News | War / Peace - Eastern Europe From a War of Position to a Ceasefire?

As Russia’s war drags on and Ukrainians continue to suffer, negotiations are imperative



Andreas Zumach,

Ukrainian troops in the trenches near Bakhmut.
Ukrainian troops patrolling the frontlines near Bakhmut, December 2022. Photo: IMAGO / NurPhoto

Neither Russia nor Ukraine can conclude this war by military means, nor can the goals publicly declared by the governments in Moscow and Kyiv since February 2022 be achieved by military means on either side. Yet illusions continue to be propagated by all parties directly or indirectly involved in the war — in Moscow through the propaganda put out by Putin’s government, in Kyiv and in the capitals of NATO and EU member states through arms shipments to Ukraine.

Andreas Zumach works as a freelance correspondent for print and broadcast media. From 1988 to 2020, he was Switzerland and UN correspondent for die tageszeitung.

Meanwhile, the aims with which Zelenskyy and Western governments officially justify the demand for and delivery of military support are completely unclear. Any previous expectation that a lack of appreciable battlefield progress would naturally lead to a military stalemate and, at the very least, local or regional ceasefires has been gruesomely disproven by the events in Bakhmut, underscoring a grave miscalculation.

Unclear and Unrealistic Objectives

After eight-and-a-half months of brutal trench warfare, with horrific human casualties as well as expenditure of weapons and munitions, more than 90 percent of the city has been destroyed and 95 percent of its 74,000 former inhabitants have fled. Yet no stalemate has come to pass due to military depletion. Instead, the battle over the deserted ruins carries on.

One goal of the Ukrainian government is to put their forces in a position to drive Russian troops back behind the lines of 24 February 2022, with the help of military support from the NATO countries. While this is a completely legitimate goal in terms of international law, in view of the relative strength of the two countries, it is militarily — and therefore politically — unrealistic.

Even more unrealistic are the two war objectives laid out by government decree from Kyiv: to recapture the entire Donbas region, including the area already controlled by Russian militias before 24 February of last year, and to reclaim Crimea. It is these two goals on which the Zelenskyy government bases the number and quantity of tanks, artillery, munitions, fighter planes, missiles, anti-aircraft equipment, and other weapons systems they demand from Western countries. Yet even if all prospective arms shipments, as well as those agreed to so far by Western governments, are actually delivered to Ukraine, this would amount to only one third of the weapons Kyiv has declared necessary.

So much for an assessment of the military situation. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock went even further than the Ukrainian government in justifying Western arms shipments, describing them as a matter of “defeating” and “breaking” Russia. And according to Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin, the war must be carried on until Russia is no longer in a position to take military action against other countries.

Emotionally, Zelenskyy’s refusal is very understandable. But politically, it is untenable.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz appears moderate in comparison, with his two vague statements that “Russia must not win, Ukraine must not lose” and “Ukraine will get what it needs”. With these statements, the chancellor has thus far avoided any concrete commitment to a goal for military support to Ukraine.

As long as Western governments fail to agree on the military and political goal of their arms shipments, and to communicate this goal clearly and concretely, the international debate is determined by Zelenskyy’s government with its ever-increasing demands. Everyone else is left struggling to keep up — and as a result, one red line after another is crossed.

If this dynamic continues, it will not be long before Western ground troops are called for to support Ukrainian forces. Because in terms of the number of available fighters, Russia outnumbers Ukraine by at least ten to one. In other words, Zelenskyy’s government can send about 350,000 soldiers into battle — Putin’s government can send at least 3.5 million (even if the mobilization of additional soldiers becomes increasingly difficult for Putin domestically).

At the NATO summit in Vilnius in July, Estonia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Margus Tsahkna, became the first government representative of a NATO member state to advocate for the deployment of ground troops to Ukraine. “NATO and all nations, we have to be prepared to send even our own sons into the war for Ukraine in future”, Tsahkna said in an interview with die tageszeitung on 15 July 2023.

Political Pressure Must Come from Outside

A ceasefire that has any chance of starting peace negotiations between Kyiv and Moscow will only take place if external players use their influence and exert pressure on the two directly warring parties.

With regard to Putin’s government, this would include China and the countries of the Global South that have been hit hardest by the severe worldwide consequences of the war (food crises, increased energy prices, etc.). These latter countries would have to collectively call on Putin to end the war. As the world’s leading exporter, China has an interest in the re-establishment of functional international trade relations and supply chains, as well as in retaining the two most important foreign markets for Chinese products: North America and Europe. Within Beijing’s leadership, those who attach more weight to these goals than to forging an even closer alliance with junior partner Russia must prevail.

