The Russian invasion of Ukraine places the world on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, we have an intense nationalism expressed by the Ukrainian government and its citizens. On the other hand, we are faced with an authoritarian political system in Russia which legitimizes Vladimir Putin’s uncontested rule. When pit against each other, as in the current war, we have a deadly conflict of wills. Further complicating the situation is the substantial difference in military power between the two countries. That power is on display as Russia has devastated much of Ukraine. These are the factors that have fueled the intractability evident to date.
by Daniel Druckman and Paul Meerts
Given this state of affairs, is there a plausible negotiated solution to the crisis? Several elements give reason for some optimism. One is the difference between the nationalism expressed by the two countries. For Ukrainians, the ties are to territory and culture, referred to as civic nationalism. For the Russian leader, if not its citizens, the ties are to a larger ethnic community. The civic form is more flexible than ethnic attachments and thus more amenable to negotiation. Another is the realization of a hurting stalemate on the ground by Ukrainian resilience and Western sanctions and the delivery of modern weaponry. For this to motivate the parties to enter negotiation it needs to be mutual. Clearly, the Ukrainians are suffering more than the Russians although there are signs of disappointment short of regret by Putin and a loss of morale among the Russian troops. A third is the desire on both sides to achieve certain goals: For Ukraine, this now consists of ending the war and keeping their government and their democratic system intact. For Russia, this means, at the very least, Ukrainian neutrality and securing the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine. The challenge is to offer a proposal that would satisfy the needs of these governments.
For Ukraine, this means giving up the desire to defend its country at all costs to end the war. For Russia, this means reducing its sights on replacing the sitting Ukrainian government to focus on extending its reach into the eastern provinces.
Goals change as the war unfolds. The maximalist goals going into the invasion were a quick take-over of the Ukrainian government by the Russians and the protection of its government and territorial integrity by Ukraine. Increasing costs for both sides have altered these goals. Despite some gains in and around Kyiv, there is little doubt that the Ukrainians are taking the major blows in the war. President Zelensky has been pleading for support from all members of the North-Atlantic Alliance (NATO), the European Union (EU), plus Australia and Japan. The support to date has not been sufficient to turn the tide. Nor does it appear that NATO will join the fighting on the ground or from the air as this might escalate the conflict into a Third World War. Despite the devastation wrought by the Russian army, it is clear that the Russian campaign is taking much longer than planned and their losses are accumulating each day. Reigning in their earlier goals would seem prudent. This, together with NATO and EU sanctions which hurt the Russian Federation severely, is the basis for negotiation.
We are at a critical juncture in the war. As the “hurt” becomes increasingly mutual, both governments may be considering a switch from a “gain” (strive to win) to a “loss” frame (strive to prevent losses) or, more helpfully, to preserve some gains. For Ukraine, this means giving up the desire to defend its country at all costs to end the war. For Russia, this means reducing its sights on replacing the sitting Ukrainian government to focus on extending its reach into the eastern provinces. Although Russia stands to benefit more from these trades, the ultimate gain is the saving of lives and therefore hope for a better future. Risks are unavoidable, if not inevitable, in any negotiated settlement. They can however be reduced by institutional guarantees.
Important decisions about procedures would need to be made during a pre-negotiation period. These include the principals, venue, format, language, and guarantees for implementation. The talks would need to be between the two presidents. Putin has the sole power to enter into or dissolve any agreement made by his country. Emissaries are beholden to him and have no authority to sign agreements on behalf of their country. Zelensky, on the other hand, is subject to the checks and balances of Ukraine’s parliament. This difference in the political systems would test Putin’s patience and could lead him to abandon any proposal or retract any agreement.
For reasons of security, the talks should be virtual and recorded rather than in-person. The question of language could be a sticking point because of symbolic status issues. Nonetheless using Russian, which both speak, avoids the use of interpreters, which would pose other problems. Enforcement rests with a third-party institution that needs to be acceptable. Each of these decisions could well be deal-breakers. But there needs to be a vision of what an agreement could look like.
Here is one vision. We propose a possible agreement based on the idea of trading territory in eastern Ukraine for the preservation of a sovereign democratic republic.
1) To accept the Russian demand for a neutral status similar to the Swedish model. This is
a critical demand made by the Russians.
Note that the Finnish example would not work as the Finnish government had to take Soviet wishes into account during the Cold War.
2) To cede the eastern part of the Donbas Oblasts (provinces) to Russia: the population is
dominated by Russian separatists and Russian forces have already made significant
incursions to create a situation verging on a fait accompli.
Note that Russia will probably demand all of the Donbas provinces as they continue to increase their control over this terrain. Indeed they are now revising their aims to focus attention on this region.
3) Provide a land bridge – a corridor on sovereign Ukrainian territory - between Donbas
and Crimea: this would connect the two annexed regions.
Note that it is obvious that the Russians would like to have all of the eastern coast in order to control the shores of the Sea of Azov which would then be a Russian inland sea. For Ukraine, this seems to be a no-go.
The Russian Federation agrees:
1) To accept an immediate cease-fire while calling back Russian troops and end the war:
This is the critical demand by Ukraine. For some time there might be a demilitarized
zone installed and guarded by peacekeeping troops of the Organization for Security
and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), for example from the Central Asian countries and
2) To provide security guarantees for no further invasions and the acknowledgement of
the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine: This is critical to sustain the
agreement. The Permanent Members of the United Nations Security Council plus
countries like Turkey and India should act as guarantors of Ukraine’s security and
3) To provide opportunities for the safe return of Ukrainian refugees currently in
neighbouring countries: This would bring the Ukrainian population close to its pre-
invasion level and relieve the countries that have absorbed the refugees.
4) To provide reparations for the damage inflicted on the country: While agreeing in
principle the difficulty will be working out the details for the amount and type of
support. If the Russian Federation does not agree to this, the European Union and
perhaps the United States and Canada will have to put the Ukrainian economy back on
its feet and help to repair the damage.
This proposed agreement would, above all, end the war while satisfying some of the purported objectives of the Russians. The territory ceded to Russia is a big ask but would also reduce considerable tensions between the Ukrainian government and the separatists living in the eastern provinces.
Of course, this agreement would not fly without backing from an institutional guarantor. It is important to learn lessons from this disaster in Europe. Lesson one: The United States should not have invited Ukraine and Georgia to become NATO members. Lesson two: The European Defense Community of 1952 - signed by the governments of the then European Economic Community, but never ratified by its parliament - should be implemented by the EU as soon as possible. Never waste a good (or, more appropriately a bad) crisis. Lesson three: It is of the utmost importance to support democratic groups in Russia as an authoritarian Russia will remain a threat to its neighbours and to its own populous.
Daniel Druckman is Professor Emeritus of Public and International Affairs at the Schar School of Policy and Government. He is also an Honorary Professor at Macquarie University in Sydney and at the University of Queensland in Brisbane Australia.
Paul Meerts is Deputy Director-General Emeritus of the Netherlands Institute of International Relations ‘Clingendael’. He is a member of the Steering Committee of the Processes of International Negotiation (PIN) Program and on the Board of Advisors of the Young Diplomat.