By Aleksandr S. Kolbin, September 28, 2022
Seven months after Russia first invaded Ukraine, I understand that there is nothing more banal than war. The fighting parties have learned new routines of war. In conjunction with the deal that allows Ukrainian grain to be exported, they coordinate war and agricultural trade at the Joint Coordination Center in Istanbul and similarly coordinate war and energy at the Sudzha gas metering station at the Russia-Ukraine border. They invite the International Atomic Energy Agency to monitor the safety of the nuclear power plant, even though it remains under regular artillery fire that both sides blame on one another. They both have long been accustomed to the fact that one of the oldest NATO members, while supplying game-changing Bayraktar combat drones to Ukraine, offers itself as the most active mediator for peace negotiations and as an important trade partner to Russia.
The routinization of war gradually turns the impossible into the ordinary, perpetuates narrow-mindedness, and ultimately postpones peace for months and years. So perhaps it is fair to put forward the following as a description of the current state of affairs: “The longer the war continues, the further the prospect of peace.” Unfortunately, realistic proposals for how the conflict can be ended are almost nonexistent, and attempts by doves to coo the way toward peace are met with accusations of betrayal or, at least, naivete, by hawks on both sides.
Nothing is more valuable, humane, and wise than peace among nations. But, unfortunately, this axiom is as bland as the war, and one that seems to have been wholly forgotten today. Clamped between two walls of ultimatums—one that says “we will get it back” and the other that “we will liberate it”—the parties to the war walk a narrowing corridor of escalation, no longer wanting to look back to where they’ve been and having almost stopped looking around at better options. The latest Russian move—to declare a partial military mobilization, organize referendums in already occupied regions, and threaten to use nuclear weapons while insisting the threat is “not a bluff”—only confirm that sad trend.
Those who say that no practical alternative to war has yet been proposed are probably right. Both sides now want victory, not compromise. Elites and societies on both sides are confident victory will be achieved (according to all the latest polls). Realizing that this impasse exists, however, should only motivate peace-seeking minds to help get out of it.
So let’s imagine for the few minutes it will take to read the text below that the parties to the war in Ukraine declared a ceasefire in the situation “as is” and ended up at the negotiating table (which is what most of the “mediators” propose) in Istanbul, Almaty, Minsk, or even in Portsmouth. What conditions or at least hypotheses should be set before their eyes to persuade them not to spit at one another at the first meeting, but to talk constructively?
Probably, we need to start by dividing the papers on the discussion table into four baskets: humanitarian issues (prisoner exchange, the fate of refugees, etc.); economic security issues (trade security and infrastructure restoration); military security issues (how in a post-conflict settlement to satisfy the military security interests of both sides and third countries); and territorial issues. Of course, the last basket will be the most difficult to discuss, but the first three sets of papers can be drafted, read, edited, and discussed right now. Moreover, some of these issues are already part of the meagre dialogue between the two belligerents.
Humanitarian issues, for instance, are discussed regularly even today, leading to real exchanges of prisoners and the bodies of dead soldiers. Other humanitarian issues may include the exchange of information about refugees from both sides (about their location and financial situation) or options for providing coordinated assistance (between Moscow and Kyiv, by their foreign consulates) for Russian-speaking and Ukrainian-speaking people who are outside their countries. The critical humanitarian issue requiring a long-lasting solution may be mechanisms for securing the protection of the Russian language on the territory of Ukraine and of the Ukrainian language and nationals in Russia. Tools for eliminating manifestations of radicalism and nationalism in both Russia and Ukraine in the future might also be discussed.
Some economic security issues are coordinated—almost hourly—through the aforementioned Joint Coordination Center in Istanbul. Kyiv has already proposed that the export of steel products become part of the grain exporting deal. Such a fate could be in store for a variety of critical raw materials from both countries, including titanium, nickel, and palladium, which fuel the global economy and high-tech industry. Another aspect of the economic security basket could involve the restoration of supply chains in Eurasia, destroyed after the closure of the most optimal routes for transport from Europe to Asia through the territories of Russia and Ukraine. The idea of a joint Russian-Ukrainian (and not just Western) “Recovery Fund” could serve the task of jointly restoring the infrastructure destroyed in the Donbas and on the already occupied territory of Ukraine.
In the first stage of discussion, questions of military security could probably be resolved through the centuries-old practice of creating demilitarized zones on the border between the two countries and, as is already being discussed, around nuclear power plants and other critical infrastructure facilities near the conflict zone. Such a solution, of course, would also imply a compromise on the Russian side, at least concerning the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, where some form of joint civil administration with Kyiv may be required. Other important aspects of this basket can be the neutral status of Ukraine being enshrined in the country’s constitution (with the possibility of participation in the economic structures of the EU) or the case of a broadly agreed revival of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe. In the next stage, after a prolonged ceasefire, the questions of military security may be escalated to a broader level with the return to the more comprehensive discussion of security guarantees between the West (and Ukraine as its integral part) and Russia.
The most complex and painful questions involve territory, and they will require the most extended discussion. Here, February 24, 2022 may serve as a starting point. But suppose the humanitarian issues and the military and economic security problems listed above were resolved. In that case, both countries may be open to discussion of compromises for dealing with the two countries’ territorial tensions.
It is hard to believe in the possibility of such a prospect. Even the possibility of compromise may not be easy to accept. But remember that back in January, the possibility of a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine was just as difficult to imagine. The political will of elites in both countries has been enough to extend the war for more than half a year and very quickly convince the citizens of Ukraine and Russia of the possibility of a military victory over each other. I think that the same political will is quite capable of helping the same people regain hope for peace.
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