Both supporters and opponents of a negotiated agreement with Russia to end the war in Ukraine are making bets on the future. Proponents of a deal are betting that, while negotiations may not satisfy Ukraine’s aims to fully restore its territory, they will end the war and produce a genuine peace. Opponents of negotiations are betting that, while a deal with Moscow may put an end to the fighting temporarily, it will only induce Russia to resume its aggression in the near future.
Both sides rest their bets on assumptions regarding the ongoing war. Supporters of negotiations believe that there is a stalemate and that a Ukrainian victory is impossible. Opponents of negotiations believe that there is no such stalemate and that a Ukrainian victory remains perfectly possible.
Which are the more realistic assumptions? And which is the safer bet? Let’s start by revisiting the assumptions that prevailed among Western policymakers and analysts before Russia launched its massive invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. There were of course exceptions, but the dominant assumptions were, first, that Ukraine couldn’t possibly avoid defeat and, second, that a negotiated settlement was its only path to survival—likely in a truncated form and with vassal status vis-à-vis Russia.
Both assumptions proved to be wrong: the first one almost immediately and the second after the collapse of the Istanbul negotiations in early 2022, when Ukraine offered neutrality in exchange for security guarantees. Interestingly, and perhaps not coincidentally, these are the same assumptions that supporters of negotiations have today: Ukraine cannot win, and only a deal with Russia can end the war. This doesn’t automatically mean that these assumptions are as wrong today as they were in 2022, but if the same assumptions were so fundamentally wrong before, it should at least arouse some skepticism regarding their veracity today.
So, is there a stalemate with no chance of a Ukrainian victory—or is the opposite true? The answer to this question also rests on assumptions. On the one hand, the Ukrainian counteroffensive has failed to produce any spectacular breakthroughs so far—and if the only criterion for a stalemate is the lack of spectacular breakthroughs, then, yes, there is a stalemate. If, on the other hand, incremental gains and the progressive degradation of Russian artillery, supply lines, ammunition dumps, fuel storage sites, transportation infrastructure, and command and control centers also matter, then, no, there is no stalemate.
Was World War II stalemated after the Allies landed in Normandy or the Soviets stopped the Germans at Stalingrad, both of which were followed by weeks, if not months, without a further spectacular breakthrough? Or were the smaller advances and attritional battles that followed these two events testimonies to the fact that the situation was not stalemated and that Germany would be defeated?
Regardless of whether there is a stalemate or not, is it possible for the Ukrainians to win by grinding away and never achieving a spectacular breakthrough? Of course, but only provided that the collective West continues to supply Ukraine with the needed arms. In other words, the assumptions made by supporters of negotiations aren’t really about stalemate or victory, but reflect a view about the willingness or desirability of the West to continue supporting Ukraine. That is to say, it’s not the assumption of stalemate that necessarily implies a reduction of Western military engagement in favor of negotiations. It’s the other way around: The aim of reducing that engagement, for whatever reason, implies the desirability of invoking stalemate and the impossibility of Ukrainian victory. We’ve known that Ukraine can only prevail with Western assistance from day one of the current invasion.
So, which is the safer bet—that negotiations will produce peace or that they will only delay the next phase of Russia’s war? Here, we’re in the realm of prediction and speculation, and the best one can do is arrive at conclusions that are more plausible than their alternatives. Which is another way of saying that one shouldn’t believe anyone’s proposals blindly. Every prognosis, no matter who makes it, has to be taken with a grain of salt.
For a plausibility check on whether a negotiated settlement could produce a durable peace—in short, whether Russia will abide by a deal—we can look at history, compare to similar situations, and invoke international relations theory. The question always comes back to Russia, as no serious analyst or policymaker would expect Ukraine to reignite the war after its negotiated conclusion.
Russian history is sobering. To this day, it is one of almost relentless expansion. Beginning in the 15th century, the Duchy of Moscow (which later called itself Russia) progressively seized territory in all directions to become, and remain, the world’s largest country. That expansionist drive hasn’t subsided since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, which Russian President Vladimir Putin explicitly views as a temporary setback. Belarus has been brought almost entirely under the Kremlin’s control, parts of Georgia and Moldova have been re-occupied, and Ukraine is once again the target of Russia’s sustained imperialist project. The past does not necessarily predict the future, but countries have foreign-policy traditions and dynamics that should not be ignored.
