Foreign Affairs magazine published an insightful piece in its most recent issue, titled “An Unwinnable War: Washington Needs an Endgame in Ukraine.” Written by RAND Corporation senior political scientist Samuel Charap, it is well argued and presents a number of reasonable proposals that prioritize a diplomatic end to the Ukraine War. Three examples—the Korean armistice, U.S.-Israeli security arrangements, and the Bosnia Contact Group—are drawn upon in order to suggest a roadmap to ceasing hostilities.
A number of responses were subsequently published in Foreign Affairs online. All take aim with Charap’s assessment that neither side currently holds the capabilities to achieve ultimate victory, defined in this context as establishing control over the disputed territory in Ukraine. Rather, they contend that Ukraine’s triumph is simply a matter of providing more—and deadlier—Western weaponry. Each argument also rests upon the assumption of a tottering Putin regime. They all cite the Prigozhin mutiny (it is mentioned a total of six separate times throughout the various responses) as irrefutable evidence of a latent contingent of discontented Russians that can and will eventually be mobilized to topple the current government.
The most extreme perspective comes from Dmytro Natalukha, Chair of the Committee for Economic Affairs of the Parliament of Ukraine and a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Natalukha claims that leaving any territory occupied by Russia will allow Moscow to subsequently use that land as a launch pad for future attacks to capture the rest of the country, as he claims it did after the Minsk agreements of 2014 and 2015—although he conveniently ignores the fact that it was both Moscow and Kiev who consistently failed to implement the terms of both the Minsk Protocol and Minsk II. Ukraine, Natalukha argues, must therefore wage war until all occupied land is seized back from Russia. What is more, the return of the eastern oblasts and Crimea must then be followed by forcible regime change in Moscow and the installation of a Western-approved leader. This will ensure that “post-Putin Russia will have the consent of Ukraine.”
“Ukraine and its allies must aim to make Russia less anti-Western. Regardless of what happens at the negotiating table, therefore, Putin cannot remain in power,” states Natalukha. He subsequently believes that the civilized world should reach a consensus on confronting Russian leadership, “as they did on Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and Bashar al-Assad in Syria”—examples that should make any honest assessor of U.S. foreign policy in the past thirty years wince. The final step after total Russian collapse and the installation of a puppet government would then be to demilitarize the country and destroy its state media i.e., its “propaganda machine.”
The ostensibly less severe proposals also support the contention that Russian armed forces will inevitably be crushed under the weight of well-armed Ukrainian resolve. Alina Polyakova and Daniel Fried are firm in the conviction that all that stands in the way of total victory is a lack of F-16s and long-range missiles. Early battlefield successes around Kiev, Kharkiv, and Kherson, are cited as proof of endemic Russian weakness. The authors also believe that, with the requested weaponry, Ukraine would be able to seize territory in the eastern oblasts. This will obstruct Moscow’s land bridge to Crimea, and “force Russia into an untenable position.” But the likelihood of Russian leadership abating rather than escalating its war effort once the naval base at Sevastopol is under threat of sustained artillery fire is a roll of the dice. The consequences of losing that bet could be catastrophic. Nonetheless, Angela Stent also reassures readers that the risks are worth it. She suggests that Moscow’s war machine is buckling under the weight of its own incompetence, while Kiev is on the cusp of turning a strategic corner. Ukrainian forces remain upbeat in a “battle for national survival”; meanwhile, “Russian troop morale is dwindling”—an assessment that by its nature is one of bias and unreliable speculation.
The eventual ouster of Putin is implicitly assumed in each of the arguments. Polyakova and Fried bring up Russian military losses going back nearly two centuries, all the way to the 1853 Crimean War. “Each defeat provoked domestic stress and upheaval,” the implication being that the same fate awaits the current regime upon its defeat in Ukraine. The Prigozhin mutiny is presented as evidence of pervasive “stress in the Russian ruling circles.” Stent also believes that “Putin’s grip on Russia” is weakening. The key to knocking down the Kremlin house of cards is thus “more and better Western weapons.” While any or all of these contentions may be true, no respondent addresses the very real possibility that an individual as equally committed—or perhaps more committed—to the objectives laid out at the beginning of the war might take power in Moscow upon Putin’s (potentially bloody) departure.
