Now nearing its 11th month, there appears to be little hope that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—itself the latest phase of an 8-year conflict—will end any time soon.
Peace negotiations began within days of the February 24 invasion but were undermined from the start by wildly different demands, espionage and battlefield developments. By April, all talks had collapsed, with Kyiv increasingly outraged by emerging evidence of Russian atrocities in parts of occupied Ukraine.
Both Kyiv and Moscow acknowledge that a negotiated settlement will likely be needed to end the conflict. But the two sides appear to be living in different, and contradictory, realities.
Ukraine is demanding the full withdrawal of all Russian troops from Ukrainian territory per its 1991 borders, reparations, war crimes prosecutions for Russian leaders and NATO membership.
Russia is demanding international recognition of its claimed annexation of four partially-occupied Ukrainian territories and is still vowing to “demilitarize” and “de-Nazify” Ukraine.
Ukraine hopes that its recently-proposed 10-point peace plan and a United Nations-hosted peace summit in February—both already rejected by the Kremlin—will win over its key foreign partners and form a framework for eventual negotiations.
But with both sides expected to launch new offensives in the coming months, fresh talks appear a distant prospect.
Ivo Daalder, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO and now president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, told Newsweek: “We’re in for a very long war.”
Ukrainian President Volydmyr Zelensky has said he is open to “genuine” talks with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. But Mykhailo Podolyak, a close adviser to Zelensky, said last month that Putin “needs to come back to reality…Russia doesn’t want negotiations, but tries to avoid responsibility.”
Kyiv’s 10-point proposal calls for ensuring safety around the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant; food security; energy security including restrictions on Russia’s energy resources; release of all prisoners and return of all deportees; restoring Ukraine’s full territorial integrity; and the withdrawal of all Russian troops.
It also demands the establishment of a special tribunal to prosecute Russian war crimes; a new security architecture in the Euro-Atlantic space to avoid future escalation including guarantees for Ukraine; and a signed confirmation that the war has ended.
Ukraine’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, Vadym Prystaiko, has said the proposal “needs some work,” but Ukrainian officials who spoke with Newsweek said they were convinced of its value.
The formula “is crucial not only for Ukraine but for the whole world; especially the points about radiation and nuclear safety, food safety, stopping ecocide, and so on,” Anton Gerashchenko, a former deputy minister and current advisor to the Ukrainian Interior Ministry, told Newsweek.
“If any of the points are dropped, it puts the world in danger. We cannot compromise with tyrants or dictators, it will create a dangerous precedent,” he said.
Ukrainian lawmaker Oleksandr Merezhko, who chairs the national parliament’s foreign affairs committee, told Newsweek that Kyiv’s proposal “is rather clear in the sense that it’s based upon basic principles of international law. I think that our foreign colleagues understand this and support this peace plan. At least, I haven’t heard any disagreement from them.”
Independent analyst and Russia expert Nikolai Petrov, however, told Newsweek that setting the bar too high might backfire for Kyiv.
“In my view, what we see now are very high expectations, which are natural if viewed from the Ukrainian side, but which are dangerous. If they are not realized, it could lead to very understandable disappointment and dissatisfaction,” Petrov said.
“Russia cannot win this war, but I do not think that Ukraine can win,” he added. The ambition to eject Russian troops from every inch of Ukrainian territory, Petrov said, is “irrelevant and non-realistic.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has described Kyiv’s peace plan as “an illusion.” The Kremlin shows no sign of backing down on its maximalist war goals, which still appear to include regime change in Ukraine.
Putin appears to be playing a waiting game, Petrov said.
“I think that both sides are preparing for offensives and both are sure that they can get more than they have now,” he said. “That’s why there is no common ground and nobody can even think about any negotiations any time soon before these offensives will start.”
There is “no reason” to expect Putin to change course, Petrov said. “He will wait for the Ukrainian side to lose any real ability to defend itself. This is connected with human factors, with weapons. Russia in his view—and it’s understandable—is much more prepared to wait for longer than Ukraine.”
“I think Putin’s plan B is to wait until the Ukrainian side until the Western side, will become exhausted and then he can celebrate a relative victory,” he said.
