What a Negotiated Settlement to the Ukraine War Could Look Like

It’s time. If the goal is for Ukraine to emerge from this horrible situation in as strong a position as possible, then the time has come to stop the war and negotiate a settlement.

The Biden administration has long insisted that the goal is to put Ukraine in the best position “on the battlefield [to] be in the strongest possible position at the negotiating table.” Over a month in, the Ukrainian counteroffensive that was supposed to put them in that position has failed. And barring a surprise that will surprise even the US planners – because they did not plan this – Ukraine’s position on the battlefield will not improve. The US and its NATO allies can continue to deposit artillery and advanced weapons in Ukraine, but the return on their investment will just be more massive loss of equipment and Ukrainian lives.

The war seems to have reached a moment where the longer it goes on, the worse the situation gets for Ukraine in terms of loss of military equipment, loss of life and loss of land. It is time for a negotiated peace.

What could that peace look like? A diplomatic settlement must accomplish three goals. Ukraine must be guaranteed their sovereignty, their security and their potential to thrive. Russia must receive guarantees that their legitimate security concerns will be respected. And the ethnic Russians of the Donbas must be guaranteed protection.

In arriving at these three goals, ideally, three conditions must be met. The US and NATO cannot be overly rewarded for their willingness to expand NATO into Ukraine in violation of the promise they made to Russia at the dismantling of the Soviet Union. Russia cannot be overly rewarded for their invasion of Ukraine. And Ukraine cannot be overly harmed.

Ukraine has been harmed by both sides. They have been the victim of a brutal Russian invasion. But they have been harmed by the US and its allies too because Ukraine came to terms with Russia in the early days of the war, before all the harm, that could have ended the war on terms that satisfied Russia and Ukraine. But the US and the UK put a stop to the settlements and forced Ukraine to go on fighting in pursuit, no longer of Ukrainian goals, but of Western goals.

The best starting point may be to reset, as much as possible given the altered situation, to those earlier agreements: both to the Minsk Agreement before the start of the war and the tentative agreements after the start of the war. Putin said recently that Russia would be willing to do that. Referring to "what was agreed upon in Istanbul," where a tentative agreement was signed, Putin said, "If they want to get back to it, we are ready to talk to them."

In Istanbul, Ukraine promised "not to seek NATO membership." That must be a starting point of the settlement because it is the one point Russia will not give up. It has always been the Russian red line, and it was the essential point of the security guarantees Russia presented the US and NATO on December 17, 2021 on the eve of the war. And, though the US was not willing to agree to it, Ukraine was.

In return for satisfying the key point of Russia’s security concerns, the end of NATO expansion to its borders and, particularly, to Ukraine, Ukraine must have its now obvious security concerns satisfied. To some extent, satisfying Russia’s security concerns satisfies Ukraine’s security concerns because the immediate cause of the invasion of Ukraine was the US refusal not to keep its promise and close the door to Ukraine’s entry to NATO. But the situation has changed, and more must be offered.

Two candidates for a security assurance to Ukraine have emerged. Which one is most agreeable to Ukraine needs to be determined, but, at various times, Russia has suggested that they are amenable to either.

The first was first hinted at as early as January 2023 by David Ignatius writing in The Washington Post. Ignatius reported that "U.S. officials increasingly believe the key is to give Ukraine the tools it needs to defend itself. Security will be ensured by potent weapons systems.” This solution emerged a second time when then-Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, while mediating between Putin and Zelensky, suggested adopting "the Israel model" by creating a strong, independent army that can defend itself. At that time, according to Bennett, both Zelensky and Putin accepted the solution.

The second solution came up during the Istanbul talks. Here it was suggested that Ukraine "receive security guarantees from a number of countries." Those countries, reportedly, included the US, Russia, the UK, France and China. In Istanbul, both Ukraine and Russia agreed to that solution.

So far, the proposed settlement begins to address Russian and Ukrainian security concerns in a way that both have previously agreed to and in a way that does not overly reward the US for its broken promises on NATO expansion.

That leaves the question of territory. This is a difficult point that needs to address both countries’ many concerns in a way that does not leave Ukraine overly harmed, that leaves Ukraine with the potential to thrive and that does not overly reward Russia for their aggression.

