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The Front Lines of Peace

The Front Lines of Peace

Four key obstacles stand in the way of a Kyiv-Moscow truce.

Andreas Umland

As Russia’s war against Ukraine approaches its two-year mark, why is there still no negotiated end to it? And importantly, why is there unlikely to be one in the near future? At the least, four circumstances are currently hindering a compromise between Kyiv and Moscow. 

1. Conflicting Constitutional Claims

In March 2014, Russia formally annexed Crimea in order to officially make it part of its pseudo-federation. In September 2022, Moscow repeated this extraordinary step when it declared four south-eastern regions of mainland Ukraine as part of the Russian Federation. Russia's internal legislation was changed to fully incorporate the territorial spoils of war into the Russian structure. As a result, there are now five administrative units of Ukraine, to which the Russian constitution and a variety of lower Russian legal acts such as laws, decrees, and resolutions lay claim to.

However, since Ukraine’s independence in 1991, the Ukrainian constitution also includes these five regions in its state territory. Neither the Ukrainian nor the Russian constitution can be changed easily. Theoretically, the Ukrainian constitution can be amended quickly with a two-thirds majority of the Ukrainian unicameral parliament, the Verkhovna Rada (Supreme Council). However, Ukraine will never relinquish its rightful territory.

Russia’s constitutional revision process is more complicated than that of Ukraine. The prospect of a Russian reversal of the constitutional reforms of 2014 and 2022, which implemented the annexations, is politically less fantastic than Ukraine renouncing its currently occupied territories. Nevertheless, Russian fulfillment of its obligations under international law—if and when such an intention arises in the Kremlin—will not be easy to implement. It is politically easier to annex territories than to cede them.

A formal legal reversal of Putin's expansionist adventure is only conceivable after and not before its material end. The hope that either or both Ukraine and Russia will decide to repeal their current constitutions as a result of a diplomatic process is unrealistic.

2. Political Headwinds

In both Ukraine and Russia, significant social and political groups are strictly opposed to any territorial and political compromise with the enemy. Due to the high blood toll that the war is exacting in both countries, even symbolic concessions to the other side would pose major domestic political challenges for both country’s governments.

Even small conciliatory steps toward the other side, as a result of hypothetical negotiations, would be branded as treason. More or less large sections of the population and entire parties would oppose them; similarly, they’d become politically and perhaps even physically active.

Of course, the hawks in Ukraine and Russia are neither normatively nor politically comparable. Just like the territorial claims of the two constitutions, their claims are fundamentally different in legal terms, but also morally, demographically, historically, and culturally. On the one hand, the Ukrainian hawks demand only the restoration of law and order. This group comprises the majority of the Ukrainian population. On the other side are various types of Russian hawks who insist that at least some territorial and political gains from Moscow's military interventions in Ukraine remain permanent. 

There are also vociferous, maximalist hawkish groups in both countries that strictly reject even minimal concessions. Some of these particularly intransigent sections of society in both countries are made up of soldiers and war veterans who are not only experienced in handling weapons, but also have access to them.

3. Crimea's Trophy Status

A third obstacle to ending the war through negotiation is the special role that Crimea has played for the Russian state and its military actions since 2014. Crimea was and is the most popular territorial acquisition that Putin has presented to the Russian nation—an achievement with far more recognition than the covert or overt Russian acquisitions of Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia or Kherson. This renders a negotiated return of Crimea by Russia to Ukraine unlikely.

It also creates a strategic dilemma for the Kremlin. At some point, Moscow might be interested in ending the war. A new Russian leadership might even be willing to sacrifice part of the Russian mainland territory annexed in 2022 to achieve this goal. However, Crimea has always needed the Ukrainian mainland areas north of the peninsula for its own development.

The close geographical and historical connection between Crimea and the Ukrainian mainland was the main reason why the Soviet government decided in 1954 to transfer Crimea from the Russian to the Ukrainian Soviet Republic. In 2022, a similar consideration prompted Putin to launch a full-scale attack on Ukraine. After conquering the peninsula in 2014, he believed that Russia must also occupy the territories on the Ukrainian mainland to the north of Crimea, in order to secure the economic development of this Black Sea pearl. Between 2014 and 2021, annexed Crimea was not only the most illegal, but also the most heavily subsidized region, of the Russian Federation.

