Can Peace Be Expected?
Sure, But No One Will Like It
May 22, 2023
  • Oleg Kashin

    Journalist and writer
Oleg Kashin responds to the groundswell of initiatives to end or temporarily stop the Russia-Ukraine conflict. He points out that direct contact between Zelensky and Putin is impossible and considers what else might be done.
The original text in Russian appeared in Oleg Kashin’s Telegram channel “Kashin Plus” and is republished here with the author’s permission.

As Chinese special envoy Li Hui goes around Europe with his “peace formula,” every day new peace-wishers turn up, from African leaders to the Pope, while even Hungarian Prime Minister Orban is offering a venue for negotiations.

On the Russian side, Dmitri Medvedev, the deputy secretary of Russia’s Security Council, wrote on Telegram that he will not speak with Ukraine; however, no one takes him seriously, so if he writes “no,” then it should be read at least as “perhaps.” The specter of peace talks is everywhere – at the Arab League summit, at the G7, at a meeting of Central Asian leaders in China. Everyone had been waiting for a Ukrainian counter-offensive but instead got an unexpected high tide of peace initiatives.

It's not what is being talked about, but who is doing the talking

Currently, there seems to be lacking a decisive episode at the front, even a symbolic one – for example, the fall of Bakhmut – a formal reason to believe that neither side should expect further breakthroughs and should sit down and talk.

Obviously, no one seriously believes in Ukraine getting back to its 1991 borders, and much less in “denazification and demilitarization.”

The subject of talks, besides a ceasefire, will be more mundane things like a demilitarized zone (most often they talk about 100 kilometers), control over the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant and some compromise ideas that have not yet come up and that would let both sides save face.
In such substantive talks, the most interesting thing is not what they are about, but who is leading them.
It is not hard to imagine that Russia and Ukraine, through someone’s mediation, are jointly searching for a compromise that would make it possible to end or at least stop the war for a long time. The toughest thing here is not the agenda, but who is talking. Most likely, everyone who is now offering a venue and peace plan dreams that Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky would be at the negotiating table and look into each other’s eyes, though that is the most pie-in-the-sky scenario.

Zelensky is officially prohibited by Ukrainian law from talking to Putin. Probably, it could be amended or canceled – at the end of the day, an emotional political declaration put into law is not so fundamental to the state. All the image and reputational risks for Zelensky – that