What are the dynamics which may determine whether Ukraine should negotiate

"Nxxxxxxxxn" and Ukraine

“Nxxxxxxxxxn” and Ukraine - discussion article


The growing debate about whether Ukraine should be open to negotiate with Russia is starting to polarise opinion in the West. Some believe now is the time to negotiate and that, if he does not do so, President Vlodymyr Zelenskyy risks over playing his hand and the loss of support from some of his allies. Others, particularly those in military circles, believe negotiating now would be a display of weakness and risks enabling Vladimir Putin to claim some success, and therefore Ukraine must completely expel Russia from its country before there can be any discussions (if any would then be required at all). As is customary now these alternative views are being expressed forceably, with little quarter given to opposing points of view, and with some being criticised for even raising the question.

I do not claim to have expertise in international diplomacy or conflict resolution at the nation state level, or in relation to Russian and Ukrainian affairs. However most of the principles which underpin negotiations and dispute resolution in the commercial world do have application to international conflict. This discussion article looks at some of the dynamics which may be relevant in determining when and how any negotiations may take place and ensuring they are successful.

Who decides?

The mantra from many western leaders is that it is Ukraine which has been attacked and invaded illegally, and therefore it should be for Ukraine alone to decide whether it should negotiate and upon the terms of any settlement. In recent weeks a number of cracks have appeared with several countries, including the US, raising the question of whether Ukraine should be open to negotiations now. There have been reports of an open channel of communication between the US and Russia, and that Bill Burns (CIA Director) and Sergey Naryshkin (Head of Russias Foreign Intelligence Service) met this week in Turkey, at the same time as the G20 is meeting in Indonesia. These discussions are being presented as being only about the use of nuclear weapons, and the White House is sticking to its line of “nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine”.

Whatever the rhetoric it is unlikely these decisions will be Ukraines alone.

  • This war is not happening in a vacuum. However the conflict ends, Russia and Ukraine will still be there, each with relationships and complex interdependencies with the rest of the world. The outcome of this war and of any negotiated settlement will effect these relationships, and therefore other states will say they have a legitimate interest in influencing the timing, structure and content of any negotiations.
  • The bravery, resilience and ingenuity of the Ukrainian people and their leadership has been remarkable and inspirational, and the single biggest driver of their achievements so far. This success has been in part due to the support provided by allies, without which it is doubtful whether they would have been able to defend their homeland. The US has so far provided $44bn in aid, more than twice the total provided by all other allies together. As well as providing financial and military support, many states have imposed economic sanctions upon Russia and those individuals who are close to the Russian government, which has prompted counter sanctions from Russia, leading to the destabilisation of energy markets and the consequent rise global inflation.
  • The world is looking for stability. Countries are still grappling with the aftershocks of the 2008 financial crisis and the Covid pandemic. We face the existential threat of climate change, the solution to which depends upon international cooperation and urgent concerted action. Many countries, including democracies, are facing growing issues with populations who are feeling left behind and unheard. And there is as yet no big thinking about how the world will deal with artificial intelligence, and the profoundly structural impact it will have on economies and people.

Whilst clearly it is predominantly a matter for Ukraine and its leadership, for these reasons other states will say they have a legitimate interest in influencing the timing, structure and content of any negotiations to bring this war to an end.

Does the perspective of Russia matter?

The invasion of Ukraine by Russia was an unprovoked and illegal act. Thousands of innocent people have been killed. The Ukranian army has suffered serious losses and casualties in a war they did not start. Homes, schools, hospitals, towns and cities have been destroyed. In the most cynical way the Russians have disabled critical infrastructure, leaving parts of Ukraine without power, water and other key amenities. The current number of alleged Russian war crimes total over 36,000. It is almost beyond comprehension that this has happened in Europe in 2022.

There is no real doubt the war is the creature of Vladimir Putin and his immediate supporters. From the start western governments have been describing this as “Putins war”. In April 2022 UK the then UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson made a direct appeal to the Russian people (partially in Russian) encouraging them to bypass state propaganda by downloading VPN’s and accessing western news sites to get the “real story”. He said he could not believe this appalling war was been conducted in the name of the Russian people.

However so far there has been no material backlash in Russia. Oligarchs, who have much to lose in financial terms (and perhaps more; several have fallen out of buildings in the last year), are not happy, having been sanctioned and fearing that their wealth and way of life is at risk. However they owe their positions largely to the Russian President, and so far none have been prepared to put their heads above the parapet. Some citizens have left the country to avoid conscription, and there appears to be some disquiet within the Russian army itself, particularly amongst conscripts. There has been some criticism of the war, but none of that has been directed towards Putin, but rather towards the Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, and army leaders on the ground for mishandling the military campaign. Apparently life in Moscow seems to be continuing as if there is no war at all. There is as yet no material opposition movement, and therefore no rallying point for a challenge to the current policy or to the current leadership.

Some commentators have raised hopes that President Putin will be removed from power by the ruling elites or will be required to stand down because of health problems. There has been no sign of either happening. Even if Vladimir Putin is dislodged, there is no guarantee he would be replaced by a different sort of leader, e.g. one who wishes to play a positive role in the world community, is prepared to embrace democracy (or at least to govern for the majority rather than the minority), and is more interested in resolving issues through diplomacy rather than aggression.

