At least as a general rule, a ceasefire must be in place before peace can be concluded. And, especially in the case of prolonged wars, the ceasefire must be accompanied by a preliminary consensus about how the outlines of a peace agreement should look. There even have been ceasefires that lasted for a very long time even though no peace treaty was ever concluded. This can occur when both sides consider the state of affairs created by the military situation to be provisional, as has been the case on the Korean peninsula since 1953.
In the public debates about the war in Ukraine, two incompatible arguments have been deployed against the possibility or desirability of an armistice. Commentators on one side argue that a ceasefire could be exploited by one side in the conflict – they have Russia in mind here – to prepare further military actions. In point of fact, neither combatant can rule that out.
On the other hand, some observers doubt that Russia is at all inclined to negotiate seriously, whether about an armistice or a final peace treaty. Various more or less plausible-sounding assumptions are trotted out in support of that judgment, as if they were obvious facts. For one thing they argue that, for reasons of prestige, Vladimir Putin cannot seriously consider any compromise unless he is willing to risk being deposed or assassinated.
“As the war drags on, the political heft and room for maneuver of the Federal Republic and the European Union are constantly diminishing.”
“Analyses” or prognoses such as these are frequently accompanied by the implication that anyone who calls for negotiations is recommending that Ukraine capitulate, or tacitly wishes for the unconditional cessation of Western weapons deliveries. Those are criticisms that poison the climate of discussion just as much as does the indiscriminate labeling of representative of the contrary position as “war-mongers.” At any rate it is evident that, as the war drags on, the political heft and room for maneuver of the Federal Republic of Germany and the European Union are constantly diminishing.
Ultimately, we won’t know whether there can be negotiations until serious efforts are made to get talks underway. It should be assumed that more exploratory feelers have been sent out behind the scenes than the press is reporting. Nevertheless, it seems as though hardliners in the Ukrainian leadership as well as those of key Western countries including both the USA and some of the governments of east-central Europe have previously blocked promising initiatives. Indeed, the twin objectives of regaining all of Ukrainian territory as it existed within the boundaries of 1991, i.e., including Crimea, and integrating Ukraine into NATO, as stipulated in the 2019 constitution, would seem unachievable short of a complete military victory.
As the protagonists of “peace through victory” see it, an outcome of the war along those lines would weaken Russia militarily, politically, and economically for a long time and marginalize it as a factor in international politics. That is a radical version of the idea, by now widely disseminated, that “the West” (especially America), representing freedom and democracy, is caught up in a universal struggle with authoritarian powers or with “autocracy.”
Values-based foreign policy versus the politics of interests
At least in their public self-presentation, the advocates of a supposedly values-based foreign policy tend to downplay sober, interest-based analysis, or, if they take interests into account, they do so in rather grotesque ways, as happened with the Chinese minority stake in a Hamburg harbor terminal. When nation-states invoke universal human rights--which of course should be a top priority everywhere and across many contexts—they usually do so in ways that are not independent of their own economic, political, or geostrategic interests. To be sure, such interest-complexes are not necessarily perceived in the same way. Moreover, viewed objectively, they admit of a variety of different political conclusions and options depending on the circumstances.
Apart from that, the countries assigned to each of the overarching categories (representative democracies and authoritarian regimes) differ markedly from one another. Consider, for example, the differences between the United States and western or central Europe in terms of their respective understandings of human rights and democracy. By the same token, China and Russia diverge widely mainly—but not exclusively—in their distinctive economic and social orders. After all, how are we going to master our existential global environmental problems without the active involvement and inclusion of the world’s most populous country or the one with the largest territorial extent?
“China is the main beneficiary of the market-driven, capitalist globalization that has occurred over the previous four and a half decades and the emergence of a multipolar global order that has accompanied it.”
The economic rivalry between the USA, a declining world power (at least in the medium-term) and China, the new superpower of the 21st century, forms the backdrop to the war in eastern Europe. Adjusted for purchasing power, the economic output of the People’s Republic has already outstripped that of the USA, and some of that growth has occurred in cutting-edge industries. Talk of Beijing’s quest for world domination conceals what is really happening: With its mixed economic system China is the main beneficiary of the market-driven, capitalist globalization that has occurred over the previous four-and-a-half decades and the emergence of a multipolar global order that has accompanied it.
