By Richard E. Rubenstein* – CounterPunch website
Although some may consider it difficult or even impossible for the Ukrainians and Russians to make peace right now, this is actually a very good time for urgently needed negotiations to end the hugely destructive, increasingly dangerous Russo-Ukrainian war.
Experts in conflict resolution understand that, in many cases, the best time to undertake peace negotiations is exactly when warring parties, having stepped up their military efforts, declare that they will never negotiate with the enemy, since to do so would be to abandon the hope of victory and to surrender to an evil aggressor.
Why is this bleak environment often conducive to negotiations? Because the present situation in Ukraine is what conflict specialists call a “mutually hurting stalemate.” Each side can claim some victories, but neither side has a realistic hope of defeating the other. If the costs continue to mount for everyone, there is increasing pressure to seize on a compromise solution that offers the hope of an honorable peace.
Despite propagandistic claims by both sides in the present conflict, it is clear that a mutually hurting stalemate does exist. Ukrainian forces have made significant gains recently in the war’s southern and eastern fronts, but Kyiv’s claims that victory is on the horizon are wildly overblown. Overall, the operational warring forces are quite evenly matched. This means that the alternative to making peace is a major escalation of the conflict with costly, potentially catastrophic results.
When escalation is discussed these days, the focus is often on Russia’s nuclear arsenal and possible use of tactical nuclear weapons. President Joe Biden, for example, says that the situation is as risky as the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. But if he really believes that, why doesn’t he favor negotiations to end the crisis like the Kennedy-Khrushchev exchanges that produced an agreement to remove offensive missiles from both Cuba and Turkey? Why up the ante by supplying Kyiv with billions of dollars more of the world’s most advanced non-nuclear weapons?
Biden may well believe that the Russian leader is bluffing by calling attention to his nation’s nuclear capabilities. Another explanation, however, is that the focus on nukes is what magicians call a “misdirection” – a diversion that draws attention away from what is really going on. The real danger here, now materializing in the form of Russian missile and drone attacks on Kiev and other cities, is that Putin can make a wide range of escalatory moves without pulling any nuclear triggers. If the Ukrainians appear to be on the verge of driving Russian forces out of the Donbas region, there is no doubt that he will intensify attacks on the critical infrastructure relied on by Kiyev’s armed forces and millions of civilians.
War propaganda always exaggerates the enemy’s monstrosity. Almost from the first day of the war, Western politicians and journalists accused the Russians of targeting civilians en masse and seeking to destroy Ukraine’s infrastructure. In fact, until a few days ago they avoided attacking the nations network of transportation, communication, energy, and production facilities. Even now, while putting part of the Ukrainian power grid out of operation, Russian forces have not mounted massive assaults on major population centers or disrupted the transmission pipeline through which advanced weapons are shipped to Ukrainian troops. Nor have they attempted to decapitate the Kyiv regime through terrorist attacks, used chemical or biological weapons, or engaged in other extreme activities associated with “total war.”
The recent attacks, while tragically lethal, are, above all, a warning of what the next stage of escalation is likely to involve if Kyiv continue to press its offensive in the east. Although this may seem counter-intuitive, the present moment is a particularly opportune time to begin peace talks between Russia and Ukraine. Each side can claim to have won victories that permit it to negotiate from strength rather than weakness. Each side is aware that the other has the power to raise the intensity of violence to a potentially genocidal level. The major issue, then, may be whether there is hope of reaching an agreement that both sides could describe as an honorable peace.
In this respect, a central issue will no doubt be the fate of the residents of the Donbas region. The recent referenda asking residents whether they wanted to be ruled by Kyiv or to become part of the Russian Federation were immediately branded “sham” by U.S. and European officials, since pro-Russian local governments administered them under chaotic wartime conditions. Referenda of this sort are unlikely to convince other parties that their results accurately represent the views of people living in a war zone. But branding them invalid is itself a sham, since it ignores the crucial question: What do the people of the Donbas want? Partisan diplomats and journalists have no clue and have exhibited virtually no interest in discovering the answer.
What we do know is that for years, Ukrainian society has been seriously split along ethnic, religious, and sociopolitical lines between pro-Western and pro-Russian populations. The civil war in Donetsk and Luhansk provinces that began in 2014 killed more than 14,000 people, most of them in the first years of the war. Even before the violence erupted, industrial workers in these impoverished, Russian-speaking provinces were demanding some form of independence from the Kyiv regime and seeking Moscow’s support in their struggle. The Minsk II accord negotiated in 2015 promised them political autonomy but the agreement was never implemented, whereupon separatists proclaimed the existence of their own autonomous republics, and Russian forces mobilized to support them.
U.S. and NATO sources portray these events as a plot by Vladimir Putin to dismember Ukraine, but that narrative grossly oversimplifies and distorts a much more complex reality. Whether the people of the Donbas region would prefer to be part of Russia or citizens of an independent nation remains unclear, but the hostility of a great many of them to the Kyiv government is indisputable. That Putin used this fact to promote Russian interests as he saw them is clear. One can certainly brand his annexation of the Donbas provinces illegal under international law. But Putin no more created the underlying situation than did “outside agitators” create the racial conflict and Civil Rights Movement in the United States.
When peace talks begin, the status of the Donbas republics will certainly be a major topic for discussion – a tricky but certainly not impossible matter to negotiate. The status of ethnically distinct regions claimed by rival neighbors has been negotiated in several well-known international cases beginning with the Aaland Islands dispute of 1922. In the present case, a number of potential solutions can be proposed and discussed, including the idea of redoing the referenda in the eastern provinces under international supervision. Proposals such as this will no doubt draw fire from both sides, but in this situation the alternative to compromise is an escalation in violence vastly more destructive and dangerous than anything we have yet seen.
Are things in Ukraine getting worse? Yes, for both sides. This is precisely the right time to give peace a chance. We are familiar with the doctrine of “humanitarian intervention” that has often been used to justify bombing alleged perpetrators into submission in nations like Iraq, Kosovo, and Libya. It is time for a genuinely humanitarian intervention in Ukraine in the form of action by responsible states and international organizations to facilitate negotiations to end this ghastly war.
*Richard E. Rubenstein is an author and University Professor of Conflict Resolution and Public Affairs at George Mason University, holding degrees from Harvard University, Oxford University (as a Rhodes Scholar), and Harvard Law School.