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A Stalemate Is the Best Option: The Future of the Ukraine War



The Russian invasion of Ukraine has now entered its third year. The war currently seems to be a stalemate. However, either the Russians or Ukrainians might have a break-through and rapidly gain ground, potentially leading to a crisis for the losing side. 


The risk also remains of the war escalating into a broader conflict between Russia and NATO. Statements by officials on both sides suggest such an escalation is a serious possibility.


A just and lasting diplomatic solution to the war is currently unlikely. The best option to avoid further bloodshed and a larger conflict is to maintain the present stalemate: Ukraine should defend itself from further Russian conquest of its territory but not seek to gain back the occupied territory. The war can be tacitly understood as a “frozen conflict” that at least avoids a larger, more costly war.


A Bloody Stand-Off

The initiative has shifted back and forth between Russia and Ukraine over the last two years. Russia threatened the Ukrainian capital Kyiv in the early months of the invasion but was forced to draw back from the capital in 2022. Ukraine achieved considerable success in September–November 2022, pushing the Russians back and retaking territory. In 2023, despite fierce fighting, including from another Ukrainian counter-offensive, the battle lines largely did not move. 


Russia still controls a swath of territory in eastern Ukraine. A large portion of this territory, including the Crimean Peninsula, was under Russian or pro-Russian separatist control prior to Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine. The Russians have to date not been able to significantly expand their modest gains in the invasion, but the Ukrainians have to date not been able to expel the Russians from their country either.


With the frontlines moving slowly, if at all, both sides are also fighting with longer-range means. Russia continues to bomb Ukraine, while Ukraine has carried out various drone strikes or raids on Russia and Russian-held territory. 


Precisely how many people have been killed and wounded in the war is unknown. The question is a highly political one, and both Ukraine and Russia are probably not giving accurate casualty information. A plausible guess, based on various estimates, is that tens of thousands of military personnel have been killed and perhaps hundreds of thousands injured on each side. Further, the United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine has recorded, as of January 2024, 10,191 Ukrainian civilians killed and 19,139 injured (and these numbers may well be an under-estimate). Whatever the exact numbers, the war has had a devastating toll.  


Nuclear Threats from Russia

This war that has pitted Russia against the United States and other NATO nations has always had the specter of nuclear war looming over it. In theory, Russia would not resort to nuclear weapons to defeat Ukraine: official Russian nuclear policy is to use nuclear weapons only in response either to a nuclear attack or an attack on Russia with “conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy.” Nevertheless, since the war began, Russian President Vladimir Putin and other notable Russians have made statements implicitly or explicitly suggesting nuclear weapons’ possible use. 


When the invasion began, Putin warned that anyone threatening Russia “must know that Russia will respond immediately, and the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history.” Soon after, Putin claimed Russian nuclear forces were on “special combat readiness” (although whether such steps were actually taken is unclear). Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov similarly warned in April 2022 that the conflict between Russia and the West meant the danger of nuclear war was “serious, real. And we must not underestimate it.”


During the Ukrainian counter-offensive of fall 2022, when Russia suffered its most serious defeats, Putin seems to have expanded the parameters for when Russia might use nuclear weapons. On September 21, he said “In the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country and to defend Russia and our people, we will certainly make use of all weapon systems available to us. This is not a bluff.” No longer was a nuclear attack or existential threat to Russia necessary to resort to nuclear weapons, Putin apparently was saying: general threats to Russian territory or citizens could also prompt nuclear responses.


Putin seemed to double down on this new policy on September 30. Announcing the annexation of part of eastern Ukraine, he declared that the people in the annexed regions “have become our citizens, forever” and added “We will defend our land with all the forces and resources we have.” In the context of Russia’s battlefield setbacks, the message seemed to be that Putin would resort to nuclear weapons rather than be driven out of Ukraine altogether. 


Granted, the Russian government seemed to back away from nuclear threats later in 2022. In November, the Foreign Ministry issued a statement affirming the narrower understanding of Russian nuclear policy and emphasizing that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”


Nevertheless, others continue to send alarming messages. Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who currently serves as deputy secretary of Russia’s Security Council, has made various bellicose comments. For example, in July 2023, Medvedev said that if “the NATO-supported [Ukrainian] offensive turned out successful, and they took away a part of our land: then we would have to… use the nuclear weapon.” In January 2024, Medvedev warned that if “thick-headed warriors” in Ukraine try to strike Russian territory with long-range missiles, such action would be “a direct and obvious basis for our use of nuclear weapons against such a state.” 