It is far more likely that he would be replaced by a Putin 2.0, or someone with even more warlike, dictatorial tendencies. The cabal of people who, with Putin, are running this war in Russia include Ramzan Kadyrov, the President of the Chechen Republic, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner Group (a private mercenary organisation which it is alleged has been responsible for the worst atrocities in Ukraine) and Alexander Bortnikov, Head of the FSB (successor organisation to the KGB). These are hardliners. They control the military and security services, and do not believe there is anything wrong with the war or the manner in which it is being been prosecuted, save to the extent that they consider it is not being prosecuted aggressively or effectively enough.

Even if Ukraine were to be successful in removing all invading forces from its territory, and therefore in inflicting a devastating defeat upon Russia, there is no guarantee that this would lead to the deposition of Putin or his inner circle. It could quite easily lead to a hardening of attitudes in the Russian leadership and to a commitment to re-arm, re-scale and retrain its forces to make sure the next time they do not lose.

Therefore unless the west is going to effect regime change in Russia, (and clearly that is not going to happen), these are the people Ukraine and it allies are going to have to deal with in any negotiations. The unfortunate dilemma is that in achieving the right result for Ukraine and the rest of the world, the best hope may be to negotiate with a Russia with Vladimir Putin at the helm. He is a known quantity, may well be the most pragmatic person in that inner circle, and he has a lot to lose. Reversing the madman theory of the Nixon era, he may be the least mad person in the room.

In June 2022 the French President Emmanuel Macron said “We must not humiliate Russia so that the day when the fighting stops we can build an exit ramp through diplomatic means”. He was criticised in many quarters for his remarks, accused of advocating compromise and rewarding aggression. In September he talked about the importance of dialogue with Putin and of understanding what is motivating him, with the object of giving negotiations at the end of this conflict the best chance of succeeding.

In my experience in a negotiation the most important individual in the room is the person you are negotiating with. You already know what is motivating you, your action and behaviour, and you know what you want. But achieving agreement upon acceptable terms means understanding what is driving the behaviour of the people on the other side of the table, what they want and also what they do not want (or fear). Further the language used in any negotiations is important. Ultimately discussions take place between people, with all their hopes, skills, fears, and insecurities. How individuals deal with and speak to each other makes a difference.

In this case, given the terrible consequences of his actions, it feels instinctively wrong to think that we should spend any time at all thinking about or trying to discover why Vladimir Putin has taken this course. It will be even more difficult to envisage a situation in which he or Russia can receive any benefit at all under the terms of any settlement. Particularly for Ukrainians it is and will be very difficult, if not impossible, to get beyond feelings of awful loss, fury and a desire for revenge. But if there is to be any settlement which is to hold and which is to provide a stable future for the Ukrainian people (and indeed the wider world community), the statesmen and stateswomen involved are likely to adopt a more pragmatic, objective view and approach with a view to achieving the right overall result.

Is now a good time?

One of the best times to negotiate is when you are winning the game. It sounds counter-intuitive and clearly if you are 5 nil up with two minutes to go, opening negotiations at that point would not make sense. Therefore unless President Zelenskyy’s intelligence agencies are telling him that the liberation of Kherson is going to lead rapidly to the withdrawal of Russian troops from the remaining occupied territory, he may consider this is the right time.

The momentum is with Ukraine. They have pushed Putin back from Kyiv and as a result he has focussed on occupying and consolidating in the south east and protecting Crimea. However the Ukrainians have turned him around by retaking territory there and pushing Russian forces out of Kherson and back across the Dnieper river. At the moment the Russians must be worried they will not hold their lines and that they will be pushed back quickly in chaotic retreat. They may even fear that Crimea is at risk.

Is that momentum sustainable? Russian confidence will rekindle and grow if Ukraine’s advances start to slow. Ukraine is coming into winter. There is a reason the Russians have put the Dnieper river between them and Ukranian forces; it is difficult to cross, particularly as the Russians have blown up some of the crossings. The Russians are digging in and reinforcing their positions. And the Russians still occupy a significant amount of Ukranian territory. So it must be at least questionable whether Ukraine will be able to keep moving forward at the same or comparable rate of progress. The risk is the war will move into an attritional state, which may favour Russia. Another risk is that sooner or later Russian commanders will get their act together. Therefore the dynamics and context for any negotiations could be completely different in a years time (to the possible if not likely detriment of Ukraine).

Further Ukraine is at a high point in how it is perceived by its allies and other key nations. The way in which the Ukrainian people have responded to the invasion and are fighting for their homeland, against all the apparent odds, has won almost universal global admiration and support. Even China has distanced itself from and is clearly unhappy with Russian actions. President Zelenskyy will be focussed upon retaining that support.

In summary, Ukraine is ascendant on the battlefield, it is occupying the high ground of world opinion, while Russia is isolated and its forces are in some disarray. All that could change quickly. Therefore now may be a good time to negotiate, unless it really is 5 nil with 2 minutes to go.

None of this means Ukraine should accept any occupation of its territory, or that its military campaign should cease before any settlement is reached. These would be issues to be hammered out at the negotiating table, and clearly whilst it is in the ascendant it makes sense for the Ukrainians to keep going with its military campaign until any agreement is concluded. Nor is it intended to side-line or belittle the hardship and losses of the Ukranian people, or their achievements, which upon any analysis have been extraordinary.

17th November 2022

Mike Henley