But most importantly, all of the responses fail to address the prospect that Kiev’s counteroffensive could fail to achieve its strategic aims even with Western arms. Ukrainian battlefield invincibility is assumed as an indisputable matter of historical necessity. They ignore the fact that Russian armed forces continue to secure important victories, inching their way westward while inflicting heavy Ukrainian casualties. Instead, all of Moscow’s strategic and tactical successes are handwaved away. Polyakova and Fried claim without explanation that the seizure of territory in the “Bahkmut [sic] offensive has deepened [Putin’s] costly mess.”
Nor do they address the fact that Russian armed forces have of late been very successful in destroying and capturing Western equipment, including the much-vaunted Leopard tank and Bradley fighting vehicle. Moscow also retains control of the skies, a situation that a limited number of F-16s without enough pilots who possess the requisite training will not change. Likewise, a longer war defined by increasing escalation favors both the military-industrial capacity of Russia as well as the much larger resource pool of human capital that it can draw from. The only way to counter this latter fact may eventually be for other nations’ military forces to begin engaging in the fight directly. Natalukha would undoubtedly be in favor of such a prospect, and it seems that the other commentators may be as well.
The hate for the Putin regime that seems to undergird the Western foreign policy establishment is very likely genuine and deep-seated; however, its authenticity does not make it a premise upon which to construct a realistic path for bringing the bloodshed in Ukraine to an end. Charap acknowledges this point and proposes that the U.S. form a governmental group to focus on exploring diplomatic pathways to peace. “There is not a single official in the U.S. government whose full-time job is conflict diplomacy,” he rightly laments. What is needed is a “regular channel of communication regarding the war that includes Ukraine, U.S. allies, and Russia.”
This is undoubtedly the correct approach. Negotiations for a sustainable peace are necessary not merely to de-escalate the situation and avoid a potentially larger conflagration, but perhaps most importantly to stop the wanton death and destruction currently befalling the citizens of Ukraine. As impolitic as it may be to currently say, it should also be our desire to stop Russian lives from needlessly being lost as well.
However, the responses to Charap form a litany of excuses for not engaging with Moscow. Something like the Korean armistice is discounted because North Korea does not occupy any of South Korea’s territory; the Israel situation is not feasible because Tel Aviv possesses nuclear weapons; the example of the Balkan Contact Group is inapplicable because one could do business with the Yeltsin administration.
But Charap presents these as cases to draw lessons from, not as exact models to copy. They illustrate how to adapt means in unique situations to reach the same end: a viable peace agreement amid hostile parties that is reached by way of a negotiated settlement.
The issue at the center of the disagreement is that the respondents do not believe that such an end can be reached unless it proceeds from total Ukrainian victory and the destruction of the current Russian regime. The reason for this is presented as a matter of fact: Russia can simply no longer be treated as a real nation-state. As articulated by Stent, any negotiation with Moscow is impossible because they are liars, and an armistice will inevitably be a “temporary solution while Russia regroups and plans its next attack.” Such a conclusion obviously leads the international community to an impasse in which the only way out is through.
Charap replies in kind to the various responses offered to his original piece. The central premise upon which he bases his rebuttal is straightforward: “My critics seem to see diplomacy as a synonym for surrender rather than as an important tool of statecraft.” This is correct, but understanding the argument behind why his critics view a peace settlement as capitulation is even more important. Russia (with Putin as anthropomorphized regression) has broken the rules-based order in a manner that undermines the end of history thesis. The implication of not rectifying this violation would be to acknowledge that the world is returning to balance of power geopolitics. This is a sin that cannot be forgiven. For that reason, nothing less than a total Russian collapse is an acceptable outcome to the war.