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Can the Ukraine war now end only with Russia’s defeat?

We should not assume that a quick conclusion based on mutual concessions is the best way to deal with an ongoing war.

By Lawrence Freedman

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on 15 September and has been updated in light of recent events. On 9 November Russia ordered its military to pull out of the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson, the only regional capital it has captured since invading the country in February. Joe Biden, the US president, told reporters that the decision to withdraw from Kherson showed Vladimir Putin’s forces were facing “some real problems”, prompting speculation that peace talks could be on the horizon. Yet while the recapture of Kherson is a significant symbolic victory for Kyiv the Ukrainian government remains cautious. Russian forces have been moved across to the eastern side of the Dnieper river, which will be easier to defend.

Russia’s recent military setbacks have led to hopes that the war might be over sooner rather than later, bringing an end to both the continuing death and destruction and the global economic disruption it has caused. What had appeared to be a rather slow-moving confrontation is now more dynamic. In one key respect Ukraine’s successful offensive, in which Kyiv has recaptured thousands of square kilometres of eastern territory in a matter of days, has brought peace a little closer. The only conditions for a stable peace involve Russia withdrawing its forces from Ukraine. The prospect of further battlefield humiliations should encourage the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, to seek a dignified exit.

Whether he will is another matter. It was clear what Putin wanted when he started this war: a compliant regime in Kyiv that would accept Ukraine’s subjugation. Once the February invasion faltered he could not achieve this. There were negotiations in March, which fizzled out completely in April, that addressed the issue of Ukrainian neutrality. On that, the talks seemed to make some progress, but they did not sort out what neutrality would mean in practice, especially in the light of Russia’s demand for Ukraine’s demilitarisation. Nor did they fully address the territorial issues.

Then, as Russia bombarded residential buildings and acted viciously in occupied areas, and as its forces gave up on their attempts to take Kyiv, the mood in Ukraine became uncompromising. The only acceptable outcome was to get Russian forces completely off their territory. Moscow claimed to be focusing on the Donbas, although in months of fighting it did not make sufficient progress to be able to control all of this territory. It then seemed to be interested in incorporating whatever it had occupied into Russia, but again was thwarted by Ukrainian resistance, and more recently the astonishing offensives in the regions of Kherson and Kharkiv.

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Through this the Kremlin has shown little interest in a political settlement other than a Ukrainian capitulation. While recent events might suggest that this would be a good time to start offering compromises, it would require Putin admitting that he has made a huge blunder. For now he must hope that his forces, despite sustaining heavy losses after half a year’s fighting and being rocked by their recent failures, will hang on. Even if Moscow did make an offer, the Ukrainians would be disinclined to accept. They are encouraged by their successes to carry on with their task of pushing out the Russians, determined that aggression must not pay and that there will be no permanent transfer of any territory, including Crimea, to Russia. After months of being told by those of a realist persuasion that their hopes of military victory were fantastical – and they should therefore agree to negotiations, even if this did involve ceding some land – they now believe themselves entitled to wait for Moscow to acknowledge the weakness of its military position, and offer negotiations on the terms of its withdrawal.

Russia might have hoped that the energy crisis its war has created would lead Western governments to put pressure on Ukraine to compromise its sovereignty, but they have refused to do so. They suspect that once Putin saw any panic among Ukraine’s backers, he would be tempted to raise his demands. Now they will see even less reason to do so, because it is Russia that is at a disadvantage.

In public both sides agree that at some point negotiations will be necessary to end this war, even while doubting that there can be fruitful discussions right now. As the earlier talks demonstrated, one cannot say that fighting and talking are exclusive. And we can already see how the prospect of eventual negotiations is influencing strategy. Ukraine has been anxious to get on with its offensives because it needs a much-improved military situation on the ground – to demonstrate to its international supporters that it is worth backing; to show the Russians that the tide of war has turned against their country; and to create favourable conditions for bargaining once the discussions start.

Although it is often claimed that all wars end with negotiations, that is not true, unless one calls a formal surrender ceremony a negotiation. Looking back at past wars, a complex picture of the relationship between fighting and bargaining emerges.

To explore this relationship, it is important to distinguish between a peace settlement and a ceasefire; between attempting to resolve the underlying dispute that has led to the conflict, and concentrating on stopping the fighting even though this may leave matters in a state of suspended animation. And we need to make a further distinction, between a temporary truce and a more durable ceasefire.

Truces can be transitory, an opportunity to swap prisoners or provide humanitarian relief to beleaguered civilians, but also to replenish and refresh exhausted armies before the fighting starts again. A durable ceasefire, often accompanied by a disengagement of forces, promises more lasting relief. The problem is that it can imply a political settlement, freezing the positions held by the belligerents at the point at which the ceasefire is announced – as with the one agreed in the Korean War in 1953, which has yet to lead to a peace treaty. This is why Ukraine remains wary of proposals for a cessation of hostilities without a proper political settlement.

For those who believe the priority must be to stop the bloodshed, this can be hard to fathom. As soon as a war starts outsiders will step forward with proposals to end the fighting and resolve the underlying dispute. But most international efforts concentrate on the first part of this equation and not the second. Peace negotiations often take place in the UN Security Council with the aim of agreeing a formal resolution that, it is assumed, the belligerents dare not ignore. The prospect of a ceasefire resolution creates its own operational urgency.

This can be seen in the Arab-Israeli wars. In June 1967 the Israelis delayed accepting a ceasefire for long enough to complete the capture of the Golan Heights from Syria. It was a different situation six years later; by October 1973 Egypt had taken back some of the Sinai Peninsula captured by Israel in 1967. On this occasion the Israelis delayed implementing the ceasefire to give them time to establish a sufficiently large presence on the Egyptian side of the Suez Canal as a counter. Following the war, there were intensive negotiations to induce the two forces to disengage. It was only much later in the decade that Israel and Egypt met to agree a peace treaty.

