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Has diplomacy been exhausted?

Angela Merkel gestures as Vladimir Putin looks on. Photo: Kirill Kudryavtsev/Reuters.
Angela Merkel gestures as Vladimir Putin looks on during a press conference after talks in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, May 10, 2015. Photo: Kirill Kudryavtsev/Reuters.

The war in Ukraine has now been going on for a year. The devastation is enormous, as are the human rights abuses. At the moment, most of the talk is about arms supplies and very little about diplomacy. When will be the appropriate time for diplomatic talks? An interview with Karin Aggestam, professor of political science and expert on diplomacy and peace processes.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine is a clear example of an illegal attack on a sovereign state, and that makes diplomatic negotiations difficult. Before you can start negotiating, you have to define the parameters and scope of the negotiations. Ukraine is fighting a war of self-defense, and as long as Russia does not admit that it is the aggressor, there is no incentive to negotiate. It is about demanding responsibility for war crimes, reparations, and violations of the laws of armed conflict.

Russia has said on several occasions that it is ready to negotiate, but this has been seen as a tactic to gain time to regroup its forces and acquire more military equipment. "Dishonest intentions" to negotiate is a classic tactic that we have seen many examples of in research.

What about stopping the killing at any cost?

For Ukraine, the war is about territorial integrity and national survival. Both sides use existential arguments, which makes it notoriously difficult to start negotiating a ceasefire. It is perceived as a "zero-sum game" (one side's gain is the other's loss) and of course you cannot negotiate and compromise on your national existence. Russia sees itself as threatened, although we may find this argument extreme. Putin claims that Russia's security depends on not having a NATO country as a neighbor.

The difficulty in stopping the killing is that both sides have 'invested' in a massive military escalation. Parts of Ukraine have been virtually flattened by the Russian offensive, much of the population has fled, and the death toll is enormous. To begin negotiations and diplomacy, which entails compromises, is an immense challenge for political leaders. If Zelensky makes any concessions to Russia, he will face harsh criticism at home for having sacrified lives in vain. 

What are the possible negative consequences of negotiations at this stage?

The question of timing, i.e., the appropriate point at which to begin peace talks, has been the subject of many scholars. There are, for example, situations when negotiations should not initiated. At the moment, the stakes are very high. These concern fundamental norms and principles of the contemporary international order. If the international community proposes negotiations on the occupied territories of Ukraine to end the war, it would mean conceding the norms of international law and the rules of national sovereignty. It is worrisome to see how many countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East chose to abstain when the UN General Assembly voted on a resolution condemning Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Do you have examples of when diplomatic peace negotiations have begun to dilute the principles of international law?

The question of whether and how it is possible to negotiate with war criminals has come up several times for instance in attempts to end the war in Syria. The Dayton Agreement of 1995 is another example. It was criticized precisely because it was considered morally wrong to negotiate with a war criminal like Milošević, which resulted in the country being divided along ethnic lines. At the same time, it stopped the killing in the Balkans.

What diplomatic initiatives do you think are still under way?

We only see the tip of the diplomatic iceberg, and when negotiations begin, and end is a matter of definition. What we do know is that certain negotiations are taking place, for example on the exchange of prisoners and the export of wheat and other crops. There is also a stated desire, particularly on the part of France, but also Germany, to maintain a dialogue with Russia, given that Russia has made threats of using nuclear weapons on several occasions.

How do wars usually end?

According to the Uppsala Conflict Data Programme, one third of all wars end in total victory for one side, one third end in peace agreements and one third end in ceasefires. This shows the challenges facing diplomacy.

What do you think about a ceasefire to stop the killing?

A ceasefire can be a temporary solution to stop the killing and the ongoing military escalation. In Syria, several ceasefires have been negotiated but collapsed soon after. Another problem with ceasefires is that they tend to 'freeze' conflicts. The Arab-Israeli war of 1948-1949 and the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 are examples of long ceasefires that froze conflicts with no resolution in sight.

There are, however, examples where a ceasefire has been a step towards a longer process of negotiation leading to a peace agreement. The 1975 ceasefire between Israel and Egypt led to a peace agreement in 1977 is one such example.

What do you think will happen in this war?

What we are facing is a classic war of attrition, one that risks becoming as protracted as the Iran-Iraq war, the US-Vietnam war or the Soviet Union-Afghanistan war. We have seen countless examples of failure where escalating military force and supplying more military hardware has failed to defeat the opponent.
The longer the war goes on, the harder it will be for the West to maintain a common consistent line, and Putin will benefit from this.

At the moment, the prospects for a diplomatic solution do not look good, but over time there may be a growing 'war fatigue' in Russia and a change of leadership could open the door to new diplomatic solutions. For example, the stalemate in the USSR's long war in Afghanistan was broken when Gorbachev became leader and decided to withdraw Soviet troops.

In research, there is an analytical notion of a moment when "the time is ripe" for negotiations. It occurs when the warring parties find themselves in a painful mutually hurting stalemate; this is when the "window" for diplomatic negotiations may open.