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What a Russia-Ukraine peace deal might look like

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With Russian troops bogged down in the fight against a defiant but battered Ukraine, both Moscow and Kyiv say the prospect of a negotiated settlement is growing. Yet, with the Kremlin seeking an end to Ukraine as a sovereign nation, and Ukraine still claiming land lost to pro-Russian forces almost a decade ago, can there really be a middle ground?

The short answer is: It’s possible.

Suspicion abounds over Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intentions, with considerable fears that a Russian diplomatic opening is a ruse to buy time to gather reinforcements for a second-phase assault. Putin is certainly not talking like a man of peace. This week, he called Russians who opposed the invasion “traitors” and “scum,” while seeking to portray the war as nothing short of a struggle for Russia’s survival.

But with the tenacious Ukrainian resistance exceeding expectations in the face of a far superior Russian force — and with Western sanctions slamming the Russian economy — there’s a chance the new battleground calculus has the Kremlin fishing for a consolation prize. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke this week of “hope for reaching a compromise.” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a video address that the Russians are being “more realistic” at the negotiating table.

With the two sides far apart, what could a deal look like?

The main sticking points

1. Neutrality: For Russia, an insistence on Ukraine’s neutrality is probably the most important demand. The war is rooted in Ukraine’s desire to join the West, aspiring to prosperity and self-determination through memberships in NATO and the European Union. A thriving democracy on Russia’s border linked to the West — especially one filled with as many Russian speakers as Ukraine has — could serve as a tempting model for the Russian people, endangering Putin’s autocratic grip. Publicly, though, Putin claims that Kyiv’s lurch toward the West amounts to a security threat for Moscow, even though Washington and its allies have put Ukrainian membership in those clubs on the slow track.

2. Western security guarantees: For Ukraine, any pledge of neutrality while it’s still holding its own on the battlefield would likely need to come with a pledge, acknowledged by Russia, that Western powers would come to its aid if Kyiv were threatened again. This is perhaps the stickiest point for Moscow, as it amounts to some acceptance of allied powers, if not NATO itself, involved in Ukraine’s future defense. One way to make this more palatable to the Russians could be a clause limiting the types of weapons kept within Ukraine’s border.

3. Crimea, Luhansk and Donetsk: The war in Ukraine really started nearly a decade ago, when, after a public uprising that drove out a sitting president, Ukraine signed an association agreement with the European Union and rejected a loan deal with Russia. A furious Kremlin responded by invading and annexing the Crimean Peninsula, while sponsoring and sending in proxies to take over Luhansk and Donetsk in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.

As a prelude to invasion, Putin officially recognized the independence of those two separatist provinces. As a settlement condition, Russia may demand recognition by Kyiv and the international community of its annexation of Crimea, as well as de facto Russian control over Donbas — things the Ukrainians have pledged they would never do.

Outside the West, Putin is less isolated than you might think

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed German parliament on March 17, as Russian attacks continue across Ukraine. (Video: Leila Barghouty/The Washington Post)

How Ukraine could buy peace

Academics Arvid Bell and Dana Wolf argue on Harvard University’s Russia Matters site that Ukraine could acquiesce on major points while still maintaining sovereignty. First, it would need to agree to self-imposed neutrality — officially giving up on its NATO dream, which is enshrined in its constitution. Zelensky has already suggested he is willing to yield on this key point, admitting publicly this week that NATO membership is not in the cards. The Russians will want this in writing and could require a constitutional amendment to strike Kyiv’s NATO ambitions.

In a worst-case scenario, Bell and Wolf argue, Ukraine might also need to recognize Crimea as part of Russia and the independence of Luhansk and Donetsk. Russian “peacekeepers” may be required to remain in Donbas, contrary to Kyiv’s insistence that Russia must pull back every soldier from its borders. Despite its stated opposition, some observers see Ukraine as potentially willing to finesse a deal on Crimea and the east, as long as it means a broader Russian troop withdrawal and international security guarantees.

Such a deal might be hard to stomach for the Ukrainian people. But Zelensky — who has come to be seen as a hero in Ukraine and beyond — has the stature to sell an unpalatable agreement. If the Russians would be willing to acknowledge Ukraine’s right to exist and permit Western security guarantees, he’d be getting a new lease on his country’s future.

Benjamin Haddad, senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center, told Today’s WorldView that one important bonus Ukraine could push for is closing the door on NATO in exchange for an open one to the European Union. Moscow’s chief negotiator, Vladimir Medinsky, said Moscow cited Austria and Sweden this week as examples for Ukraine. Neutral countries outside NATO, both are prosperous members of the European Union. But it remains unclear whether Putin, the decision-maker in Russia who has expressed a maximalist line, would seriously consider allowing a flourishing democracy to exist on Russia’s doorstep.

“Russia has said no to the blocs, both the E.U. and NATO. But if you were able to decouple this, and say they won’t join NATO, — so you don’t have the military dimension, in exchange — you could start a process to the E.U.,” Haddad said. “I don’t think that was acceptable to Russia before the war, but I think we’re in a maybe more dynamic situation now.”

The Financial Times on Wednesday reported on a 15-point deal being mediated largely by Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. It included provisions that Ukraine would not join NATO, or allow foreign troops on its soil, but would still be able to keep its armed forces. The Ukrainians, however, have downplayed the document as “a draft” that represents Russian demands. U.S. officials have welcomed positive diplomatic signs but say they have seen no indications that Putin is serious about changing course.

Putin’s nightmare

Russia’s worst-case scenario is one where Putin must effectively accept defeat. This could see, Bell and Wolf argue, a deal that agrees to Russia withdrawing all troops from Ukraine, including the ones in Donbas, and a walk back of Moscow’s recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent. Crimea would remain part of Russia but would be demilitarized. Ukraine would be allowed to pursue E.U. membership but would not join NATO — which even in defeat Putin is likely to see as a red line.

In return, the West would lift all sanctions on Russia and agree to security talks with Moscow on the future of security and defense in Europe. Many observers, however, view Putin as unlikely to concede this much given how it would impact his stature at home. What is a strongman, after all, if he is no longer strong? He has staked out an extreme line — calling for regime change and insisting Kyiv is run by Nazis despite the fact that Zelensky is Jewish and had family die in the Holocaust.

But if you read the tea leaves of Putin’s words, there may be a subtle sign of a shift.

Rose Gottemoeller, an American diplomat who served as deputy secretary general of NATO from 2016 to 2019, told the Financial Times’ Rachman Review podcast this week that Putin has notably refrained from reasserting demands for Ukrainian regime change in recent days.

“The Kremlin is not admitting it, but they have now begun to modify some of their demands,” Gottemoeller said. “We have not heard Mr. Putin say, for instance, ‘denazification’ for the last week.”

Why a deal might not happen

The prospect of any peace deal is predicated on Putin understanding that he has bit off more than he can chew, and that’s a really big if right now. Some have argued that he would even turn to low-grade nuclear weapons before risking defeat in Ukraine.

John Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, told me he’s skeptical, noting that while Lavrov has suggested an opening, Putin has not. But he doesn’t rule out a deal, especially if the Russians are pushed to their limits on the battlefield, and if the West maintains resolve on sanctions and ups the ante on military equipment for Ukraine.

“It boils down to this, Putin still thinks that this is an invasion he can somehow win on the battlefield,” Herbst said. “If he is ever able to reach the point where he understands that’s not possible, then maybe they begin to negotiate seriously.”