The history of other great powers and former empires is also instructive. During its own relentless expansion, the United States consistently violated the treaties it signed with Native Americans. Wilhelmine Germany ran roughshod over its guarantee of Belgian neutrality. Nazi Germany ignored the 1938 Munich Agreement, which British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had hailed as ensuring “peace for our time.” The history books are full of treaties that were only temporary breaks between wars. In a word, great powers, regardless of regime type, are cavalier about the agreements and the treaties that encumber them.
The second plausibility check involves Moscow’s behavior in similar situations—that is, does the Kremlin have a record of abiding by agreements with Ukraine? Russia has twice guaranteed the sanctity of Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders, including Crimea—once in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum and a second time in the 1997 Ukraine-Russia friendship treaty. It is now clear that Putin never intended to abide by the Minsk agreements that were supposed to bring peace after the first Russian-Ukrainian war in 2014. The details are as murky as any information coming out of Russia these days, but if Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin was indeed executed this week, it would also demonstrate Putin’s approach to negotiated agreements. He struck a deal with Prigozhin when the regime was weak, waited for an opportune moment, and then reneged on the deal to exact his revenge.
Finally, we can look at international relations theory—or, more precisely, several competing theories. Realist theory, which focuses on the balance between the major powers and their assumed spheres of influence, concludes that Ukraine naturally belongs in Russia’s orbit and doesn’t stand a chance against its mightier neighbor. Provided, of course, that the West stops its aid. Unsurprisingly, realist commentators, who range from scholars such as John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt to television personalities such as Tucker Carlson, are at the forefront of those arguing for the West to arrange itself with Russia, reduce or abolish arms deliveries, and press Ukraine to cede occupied land. In their view, a ceasefire and rump state is the best deal Ukraine can get.
But realism isn’t the only game in town. Many scholars argue that foreign policy isn’t just determined by a state’s geopolitical position, but that domestic politics and ideologies also matter—perhaps more so. From this point of view, foreign policy isn’t just, or even, a product of a state’s position in the hierarchy of power, but of regime ideology and a population’s or elite’s sense of national mission. These belief systems are exemplified by the United States’ Manifest Destiny, Britain’s colonial ideology of White Man’s Burden, France’s mission civilisatrice, Wilhelmine Germany’s self-image as Weltmacht, Nazi Germany’s grab for Lebensraum, the Soviet theory of global communist revolt, and so on—all the way back to Rome’s conception of Pax Romana. Here, too, contemporary Russia fits the bill with Putin’s idea of a Russian world that extends well beyond his country’s borders and the persistent Russian cultural belief that their nation is unique, superior, and ordained to rule over a periphery of non-Russians.
Other scholars argue that modern Russia’s expansionist drive comes from the way the former Soviet empire suddenly and comprehensively collapsed in 1991. Unlike the British and French empires, where the progressive loss of territory gave the imperial center time to adjust to being non-imperial, empires that collapsed in one fell swoop often retained the imperial ideology as well as many of the former empire’s important institutional and structural ties. The sudden collapse of the German Empire in 1918 is very instructive here: An unbroken imperial ideology mixed with resentment over lost status and territories was the toxic political and cultural cocktail that fueled the Nazis’ hyper-imperialist war. Seen against precedents of imperial dissolution, there is no reason to expect today’s Russia to abandon re-imperialization after a negotiated settlement with Ukraine, even if Russia is rewarded with some of Ukraine’s territory.
Those calling for an immediate negotiated settlement are thus making an extremely risky bet. History, comparison, and much of theory isn’t on their side. Effectively, they are advising Ukraine to put its survival on the line—in exchange for the flimsy hope that Russia will behave exactly as one tiny set of academics expect it to, according to their theory. That doesn’t guarantee that they are wrong, but the overwhelming evidence from historical precedent, regime behavior, national ideology, and international relations theory suggests that no durable negotiated peace is on offer.
In the final analysis, countries are dependent on their own historical experiences, not theoretical ruminations. Russia’s neighbors generally fear and mistrust Russia, with good cause. Ukraine, in particular, has every reason in the world to be skeptical about Russian intentions and promises of peacefulness. Policymakers and analysts in the West may want to ask themselves whether they’d be as willing to give Moscow the benefit of a doubt if Russia were their own neighbor, occupier, and historical overlord—and if their bets on the future concerned their very own existence.