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Ukraine: are negotiations viable?

Today the foreign ministers of Ukraine and Russia will meet in Turkey. The eyes and hopes of the world will be on this meeting. Previous talks between the two parties have not yielded major results, or have they? While the war in Ukraine enters its third week, everyone is trying to make sense of Putin’s strategy, goals and endgame. The question on everyone’s lips is, of course, if any meaningful breakthroughs can be expected today.

by Hans van den Berg

While the previous talks may not have resulted in a peace agreement or at least an armistice, the fact the two parties have been talking and small agreements have been reached is significant. In international political negotiation, it is impossible to reach a complete agreement, covering all issues, in one go. Especially in a conflict situation trust is absent. Talking and small agreements help build trust, even when we believe we will never be able to trust the other side.

So what will today’s negotiations bring? To answer that question we have to dig a little bit deeper into the situation and some of the key players. In this situation, both sides are suffering. The worst of that suffering is felt by the people of Ukraine, their homes destroyed, family and friends missing or dead, and their country brutally invaded. On the Russian side, economic sanctions have serious impacts on the daily lives of ordinary Russians and here also lives are lost.

In contrast to other perspectives, Putin observes the gains and losses through a historical and cultural narrative. In his grand strategy, he aims to prevent further expansion of NATO and the EU. He has achieved this through sustained destabilisation in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. He not only sees NATO and the EU as a threat but also as the cause behind conflict and the problems in the world. Ukraine, furthermore, from his point of view is the cradle of Russian culture, history and is important in a religious context.

Putin will need quick wins to boost his popularity and strengthen his position, a long drawn out war has never served Russian Tsars and Secretaries-General well. This could be the advantage Ukraine can utilise, as long as it is willing to make some concessions.

Putin’s goals can be heard clearly through the demands he is making. Neutrality, recognising the Krim as part of Russia, and the independence of the Donbas and Luhansk regions. The demands accomplish preventing further NATO and EU expansion, and fit within the historical and cultural narrative Putin needs at home as protector of the Russians and the Russian world (Russkiy mir). As long as these goals are not suffering and seem achievable, Putin might not be ready to accept a deal that doesn’t meet all of his demands.

Whatever happens or will be said at that negotiation table, one thing is sure; neither side can lose face. Both need to walk away with an acceptable deal. Zelensky will want a full stop of all hostilities, have Ukrainian sovereignty recognised and its borders intact, and be able to determine its own future and choices for alliances, partnerships and all other deals. This goes against the demands of neutrality and recognition of Putin, creating little to no zone of possible agreement.

So here we hit the stalemate, how to move forward? Should Ukraine buckle and accept a bad deal rather than no deal? Or should Russia cut its losses and walk away before things get worse? Even if this is the end of Putin’s regime, history has taught us that when a nation is left to be perceived as the loser its sets the scene for future problems. If anything, depicting some as winners and others as losers of the cold war has brought us to this very situation.

We are all rooting for Ukraine, which is resisting Russia in a stronger and better way than expected. But in the long run, this tide might turn in favour of Russia. Rather than on the ground, Ukraine should leverage its strengths at the negotiation table. While it might have to accept some unpopular concessions, it can leverage the demands and narrative of Putin to its advantage. The reality, unfortunately, is far harsher than we make ourselves believe. The longer this conflict drags on, the more each side plays for time, the bloodier and deadlier the war will become. And the harsh reality is that Ukraine will not, in the short run, become an EU or NATO member. This would drag the member states into the war immediately, and none have the stomach for it.

Historically the perceived weaker parties are more successful at the negotiation table because they can translate their weaknesses into relevant strengths. Comparisons have been made to Finland. But Austria was also forced into neutrality after the second world war by the Soviet Union. Over time both countries have found more and more space to manoeuvre.

While Russia may not value its international relationships highly, believing that it will have a seat at the table come what may, it may do well to remember it is also highly dependent on the rest of the world in the long run for its development and well being. Once the Russian people are fed up with their suffering, revolutions tend to be bloody and destructive. In Russia, it is never a question of if, but of when. Putin will need quick wins to boost his popularity and strengthen his position, a long drawn out war has never served Russian Tsars and Secretaries-General well. This could be the advantage Ukraine can utilise, as long as it is willing to make some concessions.

For today, we need to temper our hopes. It is a big step forward that both foreign ministers are willing to sit down and talk. At this stage, we are looking at the moment where parties are talking about talking, exploring each other's positions, red lines and possible room for meaningful concessions. Both Ukraine and Russia show signs that there is room for movement in their earlier stated red lines. For Ukraine, this is due to the realisation that EU and NATO membership will not be realised in the short term. For Russia, this might be due to the sanctions, but even more so to the situation at home. For now, all we can do is wait, hope and keep our eyes on Antalya.

Hans van den Berg is Founder and President of The Young Diplomat, Lecturer at Leiden University, and Chair of the University Council and Tutor at Erasmus University. Hans is an expert on international negotiation in the political, public and private arenas. Specifically on developing and applying strategies, and where the public and private field meet.


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