When Will Peace Talks Become an Option in the Russia-Ukraine War?

Amidst the cacophony of political discourse in the corridors of power in Washington D.C., one point seems to echo with bipartisan consensus: Ukraine must win the war with Russia. The prevailing narrative reflects not only a desire to protect Ukraine’s and by extension regional sovereignty, territorial integrity, and self-determination but also a broader commitment to upholding principles of international law and order.

The foundation of the post-Cold War era was built upon the belief in the efficacy of international institutions in fostering peaceful cooperation among nations. The liberal institutional order championed by the United States envisioned a world where trade and economic integration, under the auspices of international organizations, would mitigate conflicts and pave the way for lasting peace.  International relations theories have even been invented to capture this paradigm. Not so long ago, liberal institutionalism, a prescriptive ideology that experienced its renaissance in the last decade of the 20th century, held that international cooperation between states is not only desirable but feasible and sustainable through such instruments of states-craft as free trade, diplomacy, and multilateralism. Increasing levels of interstate interdependence, its proponents argued, can reduce conflict and eliminate violent competition by ameliorating the temptations of realpolitik.

After all, what defined American character, was commerce with all, foreign entanglements with none. “Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe,” Washington excoriated in his Farewell Address “entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor, or caprice?” The resurgence of volatile geopolitical tensions in the decades and centuries past has cast doubt on the viability of this paradigm. The preeminent U.S. foreign policy goal in the 20th century was to “shape the world” by thwarting the crafty objectives of its ruthless adversaries with arguably variable rates of success. 

Liberal Order: Where Art Thou?

The early decades of the twenty-first century testify that great power competition has returned with a vengeance. The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, regional turmoil, war, and terrorism are back on the mental and physical map of the world, and a revival of what the collective West now considers its new axis of evil: China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia yields to calls for military solutions to economic, military, and political problems in the form of increased investments in rearmament and military build-up. Thus, in place of once sought-out trade negotiations and agreements at fora designed for multilateral engagement, the collective West prefers to impose punishing sanctions which have increasingly become regular go-to instruments in the American and EU foreign policy toolboxes, often to the detriment of their own highly interdependent economies. In place of peace talks at diplomatic peace conferences, which historically brought an end to wars, the foreign policy community, propped up by a rarefied class of pundits and policy wonks, calls for military funding, arms transfers, and the establishment of permanent military presence in highly volatile and contested regions. It seems that not even the authors of the post-1945 rules-based international order are entirely committed to upholding its once-sacrosanct ideals.

Countries like Poland and the Baltic states, situated on the frontline of potential conflict with Russia, advocate for an even more assertive stance. Their calls for rearmament and preparation for war are rooted, so they say, in a deep-seated historical understanding of Russian imperial ambitions. They argue that a proactive approach is necessary to deter aggression and safeguard regional stability. It is Poland and the Baltic states that promote a particularly vocal brand of ‘Russophobia’ on the continent whilst ensuring that the United States maintains plausible deniability should wider ideological conflicts and regional wars erupt. It is Poland and the Baltic states that are making a bold argument for military upgrades and preparation for war against Russian expansion. Lastly, it is Poland and the Baltic states that spearheaded a call for Ukraine’s membership in NATO — an act they see as essential for countering Russian influence in the region — as if oblivious to the largely predictable regional security consequences such a decision could provoke in Russian foreign policy circles and its military posture. In sum, the argument goes, countries of Europe must assume a force posture through rearming to constitute a credible deterrent; NATO must be open to Ukraine’s membership; and the United States must put permanent rather than rotational boots on the ground in the form of Eastern European military bases, which are yet to fully materialize. Only such a new security paradigm, the Euro-Atlantic community believes, will ensure stability on the continent.

Yet, amidst the fraying global institutional order and clamor for military readiness, the fundamental question persists: does NATO truly seek peace, or is it inadvertently steering towards a path of confrontation? The current strategic environment, characterized by accelerating military buildup and deterrence, seems to suggest the latter. However, the absence of substantive engagement in the inter-state dialogue between the belligerent parties and the lack of credible prospects for peace negotiations raises concerns about the Alliance’s interest in resolving the Ukrainian-Russian conflict diplomatically.

Seeking Peace While Preparing for War

NATO’s focus on military rearmament — its newfound raison d’être amidst President Macron’s 2019 drastic portrayal of the Alliance as “brain dead”— may exacerbate tensions rather than alleviate them. While a robust defense posture may accelerate Europe’s shift to “war economy mode” and serve as a deterrent to Russian aggression, it risks perpetuating a cycle of escalation, where dialogue and diplomacy play a subordinate role to militarization and retaliation. Critics of this approach might contend that the only viable path to sustainable peace, therefore, lies in engaging Russia through diplomatic channels. A stance so unpopular that even Pope Francis‘ expressed partiality towards this view was not spared from intense backlash.

The missed opportunity to include Russia in the liberal international order — particularly after 9/11 when Russia’s overtures were at their peak — has led to a cycle of penalizing sanctions, suspension from the G-7/G-8, vilification and subsequent isolation on the international stage, ill-advisably steering Putin in the direction of historical revisionism, escalatory militarization, and ultimately, lethal conflict. The same rinse-and-repeat cycle appears to be reenacted by Washington towards China, making its military threats and intimidations vis-a-vis Taiwan even more probable. The talk of Cold War II is already ongoing in Washington, shall we expect the new Iron Curtain to descend soon after?

One thing is certain, the world cannot sanction and bomb its way out of serious foreign policy conundrums. One day the guns will fall silent and as with wars of the past, the victors and the vanquished will marvel at a simple gesture of a pen affixing signatures to the peace treaty and wonder, after tallying its dead and wounded, why it took this long. In the nuclear age, this is what advanced societies ought to have the humility and courage to do.

An international peace conference presents itself as a potential avenue for de-escalation. By convening key stakeholders—including Ukraine, Russia, EU, NATO, U.S., and relevant regional actors—such a forum could provide a platform for a much-overdue constructive and frank exchange of grievances and remedies. A rich diplomatic history of peace congresses exists, which not only gave rise to laws, declarations, conventions, and treaties but through dialogue laid out a foundation for a more humane international order and transcendence of the psychology of dominance among once enemy nations. In an era of boisterous punditry and vocal expertise from all sectors of society, when it comes to peace, why do we remain so afraid to talk?

The lack of concerted efforts to explore the viability of this option might underscore the prevailing mindset within NATO, which at present prioritizes military solutions over diplomatic engagement. Amidst geopolitical tensions, the imperatives of peace and economic stability should not be overshadowed by calls for deterrence through rearmament and military preparedness. While a strong defense posture may be necessary to avert future aggression, it should not preclude the pursuit of short- and long-term diplomatic solutions. 

As the specter of wider conflict looms over Eastern Europe and as opportunities for miscalculation increase, the time is ripe for Washington and the EU to reevaluate their foreign policy objectives vis-a-vis Ukraine and Russia and for NATO to reassess its priorities and performance. Considering a peace posture as an option is not a sign of weakness. As Aristotle advised, “It is not enough to win a war; it is more important to organize the peace.” Only through sober-minded dialogue and good-faith negotiation can lasting stability and organized peace be achieved.

[Photo by US Embassy Kyiv, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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