Russia’s war in Ukraine has been raging for more than a year. And for more than a year, various international leaders—including French President Emmanuel Macron and Chinese leader Xi Jinping—not to mention domestic pundits and politicians, have been calling for negotiations to end the bloodshed. Though well-intentioned, these appeals fail to take into account the fundamental nature of war, which requires the fighting to play out before a lasting peace can be a realistic possibility. At this moment in the conflict, any calls for talks are more likely to prolong the war and increase the suffering they seek to end.
War begins with a disagreement: Each side refuses to accept the terms the other is willing to offer, in the belief that fighting will lead to better ones. War ends with an agreement: Each side prefers to accept the terms offered, because it has come to believe that continuing to fight is unlikely to improve them. According to this logic, war is caused by conflicting expectations—about how troops and equipment will perform in battle, how competent the leadership will turn out to be, how ready society will be to bear the costs of war, how resilient the economy and industry will be in sustaining the war effort, how reliable allies and other third parties will prove to be.
All of these factors influence national leaders’ estimates of what can be achieved by military means, and those estimates remain hypothetical until tested in the real world. The fighting is therefore a process of learning, of gaining information that can lead to adjusted expectations. War is a harsh but honest teacher, and fighting furnishes the hard evidence that could create the conditions for peace.
Conflicting expectations about how a war will unfold cannot be resolved through diplomacy—only through fighting. Although most wars do end at the bargaining table, negotiations rarely begin before heavy fighting has taken place. If the West is genuinely committed to supporting Ukraine against Russia’s current war aims, then any calls for peace talks are counterproductive.
Once a conflict breaks out, expectations are confirmed or belied by events. Some corrections happen very quickly. Before the Russian invasion in February 2022, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was not considered a particularly strong leader by either the Russians or the West, or even by most Ukrainians. When Russia’s forces rushed toward Kyiv in an attempt to swiftly topple the government, many people expected Zelensky to flee. But the president astonished everyone by standing firm in Kyiv and rallying the population to defend its homeland against what at the time appeared to be insurmountable odds.
This sequence of events could easily have gone the other way, causing confusion, a collapse of Ukrainian morale, and the emergence of a Russian-controlled provisional government that would have undermined Ukraine’s war effort and devastated its prospects. This appears to have been the Russian expectation, and until Zelensky’s character and capability were tested by war, Moscow had no way to test its prior estimate of his worth as a wartime leader and reconcile conflicting expectations about how the invasion would actually unfold.
The failure of the initial Blitzkrieg, and Russia’s withdrawal of its forces from Kyiv and Zhytomyr in early April 2022, revealed that the vaunted Russian military was considerably less competent than most observers—including, arguably, the Kremlin itself—had believed it to be. As one would expect, the underperformance of its military caused Russia’s leaders to revise some of their war aims. The partial withdrawal, which Moscow called a “gesture of goodwill,” was accompanied by a declaration that the main objective of the war was to secure the Donbas. This indicated that the Kremlin had abandoned regime change as a goal.
At the same time, because of Ukraine’s newly revealed battle-worthiness, the West shifted its military assistance to providing equipment more suitable for conventional rather than guerrilla war—HIMARS rockets, self-propelled artillery, air-defense systems. Aid began to flow at a greater volume. Ukraine itself became more optimistic and raised its own war aims. In place of Kyiv’s initial willingness, in March, to offer some concessions to Russia, such as neutrality in exchange for a Russian withdrawal to the pre-invasion line of control, the revised war expectations led Ukraine’s leaders to believe that they could eject the Russians by force—so they were no longer willing to offer such concessions.
The developments that followed over the summer initially seemed more consistent with Russia’s estimates, as its military made some progress, albeit at heavy cost. By the fall, though, these expectations were being shattered by a Ukrainian counteroffensive, which rapidly liberated large areas of the country’s northeast and south—the Kharkiv Oblast, Kherson, and Izyum. Once again, both sides revised their war expectations.
The Ukrainians began to talk openly about pushing Russian forces not just to the pre-invasion line of control but out of Ukraine altogether—an ambition that also included the liberation of Crimea, which had been annexed by Moscow in 2014. Confronted with incontrovertible proof that it was failing in its objectives, the Kremlin altered its strategy again in an effort to restore its fortunes, declaring a major mobilization of some 300,000 new recruits, putting parts of the economy on a war footing, and tightening domestic political control.
None of this brought any nearer the prospect of a negotiated end to hostilities as the two sides’ expectations of the war’s outcome continued to diverge sharply. Strategic adjustments—possible only because each side still has untapped human and material resources to sustain the war effort—create new grounds for uncertainty. These unknowns then in effect require another round of fighting to resolve.
The Russian winter/spring offensive, currently winding down, revealed that even the newly mobilized forces were not capable of achieving significant advances and could obtain only local tactical victories at enormous cost. If the Kremlin had hoped by now to shatter Ukraine’s defenses and weaken the West’s commitment to supporting Kyiv, it must be severely disappointed by its military’s meager performance.
Russia’s current strategy is to demonstrate to Kyiv and the West that it can outlast their unity. Because that makes it imperative for Moscow to thwart Ukraine’s coming offensive, Russia has dug hundreds of miles of fortified defenses in the occupied territories and has at least 200,000 troops in reserve to hold those lines. Reportedly, it has also been rationing artillery shells to ensure sufficient stocks to repel an attempted Ukrainian breakthrough. Russian leaders hope that if their defensive strategy succeeds, Western support will begin to crumble, leaving a weakened Kyiv obliged to agree to Russian terms.
Contrary to this scenario, Ukraine’s strategy is to demonstrate that the Russians cannot retain their conquered territory. So the Ukrainians have to show that they can breach those defenses and liberate occupied zones in spite of Russia’s newly mobilized reinforcements. Although Ukraine’s dogged defense of Bakhmut has earned criticism from some observers, its purpose was to buy time while holding back most of its forces for more training in order to integrate additional Western-supplied weapon systems.
Ukrainian advances could persuade Moscow to lower its expectations again and force it to offer peace conditions that Kyiv might be willing to accept. Only then could negotiations work. But their success would still depend on finding terms that would lead to a stable peace rather than a brief ceasefire. And right now Ukraine has yet to test its new capabilities, so it has no reason to scale back its ambitions.
Expectations of Ukraine must, however, remain realistic. Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov recently warned against assuming that the Ukrainian military will deliver “something huge.” “The expectation from our counteroffensive campaign is overestimated in the world,” he said. Such high hopes—especially if accompanied by ill-advised assertions that the West has given Ukraine everything it needs for victory—could lead to serious disappointment, even if Ukrainian forces do in fact perform well. That sort of disappointment might well prompt more Western voices to conclude that the war has stalemated and call for Ukraine to agree to concessions.
That, in turn, would suggest to Russian President Vladimir Putin that the West is pessimistic about Ukraine’s chances, is tiring of the war, and may be softening in its willingness to keep military aid flowing to Ukraine. Such an inflated Russian assessment of its position would only encourage the Kremlin to maintain its insistence on excessive terms.
Paradoxically, for those who seek an early cessation of hostilities, this messaging to Moscow may actually interfere with the convergence of expectations necessary to create an opening for talks, and thus postpone any possible peace settlement. The best way for the West to maintain solidarity with Kyiv and give peace a chance is to disabuse Russia of the notion that it can simply outlast Western unity with Ukraine.