The same phenomenon could be observed in the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, as India pressed forward in December with its invasion of East Pakistan – which as a result became Bangladesh. In this case India’s leaders obtained the Pakistani forces’ surrender before the Security Council could pass a resolution. In this they were helped by Pakistan’s recently appointed foreign minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was sent to New York to negotiate with the Security Council but failed to do so. It suited his own ambitions for Pakistan to split, as he could then take over the rump state (excluding what became Bangladesh).

A decade later, during the 1982 Falklands War, concern about pressure for a ceasefire – especially when it came from the US – was one reason Margaret Thatcher’s “war cabinet” was frustrated when British forces appeared slow to move on from their bridgehead at San Carlos Bay. Should such pressure become irresistible, they wanted as much of the Falklands under British control as possible. A ceasefire resolution was eventually tabled, but, as a permanent member of the Security Council, Britain vetoed it and carried on with the land campaign until it had secured the surrender of the Argentine garrison.

Both the Bangladeshi and the Falklands wars demonstrate that there can be advantages when a war ends with a formal surrender. It leaves no doubt about the result and allows all parties to move on. With Pakistan’s surrender to India, Bangladesh became established as a new state and, while the Falklands War did not lead to Argentina abandoning its territorial claim, there has been no second round. An immediate result of the defeat was that the military junta in Buenos Aires resigned, allowing a return to democracy, just as Pakistan’s military dictator, General Yahya Khan, gave up after he had presided over such a stunning defeat.

By way of contrast, consider the end of the 1991 Gulf War. On 28 February President George HW Bush announced a unilateral ceasefire. Kuwait had been liberated and Iraqi forces were in retreat – attacks on them from the air were causing carnage. Yet Bush wondered at the time whether it would have been better to arrange something equivalent to the formal Japanese surrender on the USS Missouri on 2 September 1945. He was right to be worried. Up to this point Saddam Hussein had been fearful that his army and state were about to collapse around him. As soon as he heard the news his mood changed, and he began to claim that he was the true victor.

When one side expects victory and sees no need for a negotiation, then it may take some serious escalation by the other to force a change of mind. An example of this came when North Vietnam launched a major offensive against the South in March 1972. Richard Nixon had furious arguments with his field commanders, who wanted to use all available air power to slow down the communist advance. His priority was to bomb the North to persuade it to return to the Paris peace negotiations. He wanted a lasting agreement to get a deal that would provide some security to the South after US forces had left. In the end, he put sufficient pressure on Hanoi to get a peace settlement (although it did not last).

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These examples all come from wars that were decided through battles between regular forces. Many wars are of a different type – civil wars, for example, in which the regular forces of the state face irregular opponents, relying on terrorism or guerrilla warfare, sometimes with both sides having external supporters. There were a series of such conflicts after 1945, as the European empires struggled to hold on to their colonies until they realised that they were bound to lose. This was not always as a result of the fighting.

In 1954 the Vietnamese communists prepared for scheduled negotiations over the country’s future by intensifying their efforts against the French, culminating in the latter’s defeat at Dien Bien Phu. Scarred by this, the French then conducted an effective counter-insurgency campaign in Algeria, albeit using brutal and illegal methods. By 1962 Algeria’s National Liberation Front had been suppressed and its leadership forced into exile. But from outside Algeria it could still organise strikes and demonstrations inside the country, and gain international support for its demands for independence. When the French president, Charles de Gaulle, accepted that France’s position was, over the long term, untenable and began negotiations over Algerian independence, some in the French military considered this a betrayal and tried (unsuccessfully) to mount a coup.

The same considerations apply to international interventions to support a friendly government facing an insurgency. It is usually the policy that the local military should take over from these outside forces, but it is hard to know exactly when it is ready to do so. In the first instance the negotiation is therefore often between the indigenous government and its external backers about providing the assistance it needs to survive. This can be coupled with negotiations with the enemy. These are the processes that went so badly wrong in Afghanistan in August 2021.

With Ukraine, attitudes to negotiations are coloured by the Minsk accords of September 2014 and February 2015, ostensibly between the Ukrainian and Russian governments along with the two eastern “separatist” Luhansk and Donetsk republics. These talks combined a ceasefire with a peace settlement. Both agreements were complicated and left a lot to interpretation: neither was ever fully implemented. There were problems of synchronisation and in getting Russian forces to withdraw, and issues concerning fair and free elections in the separatist-controlled areas in the Donbas. There was also resistance in the Ukrainian parliament to the constitutional changes required, which would have given the regions veto power, and a lack of commitment by the separatist groups, whose main aim was to join Russia.

While Volodymyr Zelensky came to power in 2019 on a peace platform, he was unable to make the deal work and concluded that Putin simply could not be trusted. Putin’s conclusion went a step further. If he could not influence Kyiv’s policy through negotiations, he must impose his own policy through force of arms. Moscow abandoned the accords on the eve of the war. Zelensky has made it clear that there will be no “Minsk III”.

This experience demonstrates that we should not necessarily assume that the best way to deal with an ongoing war is to urge negotiations to bring it to a quick conclusion based on mutual concessions. When both sides acknowledge that they have no chance of victory, then a negotiation may make sense. But the most stable outcomes are those resulting from one side prevailing, especially when the defeated side has been engaged, as Russia has in Ukraine, in an unwelcome and oppressive occupation of another state’s territory.

Lawrence Freedman’s new book, “Command: The Politics of Military Operations from Korea to Ukraine”, is published by Allen Lane

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This article appears in the 14 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Succession