Crimea is part of a larger economic, transportation, and historical space that also includes large parts of southern mainland Ukraine. In a hypothetical future Russian-Ukrainian negotiation on the future of the currently occupied territories, it is therefore a question of all or nothing not only for Kyiv, but also for Moscow. This is particularly true if the Ukrainian armed forces destroy the Kerch Bridge built in 2019—that is likely to happen sooner or later. 

A peace plan in which Russia partially accepts that Ukraine regains its territories on the mainland but leaves Crimea behind as a consolation prize for Moscow would be unacceptable not only for Kyiv, but also for the Kremlin. This is because it would render Crimea as an isolated exclave far away and difficult to reach from Russia. And this would make neither economic nor strategic sense for Moscow.

4. East and Central European Skepticism

The fourth and most important factor preventing Kyiv from premature negotiations with Moscow is its historical experience with Russia and a comparative interpretation of the current conflict. Ukrainian history, as well as the past experiences of other East-Central European states, suggests that Russia will not abide by an agreement reached through diplomatic compromise rather than military victory. Independent Ukraine has signed hundreds of agreements with Russia over the last thirty years, most of which are now invalid.

These include political memoranda or temporary ceasefires such as the Budapest Memorandum of 1994; the Minsk Accords of 2014/2015; the regular international and fully ratified pacts such as the 1991 Belovezha Trilateral Agreement signed by Boris Yeltsin and the 2003 bilateral Russian-Ukrainian Border Treaty signed by Vladimir Putin. Many of these documents explicitly recognize Ukraine's borders, territorial integrity, and its independent sovereignty from Russia. Nevertheless, even those argreements that the Russian parliament ratified by vote proved to be invalid in 2014 and 2022.

These and other patterns of Moscow's behavior do not, from a Ukrainian perspective, bode well for negotiations with the Kremlin. Ukrainians, as well as other nations and ethnicities of the former Tsarist and Soviet empires, have had too many bitter experiences over the centuries with Russian imperialism—which today is once again Moscow's barely disguised foreign policy doctrine. These historical lessons advise not only Kyiv, but also Helsinki, Tallinn, Riga, Vilnius, Warsaw, Prague and Bucharest to wait for an—at least partial—Ukrainian victory before beginning negotiations, if they want these to be truly meaningful. Only when a military catastrophe threatens Moscow will it search for a compromise that might be acceptable and viable for Kyiv.

At some point, negotiations will play a role in Russian-Ukrainian relations. However, it will be necessary to wait until the situation on the ground and in Moscow has changed sufficiently for talks to make any sense for Kyiv. An agreement that is signed before Ukraine has at least gained a significant military advantage and a stronger negotiating position would be a farce. At best , it would bring about a postponement and not an end to the armed conflict.

At worst, a quick ceasefire agreement could end up prolonging Russia's high-intensity war. Moscow could arguably use the breathing space to re-equip and rebuild in order to advance again. In such a scenario, a hasty agreement would run counter to the security concerns that had led to the initiation of negotiations. The Minsk Agreements of 2014 and 2015 did indeed initially defuse the ongoing armed confrontation. However, they did not prevent the massive escalation of 2022; rather, they helped to prepare it.

Once a meaningful agreement is signed between Kyiv and Moscow, its success must be ensured. In light of Russia's behavior in the post-Soviet space over the past thirty years, securing future peace will only be possible with plausible military deterrence against a renewed escalation. Providing substantial military support for Kyiv is the right strategy in three respects. Firstly, it will help to prepare for peace now. Secondly, it will enable a meaningful agreement between Kyiv and Moscow at a future date—in contrast to the Minsk agreements. And thirdly, it will keep the peace intact afterward. 

Andreas Umland, Ph.D., is an analyst at the Stockholm Centre for East European Studies (SCEEUS) at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs (UI). The article summarizes the findings of a SCEEUS project and four separate reports in 2023.

Image: A field of wheat in eastern Ukraine. (Unsplash: Polina Rytova)

AuthoritarianismDemocracyEastern EuropeEuropeRussiaUkraine