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The West’s Strategy in Ukraine Needs a Reset

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Through the first months of 2024, Ukraine has experienced shortages in ammunition, manpower and air defence as Russia has continued its onslaught and shifted the attrition rate in its favour. Despite the US Congress approving a long-awaited support package this week, Kyiv will not prove able to return to the offensive in 2025 absent a successful large-scale mobilization.

Given the heavy losses that Russian forces have suffered since the start of the war, much doubt has been cast on Moscow’s continued ability to conduct sophisticated combined arms operations. Nonetheless, further Russian advances should not be ruled out if certain points along the Ukrainian lines become sufficiently embrittled – conditions similar to those which facilitated Ukraine’s stunning gains in the Kharkiv region in the autumn of 2022.

With Western arms production set to increase by next year, Moscow undoubtedly sees an opportunity to try for a breakthrough before the end of 2024, although the precise location and outcome of this offensive cannot be known for certain. Such a move would escalate hostilities but could also open a window for discrete diplomacy if Russia believes it will not be able to make further battlefield progress.

The conduct of responsible statecraft requires that Western countries be prepared for all possible outcomes. If the time for talks does come, they need to keep three things in mind, all of which should inform their approach to shaping the future continental and global security orders.

Russia’s Strategic Defeat?

Recent statements from French President Emmanuel Macron refusing to countenance the possibility of a Ukrainian defeat may simply be aimed at jolting European governments out of their complacency. Nonetheless, they point in the direction of Western leaders dangerously tying their hands should events spiral out of control. The same is true of NATO discussions to establish and take charge of a $100 billion Trump-proofed fund for Ukraine, which is likely to reinforce Moscow’s narrative that it is directly at war with the alliance.

While it remains important to maintain support for Ukraine, Western governments must be careful not to double down on their existing strategy – one which has failed to deliver its desired results after more than two years of high-intensity warfare.

While it remains important to maintain support for Ukraine, Western governments must be careful not to double down on their existing strategy – one which has failed to deliver its desired results after more than two years of high-intensity warfare.

Since the start of the war, the Western approach has aimed to deal Russia some kind of strategic defeat while simultaneously avoiding a direct NATO-Russia clash. However, the measures taken – from adopting severe sanctions against Russia to scaling up assistance for Ukraine – have failed to prevent Moscow from retaining both the capacity and the political will to wage its war of aggression. Western policy has proven essential in safeguarding Ukrainian sovereignty, but it has also left Russia more militarized and uncompromising – and made a dangerous escalation more likely.

Russia is not the superpower that the Soviet Union once was – but it remains one of Europe’s most powerful states. Simply put, if a future European security order fails to account for Russian interests – at least to some degree – then there will be no stability in Europe. Rather than aiming for Moscow’s strategic defeat, which amounts to a gambit to preserve the ability to shape the continental order without Russian input, a smarter strategy would treat Russian power as an inevitable fact and seek to manage it in ways that align best with Western interests.

How to Nuance the West’s Russia Strategy

First, Western governments and analysts should avoid simplistic, binary discourses about the sources of Russian conduct. Far too much time has been wasted debating whether NATO expansion was the cause of Russia’s invasion, or whether it was purely brought on by an ageing autocrat’s imperial fantasies and lust for power. NATO’s own website has joined the war of narratives, positing Russian “disinformation” in opposition to NATO “facts”.

More nuanced explanations are all too often ignored in this polarizing environment. For example, one might assert that while many causal factors can be attributed to Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine, NATO expansion was nonetheless an important contributing element in souring post-Cold War relations between Russia and the West, especially when membership was promised to Ukraine and Georgia at the 2008 Bucharest summit. Moreover, whatever the “objective” reality of NATO intentions may have been, subjective perceptions inevitably shape the way that states calculate threats to their security.

In a similar vein, far too much effort is expended on questioning whether Russia is a European country or alien to Europe. From Muscovy’s rise under the Mongol Golden Horde to its centuries of engagement in the European balance of power system, Russia has developed a national character that is inevitably both European and Eurasian. A better approach would simply be to accept Russia as it is – an actor with profound links to Europe, but which will not fully align with Western political norms or geopolitical preferences, no matter who sits in the Kremlin.

