The Ukraine war has claimed thousands of lives from both sides. Sustained attacks from Russia’s military have caused mass devastation for civilians in Chernihiv, Kharkiv in the north-east, and Mariupol in the south-east. Recently, Ukraine’s agreement to remain “neutral” was exchanged for Russia’s promise to reduce military activity in Chernihiv and Kyiv’s direction. However, an estimate of 160,000 people remain trapped with few basic services in Mariupol, a strategically significant city to Russia in the war with Ukraine.
Time is not on anyone’s side. There shall be no further procrastination in seriously discussing a pragmatic solution for a path to peace. The challenge between two countries at the negotiating table cannot be beaten off soon, while humanitarian catastrophes continue to mount up.
Challenges in negotiations
Russian President Vladimir Putin has three main objectives in Ukraine: Ukraine’s recognition of two Donbas’s provinces, Ukraine’s acknowledgment of Crimea as Russian territory, and Ukraine’s neutrality. For recognition of Donbas, he wants independence for two breakaway republics Donetsk and Luhansk in south-eastern Ukraine. Russia’s military operation on the 24th of February was Putin’s claim to protect the people of Donbas and “demilitarize and denazify” Ukraine. The two republics have been seized by Russia-backed separatists after the overthrow of Ukraine’s pro-Kremlin president Viktor Yanukovych in 2014. Nevertheless, as proven in Ukraine’s recent responses to peace talks, an “independent” status for the two provinces is not negotiable for Zelensky’s government. The status of Crimea and the two republics, thus, are challenging to settle.
In the fifth week after the war broke out, negotiations eventually made progress. On March the 29th, Ukraine put forward a neutrality proposal in Istanbul, including pledges to not join military alliances and host troops. The country also proposed that it would not become a nuclear power. In reaction to Ukraine’s neutrality, Russia said it would reduce military activity in the Kyiv and Chernihiv directions. Nonetheless, Mariupol is still the main target of Russia’s frenzied shellings and attacks. Since the start of the war, the city has been pummeled with countless artillery and missiles from Russia because of two main reasons. First, the city is a land corridor between Crimea and Donbas. If Mariupol was seized, a strong link between Russia and the separatists in Donetsk would be established. Second, Mariupol is an important port on the Sea of Azov and a key export hub for Ukraine’s steel and coal. Losing the city, therefore, would be a serious blow to the entire national economy.
Russia has implied that unless Donetsk and Luhansk could achieve a special status, key cities such as Mariupol will continue bearing disastrous devastation. However, both sides’ firm stances on the Donbas question have remained unchanged. Kyiv has reaffirmed that Ukraine will do anything to safeguard its sovereignty. “You cannot just demand Ukraine to recognize some territories as independent republics”, Zelensky claimed. In response, Moscow has accused Kyiv of making proposals unacceptable to Russia.
Will there be any victor in this war?
Meanwhile, ordinary citizens in Russia are suffering from the consequences of economic sanctions, the actions from Western powers that are widely regarded in Russia as counterproductive. In fact, to date, economic sanctions seem to have little effect on Putin’s decisions. Unquestionably, economic sanctions tend to hurt ordinary civilians instead of elites and oligarchs. Because of the depreciation of the ruble, Russian citizens can now sense a sharp decrease in their purchasing power. Product shortages have begun to affect the lives of ordinary people and in the longer run, jobs may start to disappear. Furthermore, there has not been any concrete evidence proving the effect of sanctions on Putin’s decisions in Ukraine.
Ìn the meantime, given the slow progress in peace talks, there is little hope that any definite settlement will be delivered in Ukraine soon. Both sides may also seek more battlefield gains for their advantage at the negotiating table. Nonetheless, even though a huge goal such as a settlement to end the war is almost impossible at this early stage of talks, there is a possibility that more humanitarian corridors can be opened. A reduction of Russian military activities in exchange for Ukraine’s neutrality manifested possible positive outcomes that may take place. Besides, a cessation of hostility, other de-escalation commitments may also be negotiable.
In the longer run, cessation of hostility may lay a foundation for a formal ceasefire. Another important question to ask is who can play the role of an international, third-party mediator, who can inspire confidence from both sides and have enough credibility to lead warring parties to peace. Several countries have attempted to seek a mediation role, including Israel, Turkey, France, and Germany.
It is too soon to predict any new prospects for the talks, but the talks at least offer a ray of hope. Eventually, we can also expect the possibility that the two Donbas’s republics could achieve their special status as the last condition for Russia to completely remove their troops. However, there will be more bloodshed before the two sides come to a peaceful agreement. One thing is for sure: There will be no victor in this war. But that is no reason to stop hoping and finding pragmatic solutions. The Next Century Foundation believes that only by continuing to work on finding solutions, will we find a path to peace for Ukraine. In the meantime, it is also important for both States and international actors to make efforts in helping the most vulnerable in this war zone by addressing their urgent need for basic services.