Cooperative Security, Arms Control and Disarmament By G√ľnther Baechler  |  28 February, 2023

High Hurdles on the Long Road to Ukraine Negotiations

Image: olenadesign/Shutterstock

"Negotiate, now!" Since the Russian attack on Ukraine, there has been a heated debate on how to bring this war to a swift end. Some call for internationally-mediated negotiations, others for enabling Ukraine to win militarily. Is a sustainable peace between Russia and Ukraine conceivable? Yes, but only within a European-global framework!

Committed observers insist that the parties to the conflict sit down at the table immediately and resolve their dispute peacefully and by consensus. The problem is: if the conditions for a peaceful solution in a conflict system had already existed before the escalation, then the use of violence would not have occurred. If the conditions for dialogue are not in place before an escalation, they are usually even less so after the threshold of violence has been crossed. The escalating situation in Ukraine immediately before the Russian invasion of the neighbouring country clearly shows the paradox. Although Vladimir Putin claimed until the end that he was not planning an attack on Ukraine, since November 2021 there have been various high-profile initiatives by Western governments to dissuade President Putin from an expected attack on Ukraine and to call for a "return to diplomacy" in view of the military threat. In the end, neither President Macron, nor Chancellor Scholz, nor the last minute meeting of the deputy foreign ministers of the Russian Federation (RF) and the USA in Geneva were able to dissuade Putin from the attack, which was allegedly never planned.

The time factor plays a central role in any negotiation initiative. It is a question of both the "if" and the "when" of talks. Experience shows that parties to a conflict are not ready to negotiate immediately after the use of force has started. Especially in armed conflicts within and between states, the first shot is preceded by a long phase of tensions, polarisation, threats and accusations. Once the conflict has turned violent, extremely stressful factors further fuel the conflict dynamics, literally in one fell swoop: dehumanisation, flight and displacement, humanitarian and battlefield casualties, maiming and death. Third parties and non-concerned observers usually call for a quick return to diplomacy and dialogue in view of the atrocities and risks to world peace. However, as long as the fighting does not lead to an endless war of attrition that undermines the power of the leadership and fragments their own political-military system, credible negotiations will have little chance. The perception of victory or defeat does determine the timing of possible negotiations. When this moment may have come, however, is perceived very differently by the parties.

Conflict parties strive to convey as favourable an image as possible of the situation and their own intentions, both internally and externally. In contrast to their own noble goals, the other side is talked down, demonised and dehumanised. Since coming to power, Putin has been working on assembling an enemy image of fascists who aim at destroying Russia. According to a statement by Foreign Minister Lavrov on 2 February 2023, they "strive for the final solution of the Russian question". Scandalously using this analogy, alluding to the Nazi’s ‘final solution of the Jewish question’, he puts the blame on the victims of the Russian aggression, which equates to a monstrous “reversal of guilt”. All reasons for one’s own aggressive behaviour are blamed on the other side. In this way, the attack, which violates international law, becomes a preventive defence in order to preserve the security of the RF and the protection of Russian citizens. Aggression becomes reaction, intervention becomes prevention, conquest becomes defence. As conflict research teaches us, it is precisely the analysis of the roots of a conflict that is particularly challenging for mediation, because the parties to the conflict have every interest in keeping the third party in the dark about this or deliberately misleading it.

In addition to the three topics discussed above, there are two special features of the current war that make negotiations even more difficult or can even prevent them:

  1. Russia’s attack on Ukraine is strongly characterized by an internal, genuinely Russian dimension. This dimension is historically much older than the Cold War or the existence of NATO. Against this background, the alleged “mistakes of the West” are not the main reasons for the present war in Ukraine. As Putin demonstrates with his continuous references to Russia’s glorious history, a power that acts revisionist and imperialist in the light of past greatness can do so also without an international enemy.
  2. Putin has written the annexation of four former Ukrainian regions and their incorporation into the RF into the constitution. He has thus tied his own hands then those of all future presidents. Even if he wanted to, he could not make territorial compromises at the negotiating table without violating the Russian constitution. Anyone flirting with handing over "Russian" territory would hardly survive the next day politically.

What does this all mean for a concrete demand for a rapid end to the war at the negotiating table?

-      First of all, any third party that intends to facilitate such negotiations must ask itself: when and under what premises are both parties willing, more or less at the same time, to sit down at the table to negotiate an end to military violence. Experience in the post-Soviet environment makes one look back rather sceptically. Wherever the RF was one of the parties to the conflict, the result was rigid formats that did not go beyond cementing the status quo and Moscow's denial of being a party to the conflict at all.

-      The next question is about sequencing: Is it initially "only" about confidence building, such as a ceasefire limited in time and geography? Or is it already about a comprehensive cessation of hostilities with corresponding agreements on monitoring and a withdrawal of forces? Can the asymmetrical conflicts between the revisionist RF and the respective Soviet successor states go beyond agreements on the "non-use of force" and the "de facto recognition" of the status quo? The existing negotiation formats have been going round in circles for years and none of them has resulted in a transformative peace process (Georgia is a case in point).

-      Ideally, the third party should have established and maintained good and trusting relations with both sides before the escalation. This does not mean that the third party must be "neutral" in every respect. It must act "impartially" in relation to the actors and ensure a structured process and fair modalities. In terms of its values, it must represent norms and principles of international law and make these the guiding principles for rule-based negotiations.  

In the last two decades, there has been no lack of diplomatic initiatives, formats and mechanisms to deal with the numerous conflicts in the triangle Russia–Post-Soviet space–USA/Europe. The many "small" formats, such as the Geneva talks, the Minsk Co-Chairs on Nagorno-Karabakh, the Minsk Agreement on Ukraine or even the "Normandy format" did not lead to a lasting peace. They apparently served the RF primarily to legitimise and establish its territorial claims with the help of third parties. The result is a patchwork quilt with zones of great fragility, with regions of poverty in "intermediate Europe" and with areas of unequal security.

In view of its global political significance, the Ukraine war can hardly be frozen in a "small format" with "status-neutral" pseudo-solutions. Rather, with a view to the 50th anniversary of the Helsinki Final Act in 2025, two steps forward are needed.

The first step involves—at the right moment—a ceasefire that must be concluded by the RF and Ukraine with the help of third parties. The second step would involve negotiation of a comprehensive peace order with equal security for all European countries in the year "1975 plus 50". The Ukraine resolutions of the UN General Assembly could point the way under international law, and also bring global guarantor powers to the table. For once, Europe would have the chance to say goodbye to revisionism, neo-colonialism and war in order to address the pressing issues of the 21st century. The UN could seize the opportunity for a far-reaching reform of the Security Council!


Related articles:

Can Conflict Resolution Principles Apply in Ukraine (20-minute read)

Ukraine as a Proxy War: Issues, Parties, Possible Outcomes and Lessons (20-minute read)


Günther Baechler, PhD in peace research and founding director of Swisspeace, has worked for the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, Switzerland in peace diplomacy (Nepal, Sudan, Cameroon, etc.). He served three OSCE Chairmanships as Special Envoy for the South Caucasus and co-mediated the Geneva International Discussions on Georgia.