At this stage, most informed observers agree that the Ukraine war will either end at the negotiating table, or remain a bloody stalemate that drags on indefinitely. So what are the prospects for some kind of diplomatic solution to the fighting?
On the surface, there’s little hope to think the two sides will reach agreement anytime soon, with both governments publicly rubbishing the prospect of negotiations. Russian officials have blamed the Ukrainian side for the lack of progress on talks and charged that any peace will be “on our terms,” while Ukrainian officials all the way up to President Volodymyr Zelensky insist there can be no negotiated settlement as long as Moscow occupies Ukrainian territory, and allegedly plan a major counteroffensive to that end. More recently, Zelensky has threatened to abandon negotiations altogether if Moscow tries the POWs it captured in Mariupol in May.
Making things even more fraught, both have broadened their war aims in recent months. Zelensky has now pledged to retake Crimea — illegally annexed by Russian president Vladimir Putin back in 2014 — while Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov declared last month that his country’s forces would conquer Ukrainian land west of the breakaway territories of Donetsk and Luhansk, in response to the use of longer-range weapons that Washington has been supplying to Kiev since June.
As such, a recent meeting between Zelensky, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and UN secretary general António Guterres reportedly yielded no progress on the subject of peace, while in a widely cited report, Russia’s permanent representative to the UN, Gennady Gatilov, ruled out hopes of a diplomatic solution in the near future. Washington, meanwhile, has just approved the single largest package of military aid to Ukraine yet.
It’s pretty bleak stuff for anyone hoping for a resolution to the war. Yet look past some of these recent attention-grabbing headlines, and there’s actually some reason for optimism.
To begin with, the past months have seen important progress on diplomatic engagement. In July, Russia and Ukraine signed a Turkish and UN–brokered deal to allow export ships carrying grain and other agricultural exports from Ukrainian ports to be guided by the country’s vessels unmolested through the mine-riddled Black Sea. The deal has somewhat alleviated a food crisis caused by a combination of a Russian blockade, and the laying of mines in the water body by both governments.
Even though the two sides signed the agreement while sitting at separate tables — and even though Moscow followed it up by attacking Ukrainian port facilities in Odessa within a day of signing — the deal has so far been successful. As of August 23, thirty-three cargo ships carrying nearly 720,000 tons of food have left Ukraine under the deal, the country’s agriculture ministry reported.
The agreement has defied the understandable early pessimism that Putin’s missile attack signaled a lack of Russian seriousness about the deal. More importantly, it represents the first talks between the two countries since revelations of the Bucha massacre scuttled promising, Turkish-mediated negotiations in April, and the first agreement signed between the two countries since Moscow’s invasion in February, potentially laying the groundwork for further diplomacy. Erdogan pointed to the deal after his meeting with Zelensky and Guterres, revealing the three had discussed using the positive atmosphere it had created to push toward peace.
At the same time, there’s the possibility of a US-Russia diplomatic opening in the ongoing talks over a prisoner swap deal to free former US marine Paul Whelan and WNBA star Brittney Griner.
Negotiations over the swap led to the first talks at the end of July between Lavrov and US secretary of state Tony Blinken, the United States’ top diplomat, since the war began, in which they agreed to continue negotiations over the issue. And while they didn’t discuss Ukraine, it’s a positive step that Washington and Moscow have reestablished even limited, high-level contacts, after months of nothing.
This is critical because, as a number of voices have pointed out, US involvement in any future negotiations is a prerequisite for their success, for several reasons. One is that the United States, through its support for Ukraine’s war effort, including intelligence assistance in targeting Russian generals and warships, is a de facto cobelligerent in the conflict, with even some US officials admitting Washington is engaged in a “proxy war” where the aim is to “see Russia weakened.” More than that, there are certain things only the United States can offer in talks, from sanctions relief for Russia, to security guarantees for a neutral Ukraine.
“Russians believe the US calls the shots,” veteran US diplomat Chas Freeman said back in May. “Therefore, talking to those who take direction from the US is unlikely to yield anything useful.”
Russian officials themselves have indicated their belief in Washington’s key role. The February invasion was preceded by an overture Moscow put to the Biden administration, centered on limiting NATO expansion, which the White House rejected. State Department official Derek Chollet admitted the administration refused to put the issue on the table before the war, and a recent Washington Post report based on US official accounts revealed that at least four times before the war, Russian officials tied their invasion threat to NATO’s enlargement. In one case, Putin flatly told Biden that “the eastward expansion of the Western alliance was a major factor in his decision to send troops to Ukraine’s border,” according to the report.
