After six rounds of Ukrainian-Russian peace talks, from Belarus in late February to Istanbul at the end of March, April has been devoid of negotiations. As the scale of human suffering mounts to unfathomable heights, neither party seems eager to find a negotiated solution. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told CNN that “Maybe the war can end without any dialogue or compromise,” given that Russian ultimatums make dialogue “impossible.” Russian President Vladimir Putin said on 13 April that peace talks were at a “dead end.” Both Ukraine and Russia are increasingly focusing on improving their military position as a route out of the conflict, with regrouped forces centering on the Donbas for a new phase of the invasion.
The invasion has failed to achieve its initial maximalist goals – thought to include regime change in Kyiv – forcing the Kremlin to seek secondary objectives that can justify Russian losses. Russian defense analyst Rob Lee tweeted on 18 April that “if Russia ends this war without achieving more, Putin’s approval rating will plummet.” Putin appears to be aware of this, reportedly telling Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi after the Istanbul talks that conditions for a ceasefire in Ukraine were “not yet ripe.” For many Ukrainians, the suffering that Russia is inflicting on their land and people makes compromise unacceptable. Zelensky, for example, said in a video address on 17 April that “the elimination of our troops, of our men [in Mariupol], will put an end to any negotiations.” Political expediency motivates Russia, while resilient grief keeps Ukraine from the peace table.
In conflict resolution studies, this situation is understood through the ‘ripeness theory.’ Rather than focusing on the substance of peace proposals, this theory posits that timing can often be the key to a successful resolution. The parties will become ready to negotiate when other, likely military options are less appealing; this is referred to as a ‘mutually hurting stalemate.’ In Ukraine, the dynamic military situation and the multitude of international, economic, and moral factors preclude a stalemate, even if the situation is mutually-hurting. If the ripeness theory’s focus on timing is correct, then many more civilians and soldiers may need to die before there is even hope of a settlement.
There is much cause for concern in this waiting game. Most pressingly, it presumes and accepts the deaths of thousands more civilians and soldiers. In a longer perspective, these sacrifices will likely deepen the bitterness at any compromise on both sides of the border. The more that Ukraine and Russia gamble on improving their military position for negotiations, the harder it will be for one or both to accept that this failed. Since total victory seems an impossible outcome, this war will have to be conducted with consideration for a negotiated settlement at some point.
This could begin with limited agreements which restrict the scale of the war. It has already concentrated geographically on the Donbas, but specific accords on the resupply of troops and materiel may paradoxically minimize suffering in the long run. The Ukrainian forces besieged in the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol – whose lives are a red line for Zelensky on peace talks – could be supported so that they are not massacred. In December 2014, during the Second Battle of Donetsk Airport, the OSCE oversaw several rotations of Ukrainian troops stationed in the airport. They were assisted by the same DPR forces with whom they fought, demonstrating mutual respect. Suppose similar arrangements could transform the current conflict from unrestrained slaughter to limited military engagements. In that case, there may be hope for a peace settlement when the situation is ‘ripe’ to discuss it. Although a peace settlement seems a distant hope at present, the seeds must be sown now rather than by default when each party has sufficiently suffered.
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