The Russia-Ukraine negotiation terrain
Hawks oversimplify, while appeasers are totally wrong
Bottom line up front: Simple calls for “negotiations” between Russia and Ukraine are widely beside the point.
Conventional wisdom says:
Wars end either through negotiation or complete capitulation.
It now seems that Ukraine will never have to capitulate.
Russian capitulation is even less likely.
So at some point Ukraine and Russia will negotiate peace.
Within that consensus, there’s a hawk/dove divide:
Hawks think Ukraine neither will nor should negotiate until Russian forces have been driven from the territory they have temporarily occupied.
Doves, sometimes referred to as appeasers, think that the sooner negotiations start, the better off everybody will be.
Conventional wisdom may be wrong, however, for at least four reasons:
Russia and Ukraine have irreconcilable views about their mutual border, from which neither side is apt to formally back down.
Treaties with Russia resolve little of importance. Russia doesn’t honor formal agreements any more than it honors informal ones.
Peace treaties or even armistices aren’t really necessary for peace. (Examples: Korea, Middle East, Taiwan)
There are and will be numerous negotiations about the prosecution, end, and aftermath of the Russia-Ukraine War, involving different parties.
And so, while the hawks are vastly more correct than the appeasers, even they risk misreading the negotiation terrain.
Let’s drill down.
The borders in a Russia-Ukraine treaty are hard to imagine
Russia won’t soon back down on retaining Ukrainian territory. As long as Putin is in charge, that’s pretty obvious, for reasons of domestic politics, face-saving, and pure ego. But experts don’t see a path for Putin to be replaced by anybody except a fellow war-monger, probably one who’s even more hawkish than he is.
Ukraine isn’t going to back down either. Russia has been so murderous and destructive on Ukrainian territory that Russian rule over Ukrainian territory is unthinkable, except as a temporary disaster to be ended as soon as it can.
Military developments are unlikely to change these (non)negotiating stances, no matter who seems to be prevailing. Russia’s propagandists lean heavily into the history of wars in which Russia lost territory and then won it back. (1812 and World War 2) Conversely, national and ethnic survival require Ukraine to keep fighting, even if things go much worse than experts now expect.
Whether Russia honors a deal has little to do with whether it was codified in a treaty
In some domains, Russia is a fairly trustworthy negotiating partner. But in such cases, it honors informal deals as scrupulously as it honors formal ones. That is, it satisfies partners’ expectations when its own interests seem to mandate doing so. In particular:
Moscow has a strong 60-year track record of adhering to informal nuclear non-escalation bargains.
Sanctions aside, the West has done considerable business with Russia for several decades, without too much in the way of special shenanigans.
In both those cases, the expected costs of cheating far outweigh Russia’s likely gains. When that condition doesn’t hold, however – or when Russian leadership doesn’t realize that it holds – experience is quite negative about Russia’s fidelity to established agreement, most obviously in the case of Russia’s invasions of Ukraine.
Peace treaties are optional anyway
It’s widely believed that wars have to end either in unconditional surrender or with some kind of peace treaty. But that belief doesn’t match actual facts.
Soon after WW2, three major conflicts arose that lack peace treaties to this day.
Israel has border-defining armistices with pretty much all of its neighbors, but in some cases no peace treaty.
The Koreas have a border-defining armistice … which North Korea periodically disavows, and South Korea never signed in the first place. They have never had a peace treaty.
China and Taiwan have no substantive documentation of their borders at all, except perhaps through cooperation in one or the other specialized international program.
The Russia/Ukraine case seems closest to the China/Taiwan one. Ukraine, like the rest of the world, believes in the pre-2014 borders. Russia insists on … something else. The true border will be wherever the two countries’ armies end up with the shooting finally dies down. If the resulting lines are fairly obvious, such as pre-2014 borders, not even an armistice agreement may be needed to make them clear.
After that – well, the Taiwan/China border has remained static for over 50 years, and life has been better in Taiwan than in China for substantially all that time. But China remains adamant about eventually repossessing Taiwan even so.
So to sum up this article thus far:
Future borders between Russia and Ukraine will be resolved by military conflict. Hopefully the current war will suffice to fix them for generations to come.
There potentially will be no peace treaty in the foreseeable future, also measured in generations. There may not even be an armistice.
That’s refreshingly simple. But buckle up. Complications are about to get intense.
Many negotiations arise from the Russia-Ukraine war
While potential Russia-Ukraine border negotiations are over-hyped, other Russia-Ukraine-related negotiations could be truly important, with negotiating parties that are quite diverse. For example:
Military outcomes will continue to be strongly influenced by Western weapons aid, and the conditions on its use. Those in turn depend on US/Russia non-escalation negotiations, as well as standard internal negotiations within the coalition aiding Ukraine.
Sanctions are a matter for Western countries to negotiate among themselves, or with Russia, or with relevant economic powers such as OPEC members. Ukraine doesn’t really get a vote.
The same is true of reparations. Western countries may confiscate Russian assets they control, and transfer those to Ukraine. But the likelihood of Russia agreeing to a 21st Century Versailles Treaty seems … low.
Marshall-Plan-like rebuilding aid from the West is a whole other matter. That’s apt to really happen. Ukraine will likely have to agree to strong anti-corruption provisions, but those are needed in any case.
Precedent suggests that war crimes justice will barely happen at all, especially not to the extent it relies on any Russian cooperation.
Negotiation of post-war security arrangements for Ukraine is likely to be a special mess, whether the framework winds up being full NATO membership or a more customized relationship instead. At least two NATO-member dictators -- Turkey’s Erdogan and Hungary’s Orban -- are friendly to Putin and Russia and skeptical of the West. And Russia will of course try to participate in the bargaining any way it can.
Migration and repatriation are particularly difficult subjects
And then there are the hugely important matters of repatriation and migration. This realm features multiple issues and complications, such as:
Many Ukrainian civilians have been taken to Russia, either wholly involuntarily or as the least-worst alternative after the destruction of their home cities. The count for children alone is said to be in the 100s of 1000s. Overall figures are even higher. This is widely viewed as genocide.
Similarly, as President Zelenskyy has observed, many children in Crimea can only remember Russian rule.
A core premise of Russia’s invasions and “annexations” of Ukrainian territory is the claim that some Ukrainian adults would truly prefer to live under Russian rule. For the most part, this is surely false. But to the extent there are exceptions, Ukraine might encourage them to actually move to Russia.
Russian prisoners of war may not want to be repatriated, for reasons that could include criminal penalties for having surrendered, the recent murder-by-sledgehammer of one returned POW, or just general resentment of the Russian state.
Similar issues arose after the end of World War 2, and at other times in Soviet and Russian history as well. Much misery ensued. The importance of the present-day versions is almost impossible to overstate.
Sorting these messes out will surely involve direct Russia-Ukraine negotiations, which won’t be easy. Accounting for kidnapped Ukrainians will be particularly difficult, in that:
Some of the children have been “adopted” into Russian families, who surely won’t want to give them back.
Some of the victims were surely murdered, which Russia won’t want to ever admit.
Russian bureaucracy probably couldn’t easily give a full accounting even if they wanted to.
Russia-Ukraine negotiation linkages
How these many negotiations are separated or combined will be an exercise in diplomatic art. For starters:
Reparations and sanctions relief naturally go together, as these both are economic issues in which the West might want to impose its will on Russia.
Russia may view kidnapped Ukrainians as valuable hostages, and try to extract concessions on other issues for their return.
More generally, Russia has reasons to want to mix and muck up negotiations, such as:
It can make grandiose, dubiously realistic threats. (Use nukes! Shoot down satellites! Withhold food shipments from famished countries!) It would like to be rewarded for not carrying them out.
Treaties are commonly to Russia’s advantage, since it doesn’t feel constrained to actually obey them, whereas the other signatories might.
In particular, the natural way to handle repatriation of adults is to simply agree that anybody who wants to migrate from Ukraine to Russia, or return from Russia to Ukraine, is free to do so. There’s just enough press and speech freedom in Russia to assure that such an agreement could be realistically monitored for compliance. However, it’s hard to imagine how such a declaration would work without an agreement on borders … and as noted above, internal Russian politics make a border agreement seem unlikely.
Negotiators from many countries will have to earn their pay.
Gabrielius Landsbergis, Foreign Minister of Lithuania, suggests that international security institutions may have to be reinvented after Russia’s eventual defeat.