Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

Ukraine and Russia Need a Great-Power Peace Plan

| Apr. 18, 2023

How Washington and Beijing could stop the war in Europe.

If those leaked documents from the Pentagon are to be believed—and I think they are—the United States needs a plan B for Ukraine. As much as we'd all like to see the swift liberation of Ukrainian territory, the under-equipped, under-trained Ukrainian forces now gearing up for a spring offensive are unlikely to make far-reaching gains against Russia’s defenses. The administration’s bold promises of an eventual Ukrainian triumph will probably not be borne out, and Ukraine will suffer additional damage in the meantime. What Ukraine needs is peace, not a protracted war of attrition against a more populous adversary whose leader does not much care about how many lives are sacrificed in the maelstrom.

I suspect most top officials in the Biden administration understand this cruel reality, whatever they may say in public. Although anything is possible in wartime, they don't expect Ukraine to achieve a dramatic breakthrough or the Russian army to collapse. Instead, they are hoping that Ukraine's armed forces do well enough to convince Russian President Vladimir Putin to move toward a cease-fire and eventually negotiate a full peace agreement. (For an unofficial version of this view, see Raj Menon's thoughtful and relatively optimistic analysis here.) If the Ukrainian offensive goes poorly, however, Putin will be in no rush to negotiate. Although Russia would also be better off if the war ended, he is unlikely to stop until his main war aim—the strategic neutralization of Ukraine—is achieved.

What to do? Since the start of the war, outsiders have hoped that China might use its influence and leverage to get Moscow to cut a deal and end the fighting. Those hopes have been disappointed thus far, in part because China has benefited from the war in several obvious ways. Western sanctions made Russia even more dependent on China, provided Beijing with oil and gas at discount prices, and prevented the United States from focusing more attention on Asia. But letting the war drag on endlessly presents problems for Beijing, too. China is eager to mend fences with Europe; get trade, investment, and advanced technology flowing unimpeded; and gradually drive a wedge between Europe and the United States. Although China's leaders have tried to portray themselves as a disinterested party to the conflict, being one of Russia's best friends while it assaults Ukraine undermines every one of these goals.

There is some reason to believe, therefore, that China's leaders might like the war to end sooner rather than later, and that in the right circumstances, they would be willing to use their influence toward that end. That possibility alone ought to worry U.S. policymakers: What if Beijing followed up on its successful mediation effort between Iran and Saudi Arabia by positioning itself as the broker of peace in Ukraine? If China could pull that off—admittedly, a very big "if"—it would strengthen its efforts to portray the United States as a declining power that is better at sowing strife and conflict than at fostering cooperation, and it would burnish China's image as a rising power genuinely devoted to peace and harmony.

So here's a wild idea: Given that both Beijing and Washington have an interest in ending the war, the Biden administration should invite China to join it in a joint effort to bring the two sides to the bargaining table. In effect, the United States would offer to use its influence to deliver Kyiv, and Beijing would agree to use its leverage to deliver Moscow. If they succeeded, the two states would share the credit and neither could claim a propaganda victory over the other....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“Ukraine and Russia Need a Great-Power Peace Plan.” Foreign Policy, April 18, 2023.

The Author

Stephen Walt