It’s likely that all these are among the reasons that Zelensky himself has repeatedly urged Western governments to be more involved in negotiations to end the war, with British defense minister Ben Wallace accidentally revealing in March that he knew there was “a desire for the UK and US” to be at the table, to avoid another Minsk. That doomed peace agreement was jeopardized by the absence of both countries and the lack of US support for implementing it, with Zelensky left to try enact his peace platform in the face of domestic political opposition and threats to his life from fascist groups.
This would be an important shift, because Washington has until now been less inclined to back a settlement. One senior US official told CNN in March that Washington was focused on keeping its European allies united on economic pressure and military support, knowing that some would pressure Ukraine to sue for peace. In May, the Wall Street Journal reported that a split that had opened up in the West, with the United States and UK at the head of a bloc made up mostly of former Eastern Bloc states who favor prolonging the war until a hypothetical Ukrainian victory, versus a French- and German-led bloc favoring negotiations.
Ambiguities and Uncertainties
There remains well-grounded skepticism about the viability of a settlement, and not just in circles reflexively opposed to diplomacy. Last month, Rajan Menon, director of the grand strategy program at Defense Priorities, argued in the Nation that “there is not a shred of evidence that shows that Moscow and Kyiv are prepared to even start preliminary negotiations aimed at ending the war, let alone agree to a cease-fire.” Each side is convinced it will win the war, he writes, so the war will go on “until at least one side concludes that fighting will prove fruitless, perhaps even disastrous.”
Yet there have been signs that, despite Russia’s territorial gains in the war and its officials’ public posturing, Moscow is more inclined to negotiate than it might seem. In June, Russian ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, was overheard by a Politico reporter in a Georgetown restaurant agreeing that “we need an agreement” to end the war, in the words of his dinner companion, a former US ambassador to the UN under George W. Bush.
In early August, former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder — a longtime Putin ally since the Russian president’s early attempts to align Russia with the West, and who until May sat on the board of Russian state-owned oil firm Rosneft — said he had met with Putin in Moscow and discussed the war. “The good news is that the Kremlin wants a negotiated solution,” he relayed to German magazine Stern.
Liberal opposition outlet Meduza has reported that Putin is committed to a “long war,” but also that Russian leadership is concerned about a rise in discontent come fall, and that, besides the hawks, there is a loose peace camp that contains some members of Putin’s inner circle, along with those who are less outspoken and going only grudgingly along.
Even UN representative Gatilov’s recent dismissal of the prospect of talks was less emphatic than headlines made it seem. That dismissal came as he complained that the UN wasn’t acting as an effective mediator, and that Russian diplomats “do not have any contacts with the western delegations,” and “simply do not talk to each other” — in other words, that his pessimism about talks was based on a lack of diplomatic engagement with the West. Gatilov also accused Washington and other NATO governments of pressuring Ukraine to walk away from talks, something there’s no evidence yet that the Biden administration has done, but which UK prime minister Boris Johnson successfully did after talks made progress in April, as reported by the pro-Western Ukrainska Pravda newspaper.
Washington, Kiev, and a host of East European governments have frequently characterized negotiations as a Kremlin ruse to get the upper hand in fighting, and that any peace deal would be used by Putin to buy time, regroup, and launch a renewed assault. “Peace talks are just one more element of Putin’s concept of multi-dimensional warfare,” said Don Jensen, the United States Institute of Peace’s Russia expert and former John Kasich advisor, earlier this year.
Yet even after the atrocities at Bucha helped make peace talks a nonstarter for Kiev in April, Zelensky has continued to call for negotiations. At least four separate times the following month, Zelensky publicly made clear his desire to talk directly with Putin, though couching the politically risky proposal in maximalist rhetoric around Ukrainian victory and negotiating demands.
In June, Ukraine’s top negotiator said talks could restart by the end of August, and that Kiev “could consider some kind of political agreement, like the one we proposed in Istanbul,” which Moscow had found acceptable at the time, because it left out Crimea — though this was also premised on a Ukrainian counteroffensive that it’s not clear is actually happening.
