Home / Articles / ‘Let’s Make a Deal’? Ukraine and the Poor Prospects for Negotiations with Putin
Editor’s note: The Russian invasion of Ukraine has arguably been the most significant geopolitical event of 2022. Beginning with Dov Zakheim’s comments in the Spring 2022 issue, Orbis authors have discussed the ramifications of the invasion. As we approach the one-year anniversary, Revisiting Orbis will be offering updated commentary from its contributors, starting with this first essay from Frank Hoffman.
What would Monty Hall say about the odds of a peace deal in Ukraine? I am probably dating myself in this reference to a popular TV show from the 1960s. Hall was the show’s host which was based on colorfully dressed contestants being asked to select between different options. The selected audience members had to make choices between something presented at hand before them like a large amount of cash or something hidden behind a curtain. The prizes included consumer items like cars, jewelry or vacation trips, or gag items like a goat. Those that guessed wrong went home empty-handed or with their goat.
The combatants in Ukraine face a similar choice. Should they take what they have or hold out for a nicer prize? This article will explore the ongoing debate about the potential dangers associated with negotiating an end to the Russo-Ukraine war. There are several advocates calling for a deal but few ideas on what the negotiations should include. In fact, many Western analysts seem to think it is entirely an affair between the combatants. This ignores the strategic interests NATO and other contributors have in the endgame, and the costs and huge risks they are incurring. After outlining the debate and some potential implications, a framework for a deal is offered. It is a notional agreement as a starting point, and it crosses announced red lines from both antagonists.
Ukraine has defied expectations and admirably defended its sovereignty. It still has quite a way to go to eject Vladimir Putin’s armed forces and hirelings. A bitter frozen conflict could last for some time despite the tenacious and creative defense of Ukraine’s determined military. But it is time to start thinking about the end game. Sketching out the compromises and hard choices for Russia’s termination of its “Special Military Operation” is not an exercise in optimism or wishful thinking. Understanding what the West desires out of this conflict and what is the objective in terms of relations with a defeated Russia is a clear strategic question for US policymakers at this point in time.
Recently, there have been discussions about a negotiated settlement in Ukraine. Reporting from the New York Times revealed ongoing debates in the Biden administration about encouraging Ukraine to seek a diplomatic solution sooner rather than later. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, reinforced this account at The Economic Club of New York. He thought the time was coming when a political solution could be obtained, and he publicly suggested that Kyiv should seize that moment. He explained his position in a subsequent interview where he noted that the Ukrainian military has fought the Russian military to a standstill. “Now,” he argued, “we think there are some possibilities here for some diplomatic solutions.” He went on noting that kicking the Russians physically out of Ukraine entirely would be a very difficult task, and “the probability of Russia achieving its strategic objectives of conquering Ukraine is … close to zero.”
It appears that the White House and State Department do not feel the time is right nor do they think the United States should be pressuring Ukraine’s president to initiate a political negotiation. Likewise, NATO’s secretary general was lukewarm on the chances at this time, claiming that Russia merely wants a ceasefire to lock in its gains to date and buy time for renewed military operations in the spring when it has fresh troops and revived its ammunition stocks.
Gen. Milley, however, accurately defined the military context and offered an insightful historical analogy. He told reporters at a follow-up event at the Pentagon about the timing for negotiations now was appropriate, stating “You want to negotiate at a time when you’re at your strength and your opponent is at weakness.” He drew upon an analogy to the extended stalemate of World War I, where most parties understood after the first year that a military solution was very unlikely. Yet, for political reasons, each side sustained several more years of war in a test of endurance that added millions of casualties and dissolved several empires. This reflects a well-founded historical sense about the costs of war, both human and materiel.
The most relevant element of this analogy is the stalemated character of the conflict and its horrendous casualties. But, additionally one cannot discount the dramatic dissolution of the Russian, German, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian empires and the political chaos that ensued. Another interesting lesson is the post-war treaty that did not, in the eyes of many scholars, set conditions for long-term stability. As Henry Kissinger has observed, “The punitive Treaty of Versailles that ended the war proved far more fragile than the structure it replaced.” While supportive of Ukraine’s victory, he concurs that the time is approaching to build on the strategic changes to date and “integrate them into a new structure towards achieving peace through negotiation.” Other scholars have added that a strategic defeat that degrades Russia so badly that it becomes a resource pawn for China could significantly benefit Beijing in today’s geostrategic competition.
Others contend that this is no time to go wobbly and argue that more advanced US weapons should be sent (faster) to abet Kyiv’s victory instead of seeking negotiations. It is certainly premature given the fact that Russia still holds nearly a fifth of Ukraine’s territory and perhaps even a larger part of its economy. Ukraine has momentum on its side at present. But a truce or a negotiated settlement may lock in Putin’s gains, and thus talks at this point are seen as counterproductive.
