Editor’s Note: Matthew Schmidt has taught strategic planning at the US Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies and is the director of the International Affairs program at the University of New Haven. Follow him on X @mattschmidtphd. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. See more opinion at CNN.
As that diplomatic and political drama unfolds, it’s becoming increasingly clear that there are only three ways the war in Ukraine might end. First, Russia could win outright, with a permanent settlement in which Ukraine cedes territory to Moscow. Second, Ukraine could win: In that scenario, Ukraine would need to take back Crimea, the center of gravity around which the war has pivoted since 2014 when it was occupied by Russia. Third — the most likely scenario — the fighting could be frozen and followed by a political resolution years from now.
Six-hundred-plus days since February 2022 — and almost 3,600 days since Ukrainians began in 2014 to fight and die to repel Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces — Kyiv’s forces have managed to stop Russia’s attempt to take over Ukraine wholesale. Now, Russian victory looks like Kyiv making conclusive concessions at a negotiating table: suing for peace amid stalled Western support and legally forfeiting its claims to the Donbas, Crimea and other territory Russia has seized.
That certainly would be unpalatable to Ukrainians. A summer Gallup poll showed the Ukrainian public broadly committed to continuing the fight against Russia, with those who wanted to keep fighting nearly unanimous in saying that declaring victory would require regaining all the territory lost since 2014. For Zelensky, that public sentiment makes negotiation very difficult. It’s not clear Western leaders really appreciate the staunchness of this opinion among ordinary Ukrainians, but at this point, Ukrainians do not seem to want their leaders to permanently cede territory so dearly fought for not just by soldiers, but by an entire population that has endured two years of missile barrages, the destruction of cities and worse at the hands of Russia’s invading army.