© Sara Morris / The Retouching Shed

Ukraine must fight the war but plan for peace

It would be prudent for Kyiv to start thinking about a negotiated settlement, writes Jonathan Powell, who led negotiations in Northern Ireland. But formidable obstacles lie ahead
January 25, 2023

This is not the time for negotiations over Ukraine. Successful peace negotiations usually require both a mutually hurting stalemate (a specific concept in diplomacy) and leadership on both sides prepared to take political risks for peace. Neither condition currently exists.

A mutually hurting stalemate occurs when both sides see no path to military victory and cannot sustain the status quo without undue pain. Both Ukraine and Russia still think they can achieve their objectives militarily. Ukraine has enjoyed an amazingly successful campaign under General Zaluzhnyi and his commanders, and hopes to take back more territory. Putin is relying on time and the traditional Russian route to victory, being prepared to endure more death and destruction than anyone else—think of Borodino and Stalingrad. 

Antony Beevor captured this when he wrote in Foreign Affairs in December that “Despite having lost 200,000 of its own men, Russia’s military leadership was far less concerned about casualties than was Napoleon. Russian officers still treated their peasant soldiers as little better than serfs... This lack of interest in soldiers’ well-being—and the casual attitude to massive losses through so-called meat-grinder tactics—are apparent in Putin’s army in Ukraine today”.

More importantly, neither side sees the political room to make compromises. In Ukraine, more than 90 per cent of the public think their forces will be victorious, and show no willingness to give up territory to secure peace—unsurprisingly, given the suffering they have been put through. On the Russian side, there is no indication that Putin is serious about seeking compromise: on the contrary, he is sending the public message that he is in for the long haul. From time to time he performatively offers negotiations, but then makes it apparent he will give up nothing, not even territory he does not control. The fact he has not put forward a serious negotiator from within his circle of trust is a sign that he is not yet ready.

Although now is not the time to talk, it is evident that there will have to be negotiations at some point in the future. A few western commentators speak loosely about victory without defining what it means. But if victory were to mean imposing conditions on the defeated party, as after the Second World War, it would require total defeat—in that instance, it included the occupation of Berlin. No one is suggesting that the Ukrainians should occupy Moscow. 

Anything short of such total victory requires negotiation, not least since Russia will remain Ukraine’s much larger and militarily more powerful neighbour at the end of the war. Leaving the Russians nursing a grievance and probably blaming “a stab in the back” for their failure—as the Germans did at the end of the First World War—is a recipe for a new conflict before long. A negotiation to settle the issues between Ukraine and Russia once and for all is the only way to secure a lasting peace. It is positively dangerous to dismiss any talk of a negotiated outcome as having shades of Neville Chamberlain, as these commentators do.

It is for that reason that Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has been definite since the beginning that all wars end in diplomacy, and this one will be no different. And it is why Joe Biden’s administration has stated that its military support for Ukraine is aimed not at victory but at framing eventual negotiations in the best possible way for Ukraine. 

United support: Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky addressing Nato’s parliamentary assembly last November © OSCAR DEL POZO/AFP via Getty Images United support: Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky addressing Nato’s parliamentary assembly last November © OSCAR DEL POZO/AFP via Getty Images

The war may of course unseat Putin. Military failure has often been a factor in bringing about political change in Russia: from the Crimean War to defeat in the Russo-Japanese War in 1905 and failure against the Germans in the First World War, which led directly to the revolution of 1917. Elsewhere, military failure has led to the unseating of dictators, including Leopoldo Galtieri in Argentina after the Falklands and Slobodan Miloševi in Serbia after the war in Kosovo. But we can’t base our policy on a hope of regime change in Moscow when we have no control over it happening, and cannot be certain that a successor would be less nationalistic than Putin (imprisoned opposition leader Alexey Navalny claims Crimea for Russia, too).

It would be equally mistaken to force Ukraine into surrender negotiations in the face of Putin’s repeated nuclear sabre rattling, as western commentators at the other end of the spectrum appear to do. The Biden administration has been careful to ramp up its military support for Ukraine gradually, to avoid triggering a third world war: providing Patriot missiles or Himars multiple rocket launchers at the beginning might have been regarded as a provocation, but is not now. Being cautious to avoid escalation, however, is not the same as giving into threats, which would just encourage further aggression. We should deter nuclear threats, not concede to them.