In January 2023, Vyacheslav Volodin, the chairman of Russia’s lower house of parliament, warned western policymakers against giving Ukraine weapons that could kill Russian civilians or strike Russian territory. Such politicians “need to understand that this could end in a global tragedy that will destroy their countries,” Volodin said


Russian media personalities and public intellectuals have also rattled the nuclear saber. Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of the RT television network, declared “Either we win in the way we consider our victory, or there will be World War III, sooner or later.” Sergei Karaganov, a Russian think tank head, has repeatedly advocated the use or threatened use of nuclear weapons. A 2023 report Karaganov co-authored under the auspices of the Foreign Ministry recommended openly discussing, “a possible conflict escalation” with the west, “including through political or even — in extreme cases — direct use of the nuclear factor.”


Karaganov raised the nuclear question with Putin at an October 2023 conference. In perhaps a staged “good cop-bad cop” exchange, Karaganov asked whether Russia should be more willing to use nuclear weapons to intimidate the west. Putin demurred and, in contrast to his September 2022 statements, endorsed the official, narrow interpretation of Russian nuclear policy.


Beyond verbal threats, Russia also adopted a more aggressive nuclear posture in December 2023, when it completed plans to station nuclear weapons in neighboring Belarus. 


Talk of War from the West

While perhaps less aggressive, rhetoric from western nations is similarly alarming. Top officials are openly speaking of possible war with Russia. French President Emmanuel Macron raised alarms on February 26 when he suggested NATO troops might fight directly in Ukraine (the French later walked back the suggestion). Macron’s comments are only the most recent of various worrying comments from western officials, however.


Admiral Rob Bauer, NATO’s military committee chief, said in January that NATO must "expect the unexpected" and are hedging against Russian attack by “preparing for a conflict with Russia." Also in January, German Defense Minister Oscar Pistorius said “We hear threats from the Kremlin almost every day...so we have to take into account that Vladimir Putin might even attack a NATO country one day." Pistorius added “Our experts expect a period of five to eight years in which [a Russian attack] could be possible." 


NATO nations are matching such rhetoric with actions. NATO is currently engaged in Steadfast Defender 24, its largest military exercise since the Cold War. Steadfast Defender, which will continue into the spring, involves 90,000 troops from 32 nations operating across Europe to practice defense against an attacker. The exercise aims to demonstrate “NATO's ability to defend every inch of its territory.” Further, in a parallel move to Russia stationing nuclear weapons in Belarus, the United States is apparently planning to station nuclear weapons in the United Kingdom.


These western statements and actions may be intended defensively, but they risk being interpreted by the Russians as a further escalation of the east-west confrontation. Predictions Russia will attack the west and preparations to prevent that may be treated as provocations and thus become self-fulfilling prophecies.


Maintaining the Stalemate

Policymakers should never completely give up on diplomacy, but given the players and stakes involved, a resolution to the Ukraine war seems unlikely anytime soon. If Putin now considers eastern Ukraine part of Russia—and thus possibly worth defending with nuclear weapons—then the Russians are unlikely to withdraw from this territory voluntarily. Ukraine, however, cannot be expected to accept the loss of its own land. Even if President Volodymyr Zelenskyy wanted to cede territory to Russia, such a concession may well be politically fatal. 


If diplomacy is unlikely to resolve the conflict, seeking a military resolution would be even worse. If Ukraine achieves another great victory, as in 2022, this might provoke a Russian escalation, perhaps even the previously threatened use of nuclear weapons. If Russia achieves a great victory, then Ukraine would lose even more territory. Or, worse still, NATO, as Macron suggested, might intervene on Ukraine’s behalf, finally bringing about the larger war western officials have warned of. Yet another possibility is that neither side can achieve victories and continuing to seek them will only sacrifice thousands more to a futile war.


The least bad option is to maintain the current stalemate, in which Ukraine retains control of most of its territory but Russia retains control of what it has occupied to date. Ukraine should shift to a purely defensive stance against future Russian attack. Western aid to Ukraine should be oriented toward defense and even conditioned on Ukraine taking a defensive posture.


Such an outcome would be deeply disappointing. Yet it would at least keep Ukraine independent, reduce the loss of life, and avoid a larger war. Ukrainian and western policymakers should pursue this strategy.


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