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How to cut short the long slog in Ukraine

Summary:
James Stavridis, the former NATO supreme allied commander for Europe, recently predicted that the Russia-Ukraine conflict would end this year. Some experts, such as Stavridis, expect a stalemate and frozen conflict. Others hope for negotiations to begin. After all, this is what usually happens. War is brutally expensive and exhausting, so most conflicts are brief. Over the last century, the average war was just 100 days long.   Unfortunately, some wars last because sustaining the fight is strategic — it is each side’s best option, despite the horrendous cost. Historically, two strategic logics drive long wars. Unfortunately, both appear in the current crisis, making a frozen conflict or negotiations more difficult to achieve.  The first logic is deterrence through reputation.

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James Stavridis, the former NATO supreme allied commander for Europe, recently predicted that the Russia-Ukraine conflict would end this year. Some experts, such as Stavridis, expect a stalemate and frozen conflict. Others hope for negotiations to begin. After all, this is what usually happens. War is brutally expensive and exhausting, so most conflicts are brief. Over the last century, the average war was just 100 days long.  

Unfortunately, some wars last because sustaining the fight is strategic — it is each side’s best option, despite the horrendous cost. Historically, two strategic logics drive long wars. Unfortunately, both appear in the current crisis, making a frozen conflict or negotiations more difficult to achieve. 

The first logic is deterrence through reputation. NATO’s resolve is in doubt. This gives it an incentive to signal resoluteness to improve its bargaining position in future disputes.  

Start with the concern that any Ukrainian concession would reward Russia’s illegal military aggression. This could embolden Russian President Vladimir Putin in the future, sending a message to other nations that old borders are now up for grabs. 

But NATO support for concessions sends a more dangerous signal still. The West’s reluctance to directly confront Russia comes partly from Russia’s atomic arsenal. That’s sensible, but it also sends a clear message to other states: If you want to act with impunity, acquire nuclear weapons. In this view, it is in NATO’s long-term interest to back Ukraine and to encourage it to demand complete Russian withdrawal. 

The core problem is uncertainty — Russia (and other adversaries) doubt NATO’s strength and resolve. If true, Western leaders have incentives to signal determination through financial and military support for Ukraine. Whether you agree or disagree with the wisdom of this path, it is essential to understand the tactical pull. 

The second strategic logic arises when neither side believes the other has an incentive to abide by an agreement, and so it unravels before it begins. This is known as a commitment problem — what some political scientists call the commonest cause of long wars. 

The recent Italian plan outlined a possible settlement: a cease-fire, Ukrainian neutrality, Western security guarantees, autonomy for the Donbas within Ukraine, withdrawal of Russian forces and relaxation of sanctions. These terms are close to ones both sides supported at some point in the past months. But — and this is the crucial part — each side has good reasons to think the other would renege. 

There’s a commitment problem if you believe that Russian hard-liners are willing to pay a steep price to expand Russian territory and its local sphere of influence. This is believable because the ruling elite bear only some costs of war yet reap many of the gains. Also, Russia has a track record of using temporary settlements to regroup and attack again. Finally, it’s hard to buy Russian commitment if you believe that any settlement will leave Ukraine weakened. This gives Russia an incentive to carve off pieces of the country, slice by slice, like a salami slowly consumed.  

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s leaders struggle with credibility too. The Italian plan is not so different from the last, failed peace agreement — the Minsk accords. After they were signed, Ukrainians rejected them. Half-hearted efforts to ratify and implement the accords were met by protest. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky could commit to something like the Italian plan, but any peace would need widespread democratic support (especially if it requires removing the commitment to NATO membership from the constitution). This is hard for Zelensky to promise in the current climate. 

Both these commitment problems arise in part from ideology. Russian credibility is undermined to the extent that its rulers (or populace) will pay any price for national glory and reach. Ukrainian credibility is undermined if its people would rather fight than surrender territory or sovereignty. 

But ideological positions don’t appear out of nowhere. They too can be strategic — fostered and constructed by wily leaders. The advantage of whipping your followers into a frenzy is that you tie your hands and shut off a whole range of unfavorable settlements. The disadvantage is that, if both sides do this too well, they eliminate every possible compromise.  

I see three possible paths ahead. One is prolonged and brutal warfare. Probably the fighting is limited to the Donbas, but every day carries a tiny risk of escalation into a full-blown NATO-Russian war. The second path is a tense stalemate. Here, the Donbas becomes the new Kashmir. Except, like many “frozen conflicts,” low-scale violence persists. The third and best path ends in a negotiated settlement, ideally one that sees Russia retreat from the Donbas. 

For allies of Ukraine, what can be done to help bring about peace and a favorable negotiated settlement? 

For those who think about reputation and deterrence, it means a commitment to strengthen Ukraine on the battlefield enough to put it in a position to demand Russian withdrawal — even if it risks continued fighting through the end of this year, and possible escalation.  

It also means recognizing that extreme rhetoric carries grave risks — fanning outrage in the West is a powerful bargaining tool but could make a reasonable settlement impossible, dooming Ukraine to a long battle regardless of its wishes. 

If the problem is uncertainty, then clear, credible signals that communicate true resolve should also speed negotiation. Western congresses and parliaments could legislate binding long-term financial and military commitments. And they could engage in more direct dialogue with Russia. 

Most difficult of all, the world must help Ukraine and Russia make credible commitments. Most of the discussion centers on security guarantees for Ukraine, or snapback sanctions, to keep a settlement from becoming a temporary respite for Russia to regroup. But Ukrainians must also consider how they empower their leaders to make a binding commitment, and the West should support this. 

The alternatives — a years-long war or decades of frozen conflict — are in no one’s interest.

Chris Blattman is an economist and political scientist at the University of Chicago and the author of “Why We Fight: The Roots of War and the Path to Peace.”   

Chris Blattman
Political economist studying conflict, crime, and poverty, and @UChicago Professor @HarrisPolicy and @PearsonInst. I blog at http://chrisblattman.com

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