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negotiations, Ukraine, Russia, peace

It Will Take Two to Negotiate Peace in Ukraine

Calls for negotiations are naïve, neither Ukraine nor Russia is ready to tango toward peace.

Words: John Isaacs
Pictures: Ardian Lumi

After the one-year anniversary of Russia’s ruthless war on Ukraine, it is time to take stock. There is no doubt that it is a destructive war. It is estimated that Russia has suffered 180,000 dead and wounded, while Ukraine has had 100,000 killed or wounded in action and 30,000 civilian deaths. And millions of Ukrainians have been forced to leave the country and are now refugees.

It is also clear that President Vladimir Putin has had no qualms about targeting Ukrainian civilians and essential services, sparking outcry from the international community. At the same time, his hints about the possible use of nuclear weapons in the conflict and his decision to suspend participation in the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), the last remaining nuclear treaty between the world’s two largest nuclear powers, are irresponsible and dangerous to all society.

To mark the anniversary, Putin delivered a speech to the Russian people riddled with more lies and baseless justifications. First, he blamed the West and Ukraine for starting the war: “They started the war, and we use force to stop it… It is about the existence of our country.” Putin’s blame-shifting is consistent with past aggressors holding their victims responsible for their attacks. On Sept. 1, 1939, Adolf Hitler, in partnership with Jospeh Stalin’s Soviet Union, invaded Poland, claiming falsely that Poland, along with its allies Great Britain and France, planned to encircle and dismember Germany. Similarly, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein blamed Kuwait for his brutal 1990 takeover of his Middle Eastern neighbor. Putin also placed blame on the United States and its allies for the ongoing demise of New START, a blatant lie and distraction intended to weaken Western support for Ukraine.

The anniversary has brought about calls for negotiations to end the conflict. The proposals come from all points of the compass: the anti-war left, the hard right, and other countries. But these calls are naïve.


From the left, the Congressional Progressive Caucus led by Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) published a letter in October 2022 that, while supporting Ukraine, urged President Joe Biden to “pair the military and economic support the United States has provided to Ukraine with a proactive diplomatic push, redoubling efforts to seek a realistic framework for a ceasefire.” The letter also urged the United States to “engage in direct talks with Russia” in settlement negotiations without explicit Ukrainian participation. The letter created controversy and was subsequently withdrawn.

There is an insurmountable problem with all these well-meaning proposals. To use the old dance phrase, it takes two to tango. And neither of the two dance partners, Ukraine nor Russia, is ready for negotiations.

On the conservative side, Charles Kupchan, a Georgetown University professor, wrote, “It is time for the United States and its allies to get directly involved in shaping Ukraine’s strategic objectives, managing the conflict, and seeking a diplomatic endgame.” On the right fringe of the House Republican Party, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), along with ten GOP co-sponsors, introduced a resolution to express “fatigue” in the House over its military and financial aid to Ukraine, and “urges all combatants to reach a peace agreement.”

Not to be outdone, China, trying to be all things to all sides, recently released a 12-point proposal that called for a cease-fire in Ukraine and an end to unilateral sanctions and other economic “weapons” targeting Russia and peace talks. France, too, fearing a bloody stalemate, has called for peace talks that would leave Russia in control of a significant portion of Ukraine.

There is an insurmountable problem with all these well-meaning proposals. To use the old dance phrase, it takes two to tango. And neither of the two dance partners, Ukraine nor Russia, is ready for negotiations. A ceasefire and negotiations are usually welcomed. As former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan said (although it is often erroneously attributed to Winston Churchill): “Jaw, jaw is better than war, war.”

Russia is willing to negotiate if it gains international recognition of the portions of Ukraine it has invaded and other portions it does not even control. Such a ceasefire in place would still leave Ukraine with significant helpings of the country in Russian hands with an adversary that could resume its assault at any time. Ukraine’s position is that negotiations start with the Russian withdrawal from Ukrainian land. Putin has staked his leadership on domination of a country that he still considers part of Russia. Such a withdrawal is a no-go.

Two historical parallels bolster the Ukrainian side. During the US civil war, President Abraham Lincoln had multiple opportunities to end the bloodshed with a negotiated peace that would have left slavery intact, a position advocated by one political party. Instead, Lincoln understood that while the war was destructive, ultimately, slavery was more so and stuck it out. Similarly, after the allies launched the successful 1944 invasion of Normandy in France, they could have proposed talks with the Germans and Italians on a peace settlement. Instead, President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill insisted on unconditional surrender and the occupation of Berlin. A less happy precedent: Before World War II, after the Germans had seized Alsace and Lorraine from France, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain thought that negotiations could bring peace. He was mistaken.

Daniel Fried, former US Ambassador to Poland, had it right in an NPR interview: “I wouldn’t hold my breath for negotiations to get started . . . Both sides still think that they can, if not win, at least do better.” Another distinguished expert on Europe, former US Ambassador to Ukraine Steve Pifer, added: “Negotiations could well become necessary at some point. However, the questions of if — and when — to engage should rest with the Ukrainian government.”

Pifer added profoundly, “Prodding the Ukrainians into negotiations in which they would accept either explicitly or de facto Russian seizure of their territory has implications well beyond Ukraine. That would legitimize Moscow’s tactics of using force, and one must wonder whether Putin’s ambitions end just with Ukraine.”

In short, many well-meaning people across the political and international spectrum profess the greatest of intentions while putting forward proposals that have no chance of success. None. The brutal war will continue to an uncertain conclusion until both warring countries are ready to end it.

John Isaacs

John Isaacs is a Senior Fellow at the Council for a Livable World and Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

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