Incomplete ‘America First’ Recommendations for Ending Russia’s War Against Ukraine

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 100


Executive Summary:

  • Senior advisers to former US President Donald Trump issued recommendations for ending Russia’s war against Ukraine, observing that the Biden administration has lacked a strategy for Russian defeat and Ukraine is losing the long war of attrition.
  • The recommendation of a quick transition to ceasefire and peace negotiations based on existing frontlines infers that Ukraine would essentially lose territories to Russia but would not be asked to recognize the losses.
  • The report recommends postponing Ukraine’s NATO membership indefinitely as part of an understanding with Russia, which would involve Moscow directly and overtly in NATO’s decision-making processes.

Two former senior officials of the Donald Trump administration have published a plan to end Russia’s war against Ukraine if Trump wins the upcoming US presidential election. In April, the America First Policy Institute (AFPI) released a plan by Lieutenant General (ret.) Keith Kellogg and Frederick Fleitz titled “America First, Russia, & Ukraine: Research Report” (AFPI, April 29). The report, however, seems to have passed unnoticed in US policy debates for two months until some mainstream media recently began to report on it (Reuters, Politico, June 25; RIA Novosti, June 26; Svoboda, June 29). The authors commented to reporters that “it would be crucial to get Russia and Ukraine to the negotiating table quickly, if Trump wins the election.” They cited Trump’s oft-stated confidence in his ability to pressure the presidents of Russia and Ukraine into “making a deal” with each other. The plan itself represents another alternative to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s plan, which calls for, among other measures, the full restoration of Ukrainian sovereignty over the Russian-occupied mainland regions and Crimea (see EDM, June 18).    

The Report proceeds from a conviction that “it was in America’s interests to ensure that Russia lost this war. … Due to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s decision to make Russia an aggressor state, a defeated and diminished Russia was the best outcome for US and global security.” To achieve this outcome, President Joe Biden’s administration “should have provided Ukraine with the weapons it needed to expel Russian forces early in the war; and should have used all forms of statecraft to end the war, including sanctions, diplomatic isolation of Russia, and, ultimately, negotiations.” Instead, “there was no US strategy to achieve a ceasefire for an end state of the conflict, nor to deal with the reality that Ukraine would likely lose a long-term war of attrition.”

The authors, therefore, embrace “we are where we are” as the premise for their recommendations. “It is too late to avoid the possible consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” they argue. “Once it became a stalemate and a war of attrition, it is in the best interests of Ukraine, America, and the world to seek a ceasefire and negotiate a peace agreement with Russia.” Accordingly, the report argues that Washington should officially announce that policy. No mention is made of coordinating with European allies. The decision would seem to be made unilaterally.

From that point onward, US military assistance to Ukraine would be calibrated to the requirements of a ceasefire in place. The report asserts, “What we should not continue to do is to send arms to a stalemate that Ukraine will eventually find difficult to win.” Simultaneously, “the United States would continue to arm Ukraine and strengthen its defenses to ensure that Russia will make no further advances and will not attack again after a ceasefire or peace agreement.” This dosage of military assistance would also be leveraged to coax Kyiv toward negotiations with Moscow. The authors stipulate, “Future American military aid will require Ukraine to participate in peace talks with Russia.” This recommendation implies conditioning military assistance to Ukraine on its negotiating position vis-à-vis Russia.

Left unsaid, however, is the negotiations’ format. Would this be a bilateral Moscow-Kyiv process? If so, direct or mediated? Or would the format be international? Would a Trump-led United States participate? If so, in what role?

The report acknowledges that “the Ukrainian government understandably is resistant to any settlement that would reward Russian aggression and not restore all of the territory. Zelenskyy does not trust Putin to abide by a peace agreement or cease-fire” (see EDM, February 6, 26, June 17, 20). The authors only address the latter concern, recommending that a “negotiated end-state should include … a long-term security architecture for Ukraine’s defense that focuses on bilateral [arrangements]. Including this in a Russia-Ukraine peace deal offers a path toward long-term peace in the region.” 

