First, Ukrainian leaders are not ready to compromise because they believe they can prevent Russia from winning a military victory. Russia’s failure (so far) to gain control of kyiv and other major Ukrainian cities is boosting their confidence, and Russia announced change of strategy seizing and retaining more territory in eastern and southern Ukraine looks like a Russian retreat. The most tried and tested Ukrainian troops are already fighting in these areas, and more useful weapons are arriving from donors beyond their borders.
Russia is also not ready to compromise. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said this week that the alliance expects “a new Russian push into eastern and southern Ukraine in an attempt to take all of Donbass and create a land bridge to occupied Crimea.” Russian leaders still expect to ‘liberate’ this territory so President Vladimir Putin can say he has stopped the (fictional) genocide he accuses Ukrainian soldiers of committing against Russian-speaking civilians in Donbass since 2014. It is a priority objective: having pushed back kyiv, capital of Ukraine, Russia must achieve something resembling a victory if Putin and the Russian army want to avoid a historic humiliation.
Second, even if the two sides continue to talk about peace, there is not enough common ground for an agreement that can last. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will not offer major concessions without a security guarantee for his country, even if that guarantee does not include NATO membership. For its part, Russia has no reason to accept a future that includes Ukraine, now Russia’s sworn enemy, having guaranteed protection from other countries. And these countries have little reason to write a long-term blank check to support Ukraine unconditionally in a war that could break out again at any moment.
The short-term outcome of the fighting in Ukraine remains uncertain. Neither side has a clear advantage, even as Russia appears to be moving towards less ambitious goals. But unless Russia can destroy the Ukrainian army or Ukraine can completely drive out Russian forces – two unlikely outcomes – the fighting will freeze as an unstable military stalemate sets in.
Without a lasting peace deal, Ukraine (and outsiders) know that Putin could start another war at any moment. This would leave foreign investors reluctant to finance the reconstruction of a Ukraine that Russia could once again ravage, the United States unwilling to lift sanctions against Russia, and European governments doubly determined to relieve their dangerous dependence on Russian energy supplies before a future conflict. Russia’s economy will slowly sink and its most talented people will head to the lifeboats.
There are two wild cards to consider, one short-term and one longer-term. According to Eurasia Group, Russia will probably manage to take over Donbass, but it is “a tight call”. If, on the other hand, Ukrainian fighters can deny the Russians control of the central region to Putin’s initial justification for the invasion, there is a “significant risk that [Russia] could use chemical weapons” to reverse his military fortunes, according to his research. Such a move is a gamble, but Putin has already rolled the dice in Ukraine, and risking a humiliating defeat could prove a serious threat to Putin himself.
In the longer term, even if the conflict in Ukraine remains frozen, Putin’s inability to bring Ukraine fully under his control could encourage him to use other types of weapons against Americans and Europeans. Cyberspace is an arena in which Russia and the West are already in open conflict. President Joe Biden warned on March 21 that cyberattacks are “part of Russia’s playbook” and that “the Russian government is exploring options for potential cyberattacks.”
This is why an unresolved conflict in Ukraine creates risks that extend far beyond Ukraine’s borders.
Willis Sparks is Senior Global Macro Political Risk Analyst at Eurasia Group. GZERO Media is a subsidiary of the Eurasia Group.