U.S. officials are planning for the growing possibility that the Russia-Ukraine war will turn into a frozen conflict that lasts many years — perhaps decades — and joins the ranks of similar lengthy face-offs in the Korean peninsula, South Asia and beyond.
The options discussed within the Biden administration for a long-term “freeze” include where to set potential lines that Ukraine and Russia would agree not to cross, but which would not have to be official borders. The discussions — while provisional — have taken place across various U.S. agencies and in the White House.
It’s a scenario that may prove the most realistic long-term outcome given that neither Kyiv nor Moscow appear inclined to ever admit defeat. It’s also becoming increasingly likely amid the growing sense within the administration that an upcoming Ukrainian counteroffensive won’t deal a mortal blow to Russia.
A frozen conflict — in which fighting pauses but neither side is declared the victor nor do they agree that the war is officially over — also could be a politically palatable long-term result for the United States and other countries backing Ukraine.
It would mean the number of military clashes would fall, the costs of supporting Kyiv also likely would drop, and public attention to the war would wane.
“We are planning for the long term, whether it looks frozen or thawed,” said a U.S. official familiar with the Biden administration’s discussions on Ukraine. The official said such planning is a growing focus of the administration, whereas in past months “it was all about the urgent and short-term.”
Two other U.S. officials and a former Biden administration official confirmed that an extended freeze in fighting is one possibility for which the U.S. is preparing. U.S. officials also are thinking through the long-term security ties Washington will have with Kyiv, as well as Ukraine’s relationship with the NATO military alliance.
“There’s a school of thought that says, ‘Oh, the Ukrainians have to have [the city of] Mariupol and Azov Sea access.’ There’s others less hung up about the placement of the lines as long as Ukraine is secure going into the future,” the former administration official said, describing the internal conversations.
Such discussions remain in early stages, with the U.S. officials stressing that the war will remain hot for quite some time and that the Biden administration is intent on providing Ukraine with the weapons and support it needs to push the Russians out of as much territory as possible.
Still, even the suggestion of such planning could undermine Ukrainian leaders’ confidence in America’s continued commitment to their cause, especially given agitation among some Republicans to lessen support for Kyiv.
A fifth person, a senior Biden administration official speaking on behalf of the White House, said an array of contingency plans are being weighed, but the situation is fluid and the only safe prediction is that Russia will not conquer Ukraine. Like others interviewed, the official was granted anonymity to describe sensitive issues.
While many U.S. officials avoid publicly talking about how the Russia-Ukraine conflict will evolve, Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Mark Milley has repeatedly predicted that it will end in negotiations, not a military victory for either side.
And the makeup of recent military aid packages to Ukraine reflects the Biden administration’s shift to a longer-term strategy, a Defense Department official said.
The amount of equipment sent directly from existing U.S. stockpiles has steadily diminished over the past few months, while the packages of aid used to purchase new weapons from industry — a process that can take months to years — has increased.
The Biden administration recently transferred $300 million worth of weapons from existing U.S. stockpiles, primarily ammunition, while providing $1.2 billion to purchase more complex weapons, such as air defenses, from industry.
At the moment, Ukraine is preparing a counteroffensive against Russia, although the timing remains unclear. In recent days, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has suggested the counteroffensive would be delayed because Ukraine still needed more weapons from its Western partners, while also saying “the first important steps will be taken soon.”
U.S. officials expect fighting to continue even after the counteroffensive.
In the medium-term, many expect a stalemate, during which fighting continues but neither side gains much ground, or a war of attrition, which involves both sides trying to wreak massive losses of personnel and equipment on the other in the hopes the adversary will collapse.
How Ukraine and Russia perform depends on sometimes uncontrollable factors ranging from air superiority to who’s in charge at the Kremlin.
“Once you get past few months or a year, these wars tend to last years,” said Benjamin Jensen of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who has analyzed the historical data. “Even with the most wildly successful Ukraine counteroffensive, you could still be seeing yourself fighting this time next year.”
None of the administration officials who spoke to POLITICO would offer specifics about how the U.S. would handle a years-long war or describe the exact depth of planning for a frozen conflict — information that’s largely classified. One U.S. official stressed that the administration has always planned for both long-term and short-term possibilities.
The longer the fight drags on, the more likely Russia and Ukraine will feel international and domestic pressure to negotiate a ceasefire, an armistice or another legal mechanism to halt, if not officially end, the war.