We do not know when an opportunity for successful negotiations will occur. But that does not remove the duty to prepare for them. Huge investments of blood and treasure are made on the battlefield, but there is currently no remotely comparable effort to work out a strategy for negotiations. 

Political leaders, who would always plan carefully for a military or election campaign, often turn up at negotiations unprepared and hoping for the best. Usually the side that has a clear strategy succeeds. In the Minsk negotiations of 2014, Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin’s former “grey cardinal”, had prepared thoroughly and ran rings around Ukraine’s then-president, Petro Poroshenko. Ukraine should not make the same mistake again. 

The individual items that Poroshenko agreed to, such as referenda in the occupied areas, were perfectly reasonable, but he also agreed—partly under Franco-German pressure—to a sequence of steps that his side could never deliver. It would be a tragedy this time if the Ukrainians lost at the negotiating table what they had so painfully won on the battlefield just because of lack of preparation. 

Ukraine understandably rejected Putin’s offer of a short ceasefire over Orthodox Christmas. But there is a risk, particularly if he gains more territory, that Putin declares a permanent unilateral ceasefire and challenges Ukraine to reciprocate. He would present this as a victory at home because of the extra territory Russian soldiers have seized since 2014 and would use the ensuing frozen conflict, as he did after 2014, to prevent Ukraine from recovering economically and politically, and to stymie its progress towards the European Union. This gambit would be used to try to break western unity by exploiting the obvious desire of key European countries for an early peace.

To maintain the moral high ground and the unity of their international supporters, it may be necessary for Ukraine to agree to negotiations at that stage. But if they do, they would be well-served to insist on “fighting and talking” at the same time to avoid the trap of a ceasefire in which the Russians can regroup militarily and use a frozen conflict as leverage. This approach of “fighting and talking” succeeded for both Yitzhak Rabin, prime minister of Israel during the Oslo negotiations, and for  Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos, during his negotiations with Farc guerrillas. 

A negotiation to settle the issues between Ukraine and Russia once and for all is the only way to secure a lasting peace

It was probably to pre-empt such pressure from Russia that Zelensky put forward his “10-point peace plan” to the G20 last November. Rather than an actual peace plan, this is a series of demands by Ukraine, including nuclear safety, justice, energy security, prisoner release, the withdrawal of Russian troops and the restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. It could form a perfectly reasonable agenda for negotiations while fighting continues.

If it is to succeed at the negotiating table, Ukraine will need to enjoy the united support it has had during the war—and that should be built into the architecture of the negotiations. It would be a mistake to return to the “Normandy format” of the Minsk negotiations, with France and Germany sitting at the table as well as Russia and Ukraine, both because of the failure of those talks and because trust between Ukraine and those governments has been undermined. Adding the US and Poland wouldn’t make the process any better. Equally, leaving the Ukrainians to face Russia by themselves would also be wrong. 

One possibility would be to establish a “group of friends of Ukraine” including the US, France, Germany, the EU and more ardent supporters such as Poland and the UK. This group would not sit at the negotiating table but would meet in parallel to offer support. If Russian negotiators tried to browbeat  their Ukrainian counterparts into accepting terms, the Ukrainians would be able to say they needed to talk to their allies, since, after all, only they can lift sanctions on Russia or offer security guarantees. 

The ability to take a break and seek advice can be vital to avoid being bullied into an inadequate agreement. During the 1983–84 negotiations with China over Hong Kong, when I was the Foreign Office desk officer, the requirement for British negotiators to pause and consult with Margaret Thatcher and the Executive Council in Hong Kong provided an essential bulwark from Chinese pressure.

Usually negotiations are more successful if there is an independent third party mediator, especially when there is a yawning gap of trust between the two sides, as there is here. There are plenty of volunteers, from Recep Tayyip Erdoan of Turkey to Narendra Modi of India. Ukraine has proposed a peace summit under UN auspices in February this year. It is likely that when we get to serious negotiations Putin will refuse a mediator because he will not want to lose control, but there are other ways to ensure the facilitation of peace talks, including through backchannels or even remotely between advisers on the two sides. 

