- Interview by
- Alexander Brentler
A year into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there seems to be little hope of resolution any time soon. In the West, advocates of greater military support for Kyiv often argue that there can be no peace without Ukraine pushing Russia off the territory occupied since February 24, 2022 — or even Crimea, already taken over by Moscow in 2014. Critics, especially on the Left, point to the danger of an unending bloodbath or even escalation of the existing conflict. Yet calls for “diplomatic solutions” raise many questions, namely: What kind of settlement, or even ceasefire terms, would be even broadly tolerable to both sides, especially Ukrainians on the receiving end of the invasion?
Some insight can come from those with experience dealing with apparently intractable conflicts, and indeed the past attempts at a peace process in eastern Ukraine. One such figure is Wolfgang Sporrer, who teaches conflict management at the Hertie School of government in Berlin. He is former head of the Human Dimension Department of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in Kyiv, where he led the civilian aspects of conflict management and facilitated and promoted dialogue between the opposing sides.
Sporrer was also involved in the diplomatic process surrounding the Minsk agreements of 2014–15. Mediated by France and Germany, the agreements were signed by the Russian and Ukrainian governments as well as the OSCE, for which Sporrer worked. Faced with the armed conflict in Donbas, eastern Ukraine, fought between Russian separatists and the Ukrainian armed forces, the agreements sought to provide for ceasefire conditions, albeit with limited success.
At the moment, there is no dialogue taking place between the highest levels of government in Kyiv and Moscow. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky and Russian president Vladimir Putin have ruled out speaking to each other directly. But negotiations are taking place, that much is obvious. Which diplomatic channels are open at the moment? And are the parties moving closer to dialogue?
It’s important to remember that there are official talks taking place between the two sides. In Istanbul, there is a functioning, internationally mediated dialogue taking place, chaired by the UN, concerning the question of grain exports, and humanitarian NGOs are participating in it. This constitutes an official diplomatic channel. Both sides sit down in person, across from each other. Unfortunately, the remit of these talks is narrowly defined as only concerning the question of grain shipments. Further efforts are obviously necessary in order to improve the humanitarian situation and achieve a peace settlement.
Of course, unofficial talks are also taking place. Since there is an ongoing exchange of prisoners, someone obviously must be negotiating about it. And there surely are informal talks between both militaries — but also between the United States and Russia — taking place. But the so-called Istanbul initiative on grain shipments is currently the only form of official dialogue between Ukraine and Russia.
In your view, the war in Ukraine was not inevitable. In the run-up to the war, you were also skeptical that it would actually break out.
Was this war inevitable? I don’t think so at all. There are no fundamental territorial or ethnic conflicts between Russia and Ukraine that are so significant that they would inevitably have led to war. This isn’t a fight over resources, either. That is why I have always considered this war to be avoidable and a negotiated solution to be achievable.
In simple terms, one can say that this war was preventable until the moment of the unilateral decision of the Kremlin, i.e. Putin and his inner circle, to actually wage this war.
What developments have brought us to this point? You were directly involved in the Minsk process. Why do you think it failed?
There were three main reasons for the failure of the Minsk agreements. First, the Minsk agreements did not address the root cause of the conflict. It was stipulated, so to speak, that there was or had been some kind of ethnic conflict between Russians and Ukrainians in Ukraine, and that this was the reason for the outbreak of violence. And by settling this alleged ethnic conflict, the conflict could be pacified.
This was pure fiction. The ethnic conflicts that existed in Ukraine were no more serious than ethnic tensions in many other countries.
Moreover, the dividing lines in this conflict, if one insists on understanding them in ethnic terms, are incredibly blurred. This is not about the Russian versus the Ukrainian language or Ukrainian versus Russian national identity. Nor is it about religion, not even in the slightest. At most, one could find something like an eastern Ukrainian Donbas identity. But this regional identity of the Donbas is not much stronger than strong regional identities in other countries.
What this conflict is fundamentally about is Russia wanting to exert influence over the domestic and foreign policy orientation of the government in Kyiv. In the Minsk agreement, however, this fiction of an ethnic conflict was constructed instead, although Russia actually had no particular interest in obtaining any autonomy rights for eastern Ukraine, for Russian-speaking or ethnically Russian Ukrainian citizens.
