The crossroads is not between war and compromise, but between victory and defeat.
Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, recently painted a somber picture of Russia’s war against Ukraine: A positional war teetering on the precipice of a stalemate, slowly tilting in Russia’s favor. Against this backdrop, talk of war fatigue is gaining momentum in Western capitals and the media, with growing calls for negotiations between Russia and Ukraine.
A year ago, Zaluzhny had underscored the need for specific weapons to achieve a breakthrough in the next Ukrainian counteroffensive. His prerequisites included air defense systems, fighter aircraft, main battle tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, howitzers, and long-range missiles to strike Russian facilities and supply lines well beyond the 50-mile range of previously delivered systems. “I know that I can beat this enemy,” Zaluzhny told the Economist then. “But I need resources!” But Western support, in both types and quantities of weapons, fell significantly short of his appeals.
Western reluctance to promptly furnish Ukraine with the required military equipment in sufficient numbers—exacerbated by ongoing shortages in artillery ammunition—inadvertently afforded Russia the time to strengthen its frontline through extensive construction of fortifications, trenches, and mine fields. Notably, the United States held back on the delivery of Advanced Tactical Missile Systems until very recently, while German reluctance to provide Ukraine with Taurus missiles added another layer of hesitation. The results are evident on the ground: Whereas we cannot know whether greater and faster delivery of weapons would have led to a Ukrainian military breakthrough, we do know that, without it, the result of Ukraine’s counteroffensive in the land war has been marginal at best. In the Black Sea, on the other hand, Kyiv has achieved significant recent success.
Doubling down on the narrative that it has thwarted Ukraine’s counteroffensive, Russia has launched attacks in several sectors of the front, including near the city of Avdiivka and town of Vuhledar. While they are exacting a significant toll on Russian lives and military resources—October was the bloodiest month for Russia since February 2022—Russian advances are paying off. The strategic value of Russia’s small territorial wins is questionable, but the benefits in the informational realm are clear: They give many observers the impression that the military initiative is back in Moscow’s hands. Alongside the lackluster Ukrainian counteroffensive, the fear that the tables are turning in Russia’s favor is adding to the war fatigue among Western nations and eliciting calls for negotiations.
The West has indeed reached the limits of its current strategy. In practice, if not in words, this strategy has centered on ensuring Ukraine’s survival without enabling it to achieve a decisive victory. Ukraine’s Western supporters are now at a crossroads.
Some believe that there are only two routes ahead: either the perpetuation of war—with the risk that it tilts in Russia’s favor—or negotiations that lead to some form of territorial compromise. Yet reality in Ukraine—and, above all, in Russia—suggests that the negotiation option is not available. Ukrainians believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ambitions reach beyond the annexation of a few regions and instead extend to the genocidal subjugation and erasure of their country and identity. For Ukrainians, the stakes extend beyond affirming an abstract principle of territorial integrity; their concern is about the lives of their compatriots living under Russian occupation. Framing negotiations around a land-for-peace compromise is untenable for Ukrainians.
Those in the West who believe in negotiations might retort that whether Kyiv desires to negotiate is irrelevant—without Western support, it will have no other choice. But as is often the case in Western discussions about Ukraine, this tends to ignore the other side of the equation: Russia. Those advocating for negotiations assume that Putin will acknowledge that he cannot achieve an outright victory and settle for the territorial gains he has made so far. However, the idea that Putin will genuinely embrace negotiations and seek an end to the war overlooks the strategic role the war itself has gained in sustaining his grip on power, especially as his narrative of the war has evolved over the last two years. The reconfiguration of the war in Russian propaganda, from a preventive attack against supposed Ukrainian Nazis to a patriotic war to defend the Russian homeland against attack by the collective West, means that the show must go on.
Putin’s need for a large-scale war arose between 2018 and 2020, when the political momentum from the annexation of Crimea dwindled and Russia grappled with a myriad of domestic challenges. The 2018 pension reforms sparked street protests and a sharp decline in Putin’s approval ratings. The years 2019 and 2020 were marked by widespread anti-government protests in Moscow and the Khabarovsk Krai region. The political and social environment, already tense, was further strained by the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic repercussions. The poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his subsequent imprisonment, coupled with restrictions on civil liberties through legislation that curtailed supposed foreign agents and undesired organizations, added to the tension. It is in this tumultuous period that Putin released his infamous article on the national unity of Russians and Ukrainians, which proved to be the ideological and argumentative prelude to war. Bringing the war to an end now would mean having to address not only a host of festering issues, but also fresh problems arising domestically from Western sanctions and Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine. Putin has nothing to gain from any of this.
The choice facing the West is not between war and compromise but between defeat and victory. The trajectory the West is on—maintaining current levels of support or perhaps scaling them back while pushing for negotiations—raises the chances of defeat. Putin is banking on this: At the heart of his theory of victory lies his conviction that Russia’s staying power in the war is greater than the West’s (and, by extension, Ukraine’s). Unlike the West’s muddled hope for compromise, Putin’s strategy has a clear logic.
At the current crossroads, Ukraine’s Western supporters should ask themselves: What are the costs of a step change to enable Ukraine’s victory relative to the costs of maintaining the status quo or scaling back support leading to Ukraine’s defeat? Such a defeat, to be clear, would not be limited to Ukraine. A victorious Russia would not limit itself to occupying the five annexed regions and, through them, politically influencing or controlling Kyiv. While some may think that a militarily and economically degraded Russia no longer poses an existential threat to Poland or the Baltic states, a victorious Russia would certainly pose such threat to Moldova. No one can know what could happen next—or after a vindicated Russia rearms. No reasonable European country can afford to take that bet, and no reasonable U.S. administration should take that bet either.
Of course, ensuring Ukraine’s victory comes with costs, too. The economic cost of sustaining Ukraine to victory—involving not only weapons but also many other forms of aid—is significant, especially in the context of other challenges faced by the West in the Middle East and elsewhere. A victorious Ukraine emerging from years of war would pose significant challenges, and its integration in Euro-Atlantic structures would not be smooth. But surely the West would much rather deal with these problems than the much more existential ones that would result from Ukraine’s defeat.