The Ukraine conflict and the problems of conflict termination

Chris Tuck, Defence Studies Department, King’s College London

Ukrainian and Russian officials are, at the time of writing, meeting in Turkey to seek a breakthrough that would lead to an end to the fighting in Ukraine. This is the latest in a succession of negotiations that so far has failed to lead to any decisive results. In many respects this should not be surprising. Wars are much easier to start than they are to stop. This might seem odd – one might assume that states begin wars as a result of a rational calculation on the costs and benefits of doing so; and when the costs turn out to exceed the benefits, it would be equally rational to halt the fighting as quickly as possible. For Ukraine, the war has wrought huge destruction and suffering. In the case of Vladimir Putin, it is clear that the war that he began in Ukraine has turned out to be significantly more costly than he assumed, and the anticipated gains elusive. An early end to the fighting would seem beneficial to both sides.

The Ukraine conflict demonstrates, however, that this sort of rationality often has little bearing on the prospects for peace, and we should not, therefore, expect a significant political breakthrough in negotiations any time soon. Why is this? Evidence from the past shows that there are usually a range of common obstacles to the termination of armed conflicts. These obstacles can be understood in terms of four key issues: is war working; is there a peace to make; are the costs of peace too high; and can peace be sold to those constituencies that matter? These questions reveal complicated dynamics in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. 

First, is war working? Peace is more likely if parties conclude that continuing to fight will not yield additional advantages. This situation may emerge when one side is winning decisively, or when both sides have concluded that they are locked into a mutually hurting stalemate. These conditions have not yet emerged in the Ukraine conflict. The challenge for peace is that this is a question that is future-focused, with costs being felt now often being trumped by hoped for improvements later. The Russian assault has largely stalled on most fronts. Nevertheless, at the moment, continuing military operations may still conceivably bring about an improvement in the Russian negotiating position. Mariupol, for example, is in a desperate situation, and its fall would solidify control of a land corridor to Crimea. Russia’s declared shift in focus to operations in Donetsk and Luhansk may yield more territory or may threaten to encircle Ukrainian forces in the Joint Forces Operation area. More broadly, the continued damage inflicted on Ukrainian towns and cities by indiscriminate Russian missile and artillery attacks might conceivably coerce Ukraine into concessions. But equally, from a Ukrainian perspective, there might be reason to hope that continuing to fight will yield benefits. Russian losses are high, sanctions are beginning to bite, and Ukrainian forces are conducting local counterattacks. Extending the war may yet drive the Russians to reduce their appetite at the negotiating table. For both sides, then, war might still work: continuing the fight could plausibly improve their negotiating position in the future.

Second, is there a peace to make? Even if both sides conclude that continuing to fight won’t improve their negotiating positions, a successful peace deal still requires that both sides can agree, even in very general terms, on the basis around which an acceptable peace deal could be constructed. But both sides are still far apart. President Volodymyr Zelensky has stated that: “My priorities in the negotiations are absolutely clear: the end of the war, security guarantees, sovereignty, restoration of territorial integrity, real guarantees for our country, real protection for our country,” Putin’s demands laid out in mid-March include Ukrainian neutrality and a commitment not to join NATO; Ukrainian disarmament; protection for the Russian language; de-Nazification; acceptance of Russia’s absorption of Crimea; and independence for Luhansk and Donetsk. Negotiations thus far have clarified some areas where agreement might be possible – neutrality, NATO membership, Russian language guarantees. But territorial issues are a key point of contention because they are zero-sum: success for one side inevitably would mean concessions from the other that would be difficult to portray as anything other than failure. 

Third, do the costs of peace outweigh the costs of war? For leaders, particularly those most closely associated with initiating and prosecuting a war, any settlement less than complete victory may carry significant psychological, material, and political costs. For some, the consequences may literally be terminal. For this reason, the ending of wars is often associated with some form of regime change. For Putin, whatever his original goals for the war, the continuation in fighting is now essentially about regime survival. Even if the costs of the war continue to grow, and even if some kind of political settlement could be reached, Putin is likely to continue to fight in the hope of obtaining a settlement that can plausibly be portrayed as a victory, because without this his political position may be fatally weakened. Even for Zelensky, this factor is an issue. Precisely because Ukraine has done much better than expected in the fighting, Zelensky will find it politically costly to sign any agreement that does not appear to match the scale of Ukrainian successes. 

Finally, can peace be sold to those constituencies that matter politically? As Fred Ikle has argued: ‘the political struggle within a country affects everything that matters in ending a conflict’. Though Putin and Zelensky might indeed decide what they want, they still have to sell it to others. In democracies, the views of the public, media, and political parties matter. The more the costs of war grow for a population, the more a population will want from a war in terms of a settlement in order to justify their sacrifice. Even authoritarian regimes will usually depend for their survival on key constituencies, whether it is the military or political and economic elites. Despite his position, domestic public opinion matters for Putin. He has at the moment some wiggle room in this regard, since his control of the national media and his continued efforts to downplay the nature of the war in Ukraine, referring to it as a ‘special military operation’ and couching the objectives in very general terms, do give him some ability to sell to Russians even much reduced outcomes. As the costs of the conflict rise for ordinary Russians, this wiggle room may narrow. He must also sell a peace to his inner circle, the Siloviki, and the military. For Zelensky, the views of the public matter even more, especially if he intends to follow through with his current formula and put to the vote any substantive changes to Ukraine’s status.

Wars often continue beyond the point at which, with hindsight, they might in terms of rational strategy have been better stopped. In ending the fighting between Russia and Ukraine, traditional structural obstacles to conflict termination are likely to create major challenges, irrespective of the mounting costs for both sides.

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