But if you account for the risks and costs that are rising, it is clearly time to see if the combatants can look behind the curtain and see what kind of a deal can be had. There are a number of issues that might give a policymaker pause and think that now is an appropriate time to consider how the conflict could be terminated. These include:
Intelligence that Russia’s latent national power has deeper reservoirs (organic and from allies like China, North Korea, and Iran) that are going to be tapped.
Some evidence that Russia is rebuilding combat power faster than commonly thought or prepared to attack NATO to escalate the conflict wider beyond Ukraine.
Increased risk for escalation is growing (signals from Shoigoi perhaps regarding Russian use of nuclear capability).
A possible drastic drop in European Union/NATO support (due to ongoing recessions, inflation concerns, and political changes).
A perceived drop in US support (due to fears of recession, rising inflation, costs) from either Democratic progressives who issued and retracted their concerns or restraints from the Republican Party which intends to closely scrutinize military aid.
Concerns that higher priorities in Asia are being undercut and that the probability of opportunistic aggression in that theater is rising.
An assessment that continued security support to Ukraine is drawing down US military readiness, and that restoring munitions stocks is going to be costly and slow for both Washington and its allies.
Given this extensive litany of concerns, it is no surprise that national security officials are weighing the costs and consequences of the war. In fact, if these potential risks were not being considered and debated, the White House could be accused of malpractice. At the same time, there were problems raised by the New York Times story:
It partially exposed internal deliberations and differences of opinion among the Biden administration’s senior team to the public.
It upset Ukraine’s political leadership since it came on the heels of their successful offensives to regain Kherson.
It may be misperceived by Putin that the United States is wavering in its support for a clear military success for Ukraine.
On this latter point, a number of diplomats, regional experts, and scholars are concerned about negotiating with Russia at this time. Raphael Cohen from RAND provided an incisive commentary on the dangers raised by Milley’s comments, and concluded they were an inducement for Putin to press on. The administration responded forcibly to clarify that misperception.
Would some sort of negotiated settlement with a Russian withdrawal from selected areas be feasible? There is little common ground on what the deal may look like. Volodymyr Zelensky offered some general conceptions of what peace might look like in late November. His preferred outcome included Russia’s withdrawal from all occupied Ukrainian territory (including Crimea), reparations, and judicial determined consequences for war crimes. This seemingly renewed willingness to discuss the cessation of the conflict seems to have been generated to satisfy suggestions from Washington that Kyiv present itself as still open to some sort of a peace agreement. Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kubela, argues that Kyiv will not compromise on its territory and that he foresees no prospect for productive peace talks.
In addition to our own perspectives in Washington and Kyiv, the input of key allies must be factored in. Here the positions are mixed. After consultations with Biden in a trip to Washington, President Emmanuel Macron from France articulated the need for greater dialogue, even counterintuitively calling for the inclusion of security guarantees for Russia. Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom, conversely, called for a decisive victory, claiming that “Anything less than a Russian defeat in Ukraine will embolden Moscow and other authoritarian powers.”
What a Deal Could Look Like
So, what might a deal look like? Unlike Monty Hall’s show, politicians need to know what the options might be, rather than making choices behind a curtain. Under what conditions might the US government want to push for a settlement at this particular point in time, when limited progress will be made and Russia still holds a substantial swath of Ukrainian territory that would strangle its long-term economic potential? Both sides are bleeding, literally and figuratively. But neither side seems prepared to negotiate. A settlement is not in sight and a premature deal would alleviate the horrible suffering inside Ukraine but only temporarily and only in the land held by Kyiv. Russia would simply regroup over time and threaten Ukraine’s freedom and peace in Europe yet again. At this point, there seems to be no available mechanism or motivation to implement a political solution or even just a cease-fire. The latter may be palliative, stopping the horrific violence, but it is certainly not conducive to long-term stability. It would lock in a frozen conflict along the current battle lines, with Putin holding more ground and resources than before the war. It would require Ukraine’s political leadership to cede a swath of ground but more critically to abandon the inhabitants of that land to barbaric treatment.
So far neither of the contending parties has offered a clear platform of a deal. Various European leaders have tried to lay out some generic concept to draw the parties to the table. The Russian foreign minister has complained that Kyiv is not serious about ending the war, and thinks a deal could be achieved if the Ukrainians would only accept “current realities.” But the only true reality is much larger than what is happening on the battlefield. The Russians do not see the new realities as a stronger and more united NATO, a well-armed Ukraine, their loss of human talent and foreign capital, the impact of protracted sanctions, and eventually reduced energy revenues, or the end of Putin’s regime. The biggest reality of all is the fact that Russia’s military cannot cash the checks that Putin is writing, his ambitions outstrip the capabilities of his army. Overreaching is a classic fault of bad strategy noted by John Lewis Gaddis.
