How is the war going to end? Ukraine must be ready to concede territory in return for a path to NATO and EU membership

President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky attends a press conference during the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, 12 July 2023. EPA-EFE/TIM IRELAND


The disappointment of Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskyy was palpable: “It seems there is no readiness neither to invite Ukraine to NATO nor to make it a member of the Alliance.”

In his long tweet, Ukraine’s President also seemed to lament a lack of respect by some NATO countries for Kyiv’s struggle against the Russian invasion. But he was not the only one demanding respect, and during the Western Alliance’s summit in Lithuania, British Defence Minister Ben Wallace remarked that “whether we like it or not, people want to see gratitude” and despite Britain being the second most important contributor to Ukraine, he also made clear that “allies are not Amazon”.

Wallace’s choice of words might not have been overly diplomatic, but they reflect the growing troubles Western allies have in providing weaponry to Ukraine. The much discussed decision by Washington to send cluster munitions was at least partially driven by the speed with which Ukraine burns through stockpiles of conventional artillery. European ammunitions manufacturers are also having trouble keeping up with demand

The same applies to the even less diplomatic point about gratitude. The United States are the most important supporter of Ukraine, and Zelenskyy certainly must have felt some relief over President Joe Biden’s comments that the US “will back Ukraine as long as it takes”. He should also know, however, that for a US president “as long as it takes” does not mean indefinitely, but “until the next election”.

The American habit of suddenly dropping support for erstwhile allies should be a warning for Zelenskyy, as the people of Vietnam or Afghanistan could tell him. A look at recent polling shows that support for supplying weapons and money is already waning among the American public, and this will be a major issue during the presidential campaign in 2024. The American public and the Republican party view China as a true systemic rival. There is concern that the more the US commit themselves to Ukraine, the weaker they will be in a potential confrontation with Beijing. 

The morally justified demand by Kyiv to regain all lost territory and full control over Crimea is entirely understandable, but is it politically and militarily feasible? Zelenskyy must know that there will be no NATO or EU membership as long as the war with Russia rages on, because no Western politician is going to risk open war with Moscow. It is also true, of course, that it would be political suicide for Zelenskyy to actively promote the abandonment of Ukrainian territory in exchange for peace.

This puts his Western allies – particularly the United States – into the awkward position that they will have to play the good and the bad guys simultaneously: They must continue to support Ukraine both militarily and financially, but also provide Zelenskyy potential cover with his own people for accepting territorial losses.

As things are currently developing, the spring offensive (it is already mid-July) will not lead to a complete reversal of military fortunes. The chances of wrestling most of the Donbas and Crimea from Russia seems an unlikely to impossible prospect for now.

Unless Western allies would be willing to drop all restrictions on the type of weapons that are being supplied, there is no credible scenario for a complete Russian withdrawal. A prolonged stalemate seems to be the most likely outcome – which would also prolong Ukraine’s purgatory regarding NATO and EU membership.

None of this is appealing, and the prospect of rewarding an invader with territorial gains is a hard pill to swallow. Unfortunately, all involved parties must deal with the facts as they have unfolded over the last 17 months.

Despite the heroic resistance of Ukraine and its people, there must be some plan for how this war is going to end. Negotiated territorial losses could be made more palatable if they went alongside both security guarantees and a clear path to EU and NATO membership.

Waiting out Putin’s demise or the collapse of the Russian army are the only other options, but there is always the risk that whoever follows Putin could be worse, or that Western analysts are entirely underestimating the durability of Russia’s current regime. The supposed mutiny by the Wagner mercenaries has been seen by many as a sign of weakness. But it could now also serve as a pretext for widespread purges, further entrenching the power of Putin and his inner circle.

Plus there is a growing war-weariness among Ukraine’s allies: The public in the West has a tendency to lose interest quite quickly, and more Russia-friendly parties like the AfD in Germany are already gaining in the polls. Wars can always take unforeseen turns, but based on the current conditions on the ground, time is not on the side of Ukraine, regardless of how painful such an admission might be.