Ukrainians have suffered horrific bombings as Russian forces step up attacks against civilian targets. Fights have broken out on the ground across several Ukrainian cities. Moreover, Russia is signaling a willingness to deploy nuclear weapons to Belarus. While many will observe these actions and see only escalation, it appears that the Vladimir Putin regime is setting the conditions to sue for peace. This may seem counterintuitive given the hellacious attacks that Ukraine has been enduring, but the Russian government is simultaneously pushing for talks, announcing yesterday that it has sent a delegation to Belarus. What should we make of these seemingly contradictory actions? Also, if Russia is indeed preparing to sue for peace, how can Ukraine respond in a way that is worthy of all its citizens have fought to defend?
Suing for peace? As mentioned in an earlier Parley Policy article, there are only four ways Russia's war of aggression ends: (1) conquest; (2) regime change; (3) protracted resistance; or (4) suing for peace. With President Volodymyr Zelensky displaying heroic leadership atop the government and the Ukrainian people demonstrating extraordinary resilience, the first two options will appear out of reach to Putin. Meanwhile, the third option worries him, because the military and economic bloodletting will sow seeds of dissent within his government. Vladimir Putin may be a dictator who can survive without popular support, but even dictators must have backing from at least a select group (in Putin's case, key members of military and government, regional leaders, and the country’s economic oligarchs). Rather than face continued economic punishment amidst a military quagmire, Putin is posturing to do what he did in 2008 in Georgia: sue for peace from a position of power. Hence, this is why Putin is stepping up bombing campaigns against civilians, why Russian troops are encircling Kyiv, and why we see reports coming from Belarus that the government has amended its constitution to allow for stationing of Russian nuclear weapons within its borders: those acts do not represent escalation to win a war; they represent escalation to win a negotiation. It appears that Putin’s goal is to inflict pain upon the Ukrainian populace so they readily accept Russia's terms for a settlement of conflict. Meanwhile, the Putin regime wants to scare the West into believing that it is willing to upend the nuclear status quo so they go along with Russia’s demands. Putin does these things not from a position of confidence, but from concern. Anybody negotiating with him must realize that key point and be ready to hold firm on Ukraine’s interests from any peace deal.
Some will naturally decry talking to Russia as weakness or softening of resolve; however, negotiation is not capitulation. Russia’s war of aggression has to end somehow, and the only way it will end favorably for Ukraine is at the negotiating table. Thus, the key is not avoiding dialogue, but making sure that Ukraine has a concrete strategy for succeeding in negotiation.
The foundation for a negotiation strategy Development of a concrete negotiation strategy must be done with the key players from inside a government. They must form a negotiating team, determine their interests, assess the other side’s moves, and figure out what tools they will use and how to achieve their goals at the negotiating table. Some of these elements are well beyond the scope of outside observers, but knowledge of past peacemaking negotiations (good and bad) yields some important recommendations for Ukraine today. For Ukraine, the first move is to push for two separate negotiations: first for a military ceasefire (or Armistice), and second for a political-level peace agreement. This is necessary to eliminate Russia's under-the-gun attempts to achieve broader strategic concessions from a ceasefire agreement. The ceasefire agreement must be bounded to the issues related to military forces. Those include the following:
Separation of forces. That is, when Russian forces will retreat from Ukrainian territory and where they will go.
Demilitarized zones. Demilitarized zones are critical for preventing accidental or intentional security incidents that lead to a resumption of hostilities.
Boundary lines. Russia will try to push the boundaries of what territory belongs to the separatist governments, while Ukraine will want full restoration of its sovereign territory. The two sides will have to establish temporary boundaries until they can negotiate a permanent settlement.
Rules for the ceasefire. There should be rules on how the forces will behave, especially along boundaries and demilitarized zones.
Measures for repatriation. The two sides must decide where, when, and how they will conduct repatriations of prisoners or any displaced persons.
