Ukraine’s counteroffensive appears to have stalled, just as wet and cold weather brings to a close the second fighting season in Kyiv’s effort to reverse Russian aggression. At the same time, the political willingness to continue providing military and economic support to Ukraine has begun to erode in both the United States and Europe. These circumstances necessitate a comprehensive reappraisal of the current strategy that Ukraine and its partners are pursuing.
Such a reassessment reveals an uncomfortable truth: namely, that Ukraine and the West are on an unsustainable trajectory, one characterized by a glaring mismatch between ends and the available means. Kyiv’s war aims—the expulsion of Russian forces from Ukrainian land and the full restoration of its territorial integrity, including Crimea—remain legally and politically unassailable. But strategically they are out of reach, certainly for the near future and quite possibly beyond.
The time has come for Washington to lead efforts to forge a new policy that sets attainable goals and brings means and ends into alignment. The United States should begin consultations with Ukraine and its European partners on a strategy centered on Ukraine’s readiness to negotiate a cease-fire with Russia and to simultaneously switch its military emphasis from offense to defense. Kyiv would not give up on restoring territorial integrity or holding Russia economically and legally accountable for its aggression, but it would acknowledge that its near-term priorities need to shift from attempting to liberate more territory to defending and repairing the more than 80 percent of the country that is still under its control.
Russia may well reject Ukraine’s offer of a cease-fire. But even if the Kremlin proves intransigent, Ukraine’s shift from offense to defense would limit the continuing loss of its soldiers, enable it to direct more resources to long-term defense and reconstruction, and shore up Western support by demonstrating that Kyiv has a workable strategy aimed at attainable goals. Over the longer term, this strategic pivot would make it clear to Russia that it cannot simply hope to outlast Ukraine and the West’s willingness to support it. That realization may eventually convince Moscow to move from the battlefield to the negotiating table—a move that would be to Ukraine’s ultimate advantage, since diplomacy offers the most realistic path for ending not only the war but also, over the long term, Russia’s occupation of Ukrainian territory.
The current situation on the battlefield yields a glass-half-full, glass-half-empty picture. On one side of the ledger, Ukraine has demonstrated stunning resolve and skill, not only denying Russia’s attempt to subjugate it but also taking back a considerable portion of the territory seized by Russia last year. On the other side of the ledger are the enormous human and economic costs of the war and the reality that Russia has succeeded, at least for now, in using force to seize a sizable piece of Ukraine’s territory. Despite Ukraine’s much-heralded counteroffensive, Russia has actually gained more territory over the course of 2023 than Ukraine has. Overall, neither side has made significant advances. Ukrainian and Russian forces have fought to an effective standstill: a stalemate has set in.
What, then, is to be done? One option for the West is to do more of the same, continuing to provide an enormous amount of weaponry to Ukraine in the hope that doing so will enable its forces to eventually defeat Russia’s. The problem is that Ukraine’s military shows no signs of being able to break through Russia’s formidable defenses, no matter how long and hard it fights. Defense tends to have the advantage over offense, and Russian forces are dug in behind miles of mine fields, trenches, traps, and fortifications. The West can send more tanks, long-range missiles, and eventually F-16 fighter jets. But there is no silver bullet capable of turning the tide on the battlefield. As Valery Zaluzhny, Ukraine’s top general, recently admitted, “There will most likely be no deep and beautiful breakthrough.” We are where we are on the battlefield in Ukraine, and where we are looks at best like a costly deadlock.
Time will not be on Ukraine’s side if a high-intensity war drags on indefinitely. Russia’s economy and its defense industrial base are on a war footing. Moscow is also importing arms from North Korea and Iran and has access to consumer items that contain technology that it can repurpose for military uses. Should Russia need to reinforce its military presence in Ukraine, it has a large pool of manpower on which to draw. Russia has also found new markets for its energy, while sanctions have had only a modest effect on the Russian economy. Putin appears politically secure and in control of the levers of power, from the military and security services to the media and public narrative.
Russia has actually gained more territory in 2023 than Ukraine has
Meanwhile, in Ukraine, soldiers and civilians alike continue to lose their lives in significant numbers, the military is burning through its weapons stocks, and the economy has shrunk by about one-third (although it is beginning to show signs of growth). Among Ukraine’s Western supporters, Ukraine fatigue is starting to take a toll on their readiness to keep up the flow of support to Kyiv. The United States remains central to the provision of Western aid to Ukraine, but opposition to providing sizable amounts of further assistance is growing in the Republican Party, so far foiling the Biden administration’s requests for new funding. The leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination, former President Donald Trump, has a history of siding with Russia and distancing himself from the United States’ partners—including Ukraine. That Trump is polling ahead of Biden in key swing states only adds to the uncertainty about the trajectory of U.S. policy. And wobbliness in U.S. support for Ukraine will increase wobbliness in Europe, where one EU member, Slovakia, has already decided to cease the provision of military aid to Kyiv.
Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel and the ensuing conflict in Gaza have also grabbed the world’s attention, relegating the war in Ukraine to the back burner. The issue is not only that Washington is distracted; the U.S. military has only finite resources, and U.S. defense industrial base has far too limited production capacity. The United States is stretched thin as it supports two partners engaged in hot wars. Defense analysts are already pronouncing the nation’s defense strategy to be “insolvent,” as a recent RAND study put it; others argue that the United States should be devoting its attention and resources to strategic challenges in the Indo-Pacific.
It will not be politically easy for either Ukraine or the West to confront these sobering strategic realities. But it is far preferable for both Kyiv and its supporters to embrace a new strategy that puts ends and means back into balance than to continue pursuing a course that has led to a dead end—and which could, before long, bring about a sharp decline in Western support for Ukraine.