War-gaming by the US military and other experts for a conflict in the Indo-Pacific region pitting the two giants against each other, possibly in just a few years, indicates the extent to which the American establishment, including members of both parties, perceives a dramatic antagonism between the USA and China. The Taiwan issue, which might provoke just such a war, seemed to have been settled a half-century ago. At that time, then-US president Richard Nixon and China’s party chief Mao Zedong, seeking a new start to their intergovernmental relations, jointly agreed that there could be only one China and that Taiwan was legally a part of China.
China’s constellation of interests in regard to the Ukraine war is ambivalent. It would like to keep Russia close as an ally of lesser rank, yet for various reasons it would prefer to see an end to the war and the conclusion of a compromise peace. For that reason, the Chinese initiative of late April, 2023, also alluded to the provisional progress that the warring parties already had achieved in Istanbul just a year earlier.
In the Federal Republic of Germany, including even its pacifist subculture, it is a nearly undisputed fact—assuming that we disregard the far more complex internal and external pre-history of the hostilities—that Russia is waging a war of aggression contrary to international law and that Ukraine, following Article 51 of the UN charter, has a legitimate right to defend itself. That conclusion is not made moot by the circumstance that Ukraine continues to be an oligarchic-capitalist society with a democratic deficit and defective rule of law.
In Ukraine there has been longstanding friction between the pro-Western, Ukrainian-nationalist western part of the country and both the center and the Russian-speaking, pro-Russian east and south (cf. P. Brandt in Neue Gesellschaft/Frankfurter Hefte 4/2015). It may well be, as some have claimed, that the Russian aggression and experiences with the ruthless regimes in the eastern oblasts have actually brought about a mental convergence all across the country. But we should at least put a question mark at the end of that assertion. Presumably, what awaits the country after the end of the war will be not only a gigantic material task of reconstruction, but also an equally challenging reconciliation project that will encompass the entire country.
“No one should consider it taboo to talk about the reality of a proxy war.”
Meanwhile the war has acquired a second dimension in addition to the one already mentioned. It is simultaneously a proxy war that Ukraine is waging with massive support from NATO countries, especially the United States. In the dominant narrative, this is expressed by the cliché that the Ukrainians are fighting for “for our” (i.e., Western) “freedom.” The debate in the USA, especially, is much more sober and open than it is here at home. The reality of a proxy war intermingled with the defensive struggle being waged by Ukraine has not been declared a taboo topic. It is in fact the object of intensive public debate.
The increasingly repressive and dictatorial character of Russia’s domestic regime under the presidency of Vladimir Putin and the imperial agenda of its ruling circles, and not just of Putin personally, is now a matter of public record. In light of the limited numbers of the personnel deployed by Russia for the invasion, it seems very doubtful whether the attack of February 24, 2022, actually was intended to conquer and annex all of Ukraine or even transform it into a satellite country. The same is true of the concern that NATO member countries might have been next on the list of Russia’s invasion targets, even if one assumes that Moscow underestimated the abilities of the American-armed Ukrainian army and the national identification of the Ukrainians.
A historic opportunity was squandered
To insist upon the major role of NATO and especially the USA in inciting the renewal of an East-West conflict does not mean waffling about the apportionment of immediate war guilt. We failed to seize the historic opportunity that arose in 1990 to move past both alliance systems from the Cold War and eventually to merge the structures of NATO and the Warsaw Pact so as to create an all-European security system, as suggested by the Paris Charter of November, 1990. Instead, the USA absolutely wanted to preserve NATO (and thereby its “strategic opposite coast” in Europe) as an instrument of American hegemony. For the Americans, German reunification was conceivable only on the condition of Germany’s continuing NATO membership, including its extension to the new eastern Länder with certain limitations.
Then, of course, the countries of east-central and southeastern Europe, now freed from Soviet tutelage and heeding their historical experiences, quickly applied for NATO membership. That was understandable, but for Russia it meant that within a few years the eastern border of the Western military alliance shifted from the Elbe to the Bug. And in the Baltic region it now even absorbed some former Soviet republics. From the Eastern point of view, the Soviet Union’s—and the Warsaw Pact’s--previous conventional military superiority in Europe was supposed to offset the always acknowledged global superiority of the USA. And for quite some time now, that erstwhile balance has not been a given—on the contrary.
Over time, the impression that Russia was bamboozled by the West has become deeply entrenched—and not only among Putin’s minions and Russian nationalists—because the West did not honor in appropriate ways many of the preliminary steps it should have taken. Even Mikhail Gorbachev, a Russian leader highly esteemed and revered in Germany, expressed his deep disappointment about this very issue on numerous occasions.
