The Case Against Negotiations with Russia
By Frederick W. Kagan, Director of the Critical Threats Project and Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute
The following article was originally published by CriticalThreats.org. The Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute supports ISW's daily reporting on the war in Ukraine. CTP Director Frederick W. Kagan leads this supporting effort.
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.
When Putin re-invaded Ukraine in February he already had Crimea and parts of Donetsk and Luhansk, and no one was realistically going to take them away from him. That was not enough for him. Offering him a return to a situation so unsatisfactory to him that he launched a massive invasion to change is not a face-saving off-ramp. Imagine Putin sitting at one end of a long table and announcing proudly to the Russian people that at the cost of more than 100,000 dead and injured Russians and nine months or more of economic devastation he has secured…almost exactly what he had before. No. Putin saves no face by doing that. He would likely accept such an outcome if the military realities of the situation required it, but he will never regard it as an attractive off-ramp. The Kremlin’s repeated refusals even to consider negotiations along these lines are proof enough of this conclusion.
For Putin to justify accepting less than his maximalist aims in any sincere way he would have to show great gains—gains measured in the tens of thousands of square kilometers of new Ukrainian territory permanently annexed to Russia. It is far from clear that he would accept even that, to be sure, as the basis for any durable peace. But the West must be honest with itself and its people, as well as with Ukrainians. The price for “getting Putin to the table” with the frontlines in a configuration remotely like the one they are now in is very likely to be promising him huge swaths of Ukrainian land, not minor changes in the diplomatic language surrounding what he has already shown that he found insufficient.
It is also vital to recall the fire never ceased during the so-called “ceasefire” between 2014 and 2022. Russian forces conducted constant military attacks on Ukrainian positions throughout that period, and Putin used the Russian military presence in Ukraine as leverage to coerce Kyiv, demand additional concessions, and drive wedges within Ukrainian politics and society and between Ukraine and the West.
Discussions about the desirability of Ukraine negotiating from a position of strength, while its forces are winning, are based on a mistaken premise. Ukraine has liberated nearly half the land Russia has seized since renewing its invasion in February 2022—meaning that Russia still has more than half the territory it illegally occupies. Ukraine has momentum in this conflict, but not yet the upper hand. Its negotiating position is stronger than it was when Russian forces were advancing on additional critical cities and regions, but not yet strong enough to have created good conditions from which to negotiate.
Advocates of talks must be clear on another key point—negotiations at this stage of the conflict will not yield additional Russian territorial concessions. Putin has announced the formal annexation to Russia of large areas of Ukraine that he does not control. He might agree to a ceasefire that informally accepts that Ukraine can have those regions, but he will not agree to one that requires him to pull back voluntarily from lands he has claimed are now part of Russia. Not at this stage of the war, as Russian reinforcements are arriving and the West is heading into a cold winter that Putin hopes will break its will to continue supporting Ukraine. Putin’s actions show that he does not yet believe that he has lost this war, that he will lose it, or even that he will not be able to gain more land by fighting. Russian forces are even now leaning into a renewed offensive in Donetsk Oblast. In those conditions, Putin will not make a concession that will appear utterly humiliating to him by retracting his announced annexations or withdrawing his troops from areas they currently control. A ceasefire now will freeze the lines where they are at best.
That consideration is extremely important because Putin’s forces still occupy strategically vital areas even after Ukraine‘s successes in western Kherson. Russia still controls the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant—the largest in Europe and a major source of Ukrainian energy as well as an increasing danger to the environment in the irresponsible hands of the Russians. It still controls the vital hub of Melitopol, a city that sits astride essential lines of communication from Russia in the east to the lower Dnipro River in the west and from Ukrainian-held Zaporizhia Oblast to the north to Crimea in the south. If Russia retains Melitopol it will build it into a massive forward base from which to launch future invasions to take the critical Ukrainian cities of Zaporizhia and Dnipro and possibly to cross the Dnipro itself once again to put all of Ukraine at risk. The current lines leave almost the entirety of Ukraine’s mineral extraction and processing industries in Russian hands. Those industries, concentrated in the east around Donetsk and Luhansk cities with vital transportation and processing links through Mariupol, comprised a sizable part of the pre-2014 Ukrainian economy. Giving them to Russia risks making Ukraine a permanent economic basket case dependent on the international community for long-term aid. These are not just miscellaneous Ukrainian territories somewhere in the east. They are areas Ukraine must regain to survive as an independent state facing the constant threat of renewed Russian aggression.
Even conceding these lands would not end the war, moreover. Putin did not invade Ukraine to gain territory. He invaded because he rejects the idea of an independent Ukrainian state or a Ukrainian ethnicity. He attacked because he refuses to tolerate a government in Kyiv that is not under de facto Russian control. He has built these ideas deeply into his ideology and will not remove them. Putin will never stop trying to regain control of Ukraine by one means or another. Neither Ukraine nor the West can change Putin’s ambitions—so they must create a reality in which even Putin understands that he must not pursue them by war and in which he lacks the capability to continue fighting even if he wanted to.
How can that reality come about? The West should help Ukraine liberate the areas that are strategically vital to its security and economic well-being and then build up the Ukrainian military and economy to a point that deters future Russian invasions. Moscow will continue to pursue means short of invasion to undermine pro-Western Ukrainian governments and coerce Ukrainians to surrender their independence. Success for Ukraine and the West lies in turning this hot war into a cold war on terms that leave Ukraine strong enough to survive and ultimately win it.
Advocates of negotiations now might claim that this is precisely what they are doing. But they have judged their moment poorly. Freezing the conflict where it is now invites renewed Russian invasion sooner and badly undermines Ukraine’s ability to prevail in either a renewed hot war or in the new cold war.
Allowing Russia to keep some or all the areas it currently holds also condemns millions of Ukrainians to the ongoing Kremlin efforts to Russify them; to identify, torture, and kill people who still give their allegiance to Kyiv; to abduct Ukrainian children and adopt them forcibly into Russian families, and to continue the ethnic cleansing campaign Putin is pursuing to eliminate the Ukrainian national identity everywhere he can.
The current lines are thus neither defensible nor acceptable. Ukraine must push on, and the West must help Kyiv create conditions on the ground that are sustainable over the long term. Ukraine must first establish the military facts on the ground that it needs to survive and only then, with the backing of its partners, turn to Russia to codify those facts in a diplomatic agreement.