Ukraine’s Western backers have vowed to respect Kyiv’s decisions in any settlement to end the war with Russia, but with larger issues of global security at stake, there are limits to how many compromises some in NATO will support to win the peace.
But Kyiv’s decisions — and any concessions President Volodymyr Zelensky might embrace — will help determine whether the Kremlin is chastened or emboldened, and nations that have territorial ambitions over their neighbors, such as China, will be watching the outcome. Some NATO allies are especially cautious about ceding Ukrainian territory to Russia and giving Russian President Vladimir Putin any semblance of victory, according to alliance policymakers and analysts.
While Biden administration officials remain skeptical that the Ukrainian government’s negotiations with Russia will lead to a swift deal, officials say they are considering how a settlement — or any end to the fighting, however that might occur — will impact the security of NATO nations.
“We believe that our job is to support the Ukrainians,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan said this week. “They will set the military objectives. They will set the objectives at the bargaining table. And I am quite certain they are going to set those objectives at success, and we are going to give them every tool we can to help them achieve that success. But we are not going to define the outcome of this for the Ukrainians.”
Some European countries, especially formerly communist ones with bitter memories of Russian invasion or occupation, are especially nervous about how the conflict will evolve, seeing themselves as next on the Kremlin’s target list. If Putin feels he has profited from the invasion, by winning territory, political concessions or other benefits, he may eventually be inspired to try the same thing against other neighbors, policymakers say.
The Ukrainians, as a result, are involved in a broader fight on behalf of Europe, NATO leaders say.
“I hope they will be hard as steel. I support maximum military support and maximum sanctions,” Latvian Defense Minister Artis Pabriks said in an interview. “Russia must lose and criminals should stand in court.”
Even a Ukrainian vow not to join NATO — a concession that Zelensky has floated publicly — could be a concern to some neighbors. That leads to an awkward reality: For some in NATO, it’s better for the Ukrainians to keep fighting, and dying, than to achieve a peace that comes too early or at too high a cost to Kyiv and the rest of Europe.
“Many of us have, and it’s absolutely human, a willingness to see that the war ends as soon as possible, that people are not suffering, not dying, and that there are no bombings,” said a senior European diplomat who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk frankly about sensitive security issues. “There is an unfortunate dilemma. The problem is that if it ends now, there is a kind of time for Russia to regroup, and it will restart, under this or another pretext. Putin is not going to give up his goals.”
While U.S. officials say they are not trying to pressure Ukraine into a deal, the negotiations have been a frequent topic in the regular discussions between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba. Blinken has provided informal input about the talks during those calls. Kuleba will travel to Brussels to join the NATO meetings this week.
White House officials are also in “near-daily contact” with Zelensky’s team about the negotiations, Sullivan said.
The Ukrainians have power of their own: Zelensky has been willing to criticize his Western backers when he has felt they weren’t doing enough to help him. If he publicized any attempt to pressure him to accept a settlement, or to reject one, that effort could backfire. And with Ukrainians doing the fighting, they aren’t as susceptible to Western pressure as weaker countries might be.
If Ukraine and Russia agree to a peace settlement, Washington and the European Union will face a separate question about whether to offer sanctions relief to the Kremlin. The answer is not an automatic yes, some policymakers said.
“It’s a little tricky for the U.S. and other allies. … They don’t want something to come out of the negotiation that isn’t implementable,” said Alexander Vershbow, a former NATO deputy secretary general. “If the Ukrainians accepted a deal that does involve territorial concessions, it may be good enough for Ukraine in some circumstances, depending on what else they get, but it could set a bad precedent in terms of further legitimizing changing borders by force and by brutal, rapacious conquest, as the Russians are doing in many parts of Ukraine.”
NATO members themselves do not appear united on how much of a direct threat Russia poses to the alliance, with officials in Paris, Berlin and elsewhere more inclined than their allies in Eastern Europe to feel that Putin’s aims stop at the NATO border. French President Emmanuel Macron — who this month is facing a surging far-right election opponent, Marine Le Pen — has spoken to Putin at least 16 times since the start of the year to try to preempt or end the conflict, French officials said. Le Pen has espoused pro-Russian views in the past.
