In the war between Russia and Ukraine, the distance between the parties seems insurmountable. Ukraine has proposed a ‘peace formula’, and various other peace plans have also been put forward.
Now Ukraine’s supporters are starting to signal that the time is ripe for diplomatic solutions.
On 20 February next year, it will be 10 years since the war started, first with Russia’s occupation of Crimea and then its escalation of the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Russia’s full-scale intervention began on 24 February 2022. Cautious estimates place the number of people killed at almost 200,000. In addition, 8 million people have fled the country, 5 million more are internally displaced, and damage is on a vast scale.
A revival of peace diplomacy?
In recent weeks, there have a number of indications that Ukraine’s Western supporters want a revival of peace diplomacy. The most recent meeting of the so-called contact group, which consists of 54 countries providing military capability to Ukraine, was held in Brussels on 12–13 October. At that meeting, the United States and other allies discussed with Ukraine what it could be willing to offer in a possible peace deal with Russia.
Several factors are driving the discussion about a peaceful solution. Firstly, the Ukrainian offensive has not succeeded in recapturing significant amounts of territory. Furthermore, we see that among Ukraine’s supporters, particularly in the United States, the support to Ukraine is being questioned. In addition, there is a new crisis in the Middle East, and much diplomatic energy is being diverted into preventing escalation and a wider regional conflict there.
A conflict ‘ripe’ for diplomatic solutions?
Russia and Ukraine have very different ideas about what a peaceful solution could look like. Within conflict resolution, we often talk about whether a conflict is ‘ripe’ for diplomatic solutions. The term comes from William Zartman. He considered a conflict to be ‘ripe’ if both parties perceive the conflict to be in a deadlock in which the impending costs are high – a ‘mutually hurting stalemate’, in Zartman’s terms. In addition, both parties must believe that there are acceptable diplomatic solutions.
In the Russia–Ukraine war, the situation seems deadlocked, and the costs of a long-lasting conflict will be large for both sides. But this does not mean that the parties will acknowledge that this is the case. And it in no way means that they will believe that it will be possible to achieve a peaceful solution that is mutually satisfactory.
Looking back to spring 2022
Immediately after Russia’s full-scale intervention, in spring 2022, things were different. At that time, several rounds of talks were held between the parties. The last real negotiations took place in Turkey at the end of March 2022. The parties were then apparently close to reaching agreement on the most important questions:
- Ukraine would declare neutrality, and thereby relinquish the possibility of NATO membership, while other states would provide Ukraine with security guarantees.
- Russia would withdraw to what had been the front before the invasion, while the status of Crimea and other occupied areas in eastern Ukraine would be determined at a later time.
- Russian would be recognised as an official language in Ukraine.
Media reports about Russian war crimes caused the talks to break down. Over the following weeks, both sides adopted positions that made restarting talks difficult.
Ukraine’s peace formula
Ukraine has launched its peace formula. The formula was presented for the first time by President Zelensky during the opening of the UN General Assembly in August 2022 and is subject to ongoing amendment.
At its core, the formula has remains constant: over time all occupied areas must be handed back, Ukraine must receive watertight international security guarantees, and Russia must be held accountable both for its war crimes and for the economic damage it has caused. Other points deal with matters such as nuclear security, grain exports and energy.
Ukraine’s peace formula comprises a list of completely reasonable demands, all in accordance with international law. This does not mean that Moscow will perceive it as an invitation to negotiate. Although the war has obviously been very costly for Russia, it is their anticipation that international support for Ukraine will gradually falter. Russia’s intervention in 2022 aimed to establish dominance over Ukraine, and President Putin has defined the war as a civilizational conflict.
At the end of October, representatives of 66 countries met in Malta to further develop the details of the peace formula and to plan a global peace summit. Although many countries participated, China was not present on this occasion, unlike at the meeting in Jeddah in early August. China’s absence caused concern in Kyiv, Brussels and Washington. If China were to get more heavily involved in supporting Russia, then the conflict would become much more difficult to resolve, and the danger of escalation would increase.
Various peace plans
Various peace plans have been put forward, including by Brazil, Indonesia and China. There is also an African peace initiative, fronted by South Africa, as well as an initiative from the Arab League.
Brazil’s plan is clear in its requirement for Ukraine to cede territory in exchange for peace. Indonesia proposed an immediate ceasefire and the deployment of peacekeeping forces, with issues concerning territory to be determined over time. China’s plan is less concrete, but expresses support for international law while at the same time criticizing Cold War mentalities and Western sanctions. The African initiative requires the Russians to withdraw to internationally recognized borders.
All of these peace plans have been flatly rejected by one or both parties.
Their reasons are not only about the contents of the plans, but also who would be credible as a peacebroker.
But perhaps the most important characteristic of the various plans is that they imply criticism of Ukraine and its Western supporters, who are seen as wanting Russia to be totally humiliated. Even though the United States and other Western countries have surprised the world with their unified support for Ukraine, their attitude is not shared by all other countries.
Desires for a peace process will encounter many difficulties. Russia has tied itself to the mast by officially annexing occupied territory. But cultivating a peace formula that requires almost complete capitulation will make it difficult to get Russia to the negotiating table. For Ukraine, it will now be extremely difficult to surrender territory. At the same time, there are other crises competing for attention and many countries are questioning whether Ukraine is the most important thing happening in the world today.
It can be a long road from a deadlocked situation at the frontline to one where the parties realizing that they are in an unwinnable war. And even if that mutual realization should appear, it will remain extremely difficult to develop solutions that both parties can accept.
- Kristian Berg Harpviken is a Research Professor and former Director at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO)
- This is an English language version of an op-ed that was published in Aftenposten in Norwegian on 13 November 2023 as ‘Er tiden moden for diplomatiske løsninger mellom Ukraina og Russland?’
- Translation from Norwegian: Fidotext