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War is a fractal nightmare, a violent horror that contains within it an infinite series of smaller horrors, all intricately detailed. This week, the world is learning of the Bucha massacre, civilians shot in a Russian-occupied town outside of Kyiv and then their bodies left, according to satellite footage, to rot in the street for weeks. The massacre is public because the invading army pulled back from its position, letting Ukraine retake control of the town.
The likeliest outcome for Russia’s war on Ukraine, at this point, remains a negotiated ceasefire and settlement. But getting to that can be hard, especially in light of atrocities, like the Bucha massacre, committed against civilians during the war.
What does it mean when the surest way to prevent further atrocities is to end a war, but the atrocities themselves make it politically untenable to bring a war to a close? That’s a question at the heart of “Negotiating Peace with Your Enemy: The Problem of Costly Concessions,” a paper by Valerie Sticher and published in the December 2021 Journal of Security Studies.
What does it mean when the surest way to prevent further atrocities is to end a war, but the atrocities themselves make it politically untenable to bring a war to a close?
The article builds on the simple idea that negotiating in war is different from ordinary bargaining situations. “Conflict party members not only care about their own benefits but also want to avoid rewarding the negative behavior of their opponent,” writes Sticher. Both parties may ultimately be served by that war’s end, but if one leader is seen as too lenient against an enemy, the leader negotiating peace may in effect be sacrificing their political future and, if the domestic opposition is great enough, possibly their life. Concessions are both essential for negotiated ends to war and also easy cudgels with which hardline opposition can bludgeon leaders.
Leaders will bring with them their own preferences for negotiating an end to the war. If a leader has built their appeal on nationalism and hatred of the outsider, they may be less inclined to settle than one who came to power on a more universalistic platform. But leaders are constrained not just by their preferences, but by those of their constituents, whether voters in a democracy, military elites, or even the cadre leaders of aligned militias not formally in the chain of command.
Whatever the constituency, to get the country on board with a ceasefire, a leader has to trust that the terms will be politically acceptable domestically in order to ensure a peace sticks and is not immediately overthrown.
“In some situations, unpopular concessions can be a bargaining tool: if leaders can credibly demonstrate that they are constrained by their constituents, the other side may consider additional concessions to reach a deal,” writes Sticher. This comes with a big caveat: “if concessions are unpopular on both sides, this will likely lead to a situation where no agreement is acceptable to the constituents of either side, and by extension not acceptable to the leaders themselves.”
Ultimately it is war itself that raises the costs of concessions, and makes it harder for parties to reach the bargaining table. Every peace may be negotiated with an enemy, but unless one party is determined to negotiate at gunpoint, terms decided before the shooting starts can be likelier to stick.