Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

The Realist Case for a Ukraine Peace Deal

| Mar. 29, 2022

Conflict resolution isn't just for woolly-headed idealists.

War is on everyone’s lips and laptop screens these days. Each day, we pore over the latest news from Ukraine, read opinions from real (or imagined) experts, and try to figure out who's winning on the ground and in the air. Not surprisingly, it's easy to find both optimistic and pessimistic forecasts.

All the attention on the fighting is understandable, but what matters in the end is how the conflict is resolved. It may be emotionally satisfying to proclaim that the only acceptable outcome is Russia's capitulation, regime change in Moscow, and Russian President Vladimir Putin's prosecution for war crimes, but none of those outcomes is likely. Making these goals our war aim is also a good way to prolong the fighting and raise the risk of escalation even higher.

If we care about Ukraine, our immediate goal should be to end the war before even more damage is done. There are thoughtful pieces by Thomas Graham and Rajan MenonMichael O’HanlonAnatol Lieven, and others that begin to wrestle with this difficult topic, but they all recognize that getting there will not be easy. Moreover, the ultimate goal should be conflict resolution—not just an end to the fighting but a political arrangement that makes a replay later on less likely.

You might think that a realist would regard conflict resolution as a naive and idealistic notion popular among woolly-headed academics and largely divorced from real-world concerns. After all, doesn't realism emphasize the competitive tendencies that are hard-wired into an anarchic political order? Yes, but it's a mistake to think that realists see no interest in resolving conflicts when one can. Properly understood, there is a hard-nosed realist case for resolving conflicts whenever possible. Let me lay it out for you.

The most obvious reason for great powers to try to resolve ongoing conflicts is to remove existing problems from the current foreign-policy agenda. Realists recognize that new troubles are always lurking around the next corner, and every problem or conflict that you can shut down now is something you won't need to worry about when a new crisis erupts....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“The Realist Case for a Ukraine Peace Deal.” Foreign Policy, March 29, 2022.

The Author

Stephen Walt