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Welcome Movement Toward Peace

Two developements this month suggest that we might finally be moving toward a settlement in the Russia-Ukraine War, now over two years old. I don’t want to sound too optimistic, as this is probably only the very beginning of the process that could take years; but at least it is a beginning.

The first good sign is that Vladimir Putin offered an immediate cease fire on June 14th if Ukraine would accept Russia’s annexation of all occupied parts of Ukraine and would renounce membership in NATO. Obviously, these are extreme terms that Ukraine is nowhere near desperate enough to accept at present. The main point is that Putin has indicated an interest in ending the war and has provided a basis for further negotiations.

The second good sign is Ukraine’s “peace summit” in Switzerland. It is an odd summit in that they did not invite the country with which they are at war, but, again, the significance is that Ukraine is indicating it wants to start thinking about an end to the war. Up until now, Zelenskyy’s position has been that peace could only be made on the basis of Russia’s complete withdrawal from all occupied territories, and there was no need to discuss anything until Russia agreed to those terms.

The logical inference from these peace proposals is that both sides are starting to give up on winning the war in any dramatic fashion. Ukraine must realize that it has very little chance of expelling Russia from the occupied territories, and support in the West is insecure and unlikely to produce the massive aid that Ukraine would need to overcome its numerical inferiority with regard to Russia. For his part, Putin has churned through a large amount of manpower, including prisoners, and does not want to risk further unrest at home. The sanctions imposed by the West are also bound to be hurting Russia. They could probably live under the sanctions for years without cracking, but what is the point if there is no more progress to be made against Ukraine? Better to make peace, secure his gains, and solidify his position at home than to remain in an unpopular war with little prospect of further conquests.

Both sides no doubt still hold maximalist demands. This is to be expected; all negotiated peace treaties begin this way. You don’t want to give anything away until you feel out the other side and see what you might be able to get in return. The breakthrough occurs when both sides agree that they are willing at least to begin negotiations, rather than insisting that the other side must concede all the main points before negotiations start. This was the case at Westphalia and, most likely, in any negotiated peace.

To be sure, we are still probably a long way from an actual agreement. This is the start of the peace process. Both sides probably still hope they can achieve some military breakthroughs, perhaps not decisive ones but enough to give them a better position in the negotiations, so I don’t expect any dramatic changes any time soon. As time goes on, however, if the military situation remains deadlocked, this hope will fade and the two sides will become more willing to negotiate. (Unless, of course, one side actually does achieve a substantial breakthrough. I have very little practical information on the state of the war, so I am not speculating on that. I would argue that very few other people have much practical information either. I have heard people with similar expertise claim that Ukraine is about to collapse and that Russia is about to collapse. One of these groups may be right, but it would require as much knowledge as they have to be able to distinguish the right side from the wrong side.)

What will a settlement look like? Nothing drastic has changed in the past year. I am still inclined to think that Ukraine will have to cede a significant chunk of Russia’s conquests, perhaps all of them. The more important point is what kind of guarantees Ukraine can get that they will not be subject to another surprise attack. I think membership in NATO is unlikely; Russia would fight tooth and nail to prevent that. Because of that, however, Russia might be willing to cede some of their conquests to keep Ukraine out of NATO. I still think Ukraine will want some kind of security guarantee from Western Europe. I doubt Russia will agree to permanent stationing of European troops on Ukrainian soil, but they may agree to a paper guarantee and perhaps to some level of military co-operation (e.g. allowing European states, but not NATO, to co-ordinate with Ukraine’s military).

I’m just guessing at this point, though. No one knows what is going to happen. I’m just glad that both sides are showing some interest in ending the war.

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