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Is Diplomacy Still Relevant?

A photo of Angela Merkel pointing her finger as Vladimir Putin looks at her.
Angela Merkel gestures as Vladimir Putin looks on during a press conference after talks in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, May 10, 2015. Photo: Kirill Kudryavtsev/Reuters.

The war in Ukraine has been going on for a year. The devastation is enormous as are the violations of human rights. So far, the focus has been placed on arms deliveries rather than on diplomacy. When is the right time for diplomatic talks? Interview with Karin Aggestam, Professor of Political Science, Director of the Centre for Advanced Middle Eastern Studies and expert on diplomacy and peace processes.

– Russia's invasion of Ukraine is a crystal clear example of an attack against a sovereign state which is prohibited by international law. This is what makes diplomatic negotiations difficult. Before you can start negotiating, the parameters for the negotiations must be set. Ukraine is waging a war of self-defense and as long as Russia does not recognize itself as the aggressor there is no incentive to negotiate. It concerns responsibility, war crimes and violations of the laws of war.

– Putin has stated on a few occasions that he is ready to negotiate, but it has been perceived as a strategic maneuver to gain time, regroup Russian forces and procure new military supplies. "Dishonest intentions" in willingness to negotiate is a classic tactic that we often see in research.

How important is the argument to end the violence?

– For Ukraine, the war is about self-defense, territorial integrity and national survival. Both sides use existential arguments, which makes it difficult to start negotiations on a cease-fire. It is perceived as a "zero sum game" (one side's gain is the other's loss) and it is not possible to negotiate and compromise about one's national existence.  Russia also considers itself threatened, although we may think such reasoning is distorted. Putin argues that Russia's security is dependent on not having any NATO country bordering Russia.

– The difficulty in ending the killing is that both sides have "invested" in a massive military escalation. Parts of Ukraine have been almost leveled to the ground by the Russian aggression, a large part of the population is displaced and the death toll is enormous. Engaging in negotiation and diplomacy that involves compromise is extremely challenging for political leaders. Should Zelensky somehow make concessions to Russia, he will be heavily criticized at home for wasting lives.

What negative consequences would there be if negotiations were pushed for in this situation?

– The issue of "timing", i.e., the appropriate time to start peace negotiations, has been researched extensively. For example, there are times when negotiations should not be initiated. There is a lot at stake since it concerns questions about basic norms and principles of the international order. If the international community was to start propose negotiations on the occupied territories of Ukraine in order to end the war, we may be compromising international norms and rules regarding the sovereignty of states. For instance, it is worrying to see how many countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East that chose to abstain when the UN General Assembly voted to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Do you have some examples when diplomatic peace negotiations have ignored the principles of international law?

– The question of whether and how it is possible to negotiate with war criminals has been brought up several times, for example, in the attempts to end the war in Syria. The Dayton Agreement signed in 1995 is another example. It has been criticized precisely because it was considered wrong to negotiate peace with a war criminal like Milošević, which resulted in an ethnic division of the country. At the same time, the killing in the Balkans came to an end.

Do you think any diplomatic initiatives are taking place in spite of the situation?

– Usually we only see the tip of the iceberg of diplomacy and it is a matter of definition when negotiations start and end. But what we do know is that certain negotiations are ongoing, for example around prisoner exchanges and of the export of wheat and other crops. There is also an expressed wish, mainly from France but also from Germany, to keep a dialogue going with Russia, among other things, because Russia has threatened with nuclear weapons on several occasions.

Statistically speaking, how do wars usually end?

– According to Uppsala University's conflict database, a third of all wars usually end with a total victory for one party, a third usually end with a peace agreement and a third with a ceasefire being declared. This reflects some of the challenges that diplomacy faces to end war.

What do you think about a ceasefire to end the violence?

– A ceasefire can be a temporary solution to stop the killing and a continued military escalation. In Syria, several ceasefires have been negotiated but collapsed shortly afterwards. Another problem with ceasefires is that they tend to "freeze" conflicts. The Arab-Israeli War of 1948-1949 and the Turkish-Cyprus War of 1974 are examples of long ceasefires where the conflicts have been frozen and where there is no solution in sight.

– But there are also other examples of when a ceasefire was a step in a longer negotiation process that led to a peace agreement. The ceasefire agreement between Israel and Egypt in 1975 which later resulted in a peace agreement in 1977 is one such example.

What do you think will happen in this war?

– What we are witnessing is a classic war of attrition that risks becoming protracted like the Iran-Iraq war, the US-Vietnam war or the Soviet-Afghanistan war. We have seen countless examples that it is not possible to defeat an adversary by escalating military violence.

– The longer the war goes on the more difficult it will be to keep the West united in their policies to Russia, which Putin has everything to gain from. 

– At the moment, chances for a diplomatic solution look bleak, but in the long term, there could possibly be an increasing "war fatigue" in Russia and a change of leadership, which could open up new for diplomatic solutions. The stalemate in the Soviet Union's long war in Afghanistan was broken, for example, when Gorbachev became leader and decided to withdraw the Soviet troops.

– In research, we talk about the "ripe moment" for negotiations. It occurs when the warring parties have ended in a painful and mutual deadlock, which may be used as a "window" for diplomatic negotiations.

Karin Aggestam's research profile