Anatomy of a deal: What would an agreement to end the war in Ukraine look like?

Is there hope for diplomacy amid the trauma of war?

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“These aren’t the people you send to make your final agreement. This is not where the deal is going to be finalized,” Oliker said. She sees the talks, for now, as a useful forum for negotiating limited humanitarian cease-fires and corridors for evacuation, and for both sides to probe each other’s views and float trial balloons in the press.

Natalie Jaresko, a former minister of finance of Ukraine, told Grid that while it’s clear neither side is ready to stop fighting, both sides “have to always be prepared to talk, both for their own people domestically, but also for their allies who would love to see this end. But if you ask me what I expect to come out of the talks, I don’t expect anything to come out.”

Still, positions are shifting, and changes on the front lines are likely impacting positions at the negotiating tables.

So what would such a settlement look like? And what are the toughest issues to resolve?

NATO and neutrality

On paper, this seems like a decent outcome for Ukraine. Both Sweden and Austria maintain their own militaries, have significant nonmember cooperation with NATO and are members of the European Union, which has its own slightly less ironclad mutual defense guarantee. Zelenskyy has called for Ukraine to be immediately admitted to the EU, but there are several countries ahead of Ukraine on the would-be member list, and the EU has so far declined to fast-track its application.

The Russian language and “denazification”

Whatever concessions Ukraine makes in this area are likely to be mostly symbolic: Ukraine is certain to be more unified and far more anti-Russian than it was before the war.

The territories

Sanctions and the international community

It’s a near certainty that the U.S. and NATO countries are somewhat more engaged in the negotiating process behind the scenes, but when we start seeing more overt involvement, that could be a sign the talks are really getting serious. Samuel Charap, a political scientist at the Rand Corporation, told Grid that absent some major change on the battlefield, “the only way I see the leverage to change Russia’s current approach is the potential involvement of the U.S. and the EU putting sanctions relief on the table. I don’t know how you get Russia to make significant concessions otherwise.”

Getting to yes

The scenes of carnage in Mariupol, Kyiv and elsewhere can make it hard to take talks all that seriously. But, Charap said, “the fact that there’s fighting is not an indication that there’s not seriousness about the negotiations. It could actually mean the opposite. It’s entirely consistent with how the Russians do conflict: talk and fight at the same time both as a means of improving their position at the negotiating table, and to demonstrate their resolve.”

But while both sides may be willing to talk, it’s clear that there’s still more fighting to be done. Put differently, both sides feel they can improve their negotiating positions by improving their positions in the war zone. Russia has only recently begun to bring cruise missiles and heavy bombardment to urban areas; Ukrainians have felt buoyed by their resistance and the fact that Russia has lost so many soldiers and heavy weapons. Neither side has exhausted its military resources to the point where it’s likely to strike a deal.

It’s hard to say when they might get to that point. Crisis Group’s Oliker told Grid the battlefield situation is unlikely to ever be conclusive. “They’re not looking for conclusive. They’re looking for enough pain.”

In many ways, because of Russia’s authoritarian political system, Putin may have more flexibility than other actors in this conflict. He doesn’t have to sell any deal he makes to skeptical lawmakers or a critical media. He kept Russia’s war aims deliberately vague, and thanks to censorship, much of the Russian public may still not be aware of just how much blood and treasure has been spilled in this “special military operation.” Censorship may also help Putin sell a less-than-ideal settlement to the Russian people. If he so chooses, he could take some concessions on NATO and the Donbas and claim that “denazification” had been accomplished.

As for the Ukrainian side, its surprising battlefield success has given it more leverage in the negotiating room, but also makes it far less likely to take a deal just to stop the bloodshed.

As Jaresko put it, “Both sides are treating this as existential. For Ukraine, it really is.”

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