A Mediator’s Guide to Peace in Ukraine

By Jeffrey D. Sachs* – Common Dreams
The Ukraine War is an extremely dangerous war between nuclear superpowers in a world desperately in need of peace and cooperation.
There is a new glimmer of hope for a quick negotiated end to the war in Ukraine.
In his recent press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron, President Joe Biden stated, “I’m prepared to speak with Mr. Putin if in fact, there is an interest in him deciding he’s looking for a way to end the war. He hasn’t done that yet. If that’s the case, in consultation with my French and my NATO friends, I’ll be happy to sit down with Putin to see what he wants, has in mind.” President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman replied that Russia is ready for negotiations aimed “to ensure our interests.”
Now is the time for mediation, based on the core interests and bargaining space of the three main parties to the conflict: Russia, Ukraine, and the United States.
The war is devastating Ukraine. According to EU President Ursula von der Leyen, Ukraine has already lost 100,000 soldiers and 20,000 civilians. Not only Ukraine but also Russia, the US, and EU—indeed the entire world—stand to benefit enormously from an end to the conflict, lifting both the nuclear dread that hangs over the world today and the devastating economic fallout of the war.
No less an authority than the Chairman of the U.S. Joints Chiefs of Staff, General Mark A. Milley, has urged a negotiated political solution to the conflict, noting that Ukraine’s chance for a military victory, is “not high.”
There are four core issues to negotiate: Ukraine’s sovereignty and security; the fraught issue of NATO enlargement; the fate of Crimea; and the future of the Donbas.
Ukraine demands above all to be a sovereign country, free from Russia’s domination, and with secure borders. There are some in Russia, perhaps including Putin himself, who believe that Ukraine is really part of Russia. There will be no negotiated peace without Russia recognizing Ukraine’s sovereignty and national security backed by explicit international guarantees of the UN Security Council and nations including Germany, India, and Türkiye.
Russia demands above all that NATO renounce its intention to expand to Ukraine and Georgia, which would fully encircle Russia in the Black Sea (adding Ukraine and Georgia to existing Black Sea NATO members Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey). NATO refers to itself as a defensive alliance, yet Russia believes differently, knowing full well of the U.S. penchant for regime-change operations against governments it opposes (including Ukraine in 2014, with the U.S. role in the overthrow of then pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych).
Russia also claims Crimea as home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet since 1783. Putin warned George Bush Jr. in 2008 that if the U.S. pushed NATO into Ukraine, Russia would re-take Crimea, which Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had transferred from Russia to Ukraine in 1954. Until Yanukovich’s overthrow, the Crimea question was handled prudently by Russia-Ukrainian agreements that gave Russia a long-term lease on its naval facilities in Sevastopol, Crimea.
Ukraine and Russia differ heatedly over the Donbas, with its predominantly ethnic Russian population. While the Ukrainian language and cultural identity prevails in most of Ukraine, Russian cultural identity and language prevail in the Donbas. After Yanukovych’s overthrow, the Donbas became a battleground between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian paramilitaries, with the pro-Russian forces declaring the independence of the Donbas.
The Minsk II agreement of 2015 was a diplomatic agreement to end the fighting, based on autonomy (self-government) for the Donbas region within Ukrainian borders, and respect for the Russian language and culture. After signing, Ukrainian leaders made clear that they resented the agreement and would not honor it. Though France and Germany were guarantors of the agreement, they did not press Ukraine to follow through. From Russia’s point of view, Ukraine and the West thereby repudiated a diplomatic solution to the conflict.
In late 2021, Putin reiterated Russia’s demand for no further enlargement of NATO, especially to Ukraine. The U.S. refused to negotiate over NATO enlargement. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg provocatively stated at the time that Russia would have no say in the matter, and that only NATO members would decide whether or not to encircle Russia in the Black Sea.
In March 2022, a month after the Russian invasion, Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made substantial progress on a pragmatic negotiated end to the war, based on NATO non-enlargement, international guarantees of sovereignty and security for Ukraine, and the issues of Crimea and the Donbas to be resolved peacefully down the road. Turkish diplomats were the very skilled mediators.
Yet Ukraine then walked away from the negotiating table, perhaps at U.K. and U.S. prodding, and adopted the policy of refusing negotiations until Russia was driven out of Ukraine by military action. The conflict then escalated, with Russia annexing not only the two regions of the Donbas (Luhansk and Donetsk), but also Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions. Recently, Zelensky inflamed the situation by demanding the severing of Ukrainian links with Russian Orthodox institutions, breaking religious ties of ethnic Russians and many ethnic Ukrainians that date back a millennium.
With both the U.S. and Russia now warily approaching the negotiating table, the time for mediation is at hand. Possible mediators include the United Nations, Türkiye, Pope Francis, China, and perhaps others, in some combination. The contours of successful mediation are actually clear, as is the basis for a peace settlement.
The main point for mediation is that all parties have legitimate interests and legitimate grievances. Russia wrongly and violently invaded Ukraine. The U.S. wrongly conspired in the overthrow of Yanukovych in 2014, and then heavily armed Ukraine while pushing NATO enlargement to encircle Russia in the Black Sea. Following Yanukovych, Ukrainian Presidents Petro Poroshenko and Volodymyr Zelensky refused to implement the Minsk II agreement.
Peace will come when the U.S. backs away from further NATO enlargement towards Russia’s borders; Russia withdraws its military forces from Ukraine and backs away from the unilateral annexation of Ukrainian territory; Ukraine backs away from its attempts to retake Crimea and from its repudiation of the Minsk II framework; and all parties agree to secure the sovereign borders of Ukraine under the UN Charter and backed by the guarantees of the UN Security Council and other nations.
The Ukraine War is an extremely dangerous war between nuclear superpowers in a world desperately in need of peace and cooperation. It is time for the U.S. and Russia, two great powers of both the past and future, to show their greatness through mutual respect, diplomacy, and common efforts to ensure sustainable development for all—including for the people of Ukraine, who are most urgently in need of peace and reconstruction. December 5, 2022
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*Professor at Columbia University, is Director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University and President of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network. He has served as adviser to three UN Secretaries-General, and currently serves as an SDG Advocate under Secretary-General António Guterres.