Stefan Wolff – Ukraine war: the west is at a crossroads – double down on aid to Kyiv, accept a compromise deal, or face humiliation by Russia

Ukraine heads into third year of war with Russia, it’s increasingly the west that may need the off-ramp

Stefan Wolff is Professor of International Security, University of Birmingham

Cross-posted from The Conversation

Photo: Amaury Laporte/Creative Commons

In the summer and autumn of 2022, there was much discussion about finding an “off-ramp” to allow Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, a face-saving way out of an unwinnable war. Now, as Ukraine heads into the third year of defending itself against Russia’s aggression, the suggestion persists – but increasingly, it’s the west that needs the off-ramp.

Ukraine’s prospects, after two years of a gruelling war that have taken an enormous human toll, are uncertain. Its population losses, both in terms of battlefield casualties and the flood of emigration that followed the invasion, will be difficult to remedy, and could have crippling consequences for Ukraine’s already struggling economy.

Not only that but the cost of the war is increasing at a staggering rate. The latest joint assessment by the EU, World Bank and UN of Ukraine’s recovery needs puts these at US$486 billion (£385.6 billion), up $75 billion since last year. This means Ukraine’s needs have grown in 12 months by one and a half times the total amount the EU has made available in support for Ukraine over the next four years.

According to the annual index of risks for 2023 produced by the Munich Security Conference, a global forum for debating international security policy, Russia was perceived as the top risk by five of the G7 countries. In 2024, this perception is only shared by two G7 members.

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Given the absolutely critical dependence of Ukraine on G7 political, economic and military support, this is worrying. It does not bode well for the ability of Europe’s political leaders to sustain the necessary public backing for continued aid transfers. Voters in France and Germany, for example, are significantly more concerned about mass migration and radical Islamic terrorism than Putin’s designs for Ukraine.

Moreover, Ukraine is not the only crisis demanding the attention of the collective west. The war in Gaza and wider conflagration across the Middle East is, and will remain, high on the agenda. But there are numerous other flashpoints that often fail to grab global news headlines.

The ongoing civil war in Sudan, the intensifying conflict in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, and rising tensions between Ethiopia and Somalia all have the potential to feed directly into the fear of western publics about yet another mass migration crisis.

Nuclear sabre rattling by North Korea, Iranian sponsorship of terrorist proxies across the Middle East, and the apparent consolidation of a new “axis of evil” between these two and Russia are unlikely to calm nerves in western capitals.

Costly distraction

Against this background, the war in Ukraine has become a major and increasingly costly distraction. Many leaders – in Europe in particular – are worried, perhaps disproportionately, about a return of Donald Trump to the White House and the possible end of a meaningful transatlantic alliance. If the US withdraws support, there is a fear that a continuation of the war in Ukraine could expose Europe even more to Russian aggression than is already the case.

The key problem is that mere rhetorical commitments to supporting Ukraine are not just meaningless but counterproductive. They uphold the mirage of a winnable war without providing the required capabilities. As the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, told the Munich Security Conference on February 17, the military equipment shortages that Ukraine has experienced over the last several months were a key factor in the recent loss of the town of Avdiivka to Russian forces.

ISW map showing the frontlines arouind Avdiivka and Donetsk in the east of Ukraine.
The loss of the town of Avdiivka will not shift the frontlines of the war much, but is a huge blow to Ukrainian morale. Institute for the Study of War

The frontline may not have shifted more than a few hundred metres as a result of this loss, but the psychological impact is significant – including in the west, where doubts over the will and ability to sustain Ukraine’s efforts are on the rise again. If the conflict continues on its current trajectory – and even more so if the narrative of an unwinnable war gains more traction – western support is unlikely even to prevent Ukraine from losing badly, possibly leading to the kind of total defeat Putin imagined in his recent interview with Tucker Carlson.

A Ukrainian defeat would be a dangerous humiliation for the west. In light of the continuing rhetoric about the west’s “iron-clad commitment” to a just peace for Ukraine, a Russian victory would accelerate the decline of the current international order. It would usher in a drawn-out transition period to something far less favourable – and not just to western interests.

A return to the bloc confrontation of the cold war – but with a probably stronger Chinese-led alliance with Russia, Iran and North Korea facing off against a weakening and less united western alliance – would leave little room to address problems such as climate change and food security. This should also be a warning to those in the global south who think they have little, if anything, at stake in Ukraine.

Compromise solution

Searching for an off-ramp does not mean letting Putin win. It means enabling Ukraine to defend the areas currently still under its control. This will require more western aid, but also serious consideration of negotiating a ceasefire. An end to the fighting would buy western Europe and Ukraine time to build up stronger domestic defence capabilities.

Ukraine has concluded bilateral security deals with the UKFrance and Germany – and deals with other G7 members are likely to follow. These deals would provide more of a guarantee for Ukrainian democracy and sovereignty than the currently futile attempt to restore the country’s territorial integrity in full – or its hopes for imminent Nato membership that are unlikely to be fulfilled.

Reassessing current realities on the battlefield in this way will undoubtedly be seen as appeasement by some. But a more fitting analogy might be that of West Germany in 1949 and, even more so, of South Korea in 1953, both of which needed to establish internationally recognised borders in order to establish sovereignty in the face of hostile neighbouring powers. The challenge for Ukraine and its western partners is to establish the equivalent of the Korean peninsula’s 38th parallel.

The alternative, short of the west seriously doubling down on military support for Kyiv, is a slow and agonising defeat on the battlefield, with far-reaching consequences beyond Ukraine.

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