Main Image Credit Russian and Ukrainian negotiators in Belarus, 28 February 2022. Courtesy of ITAR-TASS News Agency / Alamy
A protracted conflict is in no one’s interests. The world’s attention must turn to how peace can be secured.
As the world enters the second month of the war in Ukraine, all eyes are on warfare and on how Ukrainian defence capabilities can be strengthened. But all wars eventually end. Thinking about how this war will end, how long it can last, and what its continuation means for the protagonists should be on the agenda.
What comes after war is either peace (negotiated or based on a military defeat), conflict stagnation, or recurrence of hostilities. The prospects for each outcome depend not only on battlefield progress, but also on the price that societies will have to pay for the conflict, and on whether the international environment supports or hinders peace.
At present, all three options are possible, but reflect different expectations of how the future will evolve before a political solution is found.
The first option is that current direct talks bring about a quick peace settlement. Negotiations between the Ukrainian and Russian delegations have become more serious since they started in February, and now centre on tangible issues rather than on trading accusations. Discussing neutrality for Ukraine and the security guarantees this choice would entail has become realistic. Talks could even lead to an agreement on holding local referenda in Crimea and Donbas on options for their future status, which do not have to be mutually exclusive, but could involve imaginative solutions on how sentiments of belonging to Ukraine or Russia could be combined. A recognition that the war’s continuation serves no one’s interests – if interests are pragmatically rather than ideologically defined – is necessary for this, and may be steadily emerging. However, the realisation of a ‘quick peace’ depends on the presence of a rational actor in the Kremlin, and on the West accepting that not only Russia, but also Ukraine will have to make uncomfortable concessions. The West will have to offer Russia some positive incentives, because exclusively negative ones are unlikely to produce a behaviour-changing effect.
A long war is ultimately unwinnable, and it is important to give peace a chance now
The second scenario is that it gets worse before it gets better. Five to six additional months of warfare, with territories changing hands, would ruin large parts of Eastern and Central Ukraine, and exhaust Russia. The outcome would be a stalemate of exhaustion, with the Russian public gradually learning the real number of casualties, and a diminishing in the resolve of Ukrainian society to bear the cost of the war. Russia would probably hold on to the territories it had seized and maintain them at great cost to its own economy and human development, but it would be unable to mount any significant offensives. At present, the 340,000-man Rosgvardiya ensures control over the Russian population, but it may be thrown into subduing the occupied territories in Ukraine, weakening its capacity to carry out repression in Russia. The domestic situation in Russia could deteriorate to a point that the Kremlin has to listen to those members of the elite who say what the leadership needs to know, rather than what it wants to hear. The war would not end in peace, but a truce and a third Minsk Agreement, leading to further stagnation. This is not a desirable outcome, but it is perhaps the most realistic.
A third alternative is a ‘Syria 2.0’ quagmire in Ukraine, where Russia drags itself into protracted warfare that causes massive suffering and devastation, and lulls in fighting occur interchangeably with the war’s recurrence. Battlefield lines would become fluid, while territories would be controlled not only by the two opposing armies, but also by various non-state actors establishing their own power centres and pursuing a guerrilla war on multiple fronts. The Ukrainian economy would come to a halt, with the population living off subsistence agriculture and humanitarian aid, while industrial capacity would suffer from war damage, ghastly accidents and the looting of assets. Russia, with larger resources and a greater population, will have an advantage in a long war of attrition, but will be unable to win a military victory. Recurrent warfare will negatively affect the whole neighbourhood, but ending it would require a massive political change in Russia beyond the departure of Putin from the political scene.
A long war is ultimately unwinnable, and it is important to give peace a chance now. Raising the bar too high, such as expecting a ceasefire and the withdrawal of troops as a pre-condition for talks, is unlikely to bear fruit. Ceasefires seldom lead to peace agreements, as post-2014 Donbas demonstrated; their most important role is to alleviate humanitarian pressures. The warring parties have no faith in each other to observe a ceasefire that will last. The reality is that the war and peace negotiations will have to take place at the same time. Forthcoming face-to-face talks between Ukrainian and Russian delegations on 29–30 March in Istanbul are a sign of hope and of emerging realism: the sides would only travel for a physical meeting if they had something to tell each other and offer substantive guarantees that the reached provisions would hold. Turkey is a more neutral place than Belarus, the site of the previous rounds of talks, and its leadership, for once, is playing a constructive international role in facilitating the negotiations – in contrast to President Joe Biden’s comment that Putin ‘cannot remain in power’, which unnecessarily added fuel to the fire and resolved nothing.
‘Peace’ is often not a pristine game – as those involved in peace deals know – but Ukraine needs it the most, and the West should support it. The other options – stagnation or protracted, recurring warfare – would certainly be painful for Russia, but even more disastrous for Ukraine. We do not want to be saying with hindsight that there was a time when peace was possible, but we walked away from it.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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