In addition to those provisions, a durable ceasefire agreement must establish organizations responsible for implementation. The two sides could negotiate a bilateral commission that oversees its implementation, as well as provisions for third party oversight (such as observers from Israel, Finland, Switzerland, etc.).
Only once those conditions are in place should they then initiate negotiations for a separate political-level settlement. That settlement will be more difficult to conclude, but Ukraine will be in a much better position to negotiate without Russian soldiers encircling Kyiv.
To prepare for political-level negotiations, the Ukrainian government should have a menu of agenda items ready to deliver to the Russians, which should include the following:
Basic principles for peace. These would cover issues such as respect for sovereignty and positions on alliances, among others.
Territories and borders. Ukraine will have to negotiate for what it hopes to achieve with Donetsk and Luhansk (and maybe even Crimea).
Russian force withdrawal. If the ceasefire agreement did not conclude with Russian forces retreating entirely out of Ukraine's sovereign territory (to include the unrecognized separatist regions), then a political-level settlement would necessitate provisions for this.
Compliance Management. An agreement means nothing if there are no mechanisms for enforcing it. An agreement should create a commission or committee responsible for managing implementation of its terms.
Third party peacekeeping oversight. The presence of third party peacekeepers, even if only on the Ukrainian side, will modify the costs associated with the use of military force for Russia. Third parties can also be useful in dispelling Russian disinformation campaigns.
Humanitarian considerations. There may still be displaced persons or remains that have to be repatriated–this section would cover those and other humanitarian issues.
War reparations. Russia should be pushed to pay for the damages it inflicted upon Ukraine and its population.
Protocols concerning restoration of relations. Some may recall that Ukraine severed diplomatic ties when Russia invaded, so there would need to be provisions covering that and similar issues.
Those are broad categories–it will be up to the Zelensky administration to determine its interests specific to those aforementioned issue areas. Meanwhile, the Russian side will try to avoid negotiating most of these issues, focusing instead on their strategic aims vis-à-vis Ukraine and NATO. However, there are two important points related to the Putin regime's reticence to engage on other issues. First, negotiation is a two way street, and Ukraine should not assume that Russia automatically has a position strong enough to negate that principle. Second, it is wise for Ukraine to put all issues on the table regardless of Russian preferences. In the best case scenario, Russian negotiators demonstrate a willingness to engage on those issues. In the worst case, when the Russian side tries to take those issues off the table, Ukrainian negotiations can use that as justification for Russian concessions elsewhere.
When the Zelensky government meets the Russians for talks, it would also be wise to deliver its intended type of agreement and agenda items.
How can the international community help? When Ukraine does decide to go to the negotiating table with Russia, the most important thing for the international community is to stay the course with pressure and aid. In other words, countries should maintain punishing sanctions on Russia while continuing to provide financial and material support to Ukraine. Those activities must continue, as they will weaken Russia's position at the negotiating table and help Ukraine achieve a more meaningful agreement. Some may contend that if the shooting stops, sanctions must be relaxed as a reciprocal measure, but that is incorrect. Russia breached the peace, so it is appropriate to maintain sanctions until peace is fully restored; that is, until the conclusion of a political-level peace settlement. Meanwhile, certain countries can help by offering to serve in a third party oversight capacity. The countries feasible for such roles will have to be a non-NATO, neutral party. This article mentioned Israel, Finland, and Switzerland earlier, but there are others like India that maintain non-aligned status and diplomatic relations with both countries. Third parties are essential in ensuring a durable peace and it will make it easier for the negotiation if those third parties are already putting options on the table for Ukraine and Russia. The Zelensky government has indicated today that it will meet the Russians on the Ukraine-Belarus border. While this will initiate the negotiation process, Putin may still double down on his attempt to topple the Ukrainian government. We cannot know for sure how sincere the Russians will be in suing for peace; however, we know that when talks do begin, Ukraine and its supporters must be prepared for a tough negotiation.