The Work to Come: Russia, Ukraine, and the West at the Negotiating Table
Editor’s note: Don’t miss our comprehensive guide to Russia’s war against Ukraine.
After four weeks of heavy fighting, there is a growing consensus that neither the forced submission of Ukraine nor the forced withdrawal of Russia from Ukrainian territory are likely to be possible. Alongside the threat of an escalation to a NATO-Russian conventional or nuclear conflict, this has added to the incentives for negotiations.
Negotiations to end this war, however, are not only a matter for the Russian and Ukrainian negotiators at Antalya, the Pripyat River, and elsewhere. External parties were part of the war’s structural and proximate causes. The war’s course, and how it ends, will have substantial consequences for many states other than Ukraine and Russia, including strategic interests related to national security and nuclear deterrence. The stability of any deal to end the war will also be shaped by external support, pressures, and guarantees — or lack thereof. One way or another, external states will be involved, and in significant ways, in attempts to negotiate an end to this war.
The effectiveness of that external involvement is my concern. I am not an expert on the conflict in Ukraine. I am a specialist in peace negotiations. Advising on and negotiating peace agreements is my profession.
My motivation for writing lies in two fears. Firstly, as Western reporting of battlefield success has swung in favor of Ukraine, I fear that Western governments and analysts may be tempted to downgrade the importance of negotiations. There are already signs of this. Even in a scenario of a Russian military collapse, there are still going to be unresolved political and military issues requiring negotiation. There are many military futures that we can still anticipate and nearly all of them can be expected to end in difficult and internationally consequential talks.
Second, on the flip side, I fear that some calls for a negotiated end to this war risk being as fanciful and un-thought-through as calls for regime change in Moscow. Neither diplomatic pressure nor battlefield stalemates automatically lead to negotiated agreements — they only create an interest in them. The belligerents also need to believe that a deal is possible. A clear pathway to an agreement should be constructed through meticulous and detailed work, and in a manner that not only bridges the issues but also manages distrust in the other side’s commitments, builds ladders for saving face, and handles popular desires for honor and vengeance. Otherwise, the belligerents will continue to see value in gambling on a future breakthrough on the battlefield, somewhere, somehow.
This article is an attempt to chart some of the hypothetical options for securing a de-escalation, through a discussion of four of the core issues of the conflict: Russian military withdrawal, Crimea, the Donbas, and Ukraine’s independence and foreign policy identity. These options are not a prediction of what kind of war-termination deal will transpire, nor are they a proposal of what the parties should or should not accept. Instead, this is an exercise to illuminate the scale of the challenge for negotiators and to highlight the serious preparations (both in terms of policymaking and in terms of public expectations) that these negotiations will require.
As this analysis demonstrates, the incentives against Russia implementing key components of a peace agreement are significant. Tough trade-offs and external support will be needed for a sustainable peace agreement — including preparation of a clear and coordinated Western offer to Russia on sanctions relief in return for Russia’s acceptance and implementation of Ukraine’s most important demands.
Russian Military Withdrawal and International Observers
Ukraine’s number one concern will be its independence as a sovereign nation-state, which will require, among other steps, a Russian military withdrawal. This is the issue that worries me most. This is partly due to Russia’s past form in Syria for combining on-and-off fighting with negotiations, as well as Russia’s historical comfort with unresolved conflicts and long-lasting troop commitments in disputed territories. But my concern most of all is that because the invasion has given Russia “facts on the ground,” it may struggle to convince itself to give these up for mere promises and pledges, even if it were to be offered juicy incentives in the form of something approaching acceptance of its possession of Crimea and the future neutral status of Ukraine. At the top of the list of these new “facts on the ground” are: 1) Russia’s control of Europe’s biggest nuclear power station (and 25 percent of the current Ukrainian electricity supply); 2) keeping Kyiv within artillery range on a permanent basis (much like North Korea enjoys against Seoul); 3) control over the fresh waterways north of Crimea that run into and sustain the peninsula (seizing and destroying a Ukrainian dam on one of these waterways was an early objective of the Russian invasion); and 4) control of Ukraine’s coastline, through which 60 percent of Ukraine’s exports and 50 percent of imports flow (which Russia may still yet achieve through combining its land seizures with a naval blockade, even if its abandons its move on Odessa), allowing Russia to structurally weaken Ukraine in the long term. Nations do not like giving up leverage over their enemies, and some of these assets are potent bargaining chips for a long-term process of negotiating with not only Ukraine but also the West, because they raise the cost of the latter’s support for Kyiv.
