With the war now past its one-and-a-half year mark and no decisive Russian military defeat or political surrender in sight, the public conversation should start reflecting a bit more on the possible role for diplomacy in the months – and perhaps years – ahead. The difficulties on the road to a peace without victory are monumental, and fall in two broad categories.
Coming to the table
The first is the challenge of bringing the two sides to the table in the first place. Ukraine would only enter peace talks if pressed by its Western – particularly American – sponsors. The main obstacle is the West’s policy of deferring to Kyiv on the question of negotiations for ending the war. This can change – and at the very least is worthy of more open public debate.
The idea that it is exclusively up to Ukraine to decide a matter of such fundamental importance for the security and interests of so many other countries – especially those in Europe – is absurd, and a cynical abrogation of responsibility by Western leaders, dressed up in moral rhetoric. This is not simply Ukraine’s war, because Kyiv is not fighting it alone, or shouldering all of the risk; the peace cannot be left solely to Ukraine’s will either.
It is far harder to bring Russia to the table, though. Not only has Moscow not given any sign it might be interested in a peace deal, but its traditional hardline logic – a type of military realpolitik – becomes a major obstacle in this respect once the country is at war, because the timing of peace talks is judged based on the military situation on the battlefield.
If Russian forces are on the back-foot, no Kremlin leader will want to accept real negotiations from a position of weakness. If they’re doing well – whether in defence or offence – he has no need to, and would rather wait to increase his leverage.
In times past, in different wars, even Russia has exhibited more flexibility on these points; but this war is seen as existential in Moscow, so the margins for diplomatic engagement are much tighter.
This is why any pursuit of a negotiated end to this war must be framed by a clear-eyed, ultra-realistic perspective that is able to judge correctly the balance of interests and capabilities on both sides. Waiting for either combatant to develop some kind of “decisive advantage” may well simply be a recipe for endless war.
Five elements of a potential deal
The second challenge on the road to peace from a Western point of view is determining the broad outlines of the final accord. These are the major elements of the deal that would form the object of more specific negotiations in the hypothetical case where the two warring sides, plus likely other parties, really do sit down for a peace conference.
Here we can only suggest a possible breakdown of a deal under five main headlines, without going into any details:
1. Territorial settlement. A tragic but unavoidable fact of this conflict is that no peace negotiation is possible, in any likely scenario (i.e. unless Russia surrenders, which is not likely), without the prospect of recognising Russian control over certain Ukrainian territories. This is not a fringe view. The formal cessation of Crimea to Russia has often been openly floated in mainstream Western conversations since the war began. Occupied Donbas, with its strongly pro-Russian population – largely seen as traitors by Kyiv – is another obvious target for potential territorial provisions in the resulting treaty.
The full meaning of “prospect” and “control” would be up for negotiation. A variety of solutions can be envisaged. Firstly, any transfer of Ukrainian lands could be made subject to internationally-supervised local plebiscites, as suggested by eminent strategist Dr Edward Luttwak.
Secondly, there may be legal formulas to ensure Russian control over some of the territories in dispute without formally annexing them, or under some kind of multinational mandate etc. It is unclear what may be the limits of the possible on this highly sensitive issue, but the point is that diplomatic history has seen many instances of creative solutions in cases of territorial disputes.
There is no suggestion here that any of this would be just – but only that if a real peace deal does become a serious policy objective for Ukraine and its allies in absence of a complete “defeat” of Russia, such a deal will inevitably have to include a territorial settlement.
2. Ukrainian neutrality and EU membership. NATO’s Vilnius summit this year has made it clear that Ukraine will only “join the Alliance when Allies agree and conditions are met,” which at the very least means when the war is over. In turn, this incentivises Russia to continue the war even if Ukraine somehow liberates all of its territory – meaning that, in practice, Ukraine has almost zero chance of joining NATO without a peace deal with Russia in the first place.
NATO membership has become a totemic aim for Kyiv as it is seen as a guarantee against another potential Russian invasion in the future. It is said, correctly, that Russia would not have attacked last year if Ukraine had been part of NATO. But it may also be said that Russia wouldn’t have attacked had it known how well Ukraine would fight and the level of support it would receive from NATO, as it did.
All this has now been demonstrated in the field. A very strong case can now be made that a post-war Ukraine, recovered and rebuilt, armed to the teeth (to NATO standards), supported by strong bilateral defence cooperation pacts with key allies like Poland, the UK or the US, would be more than capable of deterring – and if needed, defeating – any renewed Russian invasion in the future.
Under these conditions, Ukraine could renounce its pursuit of NATO membership for a national policy of (heavily) armed neutrality, something it was willing to do in March 2022. In exchange, Russia would formally agree to Ukraine joining the EU – the longtime aspiration of the Ukrainian people, which triggered the original Ukraine-Russia crisis in 2013. Kyiv could also use this negotiation to press the EU to agree to a specific accession date for Ukraine.
Read the rest at Brussels Signal.
Gabriel Elefteriu is a Fellow at Yorktown Institute.