The Russians insist that they will not even come to the table without an agreement that the annexations of the four oblasts be recognized as a precondition for talks. Zelensky has given a speech with a ten-point plan that was more about principles and demands in response to Washington’s subtle message than clear positions. He wants Russian troops to pull out of all the oblasts, and he claims to want Crimea back as well.
No one appears to be ready for a deal, or perhaps they are just posturing before sitting down. But there is no proposal on offer that provides a framework for diplomacy. My own starting point is laid out in the table below. The first column reflects the major contested elements that would comprise the ultimate agreement. These include political, economic, and military alignments, reparations and reconstruction costs, and security guarantees. Starting points for the parties to the treaty are listed in the columns. Since the war and its costs are shared beyond just the combatants, I have included a column for international parties to the negotiation.
Economic and Security Alignments. The key element of the proposed starting point is a tradeoff in Ukraine’s alignment with the West. Economically and politically, Ukraine would continue its transformation for accession into the European Union. In security and military terms, however, Kyiv would accept a neutral position with security guarantees from a coalition of willing countries. NATO forces would not be positioned inside Ukraine, and in return Russian forces would not be in Belarus either. Zelensky has previously offered this posture, but that was early in the conflict.
Territorial Control. Several key sticking points would complicate negotiations. In my proposals, the four occupied oblasts are returned to Ukraine’s control. Moscow would object to this, just as much as Ukraine would to the proposed recognition of Russian control of Crimea. Most observers believe efforts to retake Crimea by force would be bloody and arduous. This is doubly true if a substantial portion of Ukraine’s growing combat power is depleted in the upcoming campaign to free the annexed oblasts. But officials in Kyiv are more upbeat about their chances of reclaiming the peninsula.
Table 1: Provisional Negotiated Settlement
Incorporates Kyiv into EU expeditiously
Neutral, and no NATO troops.
Only defense attaches in embassies
No Russian troops in Belarus
Donor, EU, and Ukrainian funded
Retains sovereignty of 4 occupied oblasts
Recognition of Russian control of Crimea
Ukraine retains option of referrals to International Criminal Court
UN Human Rights Commission assessment
Ukraine pledges to preserve political rights and access to all media for Russian residents
Russian speakers retain rights to language, culture, and access to Russia TV/radio
Ukraine retains rights over water
Russia agrees to allow access to Sea of Asov
Black Sea Security
Establishment of a UN Maritime Observation Group
Refugees and Deportees
Ukraine returns all Russian prisoners
Red Cross supervision and UNHR support
Russia returns all prisoners, deportees including children
Security Guarantees for Kyiv
Coalition of willing states agree to protect Ukrainian sovereignty
EU and US modulate Russian energy imports to enforce the agreement
Reconstruction and Reparations. This proposal does little in terms of holding Russia accountable for reparations. The costs of rebuilding the country’s battered infrastructure range from $350 to $800 billion. The World Bank’s most recent estimate is almost $350 billion. Resources for this reconstruction challenge will be hard to find, even assuming that the Ukrainian economy rebounds at all, much less than to its former level. That will be hard to achieve if Russia occupies a swath of areas critical to Ukraine’s manufacturing, mining, and agricultural centers.
Rebuilding Ukraine is going to require resources. A costly modern-day recovery effort, a Marshall plan for Ukraine, will be needed to ensure that Ukraine recovers and has a chance at the peace and prosperity it has earned defending itself from unprovoked aggression. Western capitals could transfer all of Russia’s frozen foreign-held hard currency reserves to a judicially controlled grand master for claims by Ukraine and other states for the costs of rebuilding Ukraine and compensating victims. This would signal to Moscow that every building and power transformer destroyed will be rebuilt and Putin will foot the bill. This initial proposal was to have a European court or the International Criminal Court hold those funds, and Ukraine would be the principal injured party able to make claims to the court. A team from the Atlantic Council led by Steve Hadley, the widely respected former US national security advisor, has proposed that the funds (just over $300 billion) be seized and given to Ukraine’s government. In the proposal herein, reparations are presented as a cost that Ukraine will have to bear, aided by the contributions of the international community.
Prisoner exchanges have been ongoing, but the return of kidnapped Ukrainians and accountability for those missing could be problematic in negotiations. Accounting for a large number of missing children is also going to be difficult for Ukrainian political leaders to resolve.
Security Guarantees. Ukraine has articulated its desire for clear security guarantees, and numerous countries have expressed an interest in participating in some coalition of the willing. Ukraine’s foreign minister has unwisely asked once again for immediate accession to NATO, calling past delays from Brussels a “strategic mistake.” In the proposed initial framework, neutrality for Ukraine is proposed to satisfy Moscow’s interest. But either sanctions or other seized assets might be held as a bond to secure Russia’s good behavior.
