Paper - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

From Stalemate to Settlement

Lessons from History for Ukraine's Peace

INTRODUCTION

After over two years of conflict in Ukraine, where does the war stand today? As Ukraine’s then-Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, Valery Zaluzhny, declared: stalemate. Since November 2022, over a year ago, the front line has moved fewer than 20 miles. Meanwhile, both sides have experienced enormous losses, with hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians and Russians estimated to have been injured or killed. Both Russia’s 2022 winter offensive and Ukraine’s 2023 summer counteroffensive failed to break the deadlock despite high costs in lives and equipment. After two years of calls to support Ukraine in taking back all its territory, Western analysts entered 2024 strategically adrift, as total Ukrainian victory appears increasingly unrealistic, and Russia hopes to hold a Trump card following the US elections in November. 

Major battlefield swings appear unlikely. Territorial change effectively ceased since the end of Ukraine’s 2022 counteroffensive over a year ago, and Ukraine will likely not have the capacity to execute another major counteroffensive, let alone liberate all territory. At the rate Ukraine has advanced over the past year, it would take until well after 2100 to liberate all of its territory. Russia’s rapid offensive in the past few weeks erased Ukrainian advances during their summer 2023 counteroffensive. After months of deliberation, both the US and Ukraine recently passed major bills which will help sustain Ukraine’s defenses through 2024. While war is unpredictable, the United States and Ukraine should prepare for the significant possibility that their interests will soon be best served by negotiating with Russia. 

Possible endgames for Ukraine are often presented as a false dichotomy between total Ukrainian victory and a frozen conflict that would serve as a future “launching pad…for aggression” by Russia. But as US analysts, we should broaden our collective strategic imagination about how the Russia-Ukraine War might end. What lessons can be drawn from the history of war termination? Armed with historical precedent, how can American policymakers secure a favorable endgame for the US and their Ukrainian partners? 

This white paper is an attempt to clarify what possible negotiated settlements look like, and how various endgames affect the national interests of the four most influential players: Ukraine, Russia, China, and the United States. The participants, Russia and Ukraine, are the two most significant actors, while the US and China have played key supporting roles. The US has furnished Ukraine with military and financial aid, leading a coalition of Western nations. China has supported Russia less directly (and, as of this writing, has not given lethal military aid), but without China’s economic and technological support Russia would struggle to continue the war. While other entities are also important, such as the European members of NATO, the aforementioned countries represent the four unitary actors with the greatest involvement in the war.  

The paper surveys the history of war termination beginning with World War II, selecting eight cases that exemplify one or more of the following: a meaningful territorial stalemate, an eventual negotiated settlement, and involvement by great-power patrons in an otherwise regional war. Our objective is not merely to survey conflict termination but to apply this history as a guide for how today’s conflict may end. Accordingly, each historical case is “graded” in terms of its desirability for each actor in the Russia-Ukraine War, describing whether an analogous endgame would satisfy the interests of the United States, Ukraine, Russia, and China. To illuminate which objectives are essential and which can be discounted in negotiations, we taxonomize each actor’s interests as vital, extremely important, important, or merely secondary.  

Our cases take place across eight decades and involve over a dozen distinct countries, from Cambodia and Vietnam to Finland and Russia. Despite the wide variance in time, location, and outcome, we derive six lessons from this history that policymakers can marshal to pursue a favorable ending to today’s war. Each lesson is a broad principle, followed by two detailed recommendations that US and Ukrainian policymakers should heed. While our paper and lessons are directed at the United States and its partners, our recommendations aim for an attainable settlement that Russia and China could sign up for, instead of a mere wish list of Western demands.

This white paper attempts to apply history to illuminate possible paths forward but is neither a detailed blueprint for peace nor an intricate playbook for how negotiations should proceed. With any negotiated settlement, the devil is in the details, and questions such as the prosecution of war crimes, repatriation of prisoners of war (POWs), reparations, and specific territorial lines will undoubtedly be debated fiercely by Moscow and Kyiv. The specific contours of any deal will be ironed out at the negotiating table. Additionally, significant negotiations are unlikely to take place in the lame-duck period prior to the US presidential election. Our recommendations are therefore not an immediate  call for action but guidelines for policymakers if and when Ukraine decides to negotiate. 

This paper begins by analyzing the top five national interests that Ukraine, Russia, the United States, and China each have in the war, as they are the belligerents and primary patron states. Next, we examine eight cases from the history of major wars post-World War II, and then discuss the methodology used to select and grade each historical case. We give a brief overview of each, from the roots of conflict to how the war progressed and eventually ended. Particular attention is paid to the eventual settlement and its aftermath. The cases are graded based on how well an analogous deal would address the interests of each actor in the Russia-Ukraine War today. The cases are ordered from least to most optimal, in terms of how their outcome would align with US national interests. We conclude by offering six lessons drawn from the cases, in an attempt to guide US policymakers as Ukraine considers and eventually begins negotiations to bring the largest European land war since World War II to a close.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Davidson, Kate, Raphael Piliero, Peter Gaber and Joshua Henderson. “From Stalemate to Settlement.” Paper, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, June 12, 2024.

The Authors