Subscriber OnlyOpinion

Messy peace deal may be better option than continuing war in Ukraine

After two years of fighting, the war has entered a phase that threatens even greater danger - but there may also be scope for a suboptimal resolution that could be accepted by all sides

Amid escalating Russian missile attacks and Ukrainian defensive resistance, preoccupations in Europe are about how to channel more weaponry and ammunition to Ukraine. Peace talks are seen as secondary or dismissed as defeatist, yet they remain an essential component of this military-political conflict.

Wars like this eventually end in settlements or armistices that fall short of victory for either side. Widespread talk of stalemate at the beginning of this year has given way to fears in Europe that the advantages of scale are accruing to Russia and are not being offset for Ukraine because promised delivery of US and European weapons and ammunition is delayed. Putin’s Russia is reasserting its maximalist demands on Ukraine. They include “denazification”, no Nato membership and keeping at least the 18 per cent of Ukrainian territory it now holds.

Putin is taking advantage of apparently weaker resolve in Europe and the US to continue supporting Ukraine. Although objectively he is in a far weaker position than Europe – economically and on basic resources – he commands his authoritarian regime with renewed confidence.

Fears that he can translate this into further imperial expansion in his ambition to resurrect former Russian lands now in the European Union were expressed by French president Emmanuel Macron this week after the solidarity summit he called. Saying variously that Putin cannot win and must be defeated, Macron talked of sending troops to Ukraine and agreed with the proposal to buy shells in world markets rather than rely only on EU states to provide them.


Macron is asserting French leadership of the moves towards far more European military capacity in the face of Russian power and diminishing US commitment to Nato. Combined with German rearmament, this is a major turning point towards the strategic autonomy he advocates for Europe. But Macron’s troops suggestion was immediately shot down by his allies because it would put Nato at war with Russia.

Recent polling shows more pessimism among Europeans about a Ukrainian victory in the war. In Ukraine itself there is still a majority in favour of fighting on and a determination not to cede territory. That territory includes Crimea, seized by Putin in 2014 and gifted to Ukraine under Soviet rule by Khrushchev in 1954. The Ukrainians insist it must be returned in any settlement. But since it has strategic Russian naval ports Putin absolutely refuses. He talks of any such a move, supported by Nato, as drawing the conflict closer to nuclear war. He is mindful of the debate going on in the White House about whether the US should continue to support Ukrainian claims to Crimea, or whether it would be necessary to stop short of that in any peace talks.

That illustrates the great dangers at play in this period of the war. They concern not only European powers and the US but affected states worldwide. There have been many initiatives for talks. In the months after the Russian invasion they were led by Turkey and other regional states, which the Russians say were sabotaged by Boris Johnson and Nato. Denmark took an initiative and more recently Switzerland and Austria have floated ideas that would involve Russia and China. So has the African Union.

President Zelenskiy’s current plans for a very broad-based conference on his peace proposals are being actively pursued; but they do not include Russia, which has dismissed them as not serious. Zelenskiy wants to gather widespread support for his own maximalist demands of territorial recovery, compensation, membership of the EU and Nato – and he refuses to talk to Putin.

Work by senior former US diplomats and officials has also prepared some of the ground for possible talks. All such efforts now take place in the shadow of a possible Trump victory in the US presidential elections. Trump has hinted he would solve the war quickly and is less committed to Ukraine.

Those drawing realist conclusions from the current balance of forces foresee a phased process of negotiations and agreements. Final resolution of territorial claims on both sides would be postponed to further talks. The status quo on the battlefield would be roughly adhered to. This could allow both sides to claim a limited victory, partly by redefining what victory means.

Thus Ukraine has heroically defended nearly all the territory it held before the invasion, is now locked into EU membership and solidarity for reconstruction and will secure associated security guarantees. Putin would hold on to roughly what he controls in Ukraine now, has consolidated his regime as a more authoritarian state, attracted support from China and managed to offload many of the sanctions imposed.

That would be a messy and suboptimal outcome, but it may be the best available after two years of war.