“From a ‘limited military operation’ to bloody trench warfare”
Early in 2022 it became clear that Russia’s “limited military operation” in Ukraine would not end very quickly, at any rate. The advance on Kyiv was repelled and the march toward Odessa in the south stalled. The Ukrainians were even able to reconquer a number of areas. The formal annexation of the eastern oblasts, announced on September 22, 2022, was in fact limited to the parts already controlled by Russia. And the Russian partial mobilization decreed on September 21, 2022, which eventually recruited about 300,000 soldiers, met with mixed reactions in the homeland, particularly among those directly affected. The latter continued to be primarily ethnic minorities from peripheral regions of Russia.
Yet in spite of weapons deliveries from the West that continued to increase in both quality and quantity, Ukraine, too, was not getting any closer to its imagined victory. Instead, the conflict settled into bloody trench warfare that has been compared to the Germany’s western front in the First World War. Ukraine’s highly touted offensive, which began in June of 2023, has been unable to achieve a breakthrough at the front, and that is unlikely to change.
In the meantime, the number of soldiers killed on both sides by now has reached the high five figures, while the number of wounded is now counted in six figures. In addition, there have been some 10,000 civilian casualties. There are five million internally displaced persons along with eight million who have fled abroad, mainly to other European countries. The Ukrainian infrastructure and broad stretches of the urban housing stock have been largely destroyed.
Aside from occasional blustering from Moscow, neither Russia nor NATO has an interest in expanding the conflict into a proper war between the two powers, i.e., one that would involve American and European troops. Such a conflict could quickly escalate into a major nuclear war that would involve Europe as a whole. Indeed, such a war cannot be ruled out even under the present set of circumstances. It would precipitate a nearly unimaginable humanitarian and ecological catastrophe even if we managed to confine it to this continent alone.
Unpleasant yet realistic scenarios
One of Russia’s key security interests under any government is to prevent Ukraine as a whole from joining NATO. As noted earlier, that would be unlikely to happen unless Ukraine won a total victory over Russia, a highly improbable outcome. It is easiest to imagine in the event of a partition of the country and thus on the basis of an accord, or else as the outcome of a “frozen” front line. This unpleasant scenario could become a dangerous reality in the long run as one element in a new and now openly-declared Cold War. That result is all the more likely since the old arms control regime was dismantled, partly as a result of deliberate decisions and partly because it was allowed to disintegrate during the previous decade. While the USA doesn’t bear the entire blame for its demise, it must assume most of that responsibility for policy changes made under the presidency of Donald Trump.
One realistic prospect for maintaining Ukraine’s territorial integrity could involve an agreement that the country would not enter into any alliance, although it would retain its weapons, and that its status would be guaranteed by some relevant set of foreign powers chosen by Kyiv. Its status as a neutral military power would not have to prevent it from moving closer to the EU and eventually becoming a member of that organization. Under the most favorable circumstance it would also fulfill a bridging function with the East, possibly including membership in the Eurasian Economic Community.
Negotiations can take place only in the absence of preconditions and without prior recognition of territorial changes.
By annexing eastern Ukrainian territories in September of 2022, Russia has erected an additional hurdle. Putin has expressed a positive attitude toward negotiations with Ukraine several times, pointing to the convergence of the countries’ points of view at the Istanbul conference of March and April, 2022. Assuming for now that Ukraine and the West also want negotiations, Putin must have realized that they could happen only in the absence of preconditions and therefore also without prior recognition of territorial changes.
In a more recent statement, he declared on June 17 of this year before an African peace delegation that: “We are open to a constructive dialogue with all those who desire a peace that is based on principles of justice and the legitimate interests of the various sides.” On that occasion he also ostentatiously displayed a copy of a draft treaty that had been signed in Istanbul by the chief negotiators of both sides.
A road to peace that would be acceptable to the two warring parties and that would produce a result that eventually could be sold in each country as a successful outcome might look like this. The inhabitants of the annexed and partially occupied eastern Ukraine, including eventually returning refugees, could be placed under UN control. They then would be allowed to vote on the country to which they wished to belong. If it turned out to be Ukraine, then they would also be given a chance to vote on linguistic-cultural as well as political autonomy.
The only portion of Ukraine’s sovereign territory in which pro-Russian segments of the population predominated prior to 2014 was Crimea. Nevertheless, although the disguised Russian invasion of that year was an act contrary to international law, it did reflect the wishes of the majority of the population. To reverse that outcome would be—like NATO membership for an undivided Ukraine—possible only as a result of a total victory over Russia. On the other hand, it is conceivable that the plebiscite of 2014 could be rerun under international control and conditions that would leave no doubts that the result was fair and legal.