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A Slim but Real Chance for Peace: Seeking a Diplomatic Solution to the Ukraine War



Russian President Vladimir Putin may be interested in pursuing a cease-fire in the Ukraine war, Reuters reported in late May. According to sources close to Putin, he is willing to stop the fighting and maintain the current frontlines between Ukrainian and Russian forces. As one source reportedly said, “Putin can fight for as long as it takes, but Putin is also ready for a ceasefire – to freeze the war.”  


If the reports are true, this is not the first time Putin has expressed an interest in a cease-fire. News stories indicate that Putin has repeatedly made overtures to the United States and the West about stopping the war. Such overtures can be interpreted in multiple ways and should not be taken at face value. Nevertheless, they should not be dismissed either. 


Given that Ukraine and Russia apparently came close, shortly after the Russian invasion began, to reaching a diplomatic agreement to end the war, such an agreement may be possible now. A diplomatic resolution of the war is worth pursuing, especially given the dire alternatives to such a resolution.


A History of Attempted Diplomacy

Diplomatic talks between Russia and Ukraine began less than a week after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. They continued into the spring, mediated variously by Belarus and Israel. Samuel Charap, a political scientist at the RAND Corporation, and Sergey Radchenko, a Johns Hopkins University professor, have analyzed these Russia-Ukraine talks, looking at draft agreements both sides produced, interviewing participants, and examining various public statements about the talks. Their analysis leads to some striking conclusions.


By March 29, 2022, the two sides had reached a preliminary agreement for ending the war, called “Key Provisions of the Treaty on Ukraine’s Security Guarantees.” The “Key Provisions” agreement specified that Ukraine would become a neutral, non-nuclear state that would not join NATO or other military alliances or allow foreign troops on its soil. In return, various other nations, possibly including both the United States and Russia, would guarantee Ukraine’s security and come to its aid if Ukraine were attacked. Ukraine and Russia would also agree to determine the final status of Crimea, which Russia had annexed in 2014, over the next 10 to 15 years.


Negotiations over this agreement continued into April and, despite disagreements about the security guarantees to Ukraine and other differences, seemed poised to succeed. As Ukrainian negotiator Oleksandr Chalyi later said, “We were very close in mid-April 2022 to finalizing the war with a peace settlement.” 


Why the talks ultimately failed to reach such a settlement is a subject of debate, and we may not know the full story until later, if ever. One reason may have been Ukraine’s surprising success in repelling invading Russian forces, which could have fostered Ukrainian confidence in a military, rather than diplomatic, resolution of the war. Another reason may have been a lack of enthusiasm by the United States and its allies for an agreement, especially one that required them to guarantee Ukrainian security. For whatever reasons, though, efforts to diplomatically end the war failed.


Even after the talks’ failure, however, diplomatic initiatives continued. The Russians have reportedly reached out to the West multiple times during the war about a possible cease-fire. Citing American officials, the New York Times reported in late 2023 that Putin had expressed interest in a cease-fire following Ukraine’s successful counter-offensive in fall 2022. Putin apparently again reached out to the United States about a possible cease-fire in fall 2023, according to American and international officials and former Russian officials. 


These cease-fire overtures in 2022 and 2023 came to nothing, yet the recent Reuters story suggests Russia is trying again in 2024. However, Ukraine and its Western allies have not shown any interest in Russian cease-fire initiatives, to date.


Ukraine maintains support for its proposed Peace Formula to end the war. The Peace Formula calls for total Russian withdrawal from Ukraine, including Crimea; Russian payment of reparations to Ukraine; and prosecution of war crimes. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba dismissed the most recent cease-fire initiative as “phony signals,” saying “Putin currently has no desire to end his aggression against Ukraine.” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed similar skepticism about the initiative.


Such skepticism is understandable and justified. These cease-fire overtures could be attempts by Putin to distract Ukraine and the West and to play for time while Russian forces seek to gain a military advantage on the ground. The overtures also could be attempts to divide Ukraine from its Western allies by offering a deal that would appeal to the United States and other allied nations (an immediate end to the war) while being unacceptable to Ukraine (freezing current battle lines with Russia occupying Ukrainian territory).


However, the cease-fire overtures may also be sincere. As Charap and Radchenko chronicle, Russia seems to have engaged in serious, if ultimately unsuccessful, peace negotiations early in the war. Since then, Russia has probably lost tens of thousands of men while enduring humiliating setbacks on the battlefield, and Putin has faced a serious threat to his hold on power in the form of the Wagner Group mutiny. Putin has a real incentive to seek an end to the war.


Along with this possibility that Russian cease-fire overtures may be genuine, another crucial consideration for Ukraine and its allies is the alternatives to a diplomatic resolution to the conflict. The likely outcomes of a military resolution to the war remain bleak—indeed, they have become even bleaker this year.


The State of the War

Although the Ukrainians have offered brave and effective resistance to the Russian invasion, the Ukrainian war effort has been faltering. Despite Ukraine’s counter-offensive last year, the situation on the front lines remains essentially a stalemate, with Russia recently making territorial gains. 