The current dominant narrative in the media and in the capitals of NATO and EU countries portrays the conflict in Ukraine as a global conflict (likely to continue for many decades to come) between “Western liberal democracies” and “the alliance of the autocracies/dictatorships of Russia and China”. This narrative is not just arrogant; it is also completely lacking in nuance, analytically incorrect, and above all, counterproductive.

It strengthens the case made by hardliners in Beijing for steering a confrontational course against the West. Of course Russia and China are not democracies. But aside from that, there are many weightier differences between the two countries in terms of their internal structures, their histories, their interests, their economic importance, and their resources. The imperative is to appreciate these differences and harness them to end the war in Ukraine.

The states supporting Ukraine in NATO and the EU must make two things clear to Zelenskyy’s government. The first is that he must drop his current precondition for entering into negotiations, namely the complete withdrawal of Russian troops from every Ukrainian territory that was conquered or annexed in violation of current international law (Crimea, parts of the Donbas, and coastal strips along the Sea of Azov).

The demand for complete withdrawal and restoration of the territorial integrity of Ukraine within the borders that have been internationally recognized (even by Moscow) since 1991 must of course stay on the table for future negotiations — but not as a precondition. This demand should be at the forefront of any appeal from the peace movement. This is by no means the same as adopting Zelenskyy’s preconditions as one’s own, as some in the peace movement contend.

A return to important arms control agreements that have been cancelled or suspended in the past 20 years would also be an important step towards a new mutual European security policy with Russia.

The second is that Zelenskyy must abandon his refusal, laid out by government decree, to negotiate directly with Putin. The Ukrainian president justifies this refusal with the crime of the Russian war of aggression, which was ordered by Putin, as well as with the numerous war crimes perpetrated by Russian soldiers and mercenaries against Ukraine’s population since the start of the war.

Emotionally, Zelenskyy’s refusal is very understandable. But politically, it is untenable. The governments of NATO and EU countries must make that clear to the Ukrainian president. In the history of negotiations between warring opponents, there has never been a case in which one side was able to dictate who on the other side conducted negotiations.

If the government in Hanoi had declared in 1967, when over 1 million North Vietnamese had already fallen victim to the US war of aggression, “We will not negotiate with the war criminal and genocidal murderer Henry Kissinger”, then the Vietnam War might not have ended six years later with the Paris Peace Accords. A similar thing could be said about the internal wars that devastated Yugoslavia from 1991 to 1995. If the Muslim president of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Alija Izetbegović, had in October 1992 defied calls from the UN and EU to negotiate with the leaders of the Bosnian Serb nationalists, who had by then already expelled, interned, or murdered tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslims, the outcome might have been different.

Security Guarantees for Both Sides

Voices calling for a ceasefire in the year-and-a-half since the beginning of the Russian war of aggression in February 2022 have often been overrun by accusations that they want Ukraine to capitulate. This is nonsense. Advocating for a ceasefire and negotiations in order to end the killing and destruction is not at all the same as presuming to tell the Ukrainian government what to negotiate on and what offers — or even concessions — to make.

The pertinent topics of negotiation are generally known, at least since the last meeting of government delegations from Kyiv and Moscow on 29 March 2022 in Istanbul. In a ten-point plan, Zelenskyy’s government announced their renunciation of NATO membership in writing and advocated for a neutral status for Ukraine, without military bases on their territory and with mandatory security guarantees from the US, Great Britain, Canada, Russia, Poland, Israel, and Germany.

Regarding the territorial conflict over Crimea, which saw Russia annexing the region in March 2014 in defiance of international law, Kyiv proposed a consultation period lasting up to 15 years to allow time for negotiations with Moscow to reach a permanent solution. And, according to the ten-point plan presented in Istanbul, Zelenskyy wanted to negotiate the future of the contested Donbas region directly with Putin. All of these positions and proposals of Zelenskyy’s government from March 2022 continue to be relevant for future negotiations.

Without Ukraine’s commitment to forgo future membership in NATO, any negotiations that may take place will not reach a consensus, because this is an issue of central importance to Moscow. This has been true at least since the NATO summit in 2008 when, at the urging of the US, the military alliance first professed an intention to accept Ukraine (and Georgia) as member states.

