Analysis: Finding a Formula for Peace in Ukraine

As talks grapple with cease-fires and humanitarian corridors, the outlines of a deal are in view.

Analysis: Finding a Formula for Peace in Ukraine

As talks grapple with cease-fires and humanitarian corridors, the outlines of a deal are in view.

Tens of thousands of people rallied in in Berlin on February 27, 2022 to protest against the war as Ukraine seeks to defend itself against a large-scale Russian military invasion.
Tens of thousands of people rallied in in Berlin on February 27, 2022 to protest against the war as Ukraine seeks to defend itself against a large-scale Russian military invasion. © Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Wednesday, 16 March, 2022

Three weeks into the war, maximum victory for either side is unlikely, and some bitter settlement appears the only way out.

Russian President Vladimir Putin declared in his recent call with his French counterpart that he still claims all the territory of Ukraine – which means not only the east, coastal south and Kyiv, but also the west. 

Recent attacks on Lutsk, Ivano-Frankivsk and an important training facility near Lviv have increased anxiety here. The safe haven city is wrapping monuments, storing art works, boarding up windows and increasing check points. Several air raid sirens blare daily.

Yet history, politics and culture – and military realities – mean this threat is not fully credible. Western Ukraine has always looked to Europe, Russian-language is far less prevalent here, and this is the land that even fought Stalin for several years. Some attack is expected, but few believe the west of the country is seriously in Russia’s plan.

Ukraine War Diary by Anthony Borden

Ukrainians, for their part, are adamant that they will never accept any loss of land, which means regaining the occupied east, currently-held territories and Crimea. Around 80 per cent of Ukrainians reject ceding territory for peace, and this figure has only risen during the war.

A resolute political feeling of Ukrainian identity has been forged during this war, society is totally mobilised and motivated, and some argue that day by day they are only getting stronger militarily. The goal is not just national survival but the restoration of full sovereignty.

Russia’s initial attack failed, and the government will not be toppled. The performance of demoralised and poorly organised Russian troops has been lumbering. No more than four or five smaller cities have been taken, and these remain contested, while in Kherson, in the south, the population continues to demonstrate.

Yet every day, the red area on situation maps indicating Russian occupation increases. The campaign to secure the coast and create a land bridge from Russia to Moldova continues, with Mariupol cruelly hit, Mykolaiv contested and Odesa in view. The idea of the Ukrainian army attacking and liberating Crimea seems out of the question.

The main focus remains Kyiv, where Russia’s encirclement and the encroachment on transport links in and out tightens daily – with constant Ukrainian pushback. A bitter battle for the capital approaches, which will be incalculably costly for both sides.

"In exchange for peace, some formula is conceivable."

Russia’s advance has clearly stumbled, and it may not be able to win an outright victory. But equally it hardly seems possible that – short of a coup in Moscow – it could be defeated outright and fully withdraw.

This leaves two bitter scenarios. Experienced war correspondents and long-term Russia observers do not see Ukraine as a new war but rather as a highpoint in ongoing expansionist aggression, with Chechnya and Syria as the ominous precursors.

In Grozny and in Aleppo, Russian troops waged a relentless and extended campaign to pulverize civilian centres, drive out populations, exhaust defensive opponents and ultimately grind out a brutal victory. The human cost, however immense, was immaterial to the Russian president.

Under this scenario, Ukraine could be three weeks into a several-year war.

Given the human suffering, displacement and destruction, it is a devastating prospect to contemplate. The hopefulness of the Ukrainians’ total commitment could be crushed under the weight of Russia’s numerical advantage and the refusal of Europe and the US to join directly. 

The result would be some renewed wall in Europe, now substantially dividing Ukraine, rather than Germany, in two. A long campaign would also devastate Russia, with continuing and increased sanctions, economic collapse (albeit softened by China and others) and global isolation.

Amid the shelling, peace talks have continued, with surprising progress. For the moment they have grappled, not very successfully, with cease-fires and humanitarian corridors. Yet the outlines of a deal are in view.

Four main points are on the table – non-alignment, demilitarisation, Crimea and the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.

More than 70 per cent of the Ukrainian population supports NATO membership, and the country’s European orientation is firm. Yet in his critical remarks about the alliance, President Volodymyr Zelensky has been preparing the ground for accepting non-admittance to NATO, and membership could not realistically be expected soon in any case. The president would face a challenge over this, but Ukrainian analysts believe he has more than adequate political capital to be able to manage, as well as a parliamentary majority.

In exchange for peace, some formula is conceivable – Kyiv removing the country’s NATO aspiration from the constitution, Moscow not opposing EU candidate status, the West placing no forces on the territory, while the Ukrainian army remains defensively robust. A deal could be done here.

The eastern territories are also resolvable. A critical question is whether the starting point is the pre-war “temporarily occupied territories” or newly conquered areas within both regions. Mariupol is in the balance.

One possibility is that Russia withdraws its formal recognition de jure for the areas while Ukraine accepts them de facto. An internationalisation such as the involvement of the UN security council and the deployment of UN blue helmet peacekeepers could help secure a more stable border zone and reduce the routine shelling that has been experienced over the past eight years. 

That leaves Crimea. It is almost inconceivable that Ukraine could ever recognise Russian control there; equally, short of a political or economic convulsion in Moscow, its troops cannot be dislodged by force. The hardest issue, ultimately a solution will have to be found or left off the table altogether.

A negotiated settlement will in fact not resolve the problems. It will have to offer some kind of face-saving “win” for Russia, and will therefore be an especially bitter pill for Ukrainians. But it could end the suffering. 

“Russia will say they ‘protected’ the Donbass and took the NATO option off the table, so they ‘win’. Ukraine will argue they defended themselves against the Russians, so they ‘win’. And the US will say they avoided escalation and ended the war, so they ‘win,’” says Denys Kuzmin, a senior research fellow and European studies programme coordinator at Odesa National University.

The only question is how much pain civilians under fire must now endure until an agreement is reached.

This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.

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