When armed conflict breaks out, observers often quickly raise the prospect of a diplomatic solution. Yet many wars drag on for years, even as the possibility of peace negotiations seems to dim. As Russia’s war on Ukraine reaches the two-year mark, many U.S. and European governments are eager to try to mediate an end to the conflict. But whether peace negotiations are possible in the near future remains an open question.
A “War of Inches”
Nearly two years after Russia invaded Ukraine, some U.S. and European officials believe the war has reached a stalemate, write Courtney Kube, Carol E. Lee, and Kristen Welker for NBC News. In recent months, neither side has made much progress on the battlefield, with some U.S. officials calling it a “war of inches,” according to the reporters. The Biden administration fears Ukraine is running low on forces, “while Russia has a seemingly endless supply.” Support for funding Ukraine is waning in Congress and among the American public, particularly since the start of the war between Israel and Hamas has diverted attention from Ukraine.
For these reasons and others, U.S. and European officials have begun to speak to members of the Ukrainian government about the possibility of peace negotiations with Russia, according to NBC News. The talks include “very broad outlines” of what Ukraine might have to give up to reach an agreement.
Reluctance at the Top
Peace negotiations are only theoretical, of course, unless leaders on both sides agree to sit down at the negotiating table. Russian president Vladimir Putin has given no signs that he is ready to pause his unprovoked onslaught, sources told NBC News. They believe Putin is waiting out the West—expecting support of Ukraine to flag in the hope of gaining ground.
Meanwhile, the possibility of peace negotiations remains a “taboo” topic for Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, Time magazine reports. “Nobody believes in our victory like I do. Nobody,” he told Time in October 2023.
According to aides, the president feels “betrayed by his Western allies” for leaving him “without the means to win the war, only the means to survive it,” Time reports. One close aide told Time that Zelensky “deludes himself” into thinking Ukraine can win the war. Most Ukrainians remain opposed to negotiating with Russia, surveys suggest, especially if it means ceding occupied territory.
The Value of Early-Stage Mediation
In her 2019 book The Costs of Conversation: Obstacles to Peace Talks in Wartime, Stanford University political scientist Oriana Skylar Mastro considers the factors that determine whether and when warring parties are willing to engage in peace negotiations.
Mastro suggests that influential third parties can play a role in shortening wars by proposing peace negotiations in the early days of conflict. Soon after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, several leaders reportedly tried to broker peace, including then–Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett, Pope Francis, and Chinese president Xi Jinping.
These efforts failed, in large part because Putin showed no interest in halting the attacks to negotiate. In other cases, parties in conflict might be more willing to put a truly neutral third party in charge of mediating their conflict rather than leaders who may be biased toward one side.
The Promise of Back-Channel Negotiations
After a conflict has escalated and lasted for months or years, it can become exceptionally difficult to persuade leaders on both sides to agree to peace negotiations. Leaders worry about the strategic costs of wartime diplomacy—and wait for these costs to be low before agreeing to engage with the enemy, according to Mastro.
In particular, leaders weigh: (1) the degree to which their enemy is likely to view their willingness to negotiate as a sign of weakness and (2) how the enemy might adapt its strategy in response to such signs. If leaders believe the enemy, as well as their own constituents, would view their engagement in peace negotiations as a sign of weakness, they will continue to fight.
Secret back-channel negotiations are one way of jump-starting negotiations and avoiding public perceptions of weakness. “Clandestine diplomacy has a checkered and a somewhat maligned reputation in international affairs,” write RAND Corporation political scientist Patrick S. Roberts and Virginia Tech professor Ariel I. Ahram in a 2020 article. “But secrecy might be especially valuable in nudging parties to explore negotiations.” After many decades of hostilities, India and Pakistan jump-started peace negotiations in the early 2000s through secret talks in foreign hotels, for instance. The back-channel peace negotiations helped move the parties toward agreement on the disputed Kashmir region.
Persuading Parties to Negotiate
Interested parties also can try to motivate those in conflict to agree to peace negotiations. For Western nations, that could mean promising funding to help rebuild Ukraine in return for Ukraine agreeing to try to negotiate an end to the war.
Zelensky is engaged in his own persuasion campaign: He is trying to convince Western leaders that continuing to support Ukraine’s war effort will decisively “stop the war before it spreads” to other nations, according to Time. But that argument may be less successful as time goes on: Zelensky reportedly “worries his audience has stopped paying attention.”
What insights have you gained from peace negotiations throughout history?