Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow and director of research for the foreign policy program of the Brookings Institution, where he holds the Philip H. Knight chair in defense and strategy.
To be clear: It is up to Ukraine to decide its own fate. The United States and its allies should not be in the business of dictating terms. But that doesn’t preclude working to catalyze talks. The West can propose creative ideas that draw on history and our collective experiences.
Any progress toward peace would likely begin with a cease-fire, perhaps sometime this summer or fall, roughly along the lines of current combat.
With this approach, Russia would remain in control for the foreseeable future of most of the land it holds now — much of the East, the Crimean Peninsula and the land bridge between the two. No agreement would be reached on permanent borders. Kyiv and Western countries could maintain their principled position that all of the disputed land is Ukrainian. They could hold out hope that a future Russian leader after Vladimir Putin might see things the way they do and finally return the land — perhaps in the 2030s, once Putin is finally gone.
Until then, Russia would remain under sanctions. As an inducement to Putin, however, the West could signal that these sanctions would not get any tougher or broader once a cease-fire was reached (ensuring, for example, that Russian natural gas exports to Europe would not be targeted). Some type of international peace observation mission might be deployed to monitor the cease-fire lines while also making it harder for Putin to resume the attack (since doing so would risk the lives of soldiers from many countries, even if the peacekeepers did not have a mandate or the capacity to stop a Russian attack).
Ukraine might not be prepared to accept such an interim arrangement today — but Kyiv might well change its mind after a few more weeks or months of intense fighting and likely futile attempts at recapturing most of the territory Russia now holds, even after the arrival of more sophisticated Western arms like the HIMARS long-range artillery system.
Then, once a cease-fire was in place, the parties might also quickly begin discussions on a more lasting solution. Though unlikely to succeed in the near term, this option is worth investigating. During talks, materiel support for Ukraine must continue, and sanctions on Russia must stay in place.
Henry A. Kissinger recently made waves by suggesting that any such deal would require territorial compromise by Kyiv. But even if the 99-year-old statesman was too blunt for some, he raised a topic that should be explored. It need not boil down to outright concessions of Ukrainian land. At least three other concepts could be invoked — indeed, all three might be needed, depending on which part of Ukraine’s territory is at issue.
One approach could envision a future referendum to determine sovereignty over disputed territories, after a multiyear cooling-off period. The choices for voters could include staying in Ukraine, joining Russia or becoming independent. To be specific: This scenario would specifically exclude staged events such as the referendum that Moscow conducted in Crimea in March 2014 after Russian troops had seized the territory. A proper referendum would require international supervision of the process and would have to include the right to vote for those who formerly lived in the area in question but had to flee because of the war. Partial precedents for such an approach can be found in Kosovo, East Timor, South Sudan and elsewhere.
Another option would create autonomous zones where both Ukraine and Russia claimed sovereignty. This idea has been implemented in places such as Brcko in Bosnia, a town that Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks all badly wanted in the 1990s. Perhaps this idea could apply to Mariupol and other regions forming the “land bridge” from Ukraine’s east and Russia to Crimea.
A third approach would simply defer some difficult situations. Under this arrangement, the two sides would agree to disagree for now. Russia would hold onto some swaths of land; Ukraine would insist that the land was still its own; negotiations could be scheduled for the future to reconsider the topic. For an instructive historical analogy, consider how the Western nations never recognized the Soviet annexation of the Baltic states — maintaining that position for half a century until those nations could work themselves free of Moscow after the Cold War.
To be sure, even with some mix of the above ideas, negotiating specifics would be very difficult. But a framework could in theory be proposed and debated in the coming weeks and perhaps adopted later in the summer. The alternative — a potentially indefinite continuation of this terrible war — is so bad that we should try, working with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, to jump-start the conversation.