That President Putin also had other motives for the attack on Ukraine is no evidence to the contrary, nor is the fact that his speech justifying this attack on 24 February 2022 did not mention the NATO issue. The central importance of the NATO question for Moscow is clear from the proposals and demands Moscow had submitted to NATO and to the US government on 16 December 2021. Had not only German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron indicated — in discussions with Putin at the Kremlin on 7 and 15 February 2022 — their readiness for a multi-year moratorium on the NATO question, but also the Biden administration and NATO along with it, then the Russian attack might never have taken place.

Such a claim can of course never be proven. But the US government’s refusal even to entertain a moratorium with the goal of preventing impending war should be strongly criticized. With the political commitments made at the 2023 NATO summit in Vilnius regarding Ukraine’s future membership, a course correction on this issue has become even more difficult, since concerns about a loss of face among the governments in Kyiv and the NATO capitals may have grown.

Pushing for Peace

It is possible that Putin’s government will not be ready for a ceasefire and subsequent negotiations at all until NATO and the Zelenskyy government have signalled their willingness, in advance, through secret exploratory talks, to renounce Ukraine’s membership. The situation is similar with the security guarantees demanded by Kyiv at the Istanbul negotiations in March of last year. These guarantees, too, must potentially be signalled to the Zelenskyy government in advance in order to induce them to a ceasefire and negotiations.

This leaves us with a number of open questions. To be trustworthy for Ukraine, do the guarantees need to contain a mechanism for automatic assistance from other countries equivalent to Article 5 of the NATO treaty, as the Zelenskyy government requested? Do security guarantees — as expected by Kyiv so far and as NATO governments and Western defence contractors have forecast them — necessarily mean a massive build-up of arms in Ukraine for deterrence, even after the war has ended? Or would a peace-policy model of mutual security within the framework of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), with Russia as a participant, be conceivable again?

Territorial concessions would open wider the Pandora’s box of military violence forcing shifts in European borders.

This will also depend on the extent to which NATO countries are prepared to acknowledge Russia’s legitimate security interests. An important signal to Moscow would be, for example, a guarantee that no cruise missiles will be stationed in Ukraine. Jens Plötner, the principal foreign-policy advisor to Chancellor Scholz, made a case along these lines at the informal talks on Ukraine between G7 and BRICS nations in Copenhagen at the end of June this year.

A return, or rather an update and re-commitment, to important arms control agreements that have been cancelled or suspended in the past 20 years first by the US and then sometimes by Russia (the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty [ABM], Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty [INF], Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty [CFE], and Open Skies) would also be an important step towards a new mutual European security policy with Russia.

In May of last year, the Vatican was already laying out initial proposals for the supervision and enforcement of a ceasefire by an international presence (e.g., UN military observers or peacekeeping troops), for trust-building measures (through the creation of buffer zones, withdrawal of heavy weaponry, etc.), humanitarian aid for the population affected by the war, as well as initial steps towards rebuilding.

Even more detailed proposals for initiating a ceasefire and negotiations were published at the end of August this year by the former general inspector of the German armed forces, Harald Kujat, along with the former foreign-policy advisor to Chancellor Helmut Kohl and the long-time director of the Munich Security Conference, Horst Teltschik, as well as political science professors Peter Brandt and Hajo Funke.

Tackling Territorial Disputes

In the best-case scenario, the territorial disputes between Moscow and Kyiv would be put on hold for the time being, in order to reach an agreement on procedure for resolving the disputes in future. The best approach would involve referendums organized, overseen, and counted by the UN and/or OSCE in Crimea and the Donbas provinces — provided that those who have fled or been driven out of these regions since March 2014 and February 2022 are able to take part. Unlike the 2014 referendum on Crimea organized by Moscow, future ballots would have to include the option of a largely autonomous state (in terms of language, culture, finances/taxes, etc.) for Crimea and Donbas within Ukraine.

The window of opportunity for such a solution may be narrow. If a ceasefire has not been reached and negotiations have not started by the beginning of the US primaries in early 2024, there is a danger that the Biden administration, concerned about a possible defeat in the November presidential and congressional elections, will turn around and indicate to Putin that he can keep Crimea or parts of the Donbas.

Such territorial concessions would open wider the Pandora’s box of military violence forcing shifts in European borders. This box was already cracked open by NATO in 1999 with their air war against Serbia, a move that defied international law and resulted in the separation of Kosovo. Such an outcome would be disastrous for the hard-hit civilian population of Ukraine, and could serve as a fatal sign for conflicts in other parts of the world.

This article first appeared in LuXemburg. Translated by Anna Dinwoodie and Alice Rodgers for Gegensatz Translation Collective.