Evaluating Three Peace Plans for the Ukraine War
by Mel Gurtov
Ideas about how to end the Ukraine war abound. None come from Ukraine. None have gained traction. Here, nevertheless, are three examples of what knowledgeable people are thinking, along with my evaluation.
After a Stalemate
Two members of the US foreign policy establishment, Richard Haass and Charles Kupchan, offer a path to a negotiated peace in the April issue of Foreign Affairs. They acknowledge that “conditions are not yet ripe for a negotiated settlement,” but suggest that a “bloody stalemate” in the war can provide an opportunity. They propose “a sequenced two-pronged strategy aimed at, first, bolstering Ukraine’s military capability and then, when the fighting season winds down late this year, ushering Moscow and Kyiv from the battlefield to the negotiating table.”
The first part of their strategy requires an even greater supply of weapons to Ukraine, “heavy losses” imposed on Russia, and the presumption of a successful Ukraine counteroffensive. The second part would then be a cease-fire, with both armies pulling back behind a demilitarized zone monitored by either the UN or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. As the cease-fire holds, peace talks would begin, on two tracks: Ukraine-Russia talks on one track, NATO-Russia strategic dialogue on the other.
Considering that the authors put great emphasis on weapons help for Ukraine—not just more weapons, but more lethal weapons, including advanced aircraft—it may be hard to understand their conviction in a diplomatic follow-up. Stalemate may occur, as they predict, but that doesn’t necessarily create an incentive for either side to stop fighting. More weapons may mean more war, no?
Logically, the terrible costs of the war to both sides should at some point promote interest in stopping the fight, but when? An equally logical outcome of the current situation is that the war drags on for another year, that no cease-fire or peace talks emerge, and that out of exhaustion, both sides retire behind whatever boundaries their forces occupy.
The Haass-Kupchan article is important because of a news report that the two authors, plus an assortment of other former government officials, met informally in April with certain Russians—including at one point the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov—in talks about ending the war. This type of diplomacy is often called Track 2 to distinguish it from Track 1, or formal negotiations between senior government officials.
According to NBC News, which broke the story, the Russian participants were presumed to have Putin’s ear. The Biden administration was aware of the talks and was surely briefed on their outcome, but it was not officially represented.
Several important details about these talks are unknown: their substance, how many times the participants met, what was communicated to Russia’s or US leaders, whether or not the talks advanced a peace process, who the Russian participants were, and whether or not the Track 2 effort will continue.
Track 2 diplomacy certainly has value in some circumstances. It has been used more than a few times in US dealings with North Korea, including most famously by former Pres. Jimmy Carter when he traveled to Pyongyang in 1994, just as the US and North Korea seemed headed for a nuclear showdown. Whether or not the US-Russia Track 2 talks are wise remains to be determined. Not knowing the names of all the Russian participants raises questions about their access to Putin, not to mention their influence with him.
Most importantly, when it comes to negotiating international agreements, Track 2 talks cannot substitute for Track 1. Former officials and advisers do not have standing to make commitments or decide policies for their governments. (Even Jimmy Carter didn’t; he angered the State Department for going to North Korea, but his trip succeeded anyway.)
The plan for a cease-fire put forward by the two Americans in these talks may, however, be taken by the Russians as indicative of what official Washington is thinking. That plan, heavily reliant on military force, may further convince Putin and his inner circle that only continued fighting is worth pursuing—exactly opposite of the Americans’ hope, and exactly opposite of what any peace plan should encompass if it is to have credibility.
Land for Peace
The chief of staff to NATO’s secretary-general got more than a little attention when he said the path to peace in Ukraine is to trade land to Russia for a peace agreement and the promise of Ukraine membership in NATO. The secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, shot the idea down himself, saying the path to a settlement was “to support Ukraine militarily. If you want a lasting, just peace, then military support for Ukraine is the way to get there. There is no doubt about that.”
He added: “It is Ukraine, and only Ukraine, that can decide when the prerequisites for negotiations are present. And who can decide, around a negotiating table, what is an acceptable solution. Our task is to support them.”
Still, land for peace is an idea that is being heard more and more often, especially so long as the Ukrainian counteroffensive fails to produce any major change on the battlefield. The alternative of unflinching support for Ukraine sounds noble, but it is also a prescription for endless war—a war that has already cost a half-million lives and injuries to soldiers on both sides, according to a US official.
Starting to Talk Now
A New Yorker article by Keith Gessen offers the thoughts of a Russia analyst with the RAND Corporation, Samuel Charap. His views stem from the belief that heavy sanctions on Russia and constant additions to Ukraine’s weapons arsenal undermine any possibility of bringing the war to a close. He favors diplomacy even in the midst of fighting.
Contrary to the prevailing opinion that only battlefield defeat will bring Putin to his senses, Charap favors a freeze on current battlefield conditions and a cease-fire that will contain incentives and sanctions sufficient to prevent a resumption of the war. Russia, he contends, has already been defeated: “Their regional clout, the flight of talent—the strategic consequences have been huge, by any measure.” On Ukraine’s side, any major territorial gains are unlikely, whereas further fighting might lead to an incident that would trigger a new escalation.
Charap has had to fend off many criticisms and harsh accusations. One, from a Ukrainian who heard him speak, pointed to the suffering of all those people in Russian-occupied territory. How would Russia be held responsible for its war crimes? Charap had no answer other than to say that Ukraine’s government would have to choose between two kinds of losses, either in the war or in occupied territory—a terrible choice.
Still, Charap makes the important point that pre-negotiation preparation would be a wise move, in which “you actually devote resources inside the government to thinking through the practicalities and getting the right pieces in place.” But that would require that Russia and Ukraine, as well as the US, designate representatives to begin talking.
The Necessary Ingredients of a Peace Plan
Any peace plan needs to be attentive to at least these three realities. First, as President Zelensky has said, “the fate of Ukraine cannot be decided without Ukraine.” That includes pre-negotiations, official negotiations, and Track II negotiations. Second, Russia must pay for its aggression. According to news reports, the idea of using some $300 billion in seized Russian assets would violate international law.
An alternative, the New York Times reports, “is to use profits earned by Europe-based financial companies that are holding the assets and channel those profits to Ukraine”—around $3 billion a year. This and other ideas now circulating would seem to be based on one principle: profit from Russia’s assets, but eventually return the principle to Russia.
That dovetails with a third point: With the lesson of World War I in mind, Russia must not be so severely punished as to give aid and comfort to revanchists. Reparations and war crimes trials should leave room for the rise of another Gorbachev, not create conditions for another Putin. The view of the “total victory” school, that Russia must pay dearly so it will never again be imperialist—captured in the title of Eliot Cohen’s article, “It’s Not Enough for Ukraine to Win, Russia Has to Lose”—is a dangerous basis for policy.
Finally, as Samuel Charap says, the US needs a Plan B in the event the war is a stalemate. Ukraine shouldn’t have a blank check to continue fighting endlessly, but neither should deals be struck behind its back.
Negotiations cannot be taboo, as now seems to be the case.