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The war will end with Diplomacy. But here's why it won't be soon.
Peace in this war isn't close. And premature calls for diplomacy push it further away. Instead, the West needs to provide credible public commitments to arm Ukraine, and long-term support to get peace
You really don’t have to go far these days to hear a “helpful” tautology about the Russian war in Ukraine: all wars end in diplomacy.
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It’s a true, but banal statement by itself. But this statement is usually deployed to imply (or explicitly call for) something stronger: Ukraine—either on its own initiative, or with the United States and Europe twisting its arm—should urgently seek a ceasefire with Russia. Amazingly, this formulation sometimes even argues that the lack of visible diplomatic efforts by Ukraine or the United States to obtain said ceasefire is itself belligerent.
Alas, such views are getting louder, not quieter, and are increasingly escaping the political fringes. You can find it echoed across the entire Western hemisphere; not just from political elements on the American left and the right, but even from senior voices such as General Milley, the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as increasingly across Europe, including from senior politicians and diplomats there.
The problem with this line of reasoning is three-fold:
It creates a false dichotomy between diplomacy and war. Put simply, modern war is fought about the terms of the peace, not for its own sake, and not all peace terms are equal or tolerable. Modern war might end with diplomats agreeing the terms, but those terms are a reflection of the battlefield reality, not vice-versa.
It gets the basic facts wrong: there’s a great deal of diplomacy occurring day-to-day involving thousands of diplomats from virtually all countries, including Ukraine, Russia, the United States, and Europe, as well as neutral countries—and most of that effort is on securing favorable terms in the eventual peace agreement, and offsetting the respective costs of the war for themselves and their allies in the interim.
The conditions for war-termination are nowhere near close; and moreover will not get close soon. A stable peace is almost certainly not achievable in the short-term under any plausible scenarios.
These three observations lead us, ultimately, to two counterintuitive conclusions:
Premature calls for negotiations have the counter-intuitive effect of making stable peace in the medium-term slower rather than faster.
Serious peace negotiations will be available only once Russia’s medium-term plan is concretely discredited (or is successful). That places a lower-bound on when serious peace negotiations will be available, unless Ukraine and the West credibly shows that (a) Russia’s medium-term build-up will be decisively defeated by Ukraine once deployed, and that (b) the West will not abandon Ukraine through the medium-to-long term. Critically, “credibly show” is much more than merely “say”. It requires concrete medium and long-term actions that are visible and credible in Moscow.
Let’s expand on those each in turn.
The root of the problem in the “diplomacy harder” narrative comes from the belief that war and peace are opposite binaries, which leads to the impression that all forms of peace are equivalent.
Under that mistaken assumption, it’s easy to get confused why Ukraine doesn’t seek a ceasefire immediately. After all, if all wars end in diplomacy, and diplomacy is all about concessions, then surely they might as well do some concessions to get some peace now, rather than keep the war going and do some concessions to get some peace later?
To understand why this is so abjectly wrong, it’s first important to dismantle the simplistic and wrong belief that anyone serious is pro-war. Nobody—at least outside of the criminally insane—wants war for its own sake. Wars are terrible. For everyone. They consume vast resources. They have unfathomable costs in terms of blood; gold; infrastructure; generational traumas; lost investments; partitioned markets; and long-term costs of physical and mental disability and care costs for victims and their families.
Those costs are obviously greatest for Ukraine, and they deserve the most sympathy in this conflict. But it’s important to remember that, while self-inflicted, the costs to Russia are large and real too. And not just them; countries outside of the geographic borders of the conflict have enormous the costs that affect the economic wellbeing of the United States, Europe, China, the Global South, and everyone else in between.
This might come as a controversial statement, but it’s true and important nonetheless—so bear with me. Nobody serious wants war. Not even Putin. Putin isn’t having a war with Ukraine out of some abstract love of war for its own sake. He wants peace too. The thing is that he wants peace on his terms.