Putin will almost certainly try to drag the US into negotiations because his whole aim is to make Russia a great power again and he regards the US president as his only equivalent. Any private outreach of this sort will probably be the first clue that the Russians have had enough of fighting. Biden has maintained that his approach is “nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine”, so he cannot agree to bilateral negotiations with Putin. On the other hand, it would be crazy to reject a Russian approach altogether, not least because much more is at stake in this war than the future of Ukraine alone. 

Historically, secret backchannels of this sort have been an essential element of successful negotiations—from Northern Ireland, where the British government had a secret backchannel to the IRA from 1972 onwards, to Colombia, where Santos used a backchannel to start talks with the Farc. In the case of Ukraine, however, such contact would need to be carefully managed. Transparency with the Ukrainians would be essential to ensure Putin could not play Washington and Kyiv off against each other. The US should be clear that Ukraine is in the lead, and not repeat Trump’s mistake in Afghanistan, where the US negotiated first with the Taliban and only then brought in the Afghan government.

Making equivalences: it’s likely that Putin will  want any potential negotiations to involve  his US counterpart © PETER KLAUNZER/POOL/AFP via Getty Images Making equivalences: it’s likely that Putin will want any potential negotiations to involve his US counterpart © PETER KLAUNZER/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

The agenda for negotiations should be substantially enlarged in comparison to the talks held last March in Turkey. Territory remains the central issue, but is a zero-sum game whose outcome will largely be settled by what has happened on the battlefield when the fighting stops. The issue of neutrality has moved on: it remains unlikely that Nato will welcome Ukraine as a member any time soon, but Kyiv should avoid offering a treaty that makes neutrality a commitment to other states rather than a unilateral undertaking on which it can change its mind later. A better approach might be for Ukraine to transform itself into a well-armed “hedgehog”, forcing the Russians to think twice before invading again. They should demand continuing rights to buy military equipment, including aircraft from the west, and to receive military training on their territory from whichever country or alliance they want. 

The outcome of last September’s working group, headed by Zelensky’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, and former Nato secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, suggests that the west is unlikely to offer any convincing security guarantees that Ukraine can rely on. If we were not prepared to fight alongside Ukraine in this existential war, why should anyone believe we would do so in future? And nothing is worse than pretend guarantees, like the ones we offered Ukraine in the Budapest memorandum of 1994, and then failed to deliver. (Under the terms of the memorandum, Ukraine transferred all its nuclear warheads to Russia for decommissioning.) 

In the long term, the best security guarantee for Ukraine is to continue its accession to the EU. This will take time, but while Ukraine is travelling down that road, the rest of Europe and the US cannot be indifferent if the country is invaded again. Polls have consistently shown that EU membership is what the Ukrainian people want for their future, rather than Nato membership. There should be an explicit Russian assurance, in any talks, that Moscow will not try to block Ukrainian accession to the EU if Kyiv postpones its application to Nato.

Items that must to be added to the agenda include an undertaking that Russia will not attack again, reparations for the damage and destruction inflicted, and justice for the crimes committed. These may be the hardest aspects of the negotiations. It is usually only possible to achieve these sorts of goals in cases where the enemy has completely collapsed. How could the west make Russia pay to rebuild Ukraine? There may be some Russian funds overseas that could be seized and diverted to paying for reconstruction, but there is nothing on the scale necessary. 

Last and most difficult of all is justice. We cannot leave this war without justice for victims and their families. But are Ukrainians, let alone the collective west, prepared to keep fighting Russia until there is a new Nuremberg trial, with Putin in the dock? If not, there will need to be a heart-wrenching balance between the demands of peace and justice.

There will also have to be new ideas to tempt the Russians into negotiations, given that they will not get what they want on territory. The trouble is that Putin’s objectives are opaque, even to his supporters. The best thing might be to address why large numbers of Russians think their country has been humiliated by the west since the end of the Cold War. It is not in our interest for that grievance to endure and germinate, as it did in Germany after the end of the First World War. We need a process to address it.

To increase the chance of negotiations succeeding, it is usually necessary to enlarge the pie, so there can be trade-offs and both sides can claim victory. That is especially so when a zero-sum question like territory lies at the core of the conflict. The most obvious way of doing this would be to revisit European security structures. The war in Ukraine will in any case require us to look at them again to ensure we are safe from aggression in future. The 1990 treaty on conventional armed forces in Europe, which established rules for the deployment of armies in the continent and provided for transparency and inspections, failed after the collapse of the Warsaw pact. This will have to be revisited so that Russia can never again mass its forces on its neighbours’ borders without challenge. 

