Giving peace a chance in Ukraine

Mar 11, 2022
Peace sign on the Ukraine flag
It suits neither country, though, to continue this war indefinitely. Image: Pixabay

The final possibility would be a negotiated peace whereby the parties address the main issues in contention and come up with treaty language to resolve them.

This has largely been discussed in terms of potential mediators. China, Israel and Turkey have all been mentioned. The role of mediation can be overstated. One role is simply to pass messages from one party to another. That is not needed in this situation. A second, is to come up with creative answers to vexing issues. This requires extensive diplomatic skills but also a prior agreement between the parties in principle on some of the fundamentals and a welcome for the mediator’s interventions. The third possible role is to strongarm the parties into concessions they would rather not make. This is why it has been argued that Russia’s dependence on China might make President Xi an effective mediator, but this would still require him to come up with his own ideas for an equitable settlement and other than vague assertions in favour of peace it is not clear that he and his foreign ministry have the detailed knowledge of the detail of the situation to come up with credible plans. The Americans have the knowledge and leverage, with their NATO partners, over Ukraine because of their financial and military assistance. But they are not going to put pressure on Ukraine to accept anything that allows Russia to gain from its aggression. (This is even more the case with suggestions that it is up to the US to deal directly with Russia to help it save face, for example by taking Ukraine’s possible NATO membership off the table. Ukraine is the country at war, not the US, and it is the one that will need to come forward with any concessions.)

For the moment direct talks are possible and most likely to be productive, although it remains hard to be optimistic. The Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers are due to meet in Turkey on 10 March. With that in mind both sides have sketched out their proposals. These proposals will be judged not only on whether or not they impress the other side but also whether they can convey reasonableness to the international community.

All that can be said on the Russian side is that they have edged away from regime change in Kyiv, or at least are prepared to see Zelensky stay as president, but they still insist on neutralising Ukraine, so it can join no international organisations, along with recognition of annexed Crimea and the independence of the enclaves in the Donbas.

On the evening of 8 March Zelensky’s office issued his proposals. These were carefully constructed so as to suggest forms of compromise. The first raised the possibility of ‘a collective security agreement with all its neighbours and with the participation of the world’s leading countries’, which will provide guarantees for Russia as well as Ukraine. In principle this has attractions for Putin, because it would render membership of NATO unnecessary and would preclude Ukraine acting as a base for long-range US weapons. On the other hand it would give Ukraine some sort of US-backed security guarantee. It would not however lead to Ukraine’s demilitarization. Ukraine has had these sorts of guarantees before, notably in the 1994 Budapest memorandum, in return for giving up its nuclear arsenal. Moscow explicitly repudiated them, on the grounds that the government in Kyiv was illegitimate, so this raises obvious questions about what sort of guarantees could render this credible.

On Crimea he seems to be looking for a compromise that allows both sides to maintain their positions on where the territory truly belongs while in practice apparently accepting for the moment it stays with Russia. This is realistic. On Donetsk and Luhansk, the two enclaves in the Donbas, his language was more elliptical. ‘It is important to me how people who want to be part of Ukraine will live there. I am interested in the opinion of those who see themselves as citizens of the Russian Federation. However, we must discuss this issue.’ There is an obvious trap for Russia here. The leaders of these self-declared ‘Peoples’ Republics’ want independence or even to join with Russia but it is by no means clear that will be the popular view in these territories Putin used an expansive definition of what should be included on 21 February when he recognised the independence of all of the Donbas, though the two enclaves amount to only about a third. After all these territories have been through in recent days it is hard to imagine that they feeling Russophile at the moment.

Zelensky’s language could be seen as going back to the Minsk agreements of September 2014 and February 2015, which raised issues of how these territories might be incorporated back into Ukraine with some special rights, but also how elections would be conducted to find their representatives. Moscow would be nervous about the results of free and fair elections under international supervision.

Nothing in Zelensky’s proposal therefore is tantamount to capitulation but it looks reasonable. If Moscow decides that there is something here to work on, if only because they might interpret any proposal as a weakening of Ukraine’s resolve, then it is possible to imagine substantive talks being set in motion. Yet at the moment these proposals are suggestive without being substantive. Exactly what they might mean in practice would require meticulous drafting and careful explanations, including with regard to the role of third parties in their enforcement and monitoring. That will take time.

Which takes us back to the question of a cease-fire. Will the guns stop for talks to continue? There is a problem here for Ukraine because it would want to avoid a keep what you hold approach, as that would work to Russia’s advantage. But it would give both sides the opportunity to consolidate and replenish their forces. In many other wars fighting has been paused for negotiations, only to start up again when they don’t succeed.

At the same time Russia will want sanctions to be lifted as soon as possible, and it is hard to see this being done so long as Russian forces remain in Ukraine and with no deal agreed.

There is a potential off-ramp for Putin here if he wants to take it although it will give him far less than he wants and not enough to justify a ruinous war. We return to the issue with which this post opened about Putin’s actual beliefs and whether he is capable of manipulating Russian public opinion to believe that the result is a good one, even though independent observers might conclude that this falls far short not only of what he claimed he wanted but also what he actually expected to get. Perhaps he might rely on his ability to impose his own interpretations on treaty texts to make them align with his own views, so reinforcing rather than easing the mutual antagonism and taking us back to where we started? Given the way that Russia has behaved up to now in both the run up to the war and the cease-fire negotiations there is little reason to trust Moscow.

It suits neither country, though, to continue this war indefinitely. Neither has a confident route to a decisive military victory. In academic writing on the conditions for peace negotiations one that has often been identified is a ‘hurting stalemate’. The situation is currently too fluid to be described as a stalemate but it is certainly hurting both sides.

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