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The role of negotiation in ending the war in Ukraine
As Putin’s invasion of Ukraine continues to sputter and the realization that he can not achieve a quick victory settles in, the hopes that a negotiated settlement might bring an end to the bloodshed increase. Both Putin and President Zelensky have softened their tone and repeatedly sent delegations to engage in peace talks. Ukraine has abandoned any ambition of joining NATO, and Russia has ended its calls for “denazification”, which many viewed as code for replacing the current Ukrainian government with their own puppet regime. Any negotiated settlement would likely require significant concessions from Ukraine to Russia, potentially including recognition of the annexation of Crimea and the independence of the Donbas region in exchange for guarantees that Russia would not invade again and seek more in the future. There is good reason to doubt Putin’s sincerity in any negotiation, and good reason for Ukraine to consider pursuing such a negotiated outcome anyway.
Territorial concessions to Russia would seemingly reward Russia for its aggressive behavior, and comments over the danger of “appeasement” have increasingly surfaced in pundit and polity circles alike. Boris Johnson and other world leaders have pointed to the west’s muted response to the annexation of Crimea in 2014 as a policy failure that left Putin emboldened to pursue further territorial conquest. This has invoked comparisons to the failure to deter Hitler’s attempted conquest of Europe when in 1938 Britain and France signed a soon to be broken peace agreement that acknowledged Germany’s annexation of Austria in exchange for Hitler’s guarantee not to expand further. So how does Putin’s position vis a vis President Zelensky compare to Hitler’s position vis a vis Prime Minister Chamberlain? Should negotiations continue to be pursued, and where is the line between appeasing a war criminal and accepting a new reality to avoid more suffering for one’s people?
Military Power, Not All Dictators Are Created Equal
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been mired by logistical failures and an inability to coordinate maneuver forces, artillery, and airpower effectively. It has struggled to resupply its forces despite geographic proximity to its own borders and those of its ally, Belarus. Unlike the modernized German Army that Hitler was prepared to use to conquer Europe in 1939 that used a revitalized, robust domestic economy and superior tactics to quickly overwhelm a technologically superior French military in a matter of weeks, Russia has struggled to efficiently subdue cities defended largely by militias and remnants of Ukrainian military units that have been cut off from resupply since the beginning of the conflict.
Its difficult to imagine a situation where after reaching a negotiated settlement, Putin and Russia would then have the capacity to turn elsewhere to fuel Putin’s imperialistic ambitions. Unlike the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the support given to separatist regions in Donbas over the past 6 years, this invasion has incurred a significant material cost on Russian forces. Estimates of casualties are beginning to top 40,000 and numerous older, cold war relic vehicles have been employed in Ukraine to replace more modern ones that were initially lost. To replace these forces would require a considerable investment, which would have been challenging for Russia before the invasion, but seemingly impossible after given the state of their economy after severe sanctions were imposed. The success of Ukrainian counter attacks to reclaim territory around Kiev and Russia’s apparent withdrawal of forces from its failed campaign to capture the city to focus on efforts in eastern Ukraine is further demonstration that Russia has reached the limits of its ability to project conventional military ground forces. Negotiating an end to the conflict would be less of an opportunity for Putin to expand his imperialist ambitions and more of an opportunity to avoid further embarrassment.
Troubles Abroad? Try Troubles at Home
Putin also lacks the popular political support at home to support large scale military adventurism. Although it is notoriously hard to gauge the political leanings of the Russian people, and Putin has successfully maintained his seat of power for decades, telltale cracks are beginning to appear. He has been purging the upper ranks of his military and intelligence services, while protests continue in the streets. Dissenters have even appeared in state media, while young professionals flee the country in a “brain drain”. The most telling signs come from Putin himself, who has felt compelled to avoid describing the conflict in Ukraine as a war and instead insisted it was a “special military operation” employing only professional forces and mercenaries, whitewashing the majority presence of regular conscripts. This is in stark contrast to the xenophobic nationalism that drove domestic support for Hitler’s conquest of Europe and enabled the Nazi ruler to mobilize the whole German nation to support his ambition.
Although there are reports that Putin’s domestic propaganda efforts have had limited success in galvanizing the population to support his war efforts, these come with reports by western intelligence agencies that his mostly conscript army fighting in Ukraine has begun to refuse orders, sabotage its own equipment, and kill its commanders to avoid fighting. Putin may be able to maintain his grip on power, but there does not appear to be a meaningful way to translate a domestic rally in support in solidarity against western sanctions into the type of support needed to maintain the fighting spirit and esprit de corps needed for Russia’s conscripts to be successful and carry-on Putin’s “special military operation”.
Why Settle Now?
With Ukraine successfully counterattacking in several areas and Russia’s withdrawal from the area around Kiev leading to revelations of mass atrocities and war crimes that have been perpetuated against Ukrainian civilians, it is tempting to push for a full-scale military effort to repulse all Russian forces from Ukraine and retake Crimea and the Donbas region. The more that comes to light about Russian atrocities and massacres, the harder it is to stomach the idea of negotiating with someone like Putin. However, President Zelensky has still said he is willing to negotiate if it will end the war, and he has good reason to try to.
The longer the war drags on, the more death and destruction Ukraine will face. Russia may have failed to take Kiev (for now), but they wiped Mariupol off the map, leaving the collapsed skeletal ruins of what was once a vibrant city in their wake. The brutality is even more shocking when you consider that it was done with conventional weapons, house by house and block by block. The longer the war continues, the more likely Russia is to apply the same treatment to other cities. The risks of Putin pursuing a desperate escalation through the use of chemical or tactical nuclear weapons, especially in a supposed “defense” of the separatist republics in Donbas also increases the longer the war goes on and he views the chances of an acceptable outcome decreasing. Additionally, Ukraine’s success so far has been reliant on a steady flow of support from the West in the form of advanced weapons and sanctions against Russia. The west has been a fickle partner to other nations in the past, and President Zelensky may be wise to pursue a negotiated peace before the west’s support slips away and western media outlets move on to the next hot topic, dampening popular support and reducing the political pressure to continue providing support to Ukraine.
Appeasement vs Acceptance
Power, not ideology, has always been the driving force behind international relations. Russia’s is far less than initially believed, and Ukraine’s is far more, based in no small part on the moral dimensions underpinning why they are fighting. The chance for a negotiated peace that ends the blood shed should not be cast aside lightly if it proves to be possible, or blindly derided as “appeasement” by a western press and political establishment who are happy to see Russia laid low, but do not bear the direct costs of the fighting. Appeasement is a naïve attempt to placate ambitions of a bully in order to limit costs and avoid tragedy. Negotiation is informed by two sides who know the costs of conflict and know they will have to pay them, one way or another. This is Ukraine’s fight to bear, and the world should support whatever hard choices it eventually decides to make.