Ukraine’s key foreign partners within the European Union and NATO do not appear to be souring on their support for Kyiv yet, despite loud minorities on the political fringes in the United States and elsewhere raising concerns about continued backing for Ukraine.
Putin, Petrov said, will be hoping that simmering discontent evolves into more organized opposition.
“As time goes on new problems appear, and if they’re not seeing any positive results of the huge efforts which have already been made, it would be pretty natural for Europeans, for example, to ask what went wrong and whether it needs to continue these efforts,” he said.
“In the case of the U.S., he can use not only this kind of attrition but also changes in the political situation with American elections.”
There is little hope of a sudden pivot away from the imperialistic war, Daalder said, even if “the boss” is somehow dethroned.
“There is nothing to suggest that Putin will ever sue for some kind of peace that does not consist of Russia controlling the territory that it currently controls, and has the option of controlling more,” he said.
“His own future is intimately tied to success. Russia cannot afford failure and he can’t afford failure. And if he does fail, the most likely people to take over are people who are more likely to use even more capabilities to get this done. There is no peace faction…they’re in jail.”
In the U.S.
Ukraine’s biggest donor is President Joe Biden‘s administration, which appears committed to some form of a Ukrainian battlefield victory. When Zelensky visited Washington, D.C. in December, Biden said the two men “share the exact same vision” of the end of the war, suggesting the White House supports Kyiv’s goal to reclaim all territory occupied since 2014.
Indeed, Moscow seems to have taken Zelensky’s visit as a signal that peace is not yet possible.
“The talks in Washington have shown that neither Ukraine nor the United States is seeking peace,” said Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova. “They are simply intent on continuing the fighting.”
U.S. officials have expressed little hope for revived talks. White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters in November Putin has “shown absolutely zero indication that he’s willing to negotiate.”
“Quite the contrary…Everything he is doing on the ground and in the air bespeaks a man who wants to continue to visit violence upon the Ukrainian people,” Kirby said.
There are hints that the U.S. might be trying to guide Kyiv towards a softer set of demands, in particular dropping its goal of liberating the Crimean peninsula seized by Russian troops in 2014 and quickly annexed.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley said in November that the probability of the Ukrainian military being able to liberate Crimea “is not high.”
Also in November, The Wall Street Journal reported—citing unnamed European diplomats—that National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan had encouraged Ukrainian officials to think about “realistic demands and priorities for negotiations,” including possibly dropping the goal of reclaiming Crimea.
Daalder said U.S. officials should be cognizant of Kyiv’s limitations.
“A Ukrainian victory is unlikely,” he said. “It’s not impossible, but it’s unlikely, even if tanks and everything start flowing. The reality is that the Russians have dug in pretty deeply and it’s going to be very difficult to dislodge them, at least in a strategic way as the Ukrainians did in Kharkiv and in Kherson.
“They’ll make some advances. But the idea that this war is going to end by a victory from Ukraine; we should try, but we shouldn’t build our policy on it.”
In NATO and the European Union
NATO and EU leaders have been clear in their continued support for a Ukrainian victory defined by Kyiv.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen held a joint press conference this week urging member states to commit more weapons to Ukraine. But Ukraine faces a more complicated picture on its ultimate ambitions for membership of both blocs.
Zelensky’s requests for forms of accelerated membership for both the EU and NATO were dismissed as impractical by bloc officials and member states. Kyiv faces a long road to Euro-Atlantic accession, regardless of partners’ warm public rhetoric.
Ukraine’s EU and NATO membership goals are still enshrined in its constitution, and since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion has received EU candidate status and submitted a NATO bid. Ukraine is demanding concrete security guarantees, and leaders say there is no substitute for NATO’s collective defense umbrella.
A New Europe Center poll published this week found that 69 percent of Ukrainians would reject any peace deal that excluded Kyiv from NATO membership. Support for joining the alliance has risen to historic levels following the February invasion.
NATO has resolutely defended its “open door” policy, rejecting demands from Moscow that Ukraine is excluded. In December, Stoltenberg said the required conditions for peace in Ukraine are “not there now.”