TURN THE TABLES
Washington needs to take the lead in launching consultations with Ukraine and Western allies aimed at persuading Kyiv to offer a cease-fire in place while pivoting from an offensive to a defensive strategy. The West should not press Ukraine to give up on restoring its 1991 borders or on holding Russia responsible for the death and destruction that its invasion has caused. Yet it must seek to convince Ukrainians that they need to adopt a new strategy to pursue these objectives.
A cease-fire would save lives, allow economic reconstruction to get underway, and enable Ukraine to devote incoming Western arms to investing in its long-term security rather than to quickly expending weaponry on a deadlocked battlefield. The precise terms of a cease-fire—the timing, the exact location of a line of contact, the procedures for the pullback of weapons and forces, the provisions for observation and enforcement—would have to be hammered out under broad international supervision, most likely under the auspices of either the United Nations or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
A cease-fire would go into effect only if both Ukraine and Russia agree to its terms. Moscow’s compliance is not out of the question. Russian forces have been suffering grievous losses on the battlefield, and the Kremlin’s act of aggression has clearly backfired, by strengthening NATO, transatlantic cohesion, and Ukraine’s determination to forever free itself of Russia’s sphere of influence. Putin just might seize the opportunity to stanch the bloodletting and try to bring Russia in from the cold.
Still, it is much more likely that Moscow would spurn a cease-fire proposal. Putin still harbors expansive war aims in Ukraine and seems to believe that Russia has more staying power than Ukraine. He is no doubt closely following opinion polls in the United States indicating that Trump’s return to the White House is a realistic possibility, an outcome that would surely weaken if not end U.S. support for Ukraine. Even if the Kremlin wanted to avoid outright rejection of a cease-fire proposal in order to sidestep the reputational costs of doing so, it could counter with terms sure to be unacceptable to Ukraine and the West.
Ukraine needs to pivot to a defensive strategy.
Yet ultimately, trying to broker a cease-fire between Kyiv and Moscow is worth a shot less for what it would accomplish than for what it would reveal. Even if Russia were to reject a proposed cease-fire, it would still make sense for Kyiv to put one on the table. Doing so would allow Ukraine to seize the political initiative, reminding publics in the West and beyond that this war remains one of Russian aggression. The Kremlin’s rejection of a cease-fire would help Western governments maintain and tighten sanctions against Russia and help Ukraine nail down long-term military and economic support.
Whether or not a cease-fire takes hold, Ukraine needs to pivot to a defensive strategy, away from its current offensive strategy. Kyiv’s existing approach is one of high costs and low prospects, putting Ukrainians in the awkward position of asking for open-ended Western assistance on behalf of an effort with diminishing chances of success. Instead, Ukraine should focus on holding and rebuilding the territory that it now controls, reversing the offense-defense equation and putting Russia in the position of having to bear the exorbitant costs of conducting offensive operations against well-dug-in Ukrainian forces and expanded air defenses. Even as it switched to a defensive strategy along the frontlines, Ukraine could continue using long-range weapons, naval assets, and covert operations to strike at Russian positions in rear areas and in Crimea, raising the costs of continuing occupation. And should clear evidence emerge that Russia’s military capability or will is faltering, Ukraine would retain the option of returning to a more offensive-oriented strategy.
A strategy shift along these lines would turn the tables on Russia, requiring its forces to accomplish something they have thus far shown they are incapable of: effective combined arms offensive operations. At the same time, this shift would save Ukrainian lives and money and reduce its defense needs from the West, something that might prove essential if U.S. support falls off and Europe is left carrying the load. Ukraine would be wise to devote incoming resources to its long-term security and prosperity instead of expending it on the battlefield for little gain.
Persuading Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and the Ukrainian public to change course would be no easy task, given the justice of their cause and all that has already been sacrificed. But the reality is that what began as a war of necessity for Ukraine—a fight for its very survival —has morphed into a war of choice, a fight to recapture Crimea and much of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine. It is not only an unwinnable war; it is also one that risks losing Western support over time. It makes far more sense for Ukraine to ensure that the bulk of the country under Kyiv’s control emerges as a prosperous and secure democracy than to risk the nation’s future in a long-shot military effort to reclaim territory still under Russian control. Ukraine’s emergence as a successful and resilient democracy capable of defending itself would constitute a resounding defeat of Russian ambition.
A BETTER BET
Ukraine’s friends in the West can and should sweeten what would be a bitter pill for Ukrainians. The United States and select NATO members (a friends of Ukraine coalition of the willing) should commit not just to long-term economic and military help but also to guaranteeing Ukraine’s independence. This undertaking would be modeled on Article 4 of the NATO Treaty, which provides for immediate consultations whenever “the territorial integrity, political independence, or security” of a member is threatened. The European Union, which has recently announced its intention to begin accession negotiations with Kyiv, should accelerate the membership timetable for Ukraine and offer it a special EU-lite arrangement in the interim. The Western allies should also make clear that most sanctions against Russia would remain in place until Russian forces leave Ukraine, and that they would help Ukraine restore its territorial integrity at the negotiating table.
It is quite possible that the prospects for a mutually agreed cease-fire and follow-on negotiations over territory will improve markedly after the 2024 presidential election in the United States. If the winner is committed to the continuation of transatlantic solidarity and further efforts to ensure Ukraine’s security and sovereignty, Putin would have little reason to presume that time is on Russia’s side. But the U.S. election is a year away, and it could lead to an outcome that leaves Ukraine in the lurch. Neither Washington nor Kyiv should run that risk. The United States needs to work with Ukraine now to pivot to a new strategy that reflects military and political realities. To do otherwise is to recklessly gamble on Ukraine’s future. / INFO: Foreignaffairs (mag)