Rajan Menon is the director of the Grand Strategy Program at Defense Priorities, Spitzer Professor Emeritus at the Powell School of City College of New York, and a senior research fellow at Columbia University’s Saltzman Institute for War and Peace Studies. Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist for Newsweek and the Spectator.
Now in its sixth month, the war in Ukraine has turned into a slow, painful slog.
After failing in its opening drive to take Kyiv from the north, the Russian army changed field tactics and pivoted to the Donbas in the country’s east, its forces now pummeling Ukrainian defensive positions in the city of Donetsk with artillery — a strategy that proved successful in neighboring Luhansk. Meanwhile, Ukrainians have mounted stiff resistance and are initiating a major counteroffensive in Kherson, forcing Russia to reallocate ground forces to the south in order to their preserve gains there.
This all lies in stark contrast with recent history. Over the past 200 years, wars have only lasted slightly more than three months on average — we are already well past that mark. And unsurprisingly, there have been calls for Russia and Ukraine to start talks.
One might think both sides would be receptive to this idea, considering their heavy losses, the increasing strain of finding adequately trained troops and the growing financial burden of war — but think again. There’s currently no sign that either party seeks a deal, and barring some dramatic shift on the battlefield, that isn’t going to change.
Some proponents of a political settlement contend that by continuing to fight, Ukraine will merely increase its death toll, forfeit additional land, and further weaken its negotiating position when talks do begin. Others argue that Ukraine’s already-horrific humanitarian and economic crisis will get worse if the war drags on. As for Russia, the bite of Western economic sanctions will become increasingly painful, and the tide of battle could turn against it.
But there are several reasons why the entreaties for seeking a political solution aren’t registering with the combatants.
For one, a glance at any of the ubiquitous color-coded battlefield maps shows that Russia has grabbed a lot of Ukrainian land: all of Luhansk province, about half of Donetsk province, a land corridor to Crimea along the Sea of Azov littoral, part of Zaporozhizhia province, and a chunk of Ukraine’s Black Sea coast.
And while these gains have, indeed, come at a high cost in Russian casualties and destroyed equipment, President Vladimir Putin doesn’t believe he’s losing the war. To the contrary, he boasts that Russia hasn’t even begun to fight and that his “special military operation” will assuredly succeed.
Putin also believes Western support for Ukraine will eventually weaken as the economic blowback from the war becomes stronger — and on this, he may be right. Europeans already face high inflation and soaring energy costs, and Russia’s reduction of natural gas supplies is forcing Germany, Europe’s economic powerhouse, to take extraordinary measures to ensure gas doesn’t run out by winter. Western sanctions may have hurt the Russian economy, but Putin seems confident Russia will prove more resilient than Europe.
Additionally, victories can foster the belief that additional ones are assured as well. Putin certainly wouldn’t be the first leader in history to be deluded by hubris, and if he thinks he can win, a diplomatic settlement is extremely unlikely.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, meanwhile, has his own reasons for not seeking a deal.
Despite military setbacks in the Donbas, Zelenskyy believes time is on Ukraine’s side. Russia, in his view, has sustained big losses in equipment, suffering more casualties in a few months than the Red Army did in its decade-long war in Afghanistan. Additionally, Ukraine is receiving advanced Western weaponry — notably the United States-made HIMARS, which has already hit dozens of Russian ammunition dumps, command-and-control centers and logistics nodes. There’s no sign the spigot of U.S. military aid, valued at more than $9 billion, will stop anytime soon either.
Moreover, Russian troops aren’t fighting to defend their homeland, whereas Ukrainians believe they have no choice but to fight, as their country’s very survival hangs in the balance. A June poll revealed that 89 percent of them opposed surrendering any territory to obtain a cease-fire, and that two-thirds were convinced the Ukrainian army would eventually evict Russia from all the areas it has occupied since the invasion.
Still, Ukraine is mired in a deepening humanitarian and economic crisis. The World Bank projects that the country’s economy will contract by 45 percent, and according to Kyiv’s own estimates, it’s confronting $750 billion in reconstruction costs — more than 3.5 times its entire GDP last year. 12 million people in Ukraine have now become refugees or are internally displaced, including two-thirds of its children.
Despite all this, Ukrainian morale has not flagged, however, and the government doesn’t face any public pressure to cut a deal with Moscow. Even if Zelenskyy were inclined to make compromises to end suffering, he would face immense backlash at home.
Stuck in this impasse, proponents of a diplomatic solution now fear the reverberations of continued war will reach far beyond Ukraine. And they’re right.
Growth rates are already slowing in the U.S. and Europe, and economists even warn of recession. U.S. inflation is the highest it’s been in four decades, and in the eurozone, it has set an all-time record. Meanwhile, global food shortages caused by the war are already severe and could worsen — although the Turkey and U.N.-mediated deal to resume food exports from Ukrainian ports has the potential to address a chronic hunger crisis.
Then, there are the military risks. The West’s fulsome support of Ukraine’s resistance has already made it a co-belligerent in Russia’s eyes. The deeper U.S. and European involvement becomes, the greater the danger of war spreading to a NATO country, which could set in motion an escalation to nuclear conflict — the absolute worse-case scenario.
Unfortunately, none of these concerns are enough to prod either Ukraine or Russia into a serious diplomatic process.
In times of war, the opinions that matter most are those of the combatants, and for diplomacy to become viable, Russia and Ukraine — or at least one of them — must come to the point where talking is a better option than fighting.
They are nowhere near that point.