Ukraine and its allies fight back too not out of some pro-war sentiment, but because of what those terms mean. Living under constant bombardment is an all-encompassing nightmare, felt viscerally by everyone in Ukraine—from towns and villages near the frontlines in the East, in Kyiv itself, right through to places far in Western Ukraine. Everyone suffers from it. And there isn’t a soldier, or civilian, or general, or politician in the whole of Ukraine or the West who wouldn’t rather it all just went went away.
But living in a country at war is not the only way to experience violence and a life of terror. Yes, in some trivial sense, Ukraine could end the war tomorrow. It could submit an unconditional surrender and be rapidly subordinated by Russia. That would be peace in an extremely trite sense: the air-raid sirens would go quiet. The explosions in the distance would stop. But the terms of that peace would be more terrible than the war, at least to most Ukrainians.
To Westerners who have only ever known peace in stable democratic countries this concept can be admittedly hard to fathom. So, to help, let me give you an extreme example as a reference point. Imagine being teleported into a prison camp in North Korea—not as an American or European prisoner where you know your home country is reliably fighting for your release, but as a North Korean prisoner, abandoned to your fate.
In that camp you would have, in some extremely trivial sense, a “peaceful” life. You would hear no air-raid sirens. No missile strikes would hit your camp. But it would not be a tolerable existence, nor one free of terror and violence. Moreover, you can imagine that the knowledge that nobody is fighting to come and liberate you might make you feel worse about your condition; the “peace” would serve only to defeat any hope you might have of future liberation or freedom from your fate.
The reason this is important is that peace is not a simple binary concept, and modern wars are fought over the terms of the peace that comes afterwards. So yes, it is true in some trivial sense that all wars end in diplomacy. But it’s not a useful or insightful statement in its own right. Everyone wants peace; to argue otherwise is to fight a strawman.
The question is—and has always been—peace on what terms.
The second problem with the “diplomacy harder” narrative is it gets the basic facts wrong: there’s a great deal of diplomacy occurring day-to-day with a view to ending the war as quickly as possible and mitigating its harms in the meantime. This diplomacy involves literally thousands of diplomats from across the globe, including diplomats from Ukraine, Russia, the United States, and Europe.
That diplomacy might not be in the form you expect—but that doesn’t mean diplomats are not working flat-out to secure that eventual peace and mitigate the harms in the meantime.
The diplomacy comes in a variety of forms—from alliance management in NATO and the EU; brokering access to NGOs like the ICRC, UN, and IAEA to dangerous regions; shepherding votes through multilateral organizations like the UN; managing cases in international criminal justice organizations; arms shipments; prisoner exchanges; financial and humanitarian aid; the Grain Deal and access to shipping in the Black Sea; implementing and managing sanctions; refugee flow management; permanent and interim deals to offset energy crises; private articulation of red-lines to avoid non-conventional escalation—you name it. There’s no shortage of diplomacy taking place, and all of it’s about ending the war sooner, and reducing harms in the meantime so that support for Ukraine can continue into the medium-term.
This might not be diplomacy in the form of drafting a peace agreement, but that’s only because the conditions for war-termination are not yet available nor negotiable; not because diplomats are sitting on their hands. When a sustainable peace becomes an option, diplomats will absolutely seize it; if anything, fighting between themselves to be gain credit for helping achieve that eventual historic moment.
The third problem with the “diplomacy harder” narrative is that it makes a dangerous mistake about the basic circumstances under which war termination conditions occur, both in the general case and in this specific war.
The obstacle to a stable peace between Russia and Ukraine lies in their currently-opposite views about their respective prospects over the long-term. Ukraine has had several undeniable recent successes on the battlefield, and sees these as likely to continue into both the medium and long-term.
By contrast, Russia is convinced that its recent losses are temporary; that it will turn the tide over the medium-term; and that it will eventually come to dominate Ukraine over the long-term.
