A negotiation plan to help Ukraine avoid catastrophe

The writer is chief executive of Inter Mediate, a charity that works on resolving armed conflicts around the world

This is not the time for negotiations in Ukraine. But a window of opportunity will open and we need to be ready when it does.

It is not the time because of the fresh outrages committed by Vladimir Putin and his troops in Bucha, Mariupol and elsewhere. And it is not the time because we have not yet reached what academics call a “mutually hurting stalemate”: Ukrainians are hurting and Russian soldiers are hurting, but Russia’s president is not yet hurting enough.

British ministers are outcompeting each other to expand Ukraine’s war aims through aggressive rhetoric, calling for complete victory. This may be satisfying but it is irresponsible. So is crying “appeasement” whenever negotiations are mentioned. We appear dangerously close to being willing to fight to the last Ukrainian. This is not our war, we are not fighting and we don’t decide when it ends.

President Volodymyr Zelensky is far more measured and is clear the war cannot be ended without negotiations. Last week he said: “Despite the fact that they are destroying our bridges, I believe that not all bridges have been destroyed yet.” He cannot take risks with rhetoric because he is responsible for Ukrainian lives.

We need to be prepared for negotiations – and to avoid the mistakes of the 2014 Minsk agreement. The steps agreed then were sensible but the Ukrainian government was never going to be able to implement them in the sequence in which they were to be taken.

Currently, the most likely outcome is that Putin will declare a ceasefire in place after managing to seize more territory or he will carry on a grinding low-level war in the Donbas. He will use this frozen conflict to apply continuing pressure on Ukraine to prevent it from developing into a democratic and prosperous country, free of corruption and moving in the direction of EU membership. The Ukrainians should consider refusing such a ceasefire and instead continue fighting and talking at the same time until Putin agrees to withdraw to the pre-February 24 frontline.

We need to consider a new structure for the negotiations. This conflict cannot be solved by Ukraine alone, nor should we return to the failed Normandy format, with France and Germany at the table alongside the two protagonists. The US will have to use leverage. Only Washington can provide what Putin wants in terms of security architecture and a seat at the top table. The security guarantees that Ukraine rightly demands will have to be provided by America and its allies, and it is they who will have to lift sanctions. It may be better therefore to think of this as a triangular negotiation involving Russia, Ukraine and a “Group of Friends” including the US, EU and Nato rather than a simple bilateral negotiation.

The dispute over Ukrainian territory is close to a hopeless zero-sum game. At the moment there is no zone of possible agreement on territory that both Putin and the Ukrainian people could accept. But zones of possible agreement are dynamic; what may be unacceptable at the beginning becomes acceptable as negotiations progress. The British government discovered this in Northern Ireland: the IRA were eventually persuaded to give up their weapons without achieving a united Ireland. In the case of Ukraine, we need to enlarge the question beyond territory and neutrality, making more trade-offs possible to secure an agreement. That requires a serious discussion with Russia about new security arrangements in Europe, including a new conventional forces agreement, a new intermediate nuclear force agreement and a new relationship between Nato and Russia.

Finally, we should not box Putin into a corner, as director of the CIA William Burns has warned. We should not be panicked by his threats di lui, but if we leave him with no alternative but to escalate to nuclear and chemical weapons or face defeat, it is a fair bet he will opt for the former. If we want to avoid a catastrophe, we need to manage the risk by offering what the Chinese philosopher and general Sun Tzu called “a golden bridge” for him to retreat over. We need pressure on Putin through military force and sanctions but we also need a way out for him – one that we can accept.

It is for the Ukrainians to decide when, whether and what to negotiate with the Russians. Our role is to help and support them in negotiations as we have in war, not to make things worse by letting bellicose rhetoric run away with us. It would be a tragedy if, because of us, Ukraine won the war but then lost the peace.

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