Even if Russia agrees on withdrawal from all territories other than Crimea and the Donbas, the technicalities of a negotiated withdrawal will be complicated. Will it be full and immediate, or phased? If phased, how many stages will there be, over how long, and under what conditions and guarantees? How will withdrawal be monitored and verified, and on what basis will both parties agree that withdrawal has taken place?
Even if both parties fully commit to peaceful withdrawal, there are many potential points of failure related to security and ceasefire arrangements to enable withdrawal. These risks are increased with the proliferation of people’s defense units and other irregular forces not under direct control of the Russian or Ukrainian military. There are also many ways in which the parties could turn these issues into a labyrinth of potentially unending negotiations about conditions and guarantees, should they desire.
Finally, both parties would be unwise to make an agreement on withdrawal without a pre-agreed role for external observation to limit the risk of deceptive behavior during withdrawal (i.e., bogus claims by either party of completion or breaches of the withdrawal agreement). The United Nations or the Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe could provide observers, or a joint observation mechanism could be considered, staffed with military personnel from nations trusted by Russia and from nations trusted by Ukraine to provide assessments jointly so that both sides and the wider international community have confidence in the conclusions.
Crimea and the Northern Ireland Option
If Kyiv cannot return Crimea to Ukrainian control through force, which looks to be the case, it would be wise to make a deal on the territory to stabilize this point of disagreement. Distrust arising from the competing claims to the peninsula, combined with Ukrainian and Russian rearmament to replenish losses after this war, could lead to a security dilemma focused on the unresolved issue of Crimea. Russia has already demanded international recognition as well as Ukrainian recognition, so whatever solution is applied will need foreign backing for it to function as a stabilizing measure.
Any deal involving recognizing Russia’s claim of sovereignty over territories seized through aggression looks unfeasible for the West and Ukraine, however, both due to commitments to international law and fears of encouraging further aggression elsewhere. Meanwhile, the idea that “Crimea is ours” runs deep in Russian society and is why the annexation in 2014 was popular in Russia, and even Alexey Navalny has indicated that he would be against returning the peninsula to Ukraine. It is not something that we should expect the Russians to give up on as long as they have the means to refuse.
This means that creative, mutually face-saving measures need to be found. One method for dealing with such a territorial dispute is a lease arrangement of the kind that Britain extracted from China over Hong Kong in 1898. However, opportunity for this method probably died in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea, embedding its claim to sovereignty over Crimea in Russian law. But if it could be revived it would be a potential way around the Ukrainian demand for Russian reparations (which are unlikely to be achieved as, historically, such measures have been imposed on defeated parties unable to reject such a demand), as it would allow Russia to avoid the humiliation of effectively accepting guilt, but still create a basis for a transfer of funds from Russia to Ukraine.
Another method available in the historical toolbox could be through declaring the right of the population of Crimea to determine their own future. Russia already held a referendum for the population of Crimea on its national status shortly after its occupation of the territory in 2014, to bolster its claim, but this was not internationally recognized. This solution would, essentially, be a rerun of that event but in an election designed and overseen by the United Nations in adherence with internationally recognized standards, with pledges from Ukraine, Russia, and the international community to respect the result. However, governments that face multiple separatist threats (as Ukraine does) have, historically, been aggressive in refusing to extend individual territories the right to self-determination for fear of emboldening other separatist movements (for example, in 2014, Ukraine’s prime minister explicitly referred to his government’s rejection of the Crimean referendum as a warning to “separatists and other traitors of the Ukrainian state”).
President Volodymyr Zelensky has suggested a formula of “agree to disagree” on Crimea, presumably in a situation where Ukraine continues to reject Russian control of Crimea in principle but signals acceptance in practice. Leaving the issue wholly unresolved in this way would help Ukraine to save face but it would not do much to neutralize the issue as a potential cause of war in the future. Russia might see any Ukrainian re-armament as preparation for an attempt to retake the peninsula, triggering responses that could spiral into another war.