Some U.S. officials and analysts say one rough model could be the Korean War. Active fighting in that conflict ended with an armistice in 1953, but, even 70 years later, the war has not been formally declared over.
“A Korea-style stoppage is certainly something that’s been discussed by experts and analysts in and out of government” when it comes to Ukraine, the former Biden administration official said. “It’s plausible, because neither side would need to recognize any new borders and the only thing that would have to be agreed is to stop shooting along a set line.” (The negotiations for the Korea armistice lasted two years.)
Other potentially relevant examples include the 2008 dispute between Georgia and Russia over two provinces; the more than 70-year-old India-Pakistan face-off over the Kashmir region, a period that includes three wars separated by long cold stretches; and arguably even segments of the Russia-Ukraine conflict between 2014 and 2022, waged over parts of Ukraine’s east and its Crimea region.
Such halted wars occasionally resume: A 1994 ceasefire between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region held — though not perfectly — until heavy fighting broke the peace in 2020. The two countries are now trying to negotiate.
Western involvement in each case also varies. The United States fought in the Korean War and still has thousands of troops in South Korea — a key difference with Ukraine, where American forces are not fighting. But Washington has had little role in other conflicts, such as Kashmir.
A former U.S. intelligence official who handled Russia-related matters said Biden aides appear to be more willing these days to discuss long-term security guarantees for Ukraine — another sign they are thinking well past the coming Ukrainian counteroffensive.
Ukraine wants to join NATO, and the military alliance’s secretary-general has said its members agree that eventually it will.
The senior Biden administration official confirmed that U.S. officials are talking to the Ukrainians about the nature of the relationship in the future. “We want a Ukraine that can defend itself and deter future attacks,” the official said, stressing that Washington will not pressure Ukraine to enter negotiations against its will.
If Ukraine’s NATO membership bid stalls, such guarantees could range from a NATO-style Article 5 mutual defense deal to Israel-style arms deals with Ukraine as a deterrent against Russia.
At a minimum, some current and former U.S. officials say, Ukraine’s military must get special attention. That could include making sure Ukraine’s weapons and equipment are compatible with those of NATO countries and conducting joint training, even if Kyiv isn’t in the military alliance.
Analysts and officials warned against assuming that a frozen conflict translates to geopolitical stability or less suffering among civilians caught in the disputed territories. The Korean peninsula and India-Pakistan are both now nuclear flashpoints as a result of decisions made by governments involved in the decades since the fights first began.
Yuriy Sak, an adviser to Ukraine’s defense minister, said one reason Kyiv is constantly urging its Western partners to send more weapons and other aid is precisely because it wants to end the war quickly, not find itself in an endless face-off.
Even if active fighting ceases, he said, “we will continue to live in a world in which on a daily basis, we have nuclear blackmail. On a daily basis, we have the risk of a global food crisis. On a daily basis, we are witnesses to atrocities and war crimes.”
The Russian embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.
U.S. officials stress that they are trying to avoid black-and-white thinking as they map out the ways the Russia-Ukraine war can go. It’s possible, after all, that the conflict will wind up somewhere in between an active war and a chilled standoff.
Jensen said that supporting Kyiv more long-term will mean thinking beyond immediate weapons needs and implementing plans to man, train and equip entire formations, as well as developing a relevant military doctrine.
Other questions to consider in such circumstances include whether it is worth bringing in a multinational peacekeeping force.
If active armed conflict ceases, the costs to the United States and other Ukrainian partners likely will fall over time. “It’s cheaper to arm a country that isn’t expending the weapons every day,” the former Biden administration official said.
The former official speculated that the odds that a ceasefire would hold is higher than from 2014 to 2022 — when Russia seized Crimea and sowed chaos in parts of Ukraine’s east— because professional militaries are fully involved on both sides, as opposed to “separatists” backed by Russia.
But the current war also has drawn in mercenary forces such as Russia’s Wagner Group, which could prove hard to tame.
If a ceasefire or other type of stoppage holds long enough, attention from the public to the war also is likely to fade. That could ease political pressure on Western capitals from critics of the effort to help Kyiv. But it could also mean less of a push from those capitals to resolve the conflict once and for all.
U.S. and European officials argued that it would be unwise to believe the threat from Russia to Ukraine will fade anytime soon — even if the fighting is halted for a long period or Putin exits the scene.
“Conflict and potential for a renewed attack will not disappear, perhaps in decades,” said a European official familiar with Ukraine-related discussions.
Lara Seligman contributed to this report.