Ukraine: the requirements of a peace deal

This is the text of a speech I gave on 29 April to the OxPeace Conference on Ukraine. The speech underlines the need for all of Ukraine’s populations, including in the Donbas and Crimea, to be consulted in any possible peace deal, distant though that may currently seem:

Speech to OxPeace Annual Conference, 29 April 2023
Necessary Components of a Peace Deal

The consensus among military and diplomatic pundits is that the conflict will grind on through this year and into next, with no decisive military victory for either side. According to the pundits, much will depend on the success or failure of Ukraine’s expected spring offensive. But no one seems to think it likely that either Ukraine or Russia will achieve their overall war aims, the first of removing the aggressor from all Ukrainian sovereign territory, the second the defeat and destruction of the ‘fascist’ regime in Kiev.

According to the recently leaked US intelligence documents, the US does not expect peace negotiations in 2023, even if Ukraine secures significant territorial gains and unsustainable losses on the Russian side. According to the leaked US assessment, neither side is likely to secure significant advantage over the other. There is also seeming expert consensus that both sides are running out of ammunition – a battle of logistics and resources. Perhaps this will provide an impetus to negotiate.

But the nasty fact remains that Russia occupies approaching 20% of Ukrainian territory; Ukraine’s economy is in ruins and the country has lost perhaps 100,000 casualties. Ukraine’s military capabilities are sustained by outside countries, a situation that cannot endure indefinitely, particularly as ammunition stocks are run down and materiel production is vastly exceeded by expenditure. It is less clear, but Russia too may not be able to sustain the current level of conflict or casualties, although Putin’s rhetoric suggests that he is ready for a long war.

But intelligence assessments aside, we can see a lot from the statements of the parties where neither side is indicating anything approaching readiness to discuss peace terms, though neither side rules it out. No war will end until both parties want it to – or are pressurised into wanting to. Examining Zelensky’s ten-point peace plan and the Russians’ indications that they want ‘recognition’ of new ‘territorial realities’ -ie Russian occupation , it’s clear that there is a gulf between the parties on what would constitute an acceptable peace.

There are moreover many indications that Russia would be content with ‘half a peace’ a ceasefire or armistice that would preserve a frozen conflict, a status quo that it perpetuated in Georgia, in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Transnistria and to a degree in Syria, and of course in Ukraine itself since 2014 when it first occupied Crimea and large portions of eastern Ukraine. Lavrov has said as much in terms. This might be acceptable to Russia, it would not be to Ukraine or its major ally, the US, as the US Secretary of State has recently confirmed. Similarly, continued long term low level conflict, as Ukraine has endured since 2014, may also be an acceptable result for Russia, leaving Ukraine in a perpetually weakened and destabilised condition with a significant proportion of its territory under foreign occupation. Like it or not, these possibilities remain however very plausible medium term outcomes. In either case, Ukraine would be hobbled, unable to rebuild its economy or advance towards it goals of EU or NATO membership and thus a secure and more prosperous future.

Given the likelihood of sustained military stalemate, yet enormous costs and casualties on both sides, it’s foreseeable that others will increase the pressure for a peace deal. Speculation about a peace deal tends to focus on what kind of territorial division might be agreed. I don’t want to guess what the terms of any peace might be, but this focus on territory alone, which is all too typical among those negotiating peace deals, is too reductive and ignores many elements that will need to be considered if any negotiation and thus resulting deal is to be comprehensive and therefore effective and enduring. One key aspect is who is actually going to be at the table. This framework begins to dictate what the outcome might be.

