The Russia-Ukraine War’s multilane offramp

A great deal of the current discussions surrounding the Russian-Ukraine War has to do with the need to provide Russian President Vladimir Putin a way out, an offramp to withdraw his forces, and bring the conflict to an end. Given the failure of the Russian military to achieve a swift victory and an unconditional Ukrainian surrender, the argument goes, we should now turn to identify and offer the Russian an exit strategy that would allow Putin to cut his losses and save face.

This proposition may make sense given the fear of Putin’s growing frustration and the possibility the Kremlin will “escalate to deescalate”. Considering the multilateral nature of the conflict, we should be mindful of the fact all stakeholders and shareholders must aim to establish a multilane offramp that addresses not only Russia’s interests or concerns but also Ukraine’s as well as the international community’s.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had previously said that he wants the bilateral talks with Russia to address the following questions: “The end of the war, security guarantees, sovereignty, restoration of territorial integrity, real guarantees for our country, real protection for our country.” The Kremlin, for its part, wants Ukraine to cease all military action, assume neutrality through a constitutional amendment so it cannot join the EU or NATO, accept Crimea as Russian territory and recognize the secessionist republics of Donetsk and Lugansk as independent territories.

According to several reports, it seems like the territorial question is the main obstacle to achieving a breakthrough in the talks. While Zelenskyy has intimated everything is on the table for discussion with Russia, and it appears that Ukrainian neutrality and a commitment not to join NATO or the EU are demands he can accommodate, the territorial integrity of Ukraine is more difficult for him to accept. Still, Zelenskyy suggested the future of Crimea and Donbas territories could be determined in a possible referendum.

These elements would ideally cover the bilateral Russian-Ukrainian lane, but what about the other lanes in the offramp? Surely, the Kremlin will have to negotiate the lifting of the sanctions imposed by numerous members of the international community on the Russian economy and some individuals in and outside the government. Will the signing of a peace agreement between Russia and Ukraine satisfy the sanctioning states and would end the restrictions, or will there be a need for a gradual lifting of the various bans? To make sure Russia abides by the terms of the peace agreement, an incremental approach is possibly preferable but, either way, such policies necessitate coordination not only vis-à-vis Russia but also amongst the sanctioning states themselves.

Furthermore, concerned global and regional actors, including NATO and EU Member States, would also require some form of security guarantees from Russia in the post-conflict stage. Can there be a complete separation between the economic sanctions and the discussions about the post-conflict security arrangements? A package deal between Russia and “the rest” of the world that addresses both aspects is ostensibly preferable albeit difficult to produce.

Still, this may prove to be an opportunity to leverage the tragic events in Ukraine to address more fundamental issues concerning Russia’s policies and aspirations. Let there be no doubt: Putin is directly and solely responsible for the war in Ukraine and the human tragedy that ensued, and we are all entitled to be a bit wary about what the future holds, but pragmatism must prevail in dealing with him moving forward.

NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) program did not succeed in generating sufficient trust between Russia and existing or prospective Member States. And the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) was heavily criticized by Putin for promoting western values and interfering in Russia’s internal affairs. Assuming Russia’s actions were motivated by Putin’s belief that his country’s core security interests were at stake rather than by Soviet-era irredentism or Ttsarist-style imperialism, there is room and exigency to explore creative institutional remedies to prevent the recurrence of such events and facilitate constructive security cooperation between the major powers.

One model can revive the Concert of Europe, the 19th-century system of dispute resolution adopted by the continental major powers to maintain regional stability, prevent further conflict, and account for the balance of power. The key objectives for this partnership should be to include key actors who can potentially generate regional instability and agree on the principles as well as practices that all the participants will adhere to. Unlike previous intergovernmental settings, the “new Concert” would serve as an ongoing and intensive venue for candidly tackling strategic and economic sticky points participants can peacefully address and resolve. Rather than addressing peripheral issues such as human rights or democratization, the focus of the “new Concert” will be limited to preventing or localizing conflicts.

Considering the geostrategic challenges posed by the rise of China, and acknowledging the interdependence of world politics, this forum can be replicated or broadened to involve Beijing too. China is not Russia, and Taiwan is not Ukraine but cross-strait tensions merit the inclusion of Beijing in any such design nevertheless. Sadly, the Obama-era’s US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED), which was later suspended by the Trump administration and replaced by an economic high-level track, has yet to be revived by the Biden administration. The “new Concert” would be an effective venue if it avoids fanfare and knowingly operates on the basis of realpolitik and national interests rather than any particular ideology.

A lack of regular contact could make it tougher to handle the ongoing tensions between the world’s most powerful actors, and thwart crises before it is too late. We must be realistic and understand the overarching objective of this forum is not to indulge in moralistic platitudes but to try and coordinate diverging strategic and economic interests and manage mutual expectations. As Klemens von Metternich, the notable Austrian statesman and diplomat remarked, “The events which cannot be prevented must be directed.” It will be exceedingly hard to achieve such intricate goals but doing nothing will be far more dangerous and costly in the long run.

About the Author
Dr. Ilai Z. Saltzman is a Visiting Professor of Israel Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, and a board member at Mitvim – the Israel Institute of Foreign Regional Policy.
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