Russia was not really interested in these issues, but Ukraine was not at all eager to grant such rights either, for fear of a supposed fifth column. However, Moscow was not only concerned with what was happening in the Donbas, but above all with what was happening in Kyiv. The Ukraine conflict is about the orientation of Ukraine, pure and simple. But the Minsk agreement addresses completely different issues. That’s why the process didn’t work.
The second reason for their failure was the low technical quality of the Minsk agreements. There were far too many provisions for their verification, and the sequencing of various measures also remained controversial to the end, as the agreement itself didn’t specify any.
The third reason for the failure — and this may sound banal now, but it is true — is that it has not been possible to meet in person since the end of 2019 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. As little as the Minsk agreements were actually implemented in practice, they did help to build trust.
The very fact that the parties were sitting around a table had a de-escalating effect. You don’t get the same sort of benefit online. For that, you need coffee breaks, shared meals, unofficial contacts and the like. If you lose the seemingly ancillary aspects of diplomatic talks, such a process is doomed to failure. With the Minsk process, therefore, an early-warning instrument pointing to a possible escalation of the conflict was also lost.
This sounds as if the real concerns of both sides were excluded from the scope of the talks in advance. What, then, were the questions about which the parties should have negotiated, if not language laws or regional autonomy rights?
I do not want to comment on what the talks should have been concerned with, because it’s not my place to dictate that to either Russia or Ukraine. But what was at the heart of the matter, as I said, from my point of view, was Ukraine’s international orientation. That is usually understood in a very binary way. Joining NATO: Yes or no? EU accession: Yes or no? Gas transit: Yes or no? And so on. What was at stake was the whole package of Ukraine’s foreign policy and geopolitical orientation under the new post-2014 Maidan government.
Russia believed that it should have some kind of sphere of influence, as great powers have often claimed, and therefore believed that it should have, at the very least, veto rights over Ukraine’s foreign policy and geopolitical direction, but without ever really articulating this claim openly. The Maidan government from 2014 on was quite clear that Russia should not have this kind of influence over the country. This, of course, represented a break with the line taken by the previous government under President Viktor Yanukovych, which had deliberately kept Ukraine neutral on security policy issues.
These would have been topics that could have been addressed openly. But I think that at the time, everyone involved preferred to stick to the pretense that it was about minority rights. Nobody wanted to say at that time that Russia simply has no right to a sphere of influence. And the Russian side also did not want to say that it believed in such a right in its immediate neighborhood.
Of course, one should also not forget that there is a geopolitical dimension here, which was also never addressed during the negotiations. There’s a quote from Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former White House security adviser, one of the really great theorists and also practitioners of international relations: “It cannot be stressed enough that without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire, but with Ukraine suborned and then subordinated, Russia automatically becomes an empire.” This geopolitical reality has never been addressed, although there isn’t really a taboo about this question either. Everyone is aware that Russia wants to be an empire and everyone is equally aware that the United States wants to prevent it from becoming one.
You just mentioned that both sides view this issue in a rather binary way: either Ukraine decides to align with the West, or with Russia. Was there, and is there now still, a realistic perspective for a compromise or an intermediate path on this question?
I think this path existed for a very long time. Ukraine could have gone its own way, for example, by joining the EU, but without membership in NATO, or by way of an association agreement. There were many doors open there. However, I think that these doors closed on February 24, 2022.
A Ukraine that is neutral between Russia and the West is no longer a realistic option, simply because this would no longer be accepted by a large majority of the population in Ukraine. Russia has maneuvered itself into a position here where any positive outcome for the Russian side has been made impossible by this horrific war of aggression.
Many diplomatic solutions would have been possible until February 24. And I know that everybody was playing for time — the West was playing for time, Russia was playing for time. But with this war of aggression, a lot of possibilities for a diplomatic solution have disappeared, at least for an ultimate solution of a diplomatic kind.
