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Peace in Ukraine

What a Ukraine peace deal might look like.

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A Ukrainian soldier in camouflage walks through a shoulder-deep trench in a barren forest.

The Donetsk region last month.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Julian E. Barnes
Feb. 6, 2024, 6:47 a.m. ET

Last year’s Ukrainian counteroffensive was a failure. Russia’s defenses in the territory it has captured look impenetrable. Republicans in Washington are blocking further Ukraine aid. President Volodymyr Zelensky is on the precipice of firing his top general — who may well become his chief political rival.

It’s a difficult moment for Ukraine. And another year of frontal assaults on the trench lines could make 2024 look like 1916, a year in World War I that brought harrowing loss of life but few battlefield gains.

The question now is what Ukraine can reasonably still hope to achieve. In today’s newsletter, I’ll explain what a negotiated settlement might look like — whenever it comes — and what a better and worse version might look like. It’s still possible that either Ukraine or Russia will mount a more successful military drive this year than experts expect. But the most likely outcome of this year’s fighting is a continued stalemate. That impasse will shape how the war ends.

Ukraine wants all its territory back. That is not likely to happen.

Ukrainians believe in their ability to fight back. They defended Kyiv, retook Kherson and pushed Russia away from Kharkiv in 2022. Their military is more battle-hardened than anything else in Europe, made more sophisticated by its adoption of American and allied technology. They have avoided the worst outcome: an outright defeat, an overthrow of their democratic government, the installation of a Russian puppet. Many Ukrainians now believe concessions to Russia would mean their compatriots had died in vain.

But the situation is grim. The country has lost nearly one-fifth of its territory. In 2014, Russia took Crimea and orchestrated a separatist rebellion in parts of the Donbas. It grabbed the rest since the current phase of the war began in 2022.

By The New York Times

Ukraine has lost a generation of young men — killed and wounded — to the war. It is also running out of ammunition, supplies and equipment. While Europe just approved $54 billion in economic assistance, it is American money that delivers Kyiv’s military might. But most House Republicans now oppose further Ukraine aid. And even pro-Ukraine Republicans are asking Biden administration officials what strategy can break the current battlefield stalemate. Meanwhile, the funding is ensnared in a border policy debate.

If Ukraine can’t get what it needs to beat Russia, what kind of deal could it make?

Vladimir Putin may accept a peace deal that gives him the territory he occupies now and that forces Ukraine to stay neutral, halting its integration with Europe. Ukrainians call this bargain a capitulation. But without additional American aid, they may be forced to take it.

A better deal for Ukraine would give it back at least some of its land, plus a promise that the United States and Europe would help defend it against Russia. Perhaps then Putin would think twice about further attacks. In this scenario, Ukraine might not join NATO or the European Union immediately, the prospect of which helped drive Russia’s invasion in the first place.

But to make that deal possible, Ukraine would need a stronger military to erode Russia’s might. The Russian Army has been damaged, its most advanced weaponry lost, its modernization drive set back years. If the proposed $60 billion U.S. aid package ever comes through, it could enable more audacious Ukrainian strikes behind Russian lines — the kinds of operations that keep Moscow off balance.

The money from Congress, in short, could be the difference between a bad deal and a better one. Having it would strengthen Ukraine’s hand at the negotiating table. Without it, Putin may prove right in his theory that he can outlast the West.

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