Neutral countries should mediate between Russia and Ukraine
By Jeffrey Sachs* – The Economist
Neither Russia nor Ukraine is likely to achieve a decisive military victory in their ongoing war: both sides have considerable room for deadly escalation. Ukraine and its Western allies have little chance of ousting Russia from Crimea and the Donbas region, while Russia has little chance of forcing Ukraine to surrender. As Joe Biden noted in October, the spiral of escalation marks the first direct threat of “nuclear Armageddon” since the Cuban missile crisis 60 years ago.
The rest of the world also suffers alongside, though not on the scale of the battlefield. Europe is probably in recession. Developing economies struggle with rising hunger and poverty. American armsmakers and big oil firms reap windfalls, even as the overall American economy worsens. The world endures heightened uncertainty, disrupted supply chains and dire risks of nuclear escalation.
Each side might opt for continued war in the belief that it has a decisive military advantage over its foe. At least one of the parties would be mistaken in such a view, and probably both. A war of attrition will devastate both sides.
Yet the conflict could proceed for another reason: that neither side sees the possibility of an enforceable peace agreement. Ukrainian leaders believe that Russia would use any pause in fighting to rearm. Russian leaders believes that NATO would use any pause in fighting to expand Ukraine’s arsenal. They choose to fight now, rather than face a stronger foe later.
The challenge is to find a way to make a peace agreement acceptable, credible and enforceable. I believe that the case for a negotiated peace needs to be more broadly heard, first to spare Ukraine from becoming a perpetual battleground, and more generally, as beneficial for both sides and the rest of the world. A strong argument can be made for involving neutral countries to help enforce a peace settlement that would benefit many.
A credible agreement would first need to meet the core security interests of both parties. As John F. Kennedy wisely said on the path to the successful Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty with the Soviet Union in 1963, “even the most hostile nations can be relied upon to accept and keep those treaty obligations, and only those treaty obligations, which are in their own interest.”
In a peace agreement, Ukraine would need to be assured of its sovereignty and security, while NATO would need to promise not to enlarge eastward. (Although NATO describes itself as a defensive alliance, Russia certainly feels otherwise and firmly resists NATO enlargement.) Some compromises would need to be found regarding Crimea and the Donbas region, perhaps freezing and de-militarising those conflicts for a period of time. A settlement will also be more sustainable if it includes the phased elimination of sanctions on Russia and an agreement by both Russia and the West to contribute to the rebuilding of war-torn areas.
Success may well hinge on who is included in trying to find and enforce peace. Since the belligerents themselves cannot forge such a peace alone, a key structural solution lies in bringing additional parties to the agreement. Neutral nations including Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia and South Africa have repeatedly called for a negotiated end to the conflict. They could help to enforce any agreement that is reached.
These countries are neither Russia-haters nor Ukraine-haters. They neither want Russia to conquer Ukraine, nor the West to expand NATO eastward, which many see as a dangerous provocation not only to Russia but perhaps to other countries as well. Their opposition to NATO enlargement has sharpened as American hardliners have urged the alliance to take on China. Neutral countries were taken aback by the participation of Asia-Pacific leaders of Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand in a summit last year of supposedly “North Atlantic” countries.
The peacemaking role of major neutral countries could be decisive. Russia’s economy and war-making capacity depend on continued strong diplomatic relations and international trade with these neutral countries. When the West imposed economic sanctions on Russia, major emerging economies, such as India, did not follow suit. They did not want to choose sides and have maintained strong relations with Russia.
These neutral countries are major players in the global economy. According to the IMF’s estimates of GDP at purchasing-power parity, the combined output of Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia and South Africa ($51.7 trn, or almost 32% of world output) in 2022 was larger than that of the G7 nations, America, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan. The emerging economies are also crucial to global economic governance and will hold the G20 presidency for four years in a row, as well as leadership positions in major regional bodies. Neither Russia nor Ukraine wants to squander relations with these countries, making them important potential guarantors of peace.
Moreover, many of these countries will seek to burnish their diplomatic credentials by helping to negotiate peace. Several, including of course Brazil and India, are long-time aspirants for permanent seats on the UN Security Council. The possible architecture of a peace deal could be an agreement co-guaranteed by the UN Security Council with several of the major emerging economies. In addition to the countries mentioned above, other credible co-guarantors include Turkey (which has skillfully mediated Russia-Ukraine talks); Austria, which is proud of its enduring neutrality; and Hungary, which holds this year’s presidency of the UN General Assembly and has repeatedly called for negotiations to end the war.
The UN Security Council and the co-guarantors would impose UN-agreed trade and financial measures against any party that breaches the peace agreement. The implementation of such measures would not be subject to veto by the breaching party. Russia and Ukraine would have to trust the fair play of the neutral countries to secure peace and their respective security goals.
It makes no sense for the fighting to continue in Ukraine. Neither side is likely to win a war that is currently devastating Ukraine, imposing massive costs in lives and lucre on Russia, and causing global harm. Major neutral countries, in conjunction with the UN, can be the co-guarantors to begin a new era of peace and rebuilding. The world should not allow the two sides to continue a reckless spiral of escalation.
Posted to Other News by the author. Published by The Economist January 18, 2023
*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.