If Ukraine Wants U.S. Aid, It Needs to Come to the Bargaining Table

European states are increasing pressure on the Ukrainian government to agree to peace talks to end the war with Russia. During their meeting at the White House on Thursday, Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron both expressed their support for peace talks under the right conditions but also agreed that the United States and France would never urge the Ukrainians to make a compromise “that will not be acceptable for them.”   

Given the urgency of ending this conflict, and understanding how the war is draining the U.S. stockpile of certain vital weapons, the United States should make further aid contingent upon Kyiv’s participation in peace negotiations. 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says he is willing to start “genuine” negotiations, but with stiff conditions that include bringing Russian war criminals to justice, return of all occupied Ukrainian territory, and reparations. Ukrainian officials also have ruled out negotiations with Russia unless Russian President Vladimir Putin steps down.  

Pressured by Ukrainian gains in the war and the deterioration of Russian forces in the country, Putin has expressed a willingness to join peace talks, but this week insisted on the unacceptable condition that the West recognize Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territory. 

Ukraine’s reluctance to come to the table is understandable, given the brutality and atrocities of Russia’s invasion and the major gains the Ukrainian army has made against Russian forces over the last few months. 

The trouble is, Ukrainian and American interests in this war are not the same. Many in Congress do not believe America should provide vast amounts of military aid indefinitely and with no clear accounting. They worry America is supporting an endless war. 

U.S. aid is also depleting our weapons stockpiles, especially 155mm ammunition and the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, which without question affects the readiness of our military and America’s ability to provide military assistance to other friends and allies, especially Taiwan. 

Some members of Congress also are worried about crossing a “red line” with Russia, possibly if Ukraine attempts to regain control of Crimea by force, which could lead Moscow to use tactical nuclear weapons. They also are concerned that the administration’s focus on trying to achieve a complete Ukrainian victory by flooding it with arms also could provoke Putin to use nuclear weapons.  

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Mark Milley has called for Ukraine to enter peace talks with Russia to cement their gains at the bargaining table because he believes the Ukrainians have achieved about as much as they could reasonably expect on the battlefield before winter. Milley also has said he sees no chance for Russia to defeat Ukraine and has urged Kyiv to negotiate “when you’re at strength and your opponent is at weakness.” 

Other senior Biden Administration officials reject this approach and are unwilling to push or even nudge Ukraine to the bargaining table. Instead, they want the United States to provide billions of dollars in arms to Ukraine “for as long as it takes.” But Biden’s statement on Thursday that he is willing to speak with Putin in consultation with NATO allies if the Russian leader indicates he is “looking for a way to end the war” may indicate a shift in the Biden Administration’s approach. 

A compelling reason to promote a negotiated settlement is that Ukraine and the United States do not have a plan to end the war. American and Ukrainian leaders could be correct that U.S. military support will lead to the defeat and withdrawal of the Russian military, at least from eastern Ukraine. Perhaps growing Russian losses will force Putin from power and result in a new Russian government willing to end the war.  

These are the best outcomes for the conflict, but they are probably unrealistic. Even if Ukrainian forces make further gains against Russian troops before winter, there is no sign Putin will easily withdraw. Instead, he is punishing Ukraine with missile and drone attacks against infrastructure, especially power and water plants. 

In addition, in September, Putin named General Sergei Surovikin as the commander of Russian forces in Ukraine. Surovikin has a reputation for brutality, including bombing civilians during Russia’s campaign in Syria.  

This could mean that while the Ukrainian military may eventually defeat Russian forces and force a withdrawal from eastern Ukraine, possibly in the spring, the country’s infrastructure largely will be destroyed by that time. There also likely will be thousands of Ukrainians killed and a new exodus to neighboring countries.  

A better approach would be to halt the fighting now with a ceasefire that locks in the territory Ukrainian forces have reclaimed and put off a formal peace agreement until later.  

Ukrainian officials are legitimately concerned about trusting Putin to honor a ceasefire because he has broken many other agreements, including previous ceasefire attempts. It is possible that Russian violations of a ceasefire would cause it to collapse quickly. To discourage this, peacekeepers might be deployed between Russian and Ukrainian forces. The peacekeeping troops would be chosen from nations acceptable to Russia and Ukraine. These would not be U.N. peacekeepers to prevent Russia from using its U.N. Security Council veto to influence their deployment. 

Regardless of whether a cease-fire can be agreed upon, the United States and European states should put in place a structure for a peace process, possibly in Vienna. Meetings should start as soon as possible to discuss how to end the war, ways to prevent future conflict, security assurances, reconstruction, returning POWs, and other issues. 

Ukraine would be required to participate in this peace process to receive U.S. military aid. This structure would be in place when Moscow and Kyiv are ready to negotiate. 

The peace talks process should also address how to rebuild Ukraine, which will require billions of dollars in financial assistance. It is crucial that Russia— not the United States—pay for this as part of an eventual negotiated settlement. There are two ways this might be done.  

One way would be to seize—or threaten to seize—more than $300 billion in Russian assets frozen by several countries since the invasion. 

Another option would be an agreement that would lift sanctions on Russian energy exports but require a percentage of Russian energy revenues to be paid to Ukraine for reconstruction. This option could be combined with keeping the Russian assets as collateral. 

Western states might offer to lift some sanctions on Russia in exchange for its full cooperation with a peace process and an agreement to pay to rebuild Ukraine. Sanctions or indictments of Putin or other Russian officials would not be lifted. 

A frequent criticism of a negotiated settlement or ceasefire is that it would give Russia time to rebuild its military so it could launch a new offensive when the weather improves. Given how badly the Russian army has fared in Ukraine, its massive loss of equipment, and Russia’s inability to import the electronics it needs to produce advanced weaponry—especially missiles—the Russian military is unlikely to recover enough to defeat the Ukrainian army in the foreseeable future.  

The United States and its allies could ensure this by building up Ukraine’s defenses during a ceasefire to discourage a new Russian offensive. 

Critics of a negotiated peace deal also argue that any settlement that does not restore all territory Russia seized from Ukraine and does not hold Russia and its leaders accountable would be unjust. Reality is, any peace agreement will be imperfect. But in this situation, a ceasefire and peace talks that avoid the use of nuclear weapons, save lives, and prevent the destruction of Ukraine during months of attrition would be the more realistic and moral option. A ceasefire might also buy time to allow diplomacy to work and develop other settlement options.  

This approach will be complex and controversial, but it would be in the best interests of Ukraine and the United States. It would send the message that although the United States strongly supports Ukraine’s fight against Russia’s brutal and unprovoked invasion, American military aid to Ukraine is not open-ended. It also would convey that America does not support an endless war in Ukraine, and we expect an eventual negotiated settlement. Advancing this approach will require strong leadership from Biden and bipartisan support from Congress.

About Fred Fleitz

Fred Fleitz is Vice Chair of the America First Policy Institute Center for American Security. He previously served as Chief of Staff of the Trump National Security Council and as a CIA analyst.

Photo: iStock/Getty Images

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