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How to end the war in Ukraine – even if Vladimir Putin wants to keep fighting

“Ukraine will never be a victory for Russia – never,” President Joe Biden said in a speech in Poland this year, and rightly so. For the war in Ukraine to end on terms consistent with US interests and ideals, Ukraine must be seen as the winner and the Russian invasion must go down in history as a decisive failure, enough to dissuade other authoritarian powers from launching similar wars. aggression in Ukraine. the future.

That much is easy to say. But it raises a critical question. What is a viable definition of victory for Ukraine (and defeat for Russia), at least in the current phase of a struggle that is likely to continue in one form or another for many years to come?

There are at least three possible answers to this question.

The first and most obvious way for Ukraine to win is for its forces to take back all the territory Russia has illegally taken since its initial invasion in 2014, including Crimea. This would be a fantastic result. It’s still possible. And the United States should do everything possible to support it, including, if Congress approves more funding, by providing the more advanced weapons Ukraine has requested.

At the same time, if we are honest, we must recognize that Ukraine may not achieve full military success in the next two years. The counteroffensive progresses, but slowly and painfully. The Russian military, though battered and demoralized, has remained resilient even against advanced Western weapons and tactics. And Russia has a seemingly endless supply of young men whose lives it is willing to waste in this war.

Meanwhile, there is no guarantee that the United States and its allies will continue to pay for Ukraine’s offensive operations for as long as necessary. It will be difficult to get Biden’s recent additional funding request for Ukraine through the House of Representatives, and that money would only be valid until early 2024. Putin knows that next year’s leading Republican presidential candidate, former President Donald Trump, would end US aid to Ukraine. , and that there are others like him in Europe. An eternal war favors Putin, not Ukraine.

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A second way for Ukraine to win – at least in theory – would be through a diplomatic agreement. Earlier this month, 40 countries, including China and the United States, gathered in Saudi Arabia to discuss President Volodymyr Zelensky’s ten-point plan for peace, which would see the withdrawal of all Russian troops from Ukraine, the return of abducted children and justice for war crimes. . Any settlement based on that plan would of course be great.

But Russia under Putin has never ended its wars at the negotiating table; at best, it has frozen them and kept its options open. Russia has shown no interest in making concessions close to the minimum requirements of Ukraine and its allies. As long as his military avoids total collapse, and he believes there is a chance for political change in the West, Putin is likely to continue sacrificing Russians to stay in the fray.

So if Russia succeeds in thwarting Plans A and B, where would we be, say this time next year? Should Ukraine and its allies just keep going, hoping for a breakthrough in 2025 or beyond? Given what is at stake — not just the survival of Ukraine but of the entire international order — that would be risky. It would make success dependent on events that we cannot predict or control, including the outcome of elections in Western countries, including the United States. And while we have no right to tell the Ukrainians to stop fighting until their country is unified, we also have no right to expect them to keep fighting at all costs.

Fortunately, there is a third possible way to satisfy the need for Ukrainian success and Russian failure, which Putin would not veto.

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In this scenario, the United States would give the Ukrainian military everything it needs to push its counteroffensive as far as possible. At an appropriate time next year, Ukraine would declare a pause in offensive military operations and shift its primary focus to the defense and reconstruction of liberated areas, while simultaneously integrating with Western institutions. Subsequently, at the July 2024 Summit in Washington, NATO would invite Ukraine to join the Western Alliance, guaranteeing the security of all territory controlled by the Ukrainian government at that time under Article 5 of the NATO treaty.

Offering Article 5 protection to Ukrainian territory in this way would be akin to admitting a divided Germany into NATO after World War II and into the US security pact with South Korea after the armistice that ended the Korean War without the Korean to reunite the peninsula. This would be a defensive pact, but not a commitment to directly participate in any future offensive operations Ukraine may wish to undertake.

The Biden administration has said the war must end before Ukraine can join NATO because it does not want to risk direct US involvement. But it has not defined what it means in this context that the war is “over”. Should there be a formal peace treaty? Should there be a period of months or years when Russia does not fire a single shell at Ukraine? Linking Ukraine’s NATO membership to such conditions would give Putin an additional incentive never to meet them.

But Ukraine’s entry into NATO could itself be how the war ends, in line with Biden’s current policies — and at a time and on terms determined by Ukraine and its allies, not Russia. Gaining security within NATO as a strong, pluralistic, democratic state would definitely count as a victory for Ukraine – perhaps as great as quickly retaking Crimea. It could make it politically possible for Zelensky, if he so chooses, to emphasize non-military strategies for retaking parts of his country still under Russian occupation, which Ukraine’s allies would also continue to support – possibly including everything from diplomacy and sanctions to blockade and sabotage. .

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Adding a democratic Ukraine to NATO would mean the utter and permanent defeat of Putin’s crusade to incorporate it into a Russian empire. Because it would be difficult to reverse after ratification by 32 NATO member parliaments, joining NATO – ideally by the end of 2024 – would also thwart Putin’s plan to stretch the war until the political wind in the West changes.

Yes, Russian forces could try to go on the offensive again, but the likely futility of attacking fortified Ukrainian positions now backed by the threat of NATO firepower would be a strong deterrent. Meanwhile, sanctions against Russia would remain; its economic and military strength would decline further; and Putin could only watch as his frozen assets abroad were withdrawn to pay for Ukraine’s reconstruction. He would have no freedom of choice and no options.

To be clear, this approach does not require Ukraine to cede any territory to Russia (contrary to what a NATO official suggested this week). Ukraine and its allies would continue to pursue the reunification of the country within the 1991 borders. Nor should anyone pressure the Ukrainians to take this approach – only they can decide if and when it makes sense to move to consolidating their gains while joining NATO.

But Biden and other Western leaders should tell them this is an option they will have if their counteroffensive still continues next year. It could be the best chance to get the victory that Ukraine and the democratic world need soon, while becoming both Putin- and Trump-proof.

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