Cooperative Security, Arms Control and Disarmament By Shyam Saran  |  11 July, 2023

The Search for a Political Solution to the Ukraine War

Image: Rokas Tenys/

The Ukraine war is not between Russia and Ukraine but between Russia and NATO led by the US. Russia’s declared objective of its “special military operation” is preventing the future expansion of NATO closer to its borders. It also wanted, through this operation, to compel the recasting of the European security architecture to accommodate what it considers its vital security interests. This was amply clear in the list of demands made by Russia to the US on the eve of the invasion of Ukraine and which the latter rejected.

If this proposition is correct, then one cannot avoid the conclusion that Russia has so far not gained any of its objectives in this war. This is irrespective of any gains that Russia may still be able to make on the battlefield in the coming weeks or months. Far from pushing NATO away from its borders, it has ended up with Finland already becoming a full-fledged member of that alliance, abandoning its neutral status. Sweden has also applied to join NATO, shedding more that 200 years of neutrality. While its entry is held up due to Turkish objections, this is likely to be a temporary delay.

It appears that Ukraine itself may be getting closer to membership of NATO in the days to come. Furthermore, any prospect of Russia being able to find a place for itself in a new European security order appears unrealistic for the foreseeable future.

The situation may have become more complex and challenging for Russia in the wake of the recent mutiny by Yevgeny Prigozhin and his Wagner Group against President Vladimir Putin’s government.

Against this backdrop the strategy for restoring peace in Ukraine lies in finding an honourable exit route for Russia – an extrication strategy if you like. It would be of value for both sides to cease hostilities:

  • First, to stop the immense loss and damage being inflicted on innocent men, women and children, caught in the middle of this shooting war. Should not the demands of humanity figure in our calculations?
  • Second, to prevent the further disruption to energy and food supply chains which are harming the most vulnerable populations in Africa and other parts of the world.
  • Third, the “fatigue factor” becoming apparent among Ukraine’s supporters and patrons in the US and Europe. Ukraine cannot rely on unlimited and perennial support.

It is true that no final and comprehensive solution may be possible at this time and perhaps even for a long time to come. Issues of territorial integrity and sovereignty are sensitive and complex. However, some elements of compromise may be explored.

The first is the restoration of the status quo ante as of 24 February 2022, when the Russian invasion of Ukraine began. This will leave Crimea and some parts of Donetsk under Russian occupation but this initial step could be without prejudice to respective territorial claims. This may be followed by Russia-Ukraine dialogue and clear the decks for negotiations on territorial issues. A Minsk-III agreement may be an objective.

The second is the recognition that to treat Russia as a defeated party and to attempt to exclude it from the emerging European security architecture would be short-sighted and self-defeating. Russia is and will remain a significant major power with substantial military capabilities, including nuclear capabilities. No enduring peace and stability in Europe is possible without eventually including Russia.

Third, even at a time of heightened tensions and rising confrontation, engagement needs to be maintained. It was important that President Emmanuel Macron of France and Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany had maintained some contact with President Putin, but this has now been given up. China has stepped in with a mediation initiative but this has yet to yield results. A group of African countries has also engaged with the parties concerned and President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil has spoken of playing a role along with Turkiye.

All the efforts to bring diplomacy to bear are welcome. The G-20 as a group could also play a role but is deeply polarised on this issue.

Where could a European conversation take place on stopping this war since most fora are closed at this time?

In the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), all key stakeholders are represented including Russia and Ukraine. One may think of a new conference on security and cooperation in Europe to deliberate on a new version of the historic Helsinki Act of 1975, which marked the high point of détente during the Cold War. Such a conference could deliberate on a new European security order that could safeguard Russia’s core interests but also clear the pathway for the recovery and reconstruction of Ukraine. It could initiate a process for resolving the remaining territorial issues between Russia and Ukraine.

It is important to reduce the salience that the threat of the use of nuclear weapons has come to acquire as part of the dynamics of the Ukraine War. This should be high on the agenda of the various peace-making efforts currently under way and those which may be initiated subsequently. It is in no one’s interest to allow the nuclear genie to re-emerge and to threaten a catastrophic outcome for the entire world. In this context an early agreement to secure the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant is critical.

There is a Chinese saying that things must brew to a point where action yields results. I believe we are at that point.

Related articles:

The Wagner coup: Strategic setback or military deception? (3-minute read)

Their business is military force. The Wagner Festival is cancelled (3-minute read)

Could the US and China become partners for peace in Ukraine? (3-minute read)


Shyam Saran is a former Foreign Secretary of India and a Senior Fellow Centre for Policy Research. This article is based on remarks at the World Peace Forum in Beijing, 2–3 July 2023.