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The prospects for a negotiated peace in Ukraine are bleak

Here are three big hurdles to a lasting peace settlement

Anastasia, 8, wraps herself in a Ukrainian flag at the border crossing in Medyka, Poland, on March 23. (Kacper Pempel/Reuters)
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Russia and Ukraine are engaged in intermittent negotiations to end the war. If the Russian military in Ukraine collapses as a result of supply and morale problems, or if Putin is removed from power somehow, the war could end quickly.

Otherwise, the fighting could drag on, in the form of a long and costly war of attrition that would likely grind Ukrainian cities into dust.

At least three hurdles stand in the way of a stable and lasting peace settlement. First, both sides would have to agree on the likely outcome of the war. Second, belligerents face the difficult task of constructing agreements they can trust in the long run. If peace grants one side an opportunity to recuperate and come back stronger, their opponent is unlikely to agree to such terms. And third, even when countries commit to peace, some leaders might still prefer war to ensure their personal political survival.

Why it’s hard to construct a peace that all sides can live with

World history is littered with broken commitments to peace deals, and there are good reasons to view these precedents as particularly relevant in this case. Russia’s behavior since 2014, and especially in the current invasion, has alienated even the subset of Ukrainians who might previously have preferred alignment with Russia.

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Because of the massive popular mobilization in Ukraine, it seems likely that no Ukrainian government can credibly promise to stop fighting. Resistance movements in any Russian-occupied territory would continue.

Nor are there good international solutions in this case: while peacekeepers can improve the durability of peace deals, it’s hard to imagine Russia agreeing to their deployment. Poland’s proposal, coming from a NATO member, is unlikely to be accepted by Russia and there are no obvious countries that would be accepted as neutral by both sides and willing and able to commit peacekeepers.

No leader in the world can believe a promise by Russia to stop fighting — Putin’s very own words show his expansionist aims. Finally, given Western revulsion at recent Russian behavior, the West cannot credibly promise to lift all sanctions and return to the way things were before Feb. 24.

This situation effectively traps Putin. He cannot accept a settlement that recognizes the independence of Luhansk and Donetsk in their administrative boundaries and declare victory, because no Ukrainian government can credibly promise to honor such a settlement in the long run. A Russian-imposed regime change in Ukraine most likely would be more of a problem than a solution for Russia.

Nor can other leaders credibly grant Putin a “golden parachute” that allows him to retire without punishment if he steps down as president. This leaves Putin with only one option: trying to achieve total victory through a regime change in Kyiv.

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Domestic politics further complicate the prospects for peace

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine looks like a major error, given the rising Russian casualties and the staggering economic and diplomatic costs to Russia and its citizens, which are likely to increase significantly as sanctions take hold.

Personalist dictators such as Putin are more likely than other leaders to make such errors, as they often receive biased estimates about the likelihood of winning a prospective war. These misjudgments happen when leaders are surrounded by toadies, rather than professionals willing to offer their honest opinions, and reflect a lack of constraints surrounding the leader.

In this case, much of Putin’s miscalculation can be attributed to the surprising strength of the Ukrainian resistance and the unexpected unity of the West’s response. But the same forces that led Putin to make this mistake make it difficult to undo them.

Leaders who start wars are especially unlikely to accept defeat or even a draw. That’s because their fate is tied to the war and its outcome. Totalitarian dictators such as Kim Jong Un, who can repress all opposition, do not need to worry about political backlash against a failed war.

But Putin is a personalist dictator. While he is trying to move to a more repressive system, he is not there yet and he has a lot to lose. Almost a third of the personalist dictators who lost a war were removed from office and severely punished, sometimes killed, the research shows. For Putin to stay in power requires the continued support of the strongmen — the siloviki — who are the crucial backbone of his regime.

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While it’s not clear that this group disapproves of the war, if things continue to deteriorate in Russia, they may change their tune. Facing a peace that would be personally disastrous, they may be willing to continue the war if it preserves some chance of personal survival even if it risks national catastrophe.

All of this leaves little room for optimism. It’s possible that events on the battlefield, or widespread desertion and refusal to serve by Russia’s new April conscription class, would make clear to everyone in Russia that the war cannot be “won.” In the case of such clear evidence that the war is lost, opposition to Putin could coalesce to a degree sufficient to remove him from power.

But absent a major battlefield loss for Russia, or major domestic upheaval, in the near future an enduring negotiated settlement is unlikely. Instead, the war could drag on for years, with tens of thousands of casualties.

It takes more to end a war than a few sessions at the negotiation table — the challenge is reaching agreement about the likely eventual military outcome and terms of settlement that both sides will want to honor, as well as reaching an outcome that leaves leaders without fear of domestic political punishment.

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Hein Goemans (@hgoemans) is professor of political science at the University of Rochester.

Sarah Croco (@SarahCroco) is associate professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland.

Michael Joseph is assistant professor at the University of California, San Diego.

Alex Weisiger is associate professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania.

Thomas M. Dolan is associate professor in the School of Politics, Security and International Affairs, University of Central Florida.

Page Fortna is the Harold Brown Professor of U.S. National and Security Policy in the Political Science Department at Columbia University.