Diplomacy, Not Weapons, Will End the War 

Set aside for a moment worries about inflation, Covid variants, mass shootings, and Supreme Court decisions. Consider instead the ongoing war in Ukraine. Now in its sixth month, the war is killing hundreds of Ukrainians and Russians every day. Russian artillery and bombs strike Ukrainian soldiers on the front and civilians in their apartments, while Russian missiles level scores of towns and villages in the Donbas and beyond.  From Ukraine, long range missiles hit Russian targets beyond the frontline.

For the outside world, the risk of an expanded war, one that could easily slip into a battle of nukes, must not be discounted.  Putin has made clear that he is ready to use chemical weapons or tactical nukes if needed to avoid a battlefield defeat.

Thanks to the inspiring leadership of President Volodymyr Zelensky, the incredible valor of Ukrainian forces and citizen soldiers and timely arms aid from the U.S. and its NATO allies, the Ukrainians were able to repel Russian troops from their February-March advance on Kyiv. President Biden led a concerted NATO effort to contain the Russians through weapons transfers and economic sanctions.

Now the war has shifted to the Donbas region, expanding a conflict that Russian Separatists began in 2014.  Notwithstanding the continuing flow of weapons from the U.S. and other NATO countries, Russian forces are slowly but steadily gaining ground.  Unlike the logistic constraints they faced in their botched blitz on Kyiv, the nearby Russian border assures a steady flow of supplies and manpower. Even successful counterattacks are unlikely to drive the Russian forces out of Ukraine.

As the war drifts into a protracted stalemate, both armies are becoming exhausted. Since each side can now claim a partial victory, the time may be ripe for diplomacy. Indeed, Putin and Zelensky might each welcome a ceasefire and a broader diplomatic solution.  Yet both may hesitate to show weakness by being first to propose peace talks.

Mediation (sometimes called assisted negotiation) begins with the intervention of a third-party mediator (such as a representative of the United Nations or a neutral country).  When both warring parties agree on the process, the mediator can hold separate information sessions with each side.  Once the mediator understands their respective objectives. he or she can begin a sustained process of “shuttle diplomacy,” traveling back and forth between the two negotiating teams.  When a framework for possible agreement emerges, the mediator might schedule one or more plenary meetings until a “win-win” solution can be achieved.  Throughout the process, confidentially rules constrain a party from using publicity to score points.

Those who dismiss the possibility of peace negotiations between Ukraine and Russia should take note of the recent and apparently successful mediated meetings in Turkey. Despite continuing risks, the two separate agreements with the U.N. have led to a resumption of grain exports from both countries.  U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres described the mediation as “a ray of hope” for averting a global food crisis.  If the exports continue without interruption, such assisted negotiation could well expand to encompass the wider issues of ceasefire and peace terms.

What may be the greatest roadblock to war-ending diplomacy is the unabating flow of weapons to Ukraine from the U.S. and its NATO allies.  If Zelensky should see an imminent end to his arms supply from the West as he faces a more aggressive Russia in the Donbas, he may view mediated negotiations as a better option– better than overseeing the continuing daily losses of Ukrainian soldiers and land.  With media coverage of the war waning, Americans and Europeans are beginning to experience aid fatigue. On the one hand, it is unlikely that the outnumbered Ukrainian forces will be able push the Russians out of the Donbas, where there are still large numbers of Russian separatists. On the other hand, both Americans and Europeans not likely stay the course on arms transfers.  At some point they will say “enough,” and the politicians will have to curtail military aid.

Now is the time to pursue diplomacy and stop stoking an lendless war with weapons.

L. Michael Hager is cofounder and former Director General, International Development Law Organization, Rome.