View from Washington: How does the war in Ukraine end?

8:27 10.06.2024 •

US Senate delegation discusses issues of peace and war in Kyiv at the highest level.

One has to wonder what the answer would be — or should be — today as to how the war in Ukraine ends.

I spent the better part of the last two weeks talking with political and business leaders all over Europe and the Middle East. Almost without exception, and without regard to nationality or political persuasion, whenever the question of Ukraine came up, the input I got was surprisingly consistent, writes Mick Mulvaney, a former congressman from South Carolina, at ‘The Hill’.

The overwhelming majority of opinions were not “Ukraine wins, Russia loses.” It was the far more nuanced offering that the war would end with Ukraine ceding some portion of territory to Russia permanently — perhaps Donetsk, Donbas, and the southern coast along the Black Sea to Crimea. Occasionally, someone would suggest that Russia might in fact succeed in overrunning the entire country.

But not a single person suggested that Ukraine would be able to fully and permanently defeat Russians. Indeed, I haven’t heard anyone other than the most dedicated Ukrainian patriots and politicians seriously offer that the outcome can be as absolute.

If that is correct — if the generally accepted most likely outcome in Ukraine is some sort of partition of the country, with a small risk of a complete Russian victory — then why aren’t we having real discussions now about ending the war?

France is now considering sending French troops — under the pretense of being “advisers” — to the front. And the U.S. recently explicitly endorsed the use of Western armaments on certain limited targets inside Russia. It doesn’t take many anticipated moves down the chessboard to see how actions like those increase the risk of the war spilling over outside the current boundaries.

At the same time, it is hard to argue that those moves by France and the U.S. increase the likelihood of an outright Ukrainian victory. The West can and should help Ukraine defend itself, but nothing short of a full boots-on-the-ground military intervention can change the game.

The recent moves by France, the U.S., and others seem more likely to reaffirm the outcome that seems to be so widely, if privately, expected — that things are simply moving toward a stalemate.

If that is where so many people, in so many national capitals, from so many political persuasions, think the war in Ukraine is headed, then why are we prolonging things? Where are the calls for a ceasefire, or peace talks? Who is broaching the topic with Volodymyr Zelensky or Vladimir Putin?

I have heard several experts suggest that, generally, peace talks do not begin until both sides believe they have a better outcome available at the table than they do in the field. That sounds like an accurate reading of history. I suppose the recent moves by France and the U.S. could be arguably intended to change the Russians’ calculations about where their best deal lies. As it takes two to talk, however, one is left to wonder whether we are trying to convince the Ukrainians of the same.

Today, the choices in Ukraine seem to be between a peace involving territorial concessions to Russia, a complete Ukrainian collapse, a permanent state of war, or an escalation. Out of those, the first keeps looking like the least bad option.


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