Ukraine is struggling to find enough men to serve in its military and has adopted new measures to address this issue: lowering the draft age from 27 to 25, adopting more stringent draft registration requirements for eligible men, increasing fines for violating mobilization rules, and allowing some people convicted of crimes to serve. Borys Filatov, the mayor of Dnipro, one of Ukraine’s largest cities, has commented that because of the military mobilization he is running out of employees to keep the city running.


Ukraine and its allies’ response to this situation has been to escalate. The Biden administration made the fateful decision at the end of May to give Ukraine permission to use US-supplied weapons to attack Russian territory. This decision was in response to the Russian assaults on Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city. 


The U.S. decision means that Ukraine can use American-supplied rockets and other weapons to hit Russian forces and equipment just across the border that may be threatening Kharkiv. As an administration official explained, “The president recently directed his team to ensure that Ukraine is able to use U.S. weapons for counter-fire purposes in Kharkiv so Ukraine can hit back at Russian forces hitting them or preparing to hit them.”  


By making this policy change, the United States is following the lead of other Western nations: Canada and several European nations, including France and the Netherlands, have also given permission for Ukraine to attack Russia with the weapons they supply. The Ukrainians have wasted no time in making use of their new capabilities, reportedly using US-made missiles to attack military installations in Russia on June 3.    


The United States is still putting some limits on Ukraine’s use of American weapons, prohibiting strikes deep into Russian territory. Ukraine cannot strike Russia with long-range missiles known as ATACMS, for example. Nevertheless, these limits may not last: the New York Times reported that Biden administration officials acknowledged restraints on Ukraine might be loosened further. “This is a new reality,” one senior official was quoted as saying.


Regardless of the precise limits placed on Ukraine, the fact remains that the United States and other Western nations are giving Ukraine weapons to attack Russia directly. This is a major step toward bringing the West and Russia into direct conflict. 


Moreover, some Ukrainian tactics are disturbing even apart from the new Western policy. In late May, Ukraine used a long-range drone to attack a radar station deep within Russia, close to Kazakhstan. The Ukrainian attack may have been intended to get the Russians to respond by spreading out their air defense forces, moving these forces away from Ukraine.


However, the Russians use this radar partly as an early warning system against nuclear attacks. If the Ukrainians continue these types of attacks the Russians might interpret them as attempts to disable their early warning systems as the first step in a Western nuclear attack. The Russians might be even more likely to interpret such attacks in this way if, at some future point, the Ukrainians get permission to make these attacks using Western weapons.


Putin has responded to the intensified Western support for Ukraine with threats. Speaking to the international press on June 6, he commented “If they consider it possible to deliver such weapons to the combat zone to launch strikes on our territory and create problems for us, why don’t we have the right to supply weapons of the same type to some regions of the world where they can be used to launch strikes on sensitive facilities of the countries that do it to Russia?” 


What Is to Be Done?

I have previously argued that the best resolution to hope for in the Ukraine-Russia war is for the conflict simply to become a permanent stalemate on the battlefield. I did not think a diplomatic resolution was likely. I still think that to be the case.


Nevertheless, I also think that policymakers should never give up on diplomacy. This conviction is strengthened by the evidence that Russia, at various points in the war, might have been open to a peace deal. It is also strengthened by Western nations’ recent shift to supporting attacks directly on Russia: apparently even Ukraine simply defending itself from further territorial losses carries the danger of a dramatic escalation in the war.


A diplomatic solution is worth pursuing. However, given how understandably repugnant (and probably politically impossible) it would be for the Ukrainians to accept permanent Russian occupation of their land, I do not think the Russian suggestion of freezing the conflict in its current position is the best diplomatic approach.


If Ukrainian, Russian, and Western policymakers are going to seek a diplomatic resolution to the conflict, they should aim for a more ambitious goal than just a cease-fire. They should aim for a genuine resolution of the conflict. The outlines of such a resolution could be as follows:

  • Russia agrees to withdraw its military forces from the Ukrainian territory it has occupied since February 2022.

  • Ukraine agrees to grant a measure of regional autonomy to the separatist regions of Donetsk and Lugansk.

  • Within the next five years, Crimea will hold an internationally supervised referendum on whether to be part of Ukraine or Russia.

  • Regardless of the above referendum’s outcome, Russia retains rights to naval bases in Crimea.

  • Ukraine agrees never to join NATO; Ukraine will, however, be free to join the European Union if it wishes.

  • The area immediately around both sides of the Ukrainian-Russian border will become a demilitarized zone.

  • The United States and other allied nations agree to contribute substantial funds for Ukraine’s post-war reconstruction.


Such an agreement would allow both sides to realize significant goals and offers the possibility of a more stable settlement than a mere cease-fire. 


Is such an agreement likely? No. But it is possible—Ukraine and Russia seriously discussed something like it in early 2022. A recent joint overture from Brazil and China to make peace in the Ukraine war might provide the framework for new peace talks to begin. American citizens can contact President Biden through this petition to urge him to support negotiations.


Given the disappointing and deeply dangerous alternative outcomes for this war, trying to achieve something approaching a real settlement may be not only the most hopeful but also the most practical strategy. Policymakers on both sides would be wise to seek peace.

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