Even Washington has started to signal its interest in a negotiated peace. Both NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg and Blinken said in June the war would end at the negotiating table. When asked directly in June whether Ukraine would have to cede territory to achieve peace, Biden pointedly didn’t rule it out, and affirmed that “at some point along the line, there’s going to have to be a negotiated settlement here.” Later that month, US officials told CNN they were increasingly pessimistic Ukraine would win back the land it had lost to Russia, and were debating whether and how Zelensky needed to redefine his concept of “victory.”
Of course, later that month at the NATO summit in Madrid, Biden struck a less dovish tone, insisting that the United States would continue backing the war effort “as long as it takes.” Since then, the administration has supported Ukraine’s strikes in Crimea, a significant escalation in the war.
Clearly, the prospects for a negotiated settlement are highly uncertain and ambiguous. Yet there also seems to be more to the story than the tough public rhetoric of officials in the three countries, which journalists have a tendency to take at face value. This is particularly so when the leaders of each are having to navigate markedly jingoistic domestic political climates, sometimes of their own making, and calibrate their public messaging to it.
Zelensky, for instance, said early on in the war he would “compromise” on the status of the contested Donbas region, before swiftly reversing himself and insisting on Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Months later in May, Zelensky again insisted that “there are things that can only be reached at the negotiating table” and that fighting “will only definitively end through diplomacy,” before one of his own underlings contradicted him, charging that “the war will not stop (after any concessions),” but merely lead to an “even more bloody and large-scale” Russian offensive. Even before the war, Zelensky had been a dovish outlier in the increasingly nationalistic climate that had enveloped Ukraine since 2014, and it wouldn’t be surprising if those pressures still exist.
But at least in the United States, the political climate may be slowly changing. House Armed Services Committee chair Representative Adam Smith (D-WA) recently noted a poll carried out in his home turf of Seattle, which found 53 percent of likely voters saying the United States should enter negotiations to end the war even if it means making compromises with Putin, while 66 percent think the US has a leading role to play in making negotiations happen. Smith said that a movement in Congress to push the administration to pursue peace “helps” and that he is already part of it, with certain caveats.
Inching Toward Peril
Meanwhile, as the war has dragged on, the potential for disaster and escalation has only heightened.
June and July saw a fortuitously defused standoff between Russia and NATO member Lithuania, over the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad sandwiched between the latter and Poland. After Lithuania announced it would ban Russian goods from moving through its land toward the Russian territory, Moscow threatened the country with “serious consequences” that “won’t” be diplomatic. Any attack on a NATO member would trigger the alliance’s collective defense clause, potentially leading to a wider war between Russia and NATO, which could quickly turn nuclear. Moscow has now sent MiG warplanes with hypersonic missiles into the territory.
Over the past six months, Russian missiles have repeatedly struck Ukrainian territory near another NATO member Poland, and it’s carried out military exercises simulating missile attacks on Estonia, a fellow NATO state, whose airspace was violated by a Russian helicopter in June. Meanwhile, it remains to be seen how the Kremlin responds to recent Ukrainian attacks on Crimea and the murder of the daughter of prominent Russian ultranationalist thinker Aleksandr Dugin. Kiev has denied Moscow’s accusation of its involvement in the killing, but it’s nevertheless led Russian hawks to harden their war demands, even accusing Estonia of sheltering the assassin and threatening military action.
Arguably the most alarming reminder of the war’s combustibility, however, has been the crisis over the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, which Russian forces seized in March. The plant, Europe’s largest, has come under shelling for the past week, sparking fears of at least a Fukushima-like catastrophe and urgent calls to end fighting around it. At this point negotiations appear to be opening the door to a visit by the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, which may defuse the crisis.
Meanwhile, it’s unclear how long the Western appetite for backing Ukraine will maintain. July saw no military aid come from the six largest countries in Europe, whose commitments for such support have been steadily drying up since the end of April. The continent is currently buckling under political instability and a building economic crisis caused by Russia’s retaliatory cuts to gas exports, one that has hit Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, particularly hard. Meanwhile, Republicans are poised to take the US House in November at a time of rising right-wing skepticism toward aid for Ukraine, raising the distinct, if still narrow, possibility of the country losing its chief military patron.
All of this makes the need for a diplomatic settlement to the war, one led by and directly involving the United States, all the more urgent. Depending on who you ask, the odds of such negotiations working out are at this point slim to simply nonexistent. But perhaps the more important point is that they haven’t even been tried.