With this in mind, a third and perhaps more promising option is one of symbolic steps to signal acceptance of overlapping claims of sovereignty. This takes inspiration from Northern Ireland. The territorial status of Northern Ireland, formed in a process formally begun in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, is an “agree to disagree” formula. The process created a way for differing interpretations of the deal and diverging aspirations for the future of the province to sit side by side, with multilayered incentives for both sides to uphold the structure and stability of the agreement. For the province’s British loyalists and for audiences in mainland Britain the deal was generally interpreted as one that secured Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom while ending the violence of the Provisional Irish Republican Army. But for Irish nationalists in Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland a greater emphasis could be placed on aspects of the deal that suggested a form of overlapping sovereignty between Ireland and the United Kingdom. This included allowing residents of Northern Ireland full freedom to become Irish citizens if they wished and to vote in Irish elections, with freedom of movement, trade, and the customs rules of the European Union used to create an open border between the Republic and Northern Ireland. The agreement also pledged an end to direct rule from London and a re-establishment of the Belfast parliament, with a power-sharing arrangement between the British loyalists and Irish nationalists a condition of this restoration.
This example could be used as inspiration for working out an agreement on Crimea that would give the parties the opportunity to create a process of “agreeing to disagree” but with stronger and more stable structures than just leaving the issue unresolved. This could begin, for example, with Russia accepting that Ukraine has the right to send a delegation as a permanent observer to a process of intra-Crimean negotiations on a new system of local government for the peninsula. A purpose of such a process might be to secure the rights of non-Russian speakers and enhance protections for Crimean Tatars.
Formulas like this could allow both sides to declare greater recognition of their claim than existed before the agreement, while leaving the parties’ principles and claims to sovereignty over the territory untouched. A small beginning like this, but with an eye on bigger aspirations, may be wise given that the territorial status of Crimea is an issue between Russia and Ukraine that we can expect to survive the presidencies of both Zelensky and Putin.
In the absence of political measures like those listed above, only military measures would be available for reducing the threat of a future conflict. This could mean negotiations on a line of separation between Russian and Ukrainian forces, which could be enhanced by a demilitarized zone like the one that exists between North Korea and South Korea, or a buffer zone occupied by observers or peacekeepers from the Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe or the United Nations. Given the scale of the military threat posed by the parties to each other, and the fact that a future Ukrainian-Russian war would put the crisis near the bottom rungs of the nuclear escalation ladder, there would be a decent case for a “hard” U.N. peacekeeping force of the form invented during the Cold War, such as the first armed U.N. peacekeeping mission (UNEF I) that was deployed to help end the Suez Crisis in 1956. This would mean the classical form of peacekeeping, with troops under strict rules of engagement, able to use force only in self-defense, and having a limited mandate of activities centered on occupying and monitoring the line of separation between the belligerents, not the bevy of additional governance and human rights tasks and responsibilities that have become associated with U.N. peacekeeping missions since the 1990s. The great-power stakes of this conflict and the potential for controversy (not least because the conflict involves a permanent member of the Security Council) would be reasons to keep the mission to as simple a mandate as possible.
The Donbas: The Thornier Dispute
Given that the Donbas issue was Russia’s official casus belli for the invasion in February, the unimplemented Minsk II peace agreement of 2015 is a reminder of the risk that unresolved issues can set the stage for a future war. Russia and Ukraine have each embedded their claims to the region in their domestic laws (Ukraine’s constitution claims legal sovereignty, and Russia has established in law its recognition of the independence of the two self-declared separatist republics). This reduces options for flexibility in negotiations. The issue is also thornier than Crimea because the Donbas has suffered a protracted conflict since 2014, with high levels of violence and involving separatist Ukrainian forces as well as Russian troops. It is possessed of elements of a civil war as well as those of an interstate conflict.
The potential toolbox of measures for bridging the divisions over the Donbas are similar to those that could apply to Crimea, outlined above, with the framework of Minsk II added. At the center of Minsk II is the expectation that Ukraine find a new constitutional solution for the relationship between the Donbas region and the central Kyiv government, suggesting a federal form of settlement — but Russia’s recognition of the self-declared separatist republics has likely ended the possibility of reviving that framework. It is interesting, however, that Zelensky has said in recent days that his biggest concern on this issue is regarding the fate of those residents of the self-declared separatist republics who consider themselves Ukrainian. This highlights an obstacle but also hints at a willingness to compromise. Formulas based on the above Northern Ireland example could address Zelensky’s concern about the freedom of citizens to associate with their nation of choice.