Here too, the previous agreements can be a starting point. The Minsk Agreement can serve as a starting point, but no longer as the final form. The Minsk Agreement left the ethnic Russian Donbas in Ukraine but with autonomy. The current reality has changed, and, as with Crimea, Russia will never allow the Donbas to return to Ukraine.

However, though Russia has stated that the newly annexed Kherson and Zaporizhzhia oblasts cannot be returned to Ukraine, they have also frequently suggested that the borders have not been established. Russia may be willing to give up at least parts of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia oblasts: perhaps the areas west of the Dniper. During the Istanbul negotiations, Russia agreed to withdraw to its prewar position. That will no longer happen. But the borders of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia could still be negotiable.

Rather than autonomy for the Donbas, the new reality is that the Donbas will be part of Russia, pending the outcome of referendums. But Russia could agree not to take all or part of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, or perhaps autonomy could be on the table. Russia could also agree not to advance and absorb Odessa, Kharkov nor any other region.

Given the long-range missiles supplied Ukraine by the West, if Russia agrees to reign in its territorial gains, they have hinted that they would require a demilitarized buffer zone.

A Russian assurance not to take Odessa or the coastline along the Black Sea would allow Ukraine to maintain the potential to thrive, avoiding being turned into what John Mearsheimer has described as "a dysfunctional rump state" whose "ability to wage war against Russia would be greatly reduced and [who] would be unlikely to qualify for membership in either the EU or NATO." Russia could also agree to allow Ukraine to join the European Union minus any security commitments that might normally involve and plus continued Russia-Ukraine trade. Historian Geoffrey Roberts, an expert on Russian foreign and military policy, has suggested to me that the settlement could also commit Russia to helping put Ukraine back on a footing to foster the potential to thrive by aiding in the economic recovery of Ukraine, perhaps including a return to privileged oil prices and resupply of Soviet technology for energy and nuclear power infrastructure.

In exchange for the safety and security of the ethnic Russians in the now Russian Donbas, Russia must be willing to guarantee the protection of the culture, rights and property of the Ukrainian people in its new territories. Putin should readily agree to such guarantees. His presidency has been marked by tolerance for Russia’s ethnic minorities. He has seen Russia as multi-ethnic state that respects the cultures and religions of its various people.

Russia must also guarantee the sovereignty of Ukraine. Ukraine must be allowed to peacefully exist as an independent state and not be conquered or absorbed by Russia. Putin recently hinted that such an agreement is possible when he told a group of war correspondents that "our troops were outside Kiev" before the Istanbul agreement was reached and then stopped. "Do we need to go back there?’ he asked rhetorically. "[T]here is no need for that today."

These terms address the security concerns of Russia, Ukraine and the people of the Donbas. Most of them have been agreed to in some form in the recent past. They also meet the conditions of not excessively rewarding Russia or NATO and limiting the harm to Ukraine as much as the current reality allows. The US does not get to break its promise not to extend to Ukraine. Russia guarantees the autonomy of Ukraine while limiting Russia’s territorial acquisitions to Minsk levels in regions who would vote to be part of Russia if their referendums were honored. Ukraine gets sovereignty, security guarantees that are more realistic than Article 5 NATO security guarantees, and the territory and financial assistance that are prerequisites of the potential to thrive.

Some of these terms are hard for all the parties to accept. Some are especially hard for Ukraine to accept. But the reality is that the people of Crimea and the Donbas have historically and currently chosen to be part of Russia, and Russia now has the battlefield reality that they are not going to be returned. The counteroffensive has disappointed, and continuing the war will likely mean only greater loss of Ukrainian life and territory. The longer the war goes on, the harder it will get for Ukraine to give up its NATO aspirations – because they need something to show for the tragedy that was forced upon them – and the harder Russia’s terms will get.

The longer the war goes on, the more Ukraine will be forced to agree to terms that are worse than the ones they agreed to with Russia at the beginning of the war. The Donbas has gone from an autonomous part of Ukraine, to part of it being partitioned into Russia, to all of it being part of Russia. If the West continues to force life into the war by pouring weapons into Ukraine, they will achieve, not their goal, but the further defeat of Ukraine with all of the loss of life and territory that that entails. The best time for everyone to end the war is now.

Ted Snider is a regular columnist on US foreign policy and history at Antiwar.com and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets.