On June 5, the day after Ukraine’s long-delayed spring counteroffensive began, Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass said during an appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that a ceasefire in the war, with Ukraine not recovering most of its territory, is inevitable.
Haass’s position reflects the views of other national security experts who have drifted from the dominant narrative about the Russia-Ukraine war, arguing that both military and political necessities will force Ukraine to admit it cannot attain victory and accept a ceasefire.
For example, last month, left-wing U.S. foreign policy experts and peace activists ran ads in The New York Times and The Hill calling for an end to the war and peace talks. Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis said in April that a ceasefire was in everyone’s interests. GOP presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy has called on Ukraine to make “major concessions” to Russia to end the war so the U.S. can focus on the threat from China.
Former President Donald Trump has also called for a swift end to the war and has said he will accomplish this in 24 hours if he wins the 2024 presidential election.
On the other hand, Ukrainian officials, the Biden administration, and many American experts continue to insist that Ukraine can “win” the war with Russia if the U.S. and our allies provide it with the military aid it needs. Winning, in their view, means Russian forces leave Ukrainian territory and Ukraine takes back all its territory, including Crimea, which Russia seized in 2014.
The Ukrainian government refuses to consider peace talks or a ceasefire before it recovers all its territory. Biden administration officials also are hostile to a settlement before a complete Ukrainian victory because they claim this would reward Russian aggression. Instead, the Biden administration continues to say it will provide military aid to Ukraine “for as long as it takes.”
Those who do not completely support this position are regularly accused of being pro-Putin, anti-Ukraine, and refusing to stand up for freedom. This happened to Trump when he said in response to a question at a recent CNN town hall on whether he wants Ukraine to win the conflict, “I don’t think in terms of winning and losing, I think in terms of getting it settled so we can stop killing all those people.”
Haass’s dissent from the Biden administration’s approach is significant because as the unofficial dean of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, his surprising conclusion that the Biden administration’s Ukraine policy cannot succeed carries a lot of weight.
Haass explained his thinking in depth in an April 2023 Foreign Affairs article co-authored with Georgetown University Professor Charles Kupchan, also a U.S. foreign policy establishment leader, in which they argue that the West needs a new strategy to get from the battlefield to the negotiating table in the Ukraine War because “the most likely outcome of the conflict is not a complete Ukrainian victory but a bloody stalemate.”
The two experts support providing Ukraine with the weapons it needs for its spring counteroffensive but believe this campaign probably will not change the likelihood of a long-term stalemate. According to Haass and Kupchan, “Even if the West steps up its military assistance, Ukraine is poised to fall well short of vanquishing Russian forces. It is running out of soldiers and ammunition, and its economy continues to deteriorate.”
Haass and Kupchan echoed other concerns by American conservatives about a long-term continuation of the war in Ukraine: that the war is depleting stockpiles of critical weapons and damaging the global economy. They also warned that the Ukraine war might undermine America and its allies’ capability to engage in possible future military actions in other regions — especially concerning Taiwan and Iran — and that the Ukraine war is increasingly conflicting with other U.S. global priorities.
Haass and Kupchan hope Ukraine will be open to pursuing diplomatic options, probably a ceasefire at first after its current counteroffensive ends in about six months. They also believe Putin might consider a ceasefire this fall as a face-saving off-ramp if the Ukrainian counteroffensive makes battlefield gains.
The two experts concede, however, that it may be difficult to convince the two sides to agree to a ceasefire and peace talks. Although Ukraine might try to reject a ceasefire, Haass and Kupchan believe the political reality that U.S. and European military aid cannot be sustained, coupled with possible Russian agreement to a ceasefire, might give Kyiv no choice but to accept.
Haass also said in his MSNBC interview that he expects the West to put significant pressure on Ukraine by the spring of 2025 to agree to a ceasefire. In my view, that is far too late: If a ceasefire is inevitable, that pressure should start now.
Haass and Kupchan are not optimistic about a peace settlement even if a ceasefire holds. They concede that Russia may not negotiate in good faith, and Ukraine probably will not drop its demand to return to its 1991 borders. If this happens, they believe Ukraine could become a “frozen conflict” like those that have existed on the Korean peninsula and Cyprus for decades. Haass and Kupchan acknowledge this is not a desirable outcome but would be far better than the likely alternative — “a high-intensity war that continues for years.”
These two experts suggested several incentives to promote a ceasefire and peace talks. In exchange for abiding by a ceasefire, a demilitarized zone, and participating in peace talks, Russia could be offered some limited sanctions relief. Ukraine would not be asked to relinquish the goal of regaining all its territory, but it would agree to use diplomacy, not force, with the understanding that this will require a future diplomatic breakthrough that probably will not occur before Putin leaves office. Until that happens, the U.S. and its allies would pledge to only fully lift sanctions against Russia and normalize relations after it signs a peace agreement acceptable to Ukraine.
Haass and Kupchan also propose offering Ukraine some form of formal security pact that falls short of NATO membership, a long-term EU economic support pact, and a timetable for admission to the EU.
Even if both parties agree to a ceasefire, according to the two experts, the West would continue to provide Ukraine with the weapons it needs to defend itself over the long term. This would help ensure that Russia does not exploit a pause in the fighting to rearm and resume the war.
I think that makes sense. But Haass and Kupchan also propose that the U.S. greatly increase military aid to Ukraine and remove restrictions on the Ukrainian army striking targets inside Russia if Putin violates the ceasefire. Such an escalation is a bad idea that could lead Russia to escalate and possibly use nuclear weapons. A better approach would be to keep pushing for a ceasefire until one is achieved.
Haass and Kupchan proposed several ways to shore up a ceasefire to make it last. Both sides would pull back their weapons to create a demilitarized zone. Either the United Nations or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe would send observers (peacekeepers) to verify compliance with the ceasefire and the DMZ.
These ideas are stunning heresy from gurus of a foreign policy establishment that refuses to consider any outcome for the Ukraine war short of a complete Russian withdrawal. Some conservatives share this view, including Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley, who insists that the U.S. must help Ukraine “win” to defend freedom and prevent a world war.
Haass and Kupchan disagree. They are admitting what many conservative experts have been contending: The Ukraine war is not a vital U.S. national security interest and is interfering with other vital U.S. national security interests. They also believe Ukraine cannot win a long-term war of attrition and, as unjust and immoral as Russia’s occupation of Ukraine is, thousands more Ukrainian deaths in an endless stalemate also would be unjustifiable and immoral.
For these and other reasons, Haass and Kupchan are urging the West to adopt a new strategy to end the Ukraine war with a ceasefire and peace talks.
Haass and Kupchan’s analysis lacked an urgent call on Western powers to immediately press for a ceasefire or the suggestion that U.S. military aid to Ukraine should be conditioned on Ukraine’s agreement to seriously pursue a ceasefire and peace talks. But their article represents a shift in the thinking of the foreign policy establishment on the Ukraine war.
Their words may lead many more on the American left and right to speak out on the pointlessness of Biden’s policy on the Ukraine war and to call for a ceasefire and peace talks to end the war. Let’s hope Biden will listen.