Given the heat and instability of the Donbas front line since 2014, the case for deploying a U.N. peacekeeping force to help to stabilize the dispute is potentially even more compelling than the case for one at the boundary of Crimea, especially now that the capacity of the Donbas issue to trigger a major war has been proven. That the Donbas issue has hitherto been impervious to sustained attempts at mediation by Germany and France strengthens the argument for a peacekeeping force.
Ukraine’s Independence and Foreign Policy Identity
NATO member states have signaled that the odds of Ukraine ever joining NATO are low, creating an opportunity for Ukraine to trade its ambition to join NATO for agreements that re-establish and preserve its independence and territorial integrity. However, Russian offers of guarantees in this regard are unlikely to be sufficient for Ukraine, because Russia already broke a commitment to guaranteeing Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity made in 1994 in the Budapest Memorandum (in return for Ukraine handing over legacy Soviet nuclear weapons to the new Russian Federation). Russian negotiators have also suggested that they are willing to concede their goal of “demilitarization” if Ukraine agrees to limits on its armed forces, which Ukraine may see as a bad faith attempt to lay the ground for a future invasion to “finish the job.” Ukraine, therefore, is highly likely to want the strongest insurance policy possible for Russian promises to respect Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity — meaning it will want full freedom to create and maintain military forces capable of repelling or inflicting heavy damage on a future Russian invasion.
Recent comments made by an advisor to Zelensky indicate that this is where Ukrainian calculations have turned. This would leave the option of armed neutrality, where Ukraine retains the right to possess forces to properly defend itself through conventional means but also commits, through treaty agreements and domestic law, to neutrality in world affairs, much like Finland and Switzerland today, Austria during the Cold War, or Belgium from 1839 to 1914 — all measures that were designed to secure European peace and stability by reassuring great powers that the country in question would not become a military asset of an adversary. Furthermore, peacekeepers in Crimea and the Donbas might also be seen as a measure for aiding the security of a neutral Ukraine, as they would provide an additional buffer against (and early warning of) a future invasion. Moscow, meanwhile, could frame its agreement to peacekeepers as a measure for protecting Russian speakers.
There would be a host of political and technical issues to resolve in an agreement on armed neutrality. Would Ukraine be allowed to receive weapons and military technology from NATO member states, for example? Ukraine is sure to want this freedom, and this may be what aides to Zelensky are referring to when they talk of securing foreign guarantees for Ukraine’s future security. But the Russians may seek to drive a hard bargain, using the land they now hold as leverage. In response, however, Ukraine could insist on the right to purchase arms and receive military aid but offer to ban, say, the presence of foreign troops and military assets on Ukrainian soil or Ukraine’s participation in foreign military exercises. But this is an area of complexity that could drag out the talks. To soften the blow of its demand to retain a full force for conventional deterrence, Ukraine might see value in offering to submit to a new international inspections regime (updating prior agreements on international inspections that accompanied the Budapest Memorandum) to reassure Russia that no weapons of mass destruction will ever be present or developed on Ukrainian soil. This would require negotiations on technical measures for the inspections that have, historically, taken months or, in some cases, years.
Such measures might deal with the NATO issue but not the European Union question. As several eminent analysts of Russian foreign policy have argued, Russia’s animosity toward Ukraine’s proposed NATO membership is only a part of a broader animosity toward Ukraine’s overall westward drift. Some have even argued that Russian economic concerns about Ukrainian E.U. membership were potentially a more urgent motivator of this invasion than NATO-related military concerns. Ukraine’s attempts to accelerate steps to set itself on a path to membership since February has given it a kind of “fact on the ground” of its own, which Kyiv might be using as a way to fortify this foreign policy goal so that it is more likely to survive at the negotiating table. Or it might be a measure to construct a heftier bargaining chip than Ukraine’s E.U. membership would have otherwise been, to bolster the package it can offer Russia in return for withdrawal and guarantees on independence. But negotiations over Ukraine’s ambitions for E.U. membership will probably be a difficult issue to resolve because, without this, Ukraine will need to design an alternative vision for its economic development.
