- ABOUT US
- HEALTH & SAFETY
- MEDIA CENTER
It’s time to explore a diplomatic off-ramp in Ukraine
March 2nd, 2023 | Diplomacy & International Relations, School for International Training, SIT Graduate Institute
More of the same is a losing strategy for everyone
By Bruce W. Dayton, PhD
As we move into the second year of the war in Ukraine, it is high time for all parties to explore a diplomatic off-ramp. The case for negotiation rests on three pillars.
First, it is unlikely that either side in the conflict will achieve their goals through military action alone. Early dynamism on the battlefield has been replaced by a hard slog, with minimal gains of territory achieved by either side, and Russian and Ukrainian forces over-extended and ill-equipped to gain and hold significant new territory. Expected spring offensives by both Russians and Ukrainians may make marginal gains on the battlefield, but few expect short-term military actions to be decisive.
Second, as the fight continues, dangerous unintended consequences are likely to occur. Relying on brute force to achieve political aims often has the opposite effect than that intended. Long-term conflicts have a way of militarizing societies, marginalizing voices of constraint, and amplifying hardliners that frame any search for accommodation as a treasonous betrayal.
Constructive forms of contact between the sides—in sports, cultural and educational exchanges, scientific collaborations—are canceled. Prior agreements designed to limit escalation, such as the START nuclear arms agreement recently suspended by Russia, are abandoned. New external actors such as China may join the fray to actively support one side or the other.
A ceasefire will save countless thousands of lives, create conditions where refugees can return, and allow the rebuilding of Ukraine to begin.
Third, an ongoing stalemate will only compound terrible suffering of all. For Ukrainian civilians terrified, displaced, and traumatized. For soldiers locked in a daily fight for survival—including Russian conscripts who find themselves in the role of cannon fodder for leaders unable to extract themselves from a failed strategy. For external partisans, like the United States, which will devote billions of dollars in additional military resources that could be better spent addressing the challenges facing people at home. For communities around the world who depend on food and fertilizer exported by Ukraine and Russia to fend off famine.
No side is signaling any intention to capitulate, quite the opposite. Sooner or later, sheer exhaustion, depletion of resources, domestic opposition—or all three—will compel political leaders to the negotiation table. Sooner is better than later.
No one should expect negotiations to produce a comprehensive agreement in the short term. It is likely that negotiations will focus first on agreeing to the terms of a ceasefire in hopes of creating space for more substantive diplomatic exchange. Of course, later substantive negotiations may never come. A state of war still exists between the Koreas despite the 1953 Armistice ending overt hostilities. Nonetheless, a ceasefire will save countless thousands of lives, create conditions where refugees can return, and allow the rebuilding of Ukraine to begin.
After that, contested areas could be demilitarized with the cease-fire guaranteed by third party peacekeepers agreeable to both sides. This approach has worked successfully to bring about the cessation of several wars, including the 1975 Sinai II agreement between Egypt and Israel which facilitated the placement of international observers in the Sinai Peninsula to monitor territory previously occupied by Israel. More difficult issues could be pursued after that, including security guarantees, the exchange of prisoners, conditions related to NATO expansion, the return of lands, the return of remains, formal recognition of Ukraine’s sovereignty, the solidification of semi-autonomous governance, where appropriate, as well as other measures.
Sooner or later, sheer exhaustion, depletion of resources, domestic opposition—or all three—will compel political leaders to the negotiation table. Sooner is better than later.
The way of negotiation is fraught. Each side might take advantage of a ceasefire to rearm and regroup. Politicians on all sides will face claims that they are naïve and soft. Putin might view any accommodation by Ukraine or the West as a sign of weakness, leading him to expand his ambitions in the future. Spoilers on all sides of the conflict, including military industrial providers and mercenary groups, will likely try to undermine diplomatic breakthroughs before they occur.
While each of these eventualities is possible, none is preordained. Wars, once paused, can be difficult to re-start. Ceasefires provide space for moderate actors to emerge and confidence-building measures to be implemented. Moreover, diplomacy, done right, should not be conflated with weakness or appeasement. Diplomacy can be hard-nosed, proceeding incrementally, insisting on verification of agreements, providing carrots where breakthroughs are possible, and broadcasting a readiness to return to sticks if the process goes off the rails.
How might the turn to negotiation begin? Just as military leaders probe for and take advantages of weaknesses in the opponent’s defenses, diplomats probe for and take advantage of opportunities for pathways to negotiation. Where talk is not possible through formal diplomatic channels back-channel or track II diplomacy may be possible, sometimes facilitated by third party intermediaries performing shuttle diplomacy. Where officials are unwilling to communicate in any way, non-governmental organizations, religious leaders, business leaders, or other unofficial actors can be used to pave the way.
More of the same in 2023 is a losing strategy for everyone. Failure to at least explore a diplomatic off-ramp constitutes a failure of imagination and will.
Bruce W. Dayton, PhD, is the co-author of Constructive Conflicts: From Emergence to Transformation. He is chair of SIT's Diplomacy and International Relations Global Master's program.