For countries that are closer to the war, there is a belief that they have more at stake.
“This is a major issue for us,” said a senior diplomat from a country that borders Ukraine. “A divided, fragmented, frozen conflict in Ukraine is a very bad deal for us. An active Ukraine-NATO relationship is crucial for the Black Sea region. If that is broken, we will have a problem of unchecked Russians and the need for even stronger presence by NATO allies.”
For now, the math that would favor a negotiated settlement does not appear to add up, analysts and policymakers said, despite some positive noise after discussions last week between Ukraine and Russia. With Russia pulling back from Kyiv and other cities, Ukrainians feel that the momentum is on their side. And the accounts of atrocities under Russian rule in Bucha, Lotskyne and elsewhere make it harder for Kyiv to concede an inch of territory, since there are now fears for the fate of Ukrainian citizens under any Russian rule.
“Who are we to tell Ukrainians what to do? How can we imagine a situation whereby given all of the destruction, all of the massacres, we just say, ‘Okay, that’s fine,’ ” said Nathalie Tocci, head of the Italian Institute of International Affairs and an adviser to E.U. policymakers in Brussels.
The Kremlin, too, may be unable to back down, since its citizens have been fed a steady stream of lies and propaganda about what is happening on the ground, and they have been told they are winning.
“I don’t see any indication that we’re anywhere close to a negotiated solution on this,” said Andrew Weiss, a former top White House adviser on Russia who is now vice president of studies at the Carnegie Endowment. “The Russians are prepared to continue doing horrible things in Ukraine with the goal of getting the Ukrainians to surrender and the West to back off, and the Ukrainians are prepared to fight. I don’t see the conditions for a settlement in place.”
While NATO officials say they are not trying to dictate terms of a potential deal to Kyiv, some Western officials have provided Ukraine with analysis of the country’s options and potential outcomes related to negotiations and the war.
Alliance countries — and particularly the United States, given the scale of its military aid to Ukraine — may have exerted their most significant sway in an indirect, perhaps unintentional manner, in their decisions about which weapons they will or will not supply to Ukraine. Those decisions have had a direct impact on the battlefield situation and, in turn, the Ukrainian government’s approach to peace talks.
Ukraine has said that in exchange for agreeing to give up its NATO aspirations, it would want legally binding security guarantees from the United States and others to defend it if it were attacked. A U.S. official said the U.S. military has not been consulted about what Western security guarantees for Ukraine would look like. The official said there wasn’t a lot of appetite among senior military leaders for such a notion.
“It appears like they’re looking for the same thing as Article V without being a NATO nation, and that probably would be a very rough row to hoe with the international community,” the official said, referring to NATO’s core collective-defense guarantee.
No matter how the war ends, the United States plans to review its military posture in Europe. Before the conflict, there were more than 80,000 U.S. troops on the continent. Today, with temporary deployments designed to shore up NATO’s eastern flank, there are more than 100,000, the official said.
War in Ukraine: What you need to know
The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin signed decrees Friday to annex four occupied regions of Ukraine, following staged referendums that were widely denounced as illegal. Follow our live updates here.
The response: The Biden administration on Friday announced a new round of sanctions on Russia, in response to the annexations, targeting government officials and family members, Russian and Belarusian military officials and defense procurement networks. President Volodymyr Zelensky also said Friday that Ukraine is applying for “accelerated ascension” into NATO, in an apparent answer to the annexations.
In Russia: Putin declared a military mobilization on Sept. 21 to call up as many as 300,000 reservists in a dramatic bid to reverse setbacks in his war on Ukraine. The announcement led to an exodus of more than 180,000 people, mostly men who were subject to service, and renewed protests and other acts of defiance against the war.
The fight: Ukraine mounted a successful counteroffensive that forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in early September, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.
Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.