Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy
Former Egyptian Ambassador and Senior UN official.

Solution to the Ukraine Crisis Demands Innovative Diplomacy

Winning or losing in armed conflicts is a relative and dynamic proposition. Relative because it is dependent on how the opposing side defines victory and defeat. Dynamic because the goals of the protagonists usually shift to accommodate either all or some of the following factors: evolving conditions on the ground, a change in expectations, extraneous influences such as changing positions of allies and public opinion, domestic and international.

Armed conflicts end in one of two alternatives: either one side wins or it ends in a compromise political settlement when both sides realize that they will not able to achieve total victory in the sense that the declared objectives will not be realized.

A total victory of one side and therefore, a total defeat of the other, usually produces only fleeting success followed by a situation usually worse than the one prevailing before the onset of the conflict.

Hopefully the crisis in Ukraine will end in a negotiated political settlement. Total victory by one side will bring about ominous consequences for all.

The issue is therefore, how each side defines victory and defeat.

President Volodymyr Zelensky, while initially signalling that he can accommodate some of Russia’s demands, such as not joining NATO and accepting the annexation of Crimea and an autonomous status for Donetsk and Luhansk, was emboldened by the political and military support of the West. He has since escalated his demands, raising the bar rather high.

Speaking before on May 6 before Chatham House in London, President Zelensky said that his goals are now the restoration of Ukraine’s full territorial integrity by pushing the Russians back from recently claimed territory in the south and east, as well as ultimately from Crimea. He also listed the return of refugees, Ukraine’s admission to the European Union, and the prosecution of Russian military leaders for war crimes.

Russia, which had announced its initial objectives as demilitarization and preventing Ukraine from joining NATO and possibly the European Union and "de-nazification" of Ukraine, may have modified its goals.

The United States, on the other hand, has given conflicting signals. President Biden said in late March that Russian President Vladimir Putin "cannot remain in power". He later labelled him a war criminal. The administration quickly walked back from this position, indicating that it was merely an emotional outburst and did not represent US policy.

Last month, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin stated that the United States sought a "weakened" Russia. Administration officials quickly added that the goal was specific to military conflict, and was to ensure Putin would think twice about invading another country. He then stated that Ukraine "can win" the war against Russia, and the Biden administration would do "everything we can" to support that goal. A few days later, before the Senate Appropriation Committee, he further softened the US position when he stated that the aim of the US is for "Ukraine to be a sovereign state with a functioning government that can protect its territory" .

Neither Secretary Austin nor other senior officials, however, have specified their idea of what that government will look like, and what territory it will include.

A few days later, the Washington Post posited that the Biden administration and its European allies have started planning for a far different world in which they no longer try to coexist and cooperate with Russia, but actively seek to isolate and weaken it as a matter of long-term strategy.

Jake Sullivan, the US National Security Advisor declared on NBC’s "Meet the Press" that "at the end of the day, what we want to see is a free and independent Ukraine, a weakened and isolated Russia and a stronger, more unified, more determined West … We believe that all three of those objectives are in sight."

The problem is that US has a tendency to overreach, particularly when it believes that it is in an advantageous position in a conflict. This is what happened in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq.

The West may be justified in its concern that if Russia achieves even its scaled-down objectives, it might whet its appetite towards other parts of Eastern Europe. On the other hand, it is understandable that Russia is anxious about the intent of the West of both weakening it and fully incorporating Ukraine in its camp.

The ultimate goal for both the West and Russia should therefore be a European security architecture that serves both sides interests. This is what they came to realize in the 1970’s, some 25 years into the Cold War, when they embarked on establishing a European security and cooperation system through the Helsinki process. Both should resurrect this understanding again today.

The final settlement will necessarily be a compromise.

What will be included in the compromise will be up to Russia and ostensibly Ukraine, but in reality the US and to a lesser extent the EU, as the issue in essence is European security and the future relations between Russia and the West in general.

What it should not include is more obvious. Things that are considered to be a defeat for either side.

For Russia, it means returning to the status quo ante, i.e. losing its influence on the parts in eastern Ukraine that it considers vital to its security: the Donbas and the Kherson regions. As for Ukraine, it is hardly conceivable that it accepts explicitly ceding formal sovereignty over the same territories. There is room for creative diplomacy to find a formula to bridge these seemingly irreconcilable positions.

It is in this context that the US position needs to be clarified. If the strategy is indeed to weaken Russia by bleeding it in Ukraine, then a compromise settlement will be illusive. If the objective is peace and stability in Europe, then a compromise solution is possible.

A complicating factor, as always with the US, is domestic politics. The midterm congressional elections take place in November. The Democrats may lose both the Senate and House of Representatives. They will try not to appear weak with Russia, thereby avoid offering any compromise on Ukraine.

Postponing a settlement agreement to after the US elections will not only increase the suffering of the Ukrainian people, but could complicate matters in such a way that would make a settlement even more remote. Meanwhile, the world at large will continue to bear the perilous consequences of the crisis in Ukraine, including the increased possibility of a new Cold War between the West on one side, and Russia and China on the other.