We will also need to revisit the failed attempts in the 1990s and 2000s to establish a stable relationship between Nato and Russia and negotiate a new intermediate-level nuclear forces treaty in Europe. It will probably also be necessary to look again at the Helsinki process of 1972–75. Although the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which grew out of the Helsinki process, still exists as an institution, its flaws have been painfully exposed. 

The original Helsinki accords provided a locus for high-level discussion that no longer exists and needs to be reinvented. It is true that Putin rejected negotiations on all these issues when offered by the US on the eve of his invasion, but we will need to return to them in negotiations to end the war for our own safety as much as to provide a route for Putin to climb down from his impossibilist demands on territory.

On top of all this lies the question of sanctions. There is little, if any, historical precedent for sanctions achieving their objectives anywhere from Iraq to Venezuela. They are usually required when governments feel the need to show they are doing something but are not prepared to use military force. They quite often have unintended consequences, hurting people they aren’t meant to hurt while failing to deter those leaders they are intended to deter. But there will have to be negotiations on lifting sanctions, if only because many western countries will want them lifted for their own economic and commercial reasons. 

We need to revisit the failed attempts in the 1990s and 2000s to establish a stable relationship between Nato and Russia

This will raise tricky questions. What is the lifting of individual sanctions to be linked to? After all, some of the existing sanctions on Russia were imposed as a result of the war in Syria and cannot be lifted in the context of Ukraine. And are we going to lift all sanctions if there is no justice for Ukrainian victims? 

Perhaps the biggest problem for the west will be how to live with a Putin-dominated Russia after the war, assuming he survives and there has been no justice. It has become conventional wisdom that the invasion has upended the post-Cold War order, but so far no one has proposed what should replace it. 

We confronted the question of how to live alongside a hostile Soviet Union at the end of the Second World War, based on a framework set out by US diplomat George Kennan’s “long telegram” from Moscow in 1946 and at greater length in his anonymous article for Foreign Affairs in 1947 (the “X Article”): “firm containment, designed to confront the Russians with unalterable counter-force at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interests of a peaceful and stable world.” 

Kennan’s policy of “containment” was largely followed right up to the advent of Gorbachev in the 1980s. If we are going to live for a long time with a recalcitrant Russia, we need a new “long telegram” setting out the approach we should adopt. At the moment, the work of the UN Security Council in places such as Haiti is frozen by Russian obstruction. 

It is equally hard to imagine how the World Trade Organisation (WTO), International Monetary Fund, World Bank and other international institutions can continue to function as before with this Russia as a member. But we do not have the power to throw them out. Will we have to start relying instead on coalitions of the willing to take military action, or majority votes in the UN General Assembly? Will we start “friend-shoring” rather than relying on genuinely free trade under the WTO? If so, it would mark the end of the era of globalisation on which our economies and political systems have relied for decades. We will have to think of new ways of running exclusive rather than inclusive global clubs if we want to maintain an international rules-based system. Russia’s reliance on China, North Korea and Iran will of course complicate this further.

Even if we can get to a peace agreement and address these problems, the task of selling the compromises that peace requires to the people of Ukraine will remain. Expectations of victory are high and Zelensky has promised a referendum on any peace agreement. The people of Ukraine should have a say, but winning a referendum in such circumstances is not always straightforward. 

Catholic support, in Ireland both north and south, was assured for the Good Friday agreement in the 1998 referendum, but early in the campaign it came as a shock when we realised that we might fail to get a majority of unionist support. We had to pull out all the stops to bring it up over 50 per cent. And in Colombia, Santos lost the referendum on the peace agreement with the Farc in 2016 (he pushed a revised deal through his Congress). Knowing how hard it will be for Zelensky to win a referendum on difficult compromises will make Putin calculate what he accepts in the negotiations, rendering agreement harder.

Now may not be the time for negotiations, but there is a good chance that an opportunity will arise in the coming year. It’s time to start preparing. We must be ready for gambits that keep a frozen conflict going or fail to secure a lasting peace accepted on both sides. And we need to consider what the world would look like if Putin were to remain in place despite all that he has done to harm the people of Ukraine and global security. Just hoping that we will muddle through is not an answer.