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Elizabeth Shackelford is a senior fellow on U.S. foreign policy with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a former U.S. diplomat. She wrote this for the Chicago Tribune.
Six months into Russia’s latest war with Ukraine, it’s hard to see how it ends. Complete military victory by either side is unlikely. This means the end of this war will be shaped by the battlefield, but it won’t be secured there. It will come from negotiations molded by motivations of both sides and the realities of the conflict as they develop.
Ultimately it will be up to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his government to determine what is in the best interest of the Ukrainian people. But if Ukraine’s partners want to help it reach a palatable peace, they should not only help Kyiv shape the conflict with military support but facilitate avenues for future talks too.
Some supporters of Ukraine find it blasphemous for Kyiv to even consider making concessions to reach a peace. Zelenskyy, however, has repeatedly called on Western partners to help bring Russian President Vladimir Putin to the negotiating table.
It isn’t just about coming to the table though. The answer isn’t to force a settlement under unacceptable circumstances. Taking steps to change the balance of power can alter the circumstances under which this war ends. Ukraine is keeping the door to diplomacy open, but at the same time working to change the parameters within which that diplomacy occurs.
Ukraine’s recent strikes into Crimea are part of that strategy and have expanded what is on the negotiating table to include the peninsula’s security — something Russia cares about deeply but did not think was up for grabs before.
These actions are taking a political and emotional toll on Russia and potentially changing how the Russian people think about Putin’s “special military operation.” Though Russia’s claim there is illegal, it has held Crimea for eight years, and the area is an important military base, a seaside playground for Russian elites, and a key part of the Great Russia story driving Putin’s imperialist war.
Ukraine lacks the ability to retake Crimea but has managed to hit the Black Sea Fleet headquarters and destroy Russian aircraft through sabotage and drone strikes. Russian civilians are now fleeing Crimea’s beaches, which previously felt far afield from the war.
These attacks come at a time when Russia’s advances on other fronts have stalled, and Ukraine is launching its first major counteroffensive of the war.
At the same time, Ukraine continues to seek and secure more and better weapons from the West. The United States in particular is providing Ukraine with expanded capabilities that are also shifting the balance.
This summer, Washington provided precision-guided artillery that gave Ukraine the ability to target strategic bridges under Russian control. Ukraine has used these to good effect by taking out multiple bridges across the Dnieper River supplying Russia’s forces in Kherson.
These weapons have put Ukraine on a path to potentially isolate the Crimean Peninsula altogether. Notably, Ukraine has not yet destroyed the Kerch Strait Bridge, Russia’s only direct access into Crimea from Russia, leaving open a possible lever of negotiation. Additionally, these tools have made it less likely that Russia can wait out Ukraine in a war of attrition. After all, Russia’s endurance has limits too, especially while it continues to resist declaring war to mobilize its full military might.
None of this suggests Ukraine is on a path to defeat Russia anytime soon. But these shifts give Ukraine an edge at the negotiating table and expand the contents of what that table includes. They are examples of the dynamism and unpredictability of war and how changing circumstances on the battlefield can change leverage beyond it.
A negotiated end requires concessions on both sides. For good reason, many Ukrainians and their supporters find it hard to imagine today what concessions Ukraine can live with that would bring Russia to the table. Rewarding Russia’s aggression with land concessions sets a dangerous precedent, and Zelenskyy can hardly in good conscience condemn Ukrainian civilians to live under the kind of treatment Russia has meted out to those trapped in territory it has occupied since February. One must only look toward cities like Bucha and Mariupol to understand why.
But the leverage Ukraine now has over Crimea might be changing the terms available to Ukraine for negotiation.
What a specific deal might ultimately look like remains unclear, but finding that deal and shaping its terms are Ukraine’s best bet for ending Russia’s assault on its people.
A diplomatic solution is far from guaranteed in the near term, but Ukraine must not close the door to it and its military strategy must keep this in mind. Holding that door open is a small but necessary price to pay, particularly when the price of protracted war is already so high.