Meanwhile, leaders of key EU nations have tried to hold the door open to talks with the Kremlin, much to Kyiv’s chagrin. French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz have been at the forefront of such efforts, raising fears in Ukraine that the European giants might seek to force Kyiv into costly concessions in the name of peace.
But both leaders have also significantly expanded military aid for Ukraine in recent months. Unwanted foreign pressure now appears unlikely, Daalder said.
“In terms of where the U.S. and the West stand on this issue, it is clear that they are not—and I don’t think they will ever—push the Ukrainians into a negotiation that the Ukrainians don’t believe in themselves,” he said. “I think that line has been drawn.”
The question of Ukraine joining NATO is a tricky one for alliance leaders in Brussels. Not all 30 members will be in favor, whether due to thorny bilateral issues like those between Hungary and Ukraine or for fear of dragging the alliance into a future confrontation with Russia.
Daalder said the debate is inevitable.
“In Washington, D.C., Berlin and Paris there is no appetite for having this discussion. But others do have an appetite for it, and it’s going to be a major issue at NATO’s Vilnius summit [in July 2023] and an issue at the 75th NATO anniversary summit in 2024,” he said.
“I’ve said since the beginning of the war that NATO membership ought to be part of this. The Russians don’t like it, who cares? We don’t like a lot of stuff the Russians do.”
Zelensky’s office, in collaboration with former NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, has proposed the Kyiv Security Compact as a stopgap defense measure. The accord would effectively turn Ukraine into a hedgehog bristling with NATO weapons, with more arms deliveries and punishing sanctions to be enacted in the case of future Russian aggression.
Leaders in Kyiv are dismissing any suggestion that Ukraine will never join the alliance. The measures in the Kyiv Security Compact might offer skeptics a framework for Ukraine’s long-term security without risking NATO lives.
But the format could also become an on-ramp. “If you can give security commitments now, that just makes it more likely that the door to NATO is opened, not less,” Daalder said.
The 2023 Outlook
Recent NATO nation commitments to sending new armored vehicles and air defense systems to Ukraine will be encouraging for Kyiv, evidence that Western unity is not cracking as Putin and his allies hoped.
“I think that judging by the announcement of new weapons to be passed to Ukraine in the near future we can say that the West now realizes Putin must be stopped for good,” Gerashchenko said. “Russia must stop being a global threat…No negotiations or concessions with terrorists.”
Ukrainian officials are also warning that a frozen conflict—as descended on the east of the country after Russia’s 2014 invasion—is an unacceptable risk.
“A prolonged and long-term war is dangerous not only for the Ukrainian economy, it is a global threat for the economies of Europe and the world,” Gerashchenko said. “We know that our allies realize that clearly and support Ukraine well on our road to victory.”
Kyiv may need to win more victories to convince Western partners it is capable of liberating all territory per its 1991 borders.
Russian forces are currently grinding forward in Donetsk around the towns of Bakhmut and Soledar—now synonymous with Russia’s bloody and frenzied offensive tactics—while Kyiv’s counter-offensives in Luhansk and Kherson oblasts are at a near-standstill.
Daalder said Western officials should not wait for a peace that never comes. “Most wars actually don’t end in either victory or peace,” he said. “They just sort of sputter on.”
Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic integration, therefore, should be a priority.
“The idea is that the war has to end before that can happen, but the war is not going to end,” Daalder said. “And you still need to deal with the reality that Ukraine needs to be integrated into the West.”
NATO will not hand Kyiv a membership “blank check,” he said and will want to see reforms combating the country’s corruption problems and fortifying democracy and the rule of law.
But, he added: “Ukraine is more ready for NATO membership than most NATO members who have members of NATO were, other than Finland and Sweden.”
“You are limited by the reality that Russia is a nuclear power, and that what you are trying to balance is support for Ukraine with avoiding escalation,” he said. “That balance constantly shifts. It shifts in how we provide weapons and that’s influencing the debate about NATO; it’s one of the reasons nobody wants to talk about it.
“We are going to have to have that debate sooner rather than later. So let’s start.”