But we must also remember that diplomacy is often only a means of putting a sticking plaster on a wound, so to speak, and improving a concrete situation somewhat. Diplomacy isn’t necessarily the art of resolving conflicts once and for all. Because the possibility of settling this conflict once and for all, so that in the end everyone is satisfied, is something I don’t really see any more. I still do see the possibility of reducing the risk of escalation and improving the humanitarian situation through diplomatic negotiations.
In your view, has the Russian interest shifted since the beginning of the war?
Of course, one can only speculate about that. But I can engage in some speculation based on experience in the region and with the parties to the conflict. The Russian war goal from the beginning was to restore Moscow’s total influence over Kyiv. This also implied replacing the Zelensky government with an administration more loyal to Moscow, which could then have been easily influenced. That, I assume, was the war objective.
In the meantime, it has become clear, and this is probably also clear to the Kremlin, that this war goal has become unattainable. Absolutely unattainable. After this war, the Kremlin can no longer install a pro-Russian government in Kyiv without Ukrainians rising up in the streets in their millions and in every city.
So the Russian war goal has probably shifted. Now, for Putin, it’s a matter of somehow still getting out of this war in a way that allows him to claim victory. He could define territorial gains as victory. He could claim political concessions. He could sell a recognition of the occupation of Crimea as a success. But the goal at the beginning of the war was not the conquest of additional territory in Ukraine — I am almost certain of that, because Russia did not have sufficient interest in taking the Donbas and taking Zaporizhzhia, Kharkiv, or the like, to make such a serious foreign policy decision.
The only territory that is important for Russia is, of course, Crimea. But it already had this territory before the war. Therefore, the conquest of territory will not have been the original goal of the war.
Is there a consensus within the Western coalition about the strategic goal in this conflict, within NATO, but also between NATO and Ukraine?
There is no consensus at all in the West about the goal of the war. There is, admittedly, a broad consensus that Ukraine should not simply lose. The West actually agrees across almost the entire political spectrum that Ukraine should be given enough weapons to avoid being overrun and humiliated. To a large extent, there is also agreement that Ukraine will be supported until the territories occupied as of February 24, 2022 could be liberated by military means or until there is some other compromise that Ukraine agrees to.
The big disagreement starts with the question of whether Ukraine should be militarily and politically put in a position to conquer Crimea as well, including the Russian naval base in Sevastopol. I think there is a consensus in principle in the West that Ukraine deserves and needs support. But I don’t think there is any consensus at all on how long that support should last and what the ultimate goal of that support should be.
The position of the United States is also quite unclear. The content of official statements of US government representatives — from Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Mark Milley to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to President Joe Biden — diverges widely. They oscillate between the poles that I mentioned. But I think the current disagreement in the West will be negligible compared to the disagreement that will emerge about how the EU and the West should deal with a postwar Russia. There is a very broad spectrum of opinion on this issue.
Some believe that relations should be normalized as soon as possible. But there are also voices that argue: Russia will remain our eternal enemy, or at least for generations, and should best be split up, or rather must disappear from the planet.
On this issue, I see a huge split coming for Europe, which we would have to talk about now in order to confront this question honestly. Because if you don’t really define such problems clearly and address them openly, they will fall on your feet later.
Many on the Left are calling for deprioritizing a military solution to the conflict and demand a focus on diplomacy and negotiations. What might a possible path to de-escalation look like? What steps would need to be taken now to initiate a process that could ultimately end in negotiations for a ceasefire?
First, why is a political, nonmilitary solution to the conflict currently very unlikely? First, because both parties have more or less ruled out the option of negotiating a conflict settlement with each other — Ukraine by law, the Russians by preconditions.
Secondly, we are in a very special situation because of the arms deliveries. In this war of attrition, both sides believe that time is on their side. Russia believes that it can strengthen its army by increasing the production of its own weapons, plus possibly further mobilization. Ukraine, on the other hand, believes that the more weapons it receives from the West, the stronger its own position will become.
Both sides therefore believe that it is currently worth biding their time. These are, of course, the worst possible conditions for reaching a political solution to the conflict or mediation. If both sides believe that they are winning, there will be no negotiations on a political solution to the conflict.
