The United States and its partners can improve regional security and stability in Eastern Europe by supporting the modernization and reform of the Armed Forces of Ukraine more aggressively. Ukraine has suffered from consistent Russian military aggression since Russia occupied the Crimean Peninsula and militarily intervened in the eastern Ukrainian Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts in 2014. The overall unpreparedness of the Ukrainian military and its inability to match the capabilities of Russian forces allowed Russian and Russian proxy forces to gain a foothold in eastern Ukraine from which they continue to destabilize the entire country. The Ukrainian armed forces have been partially restructured and strengthened in the face of this constant pressure, enough to stabilize the front lines for a time. They require significantly more support of all varieties, however, if they are to stop the advance of Russia and its proxies permanently, to say nothing of reversing the armed occupation of Ukrainian territory.
The wise-seeming counsel of seeking compromise with Russia at a point of high leverage for Ukraine is a dangerous folly now. It merely puts off and makes even more dangerous the risks we fear today. It might make sense to buy time in this way if time favored us. But it does not—time favors our adversaries. Accepting risk now to reduce the risk of worse disaster in the future is the wisest and most prudent course of action for the US, NATO, and Ukraine.
A Ukraine strong enough to deter and defeat any future Russian aggression with an economy strong enough to prosper without large amounts of foreign aid is the only outcome of Russia’s war that the United States and the West should accept. Trusting Russian promises of good behavior would be foolish. Leaving Ukraine’s economy badly damaged would create a long-term and large drain on Western finances. Discussions about pressing Ukraine to trade land the Russians now occupy for a ceasefire or armistice have garnered attention recently, based on rumors of Kremlin interest in negotiations of some sort. These discussions have thus far largely focused on the supposed intransigence of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky who, it is argued, must be pressed to accept that Ukraine must cede some of its territory. That argument ignores the question that should be central to any such discussion: what are the concrete military, economic, and financial consequences that these territorial sacrifices would have for Ukraine’s long-term security and economic viability or for the future financial burden they would impose on the supporters of an independent Ukraine? The serious evaluation of this question shows that there are real military and economic reasons for Ukraine to try to liberate all of the territory Russia now occupies and that, in any event, the current lines cannot be the basis for any settlement remotely acceptable to Ukraine or the West.
Russia declared victory over Bakhmut on May 21, 2023, after fighting for the city for nearly a year. The battle marks the first claimed Russian victory over a large city since the capture of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk in the summer of 2022. The Battle for Bakhmut is still ongoing as Ukrainian forces regained the initiative and are counterattacking Bakhmut’s flanks north and south of the city. The Russian year-long drive began as part of a theoretically sensible but overly-ambitious operational effort but ended as a purely symbolic gesture that cost tens of thousands of Russian casualties.
Russian President Vladimir Putin's political-military campaign in Ukraine undermines Ukraine's sovereignty and threatens Europe more than three years after Russia's invasion. Russian leaders will continue to extend and exploit the war to destabilize Ukraine and prevent its further integration with the West until the costs of their campaign change their calculus.
The war in Ukraine is primarily a war for control of people, not land. Russian President Vladimir Putin has invaded Ukraine twice not mainly because he desires Ukraine’s land, but rather because he seeks to control its people. Putin’s project, explicitly articulated in the 2021 article he published justifying the 2022 full-scale invasion, is the destruction of Ukraine’s distinctive political, social, linguistic, and religious identity. Putin seeks to make real his false ideological conviction that Ukrainians are simply confused Russians with an invented identity, language, and history that a small, Western-backed minority is seeking to impose on the majority of inhabitants.
The Kremlin is successfully expanding its global cyber footprint to contest the West by signing cooperation deals in the field of international information and communications technologies (ICTs). The Kremlin prioritizes these deals to set conditions to expand its access to global technical networks and infrastructure, as well as to develop its human networks and institutional links around the world. The Kremlin launched this campaign in 2014, shortly before releasing an updated information security doctrine in 2016, which continues to guide Russian cyber policy. This campaign supports the Kremlin’s strategic goal of subverting Western global influence via nontraditional means. The Kremlin will likely use these deals to increase its cyber-attack capabilities and expand influence in key regions. The Kremlin may additionally use these deals to garner support for a Kremlin-friendly resolution on ICTs in the UN to shape international norms in cyberspace.
Allowing Russia to win its war in Ukraine would be a self-imposed strategic defeat for the United States. The United States would face the risk of a larger and costlier war in Europe. The United States would face the worst threat from Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union, as a victorious Russia would likely emerge reconstituted and more determined to undermine the United States — and confident that it can. A Russian victory would diminish America’s deterrence around the world, emboldening others with an explicit or latent intent to harm the United States. A Russian victory would create an ugly world in which the atrocities associated with Russia’s way of war and way of ruling the populations under its control are normalized. Most dangerous of all, however, US adversaries would learn that they can break America’s will to act in support of their strategic interests.
The United States has a much higher stake in Russia's war on Ukraine than most people think. A Russian conquest of all of Ukraine is by no means impossible if the United States cuts off all military assistance and Europe follows suit. Such an outcome would bring a battered but triumphant Russian army right up to NATO’s border from the Black Sea to the Arctic Ocean. The Ukrainian military with Western support has destroyed nearly 90% of the Russian army that invaded in February 2022 according to US intelligence sources, but the Russians have replaced those manpower losses and are ramping up their industrial base to make good their material losses at a rate much faster than their pre-war capacity had permitted.
Negotiations cannot end the Russian war against Ukraine; they can only pause it. The renewed Russian invasion in February 2022 after eight years of deadly “ceasefire” following the first Russian invasions of 2014 demonstrates that Russian President Vladimir Putin will not rest until he has conquered Kyiv. Ukraine’s resistance to the invasion this year shows that Ukrainians will not easily surrender. The conflict is unresolvable as long as Putinism rules the Kremlin. Negotiations won’t change that reality. They can only create the conditions from which Putin or a Putinist successor will contemplate renewing the attack on Ukraine’s independence. Before pressing Ukraine to ask Russia for talks we must examine the terms Ukraine might offer Russia, the dangers of offering those terms, and, more importantly, the likelihood that Putin would accept them.