance thateven if negotiations start—there will be a strong moral demand to keep this money for the rebuilding of Ukraine rather than return it to a “terrorist state.” It remains to be seen whether this issue will be as powerful an obstacle to negotiations as the prisoner swaps were in the Korean case. America’s presidential elections may well be the deciding factor, as the Democratic Party is far more likely to take an ideological position on these points. 

What comes next? 

Given the lack of preconditions for a frozen peace and negotiations not having even started, a further cycle of military escalation is likely. For Ukraine, this means the delivery of airpower assets and another desperate mobilization drive. For Russia, this could mean a counter-mobilization or simply the completion of their planned military expansion through standard means to the end of 2024.  

Ukraine’s top general, Valery Zaluzhny, has admitted the longer the war goes on, the better it is for Russia. Putin is pragmatic, but he will not betray his fundamental interests when the military dynamics are in Russia’s favor. And there is little reason to expect anyone in the Russian political system to advocate a radically different position. Any settlement in Ukraine that ends with it integrated and armed by NATO is utterly unacceptable for the Russian security state and militaryas well as the tens of millions who strongly support the war inside Russia.

We must guard against lazy and complacent commentary on freezing the conflict. The war is not a stalemate, and further escalations are likely. The lesson of the Korean War suggests starting talks now is beneficial even if there is little likelihood of a deal in immediate termsthe “fight-and-talk” approach that took two years to freeze the conflict in Korea. While many voices will denounce such negotiations as appeasement or treachery, this process needs to be initiated to clarify the difficult points and elaborate on how the aims of each side can be accommodated. A fragile and flawed ceasefireespecially one like Korea that has held for seventy years—is preferable to increased destabilization of Eastern Europe and further destruction and death in Ukraine.