At the core of any negotiation of course will be Russia and Ukraine themselves, but no one pretends that others will not be closely involved, namely the US and NATO on Ukraine’s side, and China on Russia’s: Even if it is not directly supplying weapons to Russia, China’s so-called peace plan all too clearly indicates its partisanship in this conflict. These proximate groupings might be involved in offering guarantees for any resulting agreement, given the lack of trust between the parties. Perhaps others, such as others of the BRICs, will be loosely involved, although the likes of India and Brazil have hitherto only peripherally engaged: it’s in neither’s interests or predilections to take sides. Turkey will doubtless demand a role, though that would be better without the cynical and repressive Erdogan in charge. Perhaps the UN will be involved, but Putin is unlikely to allow a substantive role given that Guterres has so clearly condemned Russia’s aggression and thereby shown himself to be non-neutral, but instead – rightly – positioned himself as the defender of the UN charter. But if there is to be a cessation of hostilities, someone will need to monitor it and report, but to whom? A UN Security Council ruled by a divided P5 where one warring party holds a veto? Perhaps some messy tendentious multinational affair instead.

Any agreement between the parties, perhaps based on territorial compromise, will need to be framed within a broader understanding of the regional and institutional context. Ukraine has repeatedly expressed its wish for NATO membership and NATO for its part has indicated its eventual willingness for that, but this is likely to be the hardest of red lines for Putin. If so, and in turn, Ukraine will then reasonably require substantial guarantees from other states, NATO or a group of militarily credible countries, led above all by the US, of its future security.

More plausible, and still highly valuable to Ukraine, is EU membership but although more likely than NATO membership, it is much harder to achieve, as it involves much more than mere willingness on both sides, EU and Ukraine, but also the alignment of Ukraine’s laws and procedures with the so-called acquis, the voluminous body of practice and regulation, of every sector of the economy, required of all member states, including new ones. This will be a long road.

A longer road still is the one towards a new European security structure which might replace the antagonistic postures of NATO and Russia with something more collaborative and inclusive, but this must await a new democratic Russia, which looks like a long wait indeed.

There are other elements of any agreement which will have to be somehow addressed. What happens to Ukraine’s nuclear power facilities, how will they be secured if near to any territorial dividing line or, worse, if they remain in occupied territory? What about grain exports, a major interest of course of outside countries too? How will these be facilitated and guaranteed? What happens to Ukraine’s millions of refugees, including from currently occupied areas. And, not least, what of war crimes? How are these to be accounted for and justice delivered? Then there is compensation for the massive damage that has been inflicted on Ukraine.

But in all this international discussion, there are groups of people who must not be ignored. I have spent many years working on conflicts around the world, and it’s clear to me that if you ignore the needs of those most affected by dispute and war, you will not have sustainable peace – the seeds of future conflict and instability will remain. [Examples]

In Ukraine’s case, this requires consideration, and ideally consultation if not inclusion, of those living in occupied territories in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. In Crimea, the Tatars are a significant minority who have been oppressed during the years of Russian occupation. Their hostility to occupation is clear. Likewise, perhaps, the 25% or so of the population who identify as Ukrainian. But this is the haziest of guesses. There is moreover no evidence that the majority of the population wishes to live under Russian sovereignty, even if their mother tongue might be Russian. The wishes of this population should be taken into account. A black-or-white determination in any peace deal of Russian or, less likely, Ukrainian sovereignty clearly would not do justice to the ethnic and political diversity of the region, although such an outcome – alas – is all too likely.

In the Donbas, in 2014, the pro-Russian unrest that followed the Maidan revolution, and the declaration of the Donetsk and Luhansk independent republics led directly to armed conflict between the separatists and Ukrainian forces, which in turn triggered the incursion of Russian forces into Ukrainian territory. It is of course a complicated historical picture, which I cannot in a short time do justice to. But these events were the direct antecedents of the conflict that we see today.

Today, popular sentiment in the Donbas region is a mystery. Referendums under occupation, which pointed towards separation for the eastern territories, are neither legitimate nor meaningfully indicative, especially when a large proportion of the population, mostly the pro-Ukraine portion, has been displaced. There is almost no reporting, at least in the West, from these areas during the current conflict. The most recent census identifying the ethnicity of the population of Donetsk and Luhansk, took place over twenty years ago, and before the massive displacements of the Russian occupation. And ethnicity is in any case a poor indicator of true political preference. The wishes of the local population are a cipher.