Importantly, it doesn’t matter which one you—or any expert—think is correct. What matters is that both Russia and Ukrainian leadership currently see a viable path to their respective maximalist visions of their own successes: Ukraine believes it can and will liberate its territory back to its internationally-recognized borders; Russia still believes it can and will fully subordinate Ukraine.
Objectively one (or both) of them is wrong. But whichever it is, this question will not be resolved through debate or negotiation by diplomats in a conference room. It will instead have to be resolved in reality. And that means finding out who is right through soldiers fighting on the battlefield.
This point might sound obvious, but countries are generally uninterested in negotiating peace terms when they think they are just on the cusp of a breakthrough success on the battlefield. That’s because they think the breakthrough will permit more favorable terms if the peace is settled later rather than negotiating for terms right now. So if you’re wondering why Ukraine is pushing back on the idea of peace negotiations, and why Russia is not pushing hard for them either yet, this is why.
That’s a problem for anyone expecting an imminent stable peace agreement. Not to put too fine a point on it, but stable peace will not be achievable until one or the other sees its vision of the future crash on the rocks of the battlefield reality.
It is helpful at this point to try and understand why Russia believes it will win in the long-term from their perspective. It’s more than mere denialism or a lack of quality information being transmitted to Russian leadership—although both probably also play a role. Rather, Russia’s sincere belief in its eventual success comes down to two central pillars: First, a belief in its ability to reconstitute its force in the medium-term, and secondly a belief that the West will abandon Ukraine in the medium-to-long term.
On the first of these, Russia’s force reconstitution efforts are via a range of measures, including (at least) the mobilization of its own population; rebuilding its long-range precision munition capacity through Iranian and domestic drone production and repurposing cruise missiles from its own enormous strategic nuclear force; recovery, acquisition, and repurchase of ammunition and equipment from long-term storage and from and countries like North Korea; the subordination of the Belarusian armed forces under Russian military command to threaten or actually invade Ukraine; the potential mobilization of Belarus too; through co-opting prisoner and conscript soldiers into long-term military service; and from large-scale industrial mobilization to build additional munitions.
These efforts may or may not be successful. But be careful: what matters for the prospects of Russian ceasefire negotiations here is not what you or some group of western military experts believe to be the case. What matters is that Russian leadership sincerely believes it. At least at the moment.
The second pillar of Russian strategy relies on the sincere belief that Ukraine’s allies will abandon it out of a combination of apathy, domestic cost-aversion, and eventual dwindling or ending of military support to Ukraine. Russia believes that it can manage domestic unease and economic costs far longer than the West can, and that Western support will eventually dissipate. Moreover, they believe that their own diplomatic and propaganda efforts will accelerate this process in the West. In Russia’s view, as Western support dwindles, Ukraine’s military successes will begin to unwind, and they will then be able to overpower Ukraine.
Again, it doesn’t matter if you believe this will happen. It matters that they believe it.
Once you see that these are the two key pillars of the current Russian strategy, it enables you to spot two conclusions; both perhaps a little unintuitive.
The first conclusion is that neither Russia nor Ukraine is interested in negotiating a long-term stable peace at the moment. But Russia is interested in a short-term one. Their plans are based in the medium and long-term, and a short-term ceasefire would aid them substantially in the period before those medium-term plans deliver. It would stem their battlefield losses while their force-reconstitution efforts continue, and allow them to resume the conflict later under more favorable conditions to them. This gives them enormous incentives to pretend to be interested in a long-term peace agreement, while ensuring that if any such peace-agreement does occur, that it is easily sabotaged so they can continue the war when they are ready.
For the same reason, Russia is also incentivized to play the victim of “Ukrainian and US belligerence”; promoting propaganda in public and private that a peace-deal would be available, if only Ukrainians and the United States would allow it. If the West were to fall for this propaganda and twist Ukraine’s arm into a peace deal, Russia would absolutely sign one. But it would be temporary—a few weeks or months at best—and come at a cost to Ukraine by denying them the ability to press their current advantage. Instead, Ukraine would be forced to resume the conflict later when Russia breaks the ceasefire, but on Russian terms with a reconstituted force, not on their own terms against a depleted force now.