This is not a complete agreement, the elements are depicted as merely the starting point for the parties to begin to negotiate. It is not presumed to satisfy all parties. Nor does it truly resolve the larger question of Russia’s relationship with the West. Moscow’s schizophrenic and imperial delusions will not be permanently resolved by this agreement, and its sense of grievance against the democracies is only going to be enflamed by the evident hollowness of Russia’s military might and the diminished economic status Putin has created for his people.
Post-War Relationships. As several experts have noted, Russia is not going away, it will remain a persistent power and probably remain a persistent source of instability to Europe. The character of this conflict and its termination is going to influence Europe for the remainder of this decade. It behooves us to not just think in the short term or delude ourselves that Washington or the capitals of our NATO allies do not have a dog in this fight and the resolution of the conflict. One suspects that elites in Berlin and Paris want to reflexively return to some version of the pre-war status quo, and return to economic intercourse, especially Russian energy imports. Somehow the atrocities in Bucha, the attacks on hospitals and nuclear facilities, the rape and sexual violence, the kidnapped children whisked away, and the unchecked predation of Moscow’s Wagner Group mercenaries on European soil are quickly whitewashed. The West is going to have to construct a cohesive approach towards Russia after the war, and a united position today may accelerate the cessation of the war if Moscow understood this.
It is difficult to think that some meaningful and just treaty can be hammered out with Putin anytime soon. Putin seems intent on doubling down, weaponizing the winter cold, and eliminating Ukraine’s electricity grid. He has pinned his latest false hope on the long disproven notion of “wonder weapons” against a society. Ukraine’s recent successes make it clear that it can still achieve more on the battlefield. It will be costly in human lives, but Kyiv is likely to continue to make progress as long as it has the tools. It is likely to make more progress next year, although it is doubtful that it can reclaim everything. As Mick Ryan has noted, retaking Crimea would prove highly challenging and may incur costs that Zelensky’s foreign supporters cannot cover.
So the war will continue on, as it did in 1914. But that does not mean that diplomatic exchanges cannot occur or that the attendant risks to the region should not be carefully managed.
Strategic decisions about war, including termination of hostilities, are undeniably complex. Prof. Dan Reiter, from the University of Virginia, identified a key condition for ending conflict in his book How Wars End. The critical condition is the confidence level of the engaged belligerents that the opposing adversary would honor a finalized agreement. But Russia’s track record with accords like Helsinki, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces accord, Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, and Minsk agreements is spotty. They are consistently twisted or violated. They are a means to an end; that objective is never about moving forward toward resolution and compromise.
Most wars do come to a conclusion, and usually with some sort of negotiated political agreement. But Fred Ikle’s book on war termination, Every War Must End, was only partially right. Many wars are also protracted tests of endurance. History is replete with examples like the Hundred Years’ War and the Thirty Years’ War. Even the 20th century’s devasting pair of wars can be conceived of as a singular conflict of four decades duration in Europe. This war will end too, someday. Putin acts as if the geopolitical costs of his incompetence are inconsequential for Russia. He can spin the humiliating performance of the Russian troops in his domestic propaganda, but Putin knows better than anyone else the answer to the question “Is Russia losing?” As Sir Lawrence Freedman concluded in November, Putin knows that the war was lost long ago. Yet, he’s reluctant to choose a path out, afraid to find out what is behind the curtain.
Some think that greater efforts at a diplomatic resolution are naïve or simply dismissed reflexively. Negotiated endings to human conflict are the norm but can ultimately only be pursued only when each side believes that it can gain and lock in more at the table than it can on the ground. Neither side is there right now. Putin has dug a deep hole and accelerated every trend Russian hawks feared, particularly a stronger and more cohesive NATO closer to its borders. Still, the prospects for peace are extremely slim, unless one is willing to accept peace on Putin’s terms.
That is not to say that there is no hope for securing a suitable peace, or that it’s not worth trying for. Peace cannot be established or sustained without a broader conception of the regional order. I agree with Freedman that “It does no harm to start thinking about a post-war security order” but not if it is built on wishful thinking or wildly imaginative conceptions of a modern-day Concert of Europe. The best way to gain an enduring peace is to ensure that Putin understands that continuing this war will generate great political and economic losses that are as bad as the staggering defeats he has gained in the military domain. Then he will be pushed aside or forced to make a deal. At this point, we are all spectators on Monty Hall’s show wondering which choice the contestant will make. We should help clarify for Putin and his supporters that there is no prize or better deal forthcoming, no matter how barbaric his tactics are.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.