Rajan Menon tries to outline parameters of a settlement that could bring an end to the war in Ukraine and foster a stable postwar geopolitical order. This effort is undoubtedly important. Yet recommending specific parameters of a settlement based on assumptions about what is likely to transpire in the Russo-Ukrainian war is exceedingly hard. What possible settlement would uphold Ukraine’s sovereignty and European and global security, and also result in a postwar global order that doesn’t exclude Russia? Menon attempts to outline such a settlement. But instead of bringing a stable postwar order, his proposal—that re-engages with Russia and pushes Ukraine toward territorial concession—would only weaken European and global security, strain if not break the unity of Western alliance, and encourage aggressive behavior by other world autocrats. Russia can’t win this war. Ukraine might, but if ultimately a stalemate follows, a stalemate or armistice would still be preferable to a comprehensive settlement that allows Russia to keep Ukraine’s territory and rewards it by lifting sanctions.
“This much should be evident,” writes Menon. “no party will get everything it wants unless it wins an outright victory—and that is not in the cards.” The assumption that neither side can win seems eminently reasonable, but it may be premature. Russia seems highly unlikely to achieve Putin’s stated objectives of his “special military operation”: to “denazify” and “demilitarize” Ukraine, and “liberate” Russian-speaking Ukrainians, in the Donbas and elsewhere. We now know that Russia’s “denazification” goal involved toppling Ukrainian government, suppressing all manifestations of distinct Ukrainian identity, and turning the country under a puppet government into an obedient vassal state. With the initial Russian attack on Kyiv failing, its elite military forces gutted, and its latest winter offensive achieving only very marginal territorial advances in embattled Donbas, the “liberation” of the rest of the Donbas would be exceedingly hard to achieve, let alone “denazification” of entire Ukraine. Only a total collapse of the Ukrainian armed forces, an end to Western military aid to Ukraine, and a major improvement in Russia’s own resources and capabilities would put Russia’s goals within reach. None of these are likely. There are recent indications that Russia may now be considering abandoning offensive actions and moving to prioritize the defense of occupied territories. This strategy would be logical given Russia’s capabilities. Russia could gain even more if it were to successfully sell this strategy to the West as an olive branch, leading the west to pressure Ukraine to “compromise.”
Yet an outright Ukrainian victory is not (or at least not yet) out of reach. Ukrainians, for reasons well summarized by Menon, are determined to restore their territorial sovereignty and have a realistic chance to liberate more of their territory; if the West provides the offensive weapons Ukraine requested, their odds would further improve. Even if Ukraine liberates only part of the occupied territory in the upcoming counteroffensive, their prospects for victory could significantly increase. Russian supplies lines along the southern coast could become untenable. Military setback may threaten Putin’s grip on power. These outcomes are not guaranteed, but neither is Ukraine’s failure or Russian domestic stability.
Observers have repeatedly underestimated Ukraine. When the invasion started most commentators expected a quick Russian victory, but Ukraine successfully defended itself. Ukrainians drove the Russian army away from the capital and northern regions, and later their counteroffensives liberated areas around Kharkiv and Kherson. More recently Ukraine proved able to hold embattled Bakhmut months longer than U.S. intelligence predicted. Many Ukrainians feel that Western trust in Ukraine’s capabilities remain too low while estimates of Russia’s capabilities remain too high.
Even if Ukraine’s counteroffensive brings only limited territorial gains, as leaked US intelligence assessments posit, it should not be forced to submit to territorial concessions with a formal settlement. A stalemate on the battlefield might lead to an armistice—an outcome that would not “end of war” but would be more advantageous to Ukraine and to the West’s goal of achieving stability in Europe. If the war stalemates, Ukraine should be assisted with rebuilding, strengthening its military, and completing its geopolitical, economic, and cultural rupture from Russia and full integration with the West, including a clear path to NATO membership—the agenda now backed by the vast majority of Ukrainian citizens in every region of the country. This would send a strong message to Russia that its military aggression in Europe will not be accepted or rewarded.
By contrast, a deal that forces Ukraine to concede some occupied territory would undermine lasting peace. It would subject Ukrainians in Russian-held territories to continued brutalization, and torture and death for many. It would also allow Russia to rearm, regroup and likely attack Ukraine in the future. Indeed, history shows that Russia’s goal since 2014 has been to prevent Ukraine from drifting westward. Each time Russian aggression backfired, more and more Ukrainians turned away from Russia. A year after the invasion a national consensus agrees that the country should become a part of the West: in recent polls, 87 percent backed EU and 82 percent backed NATO membership.
Menon argues that global and European security demand re-engagement with Russia. It does not. The argument that Russia is too big and too important to be isolated is repeated almost like a mantra, but what is the evidence? Like the Soviet Union, Russia has at times played a constructive role in global security, but it has also been very damaging. Putin’s Russia engaged in a sustained campaign to undermine Western democracies through disinformation campaigns, illegal party financing, and electoral meddling. With its war on Ukraine, Russia threw to the winds the UN Charter, its own obligations under the Budapest Memorandum and multiple treaties it conducted with Ukraine. Russian armed forces are committing war crimes, the state has sanctioned deportations of thousands of Ukrainian children and mass erasure of Ukrainian language, culture and identity on the occupied territories is ongoing. The list is long. The International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Putin for war crimes. Russia makes a mockery of the very system of international security rather than supporting it as a member of the United Nations Security Council. Isolating a regime like this will not harm Western interests and impede progress on urgent global problems. Putin’s Russia did not solve any of the many world problems before the war, and an isolated autocratic Russia does not hold the key to the world’s future.
The strategy of engaging with Putin’s Russia while overlooking its increasingly autocratic domestic politics and security-undermining international actions has had dismal results for years. The West deferred to Russia’s objections to Ukraine’s (and Georgia’s) choice of their foreign policy alliances and sought Russian cooperation on the international scene. Even after Russia invaded Georgia, annexed Crimea, and intervened in the Donbas, the West continued engagement. Extensive economic ties and western support for projects such as Nord Stream 2 did not strengthen domestic anti-Putin opposition, halt Russia’s autocratization, or prevent war. Nor has the young generation played a role as Menon suggests it might. Polling challenges in authoritarian societies notwithstanding, it remains doubtful that a sizable part of the Russian society, younger generation or otherwise, can reasonably be expected to act as engines of change in the near future.
Does Russia need to be isolated forever or does the regime have to be forced out from the outside? Not at all. Russia can become a constructive player in global politics if and when its leaders concede that destroying its neighbor’s sovereign statehood and engaging in territorial conquest is not in its national interests. This realization must be driven by domestic political process in Russia, whether it is led by the elites or by the Russian people. The West cannot hope to force this process, and it shouldn’t. Menon is right that the West needs to give Russian leaders a clear idea of what they must do to obtain relief from sanctions. Russia needs to get out of Ukraine, return children and other civilians it deported, indicate its willingness to cooperate with war crimes prosecution, and engage in good faith negotiations to compensate Ukraine economically for the wartime destruction. These preconditions are not maximalist or otherwise unreasonable if the goal is restoration of European security and increased likelihood of creating a stable pan-European security order that would, one day, include Russia.