So, what can be done at this point? We can try to expand the existing channels of communication, i.e. the dialogue in Istanbul, to other topics — for example, to having disengagement zones around nuclear power plants. Both sides have an interest in that. One could agree on ceasefires in various places around hospitals and schools. One could decide on short, temporary ceasefires at harvest time, at sowing time, at the start of school, or at Easter. Easter would be a great start for an initiative like this. It’s about taking small steps and practicing the art of the possible.
What would be the advantages of such an approach? First, humanitarian progress would be made. If a disengagement zone is imposed around a hospital, there are simply fewer civilians affected by the conflict. Every human life that can be saved, every patient who is in the hospital and isn’t hit by a bomb, is a humanitarian gain.
Secondly, this incremental progress could contribute to a certain restoration of trust between the sides, which, after all, has been practically completely lost, especially with regard to the Russian Federation — and not without good cause. If you want to have some kind of agreement at the end of the war — and there will be that end — you need a minimal basis for talks. And even though one may not be able to talk about the final outcome at this point in time, or may not want to talk about it, that basis needs to be established today.
Third, such negotiations on small de-escalation steps would have a very important early warning function. If Russia, Ukraine, the United States and the West, and perhaps a few other mediators like China regularly sit in a room to exchange views every week, yell at each other, fight over seats, but then also drink coffee with each other, you get a better sense of the situation. This could reduce the potential for escalation.
Such an approach would yield benefits at practically zero cost for all parties involved. Neither side would have to make concessions, but all parties would have to enter into these negotiations without preconditions. At this point, however, as I said, neither side has any interest in doing that. In both countries, such an initiative would not be received very positively right now.
But I believe that if the West, especially the United States and the EU, would strongly inform Ukraine that participation in such negotiations without concessions would be welcome, and if China and India together would strongly urge Russia to participate, then the two parties to the conflict could be persuaded to do so. In this way, a kind of forum could be created, where certainly nothing earth-shattering would happen at the beginning. But it would be an important step with tangible benefits.
Is it a hindrance when Western politicians define red lines in public discourse or determine what an acceptable solution should look like? Or is that irrelevant for diplomatic channels?
I think it depends very much on the function in which one makes these statements. If you want to act as a mediator, it is extremely counterproductive to want to prescribe any outcome. But the West, even states like Germany or Austria, cannot play the role of mediator in this conflict. De facto, the West is seen by Russia as a party to the conflict. This does not mean that this view is correct, but this is the perception of the Russian side. Therefore, the West cannot be a mediator. China cannot be a mediator either.
I think only very well-respected international figures appointed by a neutral organization such as the UN or the OSCE could act as mediators, for example, or a coalition of states. But this coalition would have to be considered truly neutral by both sides. But I actually find it very difficult to imagine such a coalition. The UN or the OSCE offer a more plausible option.
During German chancellor Olaf Scholz’s visit to Brazil, President Lula da Silva announced that he would like to approach India and China to form a coalition between these three countries and seek a negotiated solution. Is that helpful from your point of view? And what could come out of it?
I believe that this is a well-intentioned initiative. But as you can already see from the reactions to it, Ukraine has absolutely no interest in it. This is simply because it comes from Lula da Silva, who has said that Putin is just as responsible for the war as Zelensky. If the push meets with acceptance from all sides, wonderful. I only believe that one side will reject this offer of mediation, and the reactions so far do not allow for much optimism.
Which perspective on the war do you think is not taken seriously enough?
In this conflict, a lot depends on whether you look at it from above or from below, from the perspective of the people directly affected, the people in the combat zone, but also from the perspective of people in the Global South who are impacted by the war in many ways. To take the view from above means to consider the conflict in military, legal, and moral terms. And if you look at the conflict from above, it’s very clear what is to be done, which is to side with Ukraine with everything you have, until the outcome that Ukraine wants is achieved. But if you look at it more pragmatically, from below, from the perspective of those who are suffering directly, and from the Global South, the moral trade-off may be different. This isn’t an easy dilemma for any policymaker at this time.