The second conclusion is equally counterintuitive: that premature calls for negotiation reinforces the belief in Moscow that Western support is already atrophying, and that Ukraine’s allies are already scrambling for an exit. That has the (ironic) effect of helping Putin make the case internally that with a bit more patience, Russia will be able to resume the fight at full force, enabling them to reverse recent Ukrainian gains, and push onwards to a full subjugation of Ukraine in the long-term.
In other words, premature calls for negotiation make Russia more confident in their strategy to defeat Ukraine, which in turn makes a stable peace agreement less likely, not more.
Unfortunately, the Russian war in Ukraine will not end until the Russian plan meets reality—either through success in subjugating Ukraine, or through failure on the battlefield. If it fails, Russia will then have two options: to change strategy, or to get serious about a long-term peace-agreement with its neighbor.
What that means in practice is that Ukraine’s allies looking for a long-term stable peace between Ukraine and Russia need to target those two pillars of the Russian strategy head-on, in order to speed-up the realization in Moscow that it won’t work. In other words, the West needs to support Ukraine at a level that will defeat Russia’s ability to overwhelm it through force-reconstitution, and to provide visible and credible commitments that the West is willing to support Ukraine through the long-term too.
It’s tempting to think that’s basically “more of the same” of what we’re already doing.
The Western strategy needs to demonstrate long-term commitments, as opposed to its current strategy of providing necessary—but also ad-hoc and short-term—tranches of equipment and materiel support every few months. It means not just providing more equipment and ammunition, but also visibly and loudly increasing the capacity to produce equipment over the long-term too.
To put that another way, the West needs to perform credible commitments about it support in the long-term of this war. That is, thinking not just about support in early 2023, but about what support in 2024 and 2025 look like too, and pre-committing for it.
It also means spending less time—particularly in Germany and elsewhere in Europe—projecting the hope that the war will end soon and all the ways life will get back to normal once it does, and instead spend more time on long-term commitment planning for Ukraine. As a specific concrete example of this, the EU can and should set up a permanent group to plan out and begin the long-term process for Ukraine’s eventual EU-integration, thereby demonstrating a long-term commitment by the EU to Ukraine’s future; and a future outside of Russian subordination.
In America, it also means thinking through the hard questions about what happens when Ukraine gets close to its internationally-recognized borders, where cutting off Russian supply lines will require Ukraine to begin systematically and regularly attacking positions inside Russia proper to secure them, as well as industrial planning to ensure that supplies including ammunition do not run low in the medium and long-term. In other words, demonstrating—and not just saying—that the US is thinking about the long-term future of this conflict, and demonstrating that Russia’s two strategies will fail.
Ironically, the more the West provides credible commitments to Ukraine’s military success, the less likely it is that those commitments will turn out to be necessary. That’s because loudly signaling that Western support will be there for the long-term, will make it harder for Moscow to stick with its current strategy.
If the West can credibly demonstrate that this strategy will fail, Moscow will have to pivot to a new strategy, or come to the negotiating table. But if it does not—or if the West once again fools itself into thinking that forceful words are the same as credible commitments—then Moscow will not believe them, and instead test its strategy on the battlefield—a substantial and avoidable cost to Ukraine and its Western supporters compared with showing the strategy as likely to fail through visible commitments.
Either way, only once that strategy fails will Russia be forced to come up with a new approach or to come back to the negotiating table to look for a stable peace agreement. Once it does, Ukrainian diplomats, with the assistance of diplomats across the world, will have an opportunity to negotiate for a long-term peace agreement with Russia and achieve a peace that lasts.
But until then, the tautology that “all wars end with diplomacy” isn’t helping anyone get there.
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