Whether that architecture would involve agreements on security assistance to Ukraine, by what powers, and the corresponding US role are questions left open by the report. The only quasi-certainty is its stress on bilateralism and ruling out Ukraine’s membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). This approach parallels the Biden administration’s push for bilateral agreements between Ukraine and individual NATO member states in lieu of Ukrainian membership in the alliance. The process of signing these agreements is approaching completion. They include a US-Ukraine bilateral agreement valid for 10 years and programmatically excludes Russia from security arrangements regarding Ukraine (see EDM, December 20, 2023, May 16, 20, June 17, 18). The Report does not mention this ongoing process but suggests directly linking security arrangements for Ukraine with a deal, which could bring Russia in instead of keeping it out. This issue was the proximate cause for the collapse of the April 2022 draft agreements between Kyiv and Moscow and remains a likely deal breaker (see EDM, May 29, 30).

The authors also address the incumbent administration directly. They state, “To convince Putin to join peace talks, President Biden and other NATO leaders should offer to put off NATO membership for Ukraine for an extended period, in exchange for a comprehensive and verifiable peace deal, with security guarantees.” Postponing Ukraine’s NATO accession—or any decision regarding Ukraine—as part of an understanding with Russia would, however, bring Moscow into NATO’s decision-making processes directly and quite overtly. The reference to “guarantees” remains elliptic so long as NATO is ruled out and other guarantors are not in sight for Ukraine.

According to the report, NATO’s long-term commitment to Ukrainian membership—along with Ukraine’s own membership aspirations—provokes Russia. The authors feel that a US-Russia agreement to postpone Ukraine’s NATO accession by 10 years could have dissuaded Russia from invading Ukraine in 2022. Taking Russia’s professed fear of Ukraine’s NATO accession “in the near future” at face value, the report does not account for the fact that Ukraine was farther away from NATO accession in 2021 than at any time since 2008. This reality is not least due to the Biden administration’s withdrawal of support and embrace of a “Russia First” policy toward Ukraine that year (see EDM, May 27, June 1, 2021).

The report acknowledges that a formal territorial settlement “would require a future diplomatic breakthrough which probably will not occur before Putin leaves office.” Meanwhile, the United States and its allies would “fully lift sanctions against Russia and normalize relations with it [only] after it signs a peace agreement acceptable to Ukraine.” This is one of the few instances in which the authors recommend concerted action by the United States and its allies. Both the concertation and conditionality of lifting sanctions correspond with Trump’s strong belief in freeing Europe from Russian energy dependence as well as maximizing US energy exports globally (see EDM, September 7, 2017, April 11, July 16, 23, November 14, 2018). Similarly, the report calls for “placing levies on Russian energy sales to pay for Ukrainian reconstruction.” This recommendation also seems intended to replace war reparations that could not be enforced on an undefeated Russia.

The authors endorse the political-territorial settlement framework already recommended by the Council on Foreign Relations to the Biden administration in 2023 (Foreign Affairs, April 13, 2023; see EDM, June 2 [1], [2], 5, 2023). Key features of that framework include a negotiated ceasefire along the existing frontlines, Kyiv’s focus on preserving the remaining Ukrainian-controlled territory, peace talks, limited and conditional sanctions relief for Russia, and an understanding that Ukraine would not officially relinquish the lost territories, nor would it use force to regain them.

Ukrainian officials and leading think tanks are tactfully refraining from taking issue with the report. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy waved it off: “If the idea is to give up territories, this idea is not new. … If this is [Trump’s] idea, it is a bad idea that will not lead to peace” (; Ukrinform, June 30). Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov reacted by citing Putin’s latest “peace initiative” as the only valid basis for talks (see EDM, June 20; Reuters, June 25).

Most of the report’s recommendations could deeply divide NATO if presented in their existing form. This version, however, seems destined to be superseded by more fully developed proposals in due course. These would need to address Russia’s war aims and motivations that reach far beyond blocking Ukraine’s NATO accession and seizing certain Ukrainian territories (see EDM, March 9, 13, July 5, December 21, 2023, January 22, February 6, March 4). Even extinguishing Ukraine as a viable state and nation (the Kremlin-declared mission) is merely an interim objective toward the end goal of dismantling the Western order in Europe. Any follow-up versions of “America First, Russia, & Ukraine” would be expected to confront these implications.