Another issue related to Ukraine’s independence is the Russian war aim of “de-nazification”. At the launch of the February invasion Putin made clear that this goal was effectively a euphemism for regime change. However, Russian negotiators quickly dropped this demand and there are signs that the Ukrainians are willing to entertain symbolic measures regarding “de-nazification” — in particular, presumably at Russia’s request, they have signaled that they are willing to change certain street names and recognize Russian as an official language in some regions. Zelensky has also signaled that the terms of any peace agreement with Russia would need to be put to a Ukrainian referendum. Some have interpreted this as an attempt by Zelensky to slow down the talks, in a sign of his confidence in the military situation. But it is more likely to be a measure to make clear to his Russian adversaries that he cannot be forced into making a deal that would betray the interests of Ukraine, and that the Russians had better temper their expectations of a settlement accordingly. It is also a step that would strengthen the legitimacy of any deal and therefore its long-term survivability.
Neither the scale of the negotiating enterprise, nor the tradeoffs that will have to be faced to end this war, are small. Considering the potential options shows four key implications.
Firstly, the political and technical obstacles to agreements on the core issues are substantial. Negotiations will take time, protracting hostilities — and, with them, the war’s considerable humanitarian cost and global economic disruptions. It is important for Ukraine’s external supporters not to protract things further by fumbling opportunities for progress due to insufficient preparation, inadequate coordination in support of a deal, or wishful thinking. Real trade-offs will be required by not only Ukraine but also by Western states to end this war and to create as stable and safe a settlement as possible for all parties. Strategic thinking is needed both to end the war and to avoid laying the foundations for a future — potentially even more dangerous — conflict. External countries need to be prepared to do their part to bring the war to an end, even if this means disappointing sectors of public opinion that demand a more emotionally satisfying conclusion.
Second, Western states that support Ukraine should stand ready to make a clear offer of relief for Russia on sanctions. This will strengthen Ukraine’s hand at the negotiating table as it seeks to bargain for the crucial goals of full Russian military withdrawal and robust long-term guarantees of Ukraine’s independence. The Russians have incentives, and a variety of means, to confound these core Ukrainian demands and there is a risk that battlefield coercion alone will not be enough to secure Russian commitment. But a clear offer of sanctions relief in return for a settlement would put the future of Russia’s economy in Zelensky’s hands. An offer of negotiations on a future European security architecture would also bolster the incentives for Russia to accept Ukraine’s most important conditions. This requires coordination among Western states and management of internal opposition to such measures.
Third, there is the distinct possibility of a scenario of indecisive military action followed by failed peace talks, and back again — in a pattern of fight and freeze — as the two sides bargain, fight, and try to maneuver their way to a more advantageous position, using both the talks and violence to advance their goals. This will be more likely if interests in securing tactical advantages dominate over interests in a stable peace on reasonable terms. This risk is exacerbated if there is a lack of belief in the possibility of a peace agreement. There are contributions that external parties can make to this by providing helpful and creative proposals, offering resources (such as peacekeepers and observers), and establishing guarantees to counter distrust. This is why serious work by not only Ukraine but also its Western supporters to chart — and demonstrate — a pathway to a resolution of the core issues is so important.
Fourth, just as we can expect failed military assaults, we can expect failed talks. But failed talks are not useless. The history of peace negotiations shows that the path to a stable peace agreement is often paved with failed talks that teach the parties what is fantasy, what is reality, and where the real bridges between them might lie. Much like confrontations on the battlefield, talks are relational and a learning process for the participants. Support for and participation in talks should be embraced, even when prospects seem poor, because the belligerents and the many great-power stakeholders are going to need to learn how to end this war.
Tom Hill, Ph.D., is executive director of the Center for Peace Diplomacy and a visiting senior research fellow in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. He is also a deployable civilian expert for mediation at the United Kingdom’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. Previously, he was a United Nations political officer and special assistant to Joint Special Envoy for Syria Kofi Annan, and a lecturer in international conflict resolution at the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University.
Image: TASS/BELTA (Photo by Maxim Guchek)