Set aside for a moment your worries about inflation, Covid variants, mass shootings, climate change, and Supreme Court decisions, and 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 missiles level scores of towns and villages in the Donbas region and beyond. From Ukraine, long-range missiles supplied by the U.S. reach Russian targets.
The risk of an expanded war that could easily slip into a battle of nuclear weapons must not be discounted. Vladimir Putin has made it clear that he is ready to use chemical weapons or tactical nukes if needed to avoid a battlefield defeat.
Thanks to the leadership of President Volodymyr Zelensky, the valor of Ukrainian forces, and timely arms aid from the U.S. and its NATO allies, the Ukrainians were able to repel the Russians’ February-March advance on Kyiv. President Biden led a NATO effort to contain the Russians through weapons transfers and economic sanctions.
Now the war has shifted to the Donbas, expanding a conflict that Russian separatists began in 2014. Despite the Ukrainians’ military successes, the New York Times reported on Aug. 21, “Russia continues to retain military superiority” without giving up any territory. Russian forces are slowly but steadily gaining ground in the Donbas. Instead of the logistical constraints they faced in their botched blitz on Kyiv, the nearby Russian border makes a steady flow of supplies and manpower possible. It appears that even successful counterattacks in some places are unlikely to drive the Russian forces out of Ukraine.
As the war drifts into a protracted stalemate, observers on the ground say both armies are showing signs of exhaustion. Since each side can now claim at least partial victory and no defeat, the time appears 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 proposing peace talks. And Zelensky is unlikely to stop fighting if U.S. weapons continue to flow with no end in sight.
Mediation (more accurately assisted negotiation) begins with the intervention of a neutral third party like the United Nations. When both warring parties signal to the mediator their willingness to engage in a serious negotiation, separate information sessions can begin with each side. Once the two parties agree to the process and the mediator understands their respective objectives, a sustained period of “shuttle diplomacy” can begin. Traveling back and forth between the two negotiating teams, the mediator can focus on possible tradeoffs and bargaining points. When a framework for agreement emerges, the mediator schedules both plenary meetings and more separate sessions as needed until a “win-win” solution is achieved. Throughout the process, confidentiality rules constrain the parties from using publicity to score points.
Those who dismiss the possibility of peace negotiations between Ukraine and Russia should take note of the successful mediated meetings in Turkey last month. Despite continuing risks of failure, 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 grain exports continue without interruption, such assisted negotiation could well expand to encompass the issues of ceasefire and peace terms.
None of this is to suggest that the U.S. or NATO should pressure Ukraine to negotiate or to recommend specific concessions from Ukraine. Rather, Biden should inform Zelensky that weapons aid to Ukraine will end on a certain date. Zelensky would likely see negotiations as preferable to a drawn-out war. Given his heavy battlefield losses and the increasing cost to Russia of economic sanctions, Putin may well come to the same conclusion.
Third-party efforts to achieve a peaceful solution are fraught with uncertainties stemming from a lack of trust. Yet now is the time for Western powers to stop stoking the war with unlimited weapons transfers. Now is the time to pursue peace through diplomacy.
L. Michael Hager is cofounder and former director general of the International Development Law Organization in Rome. He lives in Eastham.