Ukraine war: How long can
the US maintain support in
the absence of negotiations?

Ben Armbruster

The war in Ukraine is in its twelfth month and shows no sign of ending. On the contrary, the war is escalating on the battlefronts of Donbas and against civilians in cities throughout Ukraine. The carnage is destroying the country, devastating its utilities infrastructure, threatening nuclear power generation facilities, and claiming thousands more casualties on both sides. Ukr-aine and its supporters a-re aiming to defeat Russia and expel its forces from Ukraine. Both sides seem to be preparing for major blitzes in the spring.
Eventually, however, the warring sides will exhaust their human and material resources and will realize that the cost of any pyrrhic victory in terms of minor territorial gains is too high, and the war will peter out to a halt with a de facto cessation of fighting, in essence a “frozen conflict.” Without a peace agreement, reconstruction of Ukraine will remain stalled, and the war will likely resume at will, intermittently. Moreover, Europe will remain divided with a new Iron Curtain.
The alternative, an immediate ceasefire with follow up peace negotiations requiring difficult compromises from all sides and support in terms of important Western incentives could be within reach. Admittedly, this will be challenging.
Ukraine is unlikely to sign a ceasefire or peace agreement if the outcome will include loss of territory, temporary or long-term. Public opinion in Ukraine is firmly against any territorial concession. Moreover, justifiably, Ukraine and its supporters want Russia pu-nished for the aggression, assessed reparations, and s-addled with continuing We-stern sanctions. Armed with nuclear weapons, pariah Russia will remain a source of instability globally.
Ukraine maintains it must defeat Russia and expel the invading forces from all of Ukraine, regardless of the humanitarian and economic costs. Ukraine holds long-standing, visceral grudges against Russia and its predecessor the Soviet Union for atrocities committed going back decades. The 1932-33 famine and Holodomor in Ukraine engineered by the Soviets is one example. Understandably, avenging historic wrongs and current war crimes are major driving forces for Ukrainians.
Proposals to end the war have fallen on deaf ears. Any compromise on Ukraine’s territorial integrity is equated with appeasement. Both sides are convinced wrongly that continuing the war can lead to a better alternatives than a negotiated agreement.
An idea to avoid endless war in Ukraine was proposed in an article in December, suggesting an arrangement under which the occupied territories of Ukraine either would be placed under a UN administration or Ukraine and Russia would share “ownership” as a condominium. The proposal was based in part on a model imposed on the northern district of Br-cko in Bosnia and Herze-govina following the Da-yton Agreement, with the territorial “ownership” of the district shared by Re-publica Srbska and the Fed-eration of Bosnia and Herz-egovina, the two ethnic en-tities that make up the co-untry, and an independent administration of Brcko un-der international supervision.
However, the Brcko model was not negotiated, it was imposed on the parties by a Dayton mandated international arbitration decision and enforced by NATO forces. I proposed the Brcko model when I was the director of the International Crisis Group mission in Bosnia (1998). The international arbitrator at the time, Roberts Owen, adopted the proposed mo-del and turned it into a bi-nding arbitration decision.
In August, I suggested in an article an immediate ceasefire and postponement of territorial issues to later long-term negotiations under international auspices, and an eventual peace treaty that would require compromises. This proposal, including eventual EU and possibly NATO membership, failed to motivate peace negotiations. Other similar proposals have failed to convince the belligerent parties as well.
The United States, capable of persuading Ukraine to accept compromises, including a limited defeat of Russia, has been reluctant to press for negotiations, deferring the decision to negotiate to the Ukrainian government.
However, four scenarios could force the Biden administration, albeit reluctantly, to press Ukraine for urgent ceasefire and peace negotiations: (1) if the battlefield situation in Ukraine turns in Russia’s favor and Ukraine faces a prospect of more territorial losses; (2) if Russia’s nuclear threat becomes imminent; (3) if China makes a military move against Taiwan. With the buildup of Russian forces and preparations for a spring offensive, and more military aid to Ukraine, the war trajectory and scenario 1 remain uncertain. Fortunately, scenarios 2 and 3 are not likely to materialize.
A fourth scenario emerged in the past month with the Republican takeover of the U.S. House of Representatives. Immediately after taking office in January, Republican leaders threatened to use debt ceiling increase discussions, likely before June 2023, to extract budget cuts. Concerns about high military expenditures in general and support to Ukraine are on the minds of Biden administration leaders. In December 2022, Congress allocated $45 billion aid to Ukraine for the current fiscal year ending in October (this, in addition to the $68 billion aid to Ukraine in 2022). Given the current toxic atmosphere in Washington, open ended and massive aid to Ukraine cannot be guaranteed, especially if aid is still needed beyond the current fiscal year.
As the principal funder of Ukraine’s war effort, a significant reduction of U.S. aid is likely to give Russia an advantage on the battlefield. To preempt such a turn, the Biden administration could seize the initiative and together with its allies offer substantial incentives and disincentives to both Ukraine and Russia to end the war with an immediate ceasefire deal and start negotiations for a peace agreement. The incentives must include accelerated EU membership for Ukraine, possibly NATO membership to deter Russia from resuming the war, and generous funds for compensation, reconstruction, and re-development of Ukraine.
Incentives must be on the table for Russia as well, including conditional sanctions easing and relief against Russian forces withdrawing from at least parts of the occupied territories. NATO membership of Ukraine would be the price that Russia might have to endure.
If the United States, EU, and NATO allies are unable to overcome the barriers for a negotiated end of the war any time soon, the war is likely to continue unabated for the foreseeable future, gradually destroying what is left of Ukraine, claiming tens of thousands more casualties on both sides, and sending more refugees to neighboring countries. Suffice it to remember that, in the absence of international peacemaking, the Iran-Iraq war went on for eight years in the 1980s, claiming millions of lives.
Eventually, however, when the sides realize victory is too costly and is not possible, the war will come to a halt with a de facto ceasefire, but without a peace agreement. A “frozen conflict” would be an undesirable outcome as none of the drivers of the conflict between Ukraine and Russia or the West and Russia would have been addressed, and the war is likely to resume at will and intermittently.
Regardless of the prospects for a ceasefire and a peace agreement in the foreseeable future, the United States and its allies should engage in dialogue with Russia on a framework for post-war European and global security architecture. Dialogue is also needed with Ukraine to urge acceptance of a limited Russian defeat and withdrawal possibly from parts of the occupied territories. Dialogue at this level could encourage eventual Russia-Ukraine negotiations. The UN, absent to date in Ukraine peacemaking, must be part of the dialogue and must assume a significant role during the post-war peacebuilding phase.