When the time comes to rebuild some kind of collective continental architecture, Western countries will need to focus on what they can realistically hope to obtain. Doing so will require abandoning the West’s prevailing post-Cold War approach.

Second, while some aspects of European security will need to be built against or without Russia due to its aggressive behaviour, there are some elements of security (e.g., arms control and transparency measures) that are only possible with Russia. And when the time comes to rebuild some kind of collective continental architecture, Western countries will need to focus on what they can realistically hope to obtain. Doing so will require abandoning the West’s prevailing post-Cold War approach, in which the US and its allies publicly and repeatedly chastised Russia for failing to adhere to various norms and principles, only to have Moscow respond with whataboutism and accuse the West of failing to practice what it preaches.

The problem is that the European security order’s core principles, outlined in the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, are in tension with one another. Sovereignty and non-intervention in states’ internal affairs can clash with respect for human rights. The self-determination of peoples, when posited in opposition to the territorial integrity of states, for decades prevented the peaceful resolution of “frozen” conflicts such as Nagorno Karabakh. And the freedom to choose one’s security partners can contradict the notion of indivisible security – the idea that one state should not take actions to enhance its own security at others’ expense.

Rather than engaging in mutual recriminations, principles will need to be adjudicated more flexibly and more privately, on a case-by-case basis. In the case of eventual ceasefire talks in Ukraine, as egregious as Moscow’s conduct has been, a realistic approach to strengthening Ukraine’s security will need to prioritize addressing Kyiv’s security status in the continental order (i.e., what NATO and Russia are for each other) over restoring Ukraine’s territorial integrity (i.e., what Russia is and where it ends) for the foreseeable future. This may require closing the door to Kyiv’s bid for NATO membership but insisting that meaningful (albeit limited) security links between Ukraine and the West will be preserved.

Order in Europe… and Beyond

Finally, the West needs to adjust its understanding of how international order is maintained. Since the early days of the Russian invasion, Western governments have claimed to be acting in defence of the “rules-based international order”. Yet in the Western discourse, Western violations of international law in Yugoslavia (1999) and Iraq (2003) were not deemed to have dealt a decisive blow to this order. This belief likely owes itself to the narrative that the United States birthed the contemporary order in 1945 and continues to underwrite it through its leadership and hegemony.

In invading Ukraine, Russia aims to shape the contours of the next international order: who will earn a seat at the rulemaking table and what principles and practices will reign supreme. And while aspects of the current order will undoubtedly survive, we have already entered a period of order transition. Whatever the result of the war, the world is continuing to move toward greater multipolarity and, as such, Western hegemony will not remain an enduring feature of global politics. Taken together, this suggests that the West should no longer think of international order purely as something to be preserved, but rather as the careful management of inevitable conflict and change – both in Europe and globally.

It is not too early to lay the groundwork for successful diplomacy. This requires internalizing that deterrence will not succeed without reassurance, that security will not return to Europe if mutual recriminations take the place of genuine diplomacy.

So long as the war continues, the best one may be able to hope for are deconfliction measures aimed at avoiding a NATO-Russia clash and mitigating the risk of nuclear conflict. The war itself has exposed the limits of the West’s ability to shape Russian behaviour when the Kremlin considers that it has core interests at stake. But even as fighting goes on and support for Ukraine continues, it is not too early to lay the groundwork for successful diplomacy. This requires internalizing that deterrence will not succeed without reassurance, that security will not return to Europe if mutual recriminations take the place of genuine diplomacy, and that no one wins from a long war.

Zachary Paikin
Zachary Paikin
Dr. Zachary Paikin is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy. He is also Senior Researcher in International Security Dialogue at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy and a part-time Research Fellow in Grand Strategy at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft in Washington, DC.
Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  


Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security


Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.


Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.



Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

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The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 


Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

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Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.


Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.


Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.



Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor