A realistic path toward peace for Ukraine and Russia

A sign the color of the Ukrainian flag with a peace symbol
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The courage and eloquence of Volodymyr Zelensky and the bravery of the Ukrainian people have been inspiring. At the same time, the carnage in Ukraine has been awful, and it will almost certainly get worse, as long as events continue on their current trajectory.  

Neither the Russians nor the Ukrainians seem to possess the overwhelming power needed to achieve victory. So, if the fighting persists, the result is likely to be a long-term stalemate. Without assigning cause or blame, it would appear that both sides are now involved in a lose-lose struggle.    

{mosads}At this point, probably the only way to stop the death and destruction is for Ukraine and Russia to understand that they cannot achieve their maximum demands and that they will almost certainly have to settle for less than what they would have wanted to achieve. In other words, there needs to be a compromise. While compromise can be perceived as the lowest common denominator, the parties would be wise to see the process, rather, as reaching for the highest common denominator.      

Henry Kissinger anticipated this when he wrote in 2014 that “if Ukraine is to survive and thrive, it must not be either side’s outpost against the other — it should function as a bridge between them.” 

Here is what a bridging agreement might look like:

  • There would be an immediate ceasefire and withdrawal of troops to the locations where they were before February 24, when the Russian military invaded Ukraine. 

  • De facto Russian control of Crimea and the pre-February 24 parts of the Donbas would continue. At the same time, Ukraine would retain sovereignty over these areas. 

  • Ukraine would provide a binding pledge that it would remain neutral and never join any military alliance, including NATO. This is something to which President Zelensky has already agreed. It would allow NATO’s policy of offering an “open door” to new members to remain in place, and Ukraine alone would be making the choice not to join. 

  • Ukraine would forswear possession of offensive weapons, and it would not allow foreign troops on its soil, except in mutually agreed small numbers for training and logistical purposes. 

  • Ukraine would be free to join the European Union, assuming that it meets the EU’s entry requirements and that the EU accepts it. Like Finland, Sweden and Austria, Ukraine would be included in the European economic and social enterprise without becoming a NATO member. 

  • Just as English and French are the official languages of Canada, Ukraine would make Russian an official language alongside Ukrainian. Speakers of both languages would have equal linguistic rights and not be discriminated against in any way. 

  • Offensive missiles would not be allowed within a mutually agreed distance of borders between Russian and NATO  countries. This proviso would be coupled with an agreement allowing both sides to carry out periodic inspections of each other’s missile sites. Several weeks before February 24, as part of its effort to forestall a Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Biden administration indicated to the Russians that it was open to such an arrangement.  

  • Ukraine would agree to stamp out any glorification or pursuance of fascist ideas or activities. 

  • Assuming that both sides have agreed to a ceasefire that includes Russian withdrawal, international sanctions and other economic measures that have been imposed on Russia would be removed.  

On Friday, Vladimir Putin articulated his demands for ending the hostilities in a telephone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Taking him at his word, what Putin was seeking was not so far from what is being proposed here. He was obviously speaking for the Russian side, and his demands did not reflect the Ukrainian perspective. The above list also brings in many of Ukraine’s needs that will have to be included if the Ukrainians are to agree.  

The bottom line would seem to be that peace may be within reach — if the parties are truly willing to find ways to bridge their differences.  

John Marks was the founder and long-time president of Search for Common Ground, an international non-governmental organization involved in peacebuilding. He currently is the managing director of Confluence International, a peacebuilding group based in Amsterdam.

Tags In Russia Post-Soviet conflicts Russian irredentism Russia–Ukraine relations Russo-Ukrainian War Ukraine Vladimir Putin Vladimir Putin Volodymyr Zelenskyy

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