Any peace deal will require a re-examination of the Minsk agreements which included a degree of autonomy for the Donbas regions within a united Ukraine within its sovereign borders. But a prerequisite will some kind of democratic process so that the true wishes of the affected population, including the many displaced during the years of occupation, can be determined. It is wrong to determine the status of any territory without consultation of the people concerned; this is an error all too often made in the rush to conclude a peace deal. The continued tensions in Bosnia and Kosovo are in part a result of territorial parcelling out that were performed as a result of peace deals where the democratic wishes of local populations were set to one side in favour of a crude ethnic territorial division. But without such there will be no long term stability. The failure to implement the Minsk agreements was one precursor to the current conflict, though nothing can excuse Putin’s shameless aggression. These populations, in eastern Ukraine and Crimea, are invisible in the current discourse around the war and a possible peace. They should not remain so.

How should they be included? Regrettably, subject populations do not in this world yet have the same status as state governments. States, seeking others like themselves, preference and affirm other states, legitimising the very world that gave rise to monsters like Vladimir Putin. So it will be states sitting at the table, regardless of the views of their populations. At least one is democratic. But outsiders like us should insist that the different minorities whose futures are at play should be consulted if not represented in these talks. We should also insist that some mechanism needs to be agreed so that their voices are allowed to determine their future. What would such a mechanism be? Obviously, it needs to be a democratic process of some kind. Equally obviously, elections or referendums are not going to be possible in situations of conflict or the immediately post-conflict period. Populations are displaced and under severe political and economic stress. Exercises in democracy must await more stable times. But this does not mean they are impossible. It’s conceivable to imagine a peace agreement which contains provision for the democratic consultation of populations in Crimea and eastern Ukraine on their future status. Unfortunately, with the current status quo of the war, these populations will remain under Russian occupation. Russia is extremely unlikely to allow refugees to return, if they are Ukrainian, and it is extremely unlikely to allow a meaningful and fair vote on the future status of these regions.

Instead, outside states, such as the EU, should propose that more creative ideas are on the table for the future of Ukraine overall. Is a federal or confederal state out of the question? Surely, this would be a harder proposition for Russia to claim that Russian-speaking populations were marginalised, undermining Putin’s sole argument for continued occupation. It would also provide a framework for lasting political stability in Ukraine.

In contrast, the sort of territorial carving up that pundits talk about as a potential solution or compromise between Ukraine and Russia would not resolve these deeper issues of self-determination, political choice and belonging. Ukraine claims all the territory that Russia has occupied since 2014, but to do so credibly it must offer some answer to what will happen to those who do not wish to remain Ukrainian, of whom there is undoubtedly a significant population. It is striking that in President Zelensky’s otherwise impressively detailed ten-point peace plan there is no mention of this aspect, which is certainly one political controversy that any peace settlement will have to address. Zelensky is no doubt aware of this, it does not fit easily into his demand for the complete restitution of Ukrainian territory. But privately there must be some consideration in Kiev of what kind of compromise – such as limited autonomy for Donetsk and Luhansk, or confederation – Ukraine might be prepared to accept if indeed it does secure control of all of Ukraine’s sovereign territory. Perhaps this is already being discussed privately among the supporters of Ukraine, but I fear this is not the case while the discourse of territorial division, and the all-or-nothing rhetoric of both sides continues to dominate.

It is arguably time to start introducing these important elements into the discussion of what a peace agreement might consist of. Right now, according to polls, Ukrainians are understandably committed to the narrative of complete control of all of Ukraine’s territory. But some nuance in this debate will be necessary if an agreed peace, rather than a temporary and unstable ceasefire, is to be possible.

Above all, we need to support the principle, in this conflict as for all, that those most affected, those with most at stake, should be included in the discussion of the future. If we attend to their requirements, we are more likely to achieve a lasting and sustainable deal. But, more than that, it is the right thing to do. No decision about us, without us.