Recently, calls for a negotiated peace agreement in the Ukraine war have increased not only in Europe but also in the US. General Mark A. Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff made such a call in early November 2022.[i] Professor Charles A Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, announced “[i]t’s time to bring Russia and Ukraine to the negotiation table”.[ii] President Biden said during his visit to France on 1 December that he would meet with the Russian president if he showed a willingness to end the war. Possible and realistic terms of a possible peace deal have not however been elaborated. (This text co-authored with Tapio Kanninen was published in January 2023 issue of Le Monde Diplomatique in French as “Propositions pour une sortie de crise”; in English as “Giving peace a chance”; other editions will follow).
Every peace deal is a compromise that is hard to swallow. The peace agreement should be acceptable both to Ukraine and Russia, meaning that it should bring more perceived benefits than losses to both. The lessons of the failed Minsk I and II agreements should be taken into account. The West in general and the US in particular are decisive in convincing the victims of the invasion that peace negotiations make sense. For the Ukrainians, who might to the end demand a total victory over the invaders, there should be assurances that the Russian invasion is not rewarded and that a deal does not lead to the destabilization of the international system as a whole.
On the other hand, it must be recognised that Russia has legitimate security interests and concerns and that some or many of its demands have been and are reasonable. While the US and NATO categorically rejected new Russia-NATO and the Russia-US treaties presented by Russia in December 2021, it is plausible to argue that some proposals could have been negotiated and agreed to, while some other would be difficult to agree to and the rest were nonstarters.[iii] Negotiations are always possible if there is a political will to engage in them.
In 2022, while still rare, a few proposals have been made that could provide a basis for de-escalation and peace negotiations. At the time the Russian invasion started in February, Lord Owen, Lord Skidelsky, Sir Anthony Brenton, Cristopher Granville and Nina Krushcheva proposed in an open letter to the Financial Times that “it should be possible for NATO, in close association with Ukraine, to put forward detailed proposals to negotiate a new treaty with Russia that engenders no institutional hostility. This would cover the verifiable withdrawal of nuclear-capable missiles; detailed military confidence-building measures limiting numbers and demarcating deployment; and an international agreement on presently contested borders between Russia and Ukraine”.[iv]
Going in one regard beyond the above proposal, Oscar Arias and Jonathan Grogoff proposed in July 2022 that NATO could start to plan and prepare for the withdrawal of all US nuclear warheads from Europe and Turkey prior to negotiations.[v] Withdrawal would be carried out once peace terms were agreed between Ukraine and Russia. This move would not weaken NATO militarily, but the proposal should get Putin’s attention and might bring him to the negotiating table. In the literature, this kind of strategy is called “altercasting”. The point is to persuade the other (alter) by casting/positioning them in a new way with regard to oneself and by proposing a new relationship so that the other will be inclined to act in accordance with that new role. This is what Michail Gorbachev did with regard to Ronald Reagan in the mid-1980s.[vi]
Concepts that might be very useful in considering the eventual peace deal are a “demilitarized zone” and a “UN managed territory”. The UN has a long history in dealing with conflicts in terms of peacekeeping and peacebuilding to assist and administer demilitarized zones and trust territories. Often the idea of demilitarization has been to build a neutral zone between the parties of a violent conflict. The UN has also directly managed entire territories, at least temporarily, for example, the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor 1999-2002. The tasks in East Timor included maintaining security and order, providing relief assistance, assisting in rebuilding physical infrastructure, administering the territory based on the rule of law, and assisting in the drafting of a new constitution and conducting elections.
A possibility that should be seriously considered is to demilitarize the contested territories in Eastern Ukraine and take them temporarily under the auspices of the UN. Following a period of necessary back-channel diplomacy and negotiations, the UN Security Council could declare or the parties could directly negotiate a binding ceasefire, with the deployment of a peacekeeping force and other UN personnel. The areas of Ukraine occupied by Russian forces would become demilitarized and governed temporarily by the UN, with some flexibility in specifying the boundaries of these territories.
Compared to East Timor, a longer period of transition would be required, anything from 10 to 20 years. Eastern Ukraine is also a large land area and would require large peacekeeping and other resources and administrative personnel. “The UN Transitional Administration of Eastern Ukraine” would also have the task of assisting in negotiating and drafting a new legal basis for the status of these regions and conducting regular elections, as well as a possible referendum in the future.
Ukraine’s military non-alignment remains a key issue and must be part of negotiations. Moreover, as a part of the core UN Security Council resolution, other confidence building actions could be also foreseen, such as a resumption of Russia-NATO Nuclear and Other Military Risk Reduction talks and official disarmament talks.[vii] Like in many peace deals the warring parties need outside assistance in making the first openings for peace. Third party facilitators and mediators should come primarily from countries that are seen as outsiders to the conflict by both parties and may include representatives from institutions such as the International Court of Justice or Permanent Court of Arbitration.
At the moment there is a dangerous trend in present international relations when the war in Ukraine is seen only in military and moralistic terms, as a struggle between good and evil. Diplomatic efforts to solve the conflict are very few and even discouraged. We however believe that the above framework to start negotiations could contribute to de-escalation and to giving peace a real chance.
Tapio Kanninen and Heikki Patomäki
Kanninen is President of New York based Global Crisis Information Network and former Chief of Policy Planning at the UN Department of Political Affairs; and Patomäki is Professor of World Politics and Global Political Economy at the University of Helsinki.
[i] Peter Baker, ‘Top U.S. General Urges Diplomacy in Ukraine While Biden Advisers Resist’, New York Times, Nov. 10, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/11/10/us/politics/biden-ukraine-russia-diplomacy.html.
[ii] Charles A. Kupchan, ‘It’s Time to Bring Russia and Ukraine to the Negotiating Table’, Nov. 2, 2022, New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/11/02/opinion/russia-ukraine-negotiation.html.
[iii] Discussions on this point, Tuomas Forsberg and Heikki Patomäki, Debating the War in Ukraine. Counterfactual Histories and Future Possibilities, Routledge, 2023, pp.49-57.
[iv] Lord Owen and Others, ‘Letter: Remember Kissinger’s Advice to the Ukrainians’, Financial Times, February 28, 2022.
[v] Oscar Arias and Jonathan Ganoff, ‘Nuclear strategy and ending the war in Ukraine’, The Hill 19 July 2022, available at https://thehill.com/opinion/international%20/3565996-nuclear-strategy-and-ending-the-war-in-ukraine/.
[vi] Alexander Wendt, The Social Theory of International Politics, Cambridge University Press, 1999, p. 129, 329, 346.
[vii] In December 2020 a high-level group of 145 former generals, politicians, ex-diplomats and academics from the US, Europe and Russia, all concerned about increasing risks of nuclear and other military accidents, signed a report entitled ‘Recommendations of the Expert Dialogue on NATO-Russia Military Risk Reduction in Europe’. The talks continued in a smaller group but have essentially been moribund after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.