We have made this special edition of Francis Fukuyama's blog paywall-free. To support American Purpose and articles like this, become a member.
As the Ukrainian counteroffensive to retake its territory from Russia gets underway, there has been a great deal of uncertainty regarding scenarios for how the war might end. There is general consensus within the NATO alliance that peace talks and a ceasefire under present circumstances will be very bad for Ukraine, leaving Russia in control of the Donbas, Crimea, and the country’s southern coast. The deeper problem is that as long as Vladimir Putin remains in power, any “settlement” under such terms will simply provide Russia with breathing space to rearm and re-equip its forces in anticipation of a later resumption of the war. It will not bring peace but a brief respite highly beneficial to Russia.
This means that any durable settlement will need to include much stronger security guarantees for Ukraine. Mere verbal commitments from Western powers will not be sufficient. They made such commitments in the Budapest Memorandum in 1994 whereby Ukraine agreed to give up its nuclear weapons in exchange promises to respect the country’s territorial integrity. These commitments were honored neither by the Russians nor by Ukraine’s Western backers. Today, nothing short of membership in NATO with its Article Five guarantee would be sufficient to deter a future Russian resumption of the current war.
Neither Russia nor the NATO allies are ready to accept Ukrainian membership at the present moment, while the largest war in Europe since 1945 is still raging on its territory. But there are conditions under which such an outcome might become possible by the end of 2023.
NATO membership will become a real possibility if the Ukrainian counter-offensive successfully reclaims a critical piece of territory. This is not the Donbas bordering Russia in the East, but the two southern oblasts of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia bordering the Black Sea coast. This region is critical to Ukraine’s bargaining position for three reasons.
First, it is hard to see how Ukraine can remain economically viable over the long run without regaining access to its ports on the Sea of Azov and the rich farmland and industrial areas around them. Ukraine was a major exporter of grain, fertilizer, and other products from this region and needs to have free access to the sea.
Second, when compared to the parts of Donbas long occupied by Russia, there are still many pro-Ukrainian people trapped in these regions. With every passing day, the Russian occupation authorities arrest dissidents, evacuate populations, and saturate residents with propaganda.
The third reason is strategic. If Ukraine can liberate the remainder of Kherson oblast, it will cut the Crimean peninsula off from resupply. It will sit atop the rail line going from Russia proper into Crimea, and will put the Kerch Strait bridge under threat from HIMARS and other long-range artillery. In addition, the Ukrainians can once again cut the canal that originates in Nova Kakhovka that supplies fresh water to the peninsula. Russian artillery will be pushed back so that it can no longer terrorize the people of Kherson. While it will be very difficult for Ukraine to invade Crimea across its narrow isthmus, it will be relatively easy to cut it off and make the large Russian military establishment there highly vulnerable. It might actually be advantageous for Ukraine to in effect hold the entire peninsula hostage rather than trying to retake it.
Reclaiming the rest of the Donbas is a much lower strategic priority. This area shares a long border with Russia, making it easy to resupply and very hard to conquer. There are virtually no pro-Ukrainian people left in the region; even if it could be occupied militarily, reincorporating it into Ukraine would be like hugging a hornet’s nest. It might be better to hang the massive rebuilding costs for this region around Russia's neck. No Ukrainian government can be expected to formally renounce sovereignty over this region, but it could conceivably provide informal assurances that it will not try to retake this territory.
It is possible that the Ukrainian offensive will succeed in a spectacular fashion, and that Russia's weakened forces will collapse across the whole front. But a more modest and plausible scenario is for Ukraine to retake Kherson and Zaporizhzhia by late summer. If this happens, grounds for a deal will be in place. The threat of the slow strangulation of Crimea might finally give Putin an incentive to stop his attacks on Ukraine, and commit to ending its terroristic missile strikes on Ukrainian cities.
But the viability of such an agreement will fundamentally depend on Ukrainian membership in NATO. Opposition to the country’s membership in recent years was reasonable based on the fact that Ukraine has been engaged in a hot war with Russia since 2014 and membership would immediately embroil the alliance in that war. If there is an armistice, however, and a quiet understanding that Ukraine would no longer actively seek to reclaim further territory, the task for NATO falls in line with its mission as a fundamentally defensive alliance. Obviously, fear that Ukrainian membership might provoke Russia is a thing of the past. To underline NATO’s commitment, there would have to be alliance members willing to station forces in Ukraine to act as tripwires against any future Russian resumption of the war.
A formal peace agreement under which Russia accepted NATO membership for Ukraine, and Ukraine ceded legal sovereignty over Donbas or Crimea, is hard to imagine. But an enduring, self-reinforcing armistice is conceivable. There have been other similar arrangements in the past. North and South Korea never signed a peace treaty in 1954 and are still technically in a state of war, but the Korean peninsula has been peaceful ever since then. Similarly, Turkey and Greece have never agreed to a formal peace deal on Cyprus, yet there has been peace there.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has said that the alliance agrees that Ukraine could join NATO once there is a peace agreement. This is a nice sentiment as far as it goes, but it gets the timing backwards. It will not be possible to arrive at an armistice and stability between Ukraine and Russia without NATO membership. Any NATO member having doubts about this needs to articulate what alternative peace deal is possible in the coming years that will not be a short-lived ceasefire allowing Russia to re-arm and rebuild.
This scenario is the only one I see as a remotely plausible path to ending the war in the coming year. It depends entirely, however, on the success of the highly anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive. If the front lines are close to where they are now in late summer, I am afraid that Western support for Ukraine will start to erode more rapidly and the possibility of a durable armistice will decline.
We need to start thinking concretely about the conditions under which NATO will accept Ukraine and prepare ourselves actively for such an outcome. This thinking needs to begin now, because we in the West are still very far from consensus on this issue.
Francis Fukuyama is chairman of the editorial board of American Purpose and Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow and director of the Ford Dorsey Master’s in International Policy program at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.
American Purpose newsletters
Sign up to get our essays and updates—you pick which ones—right in your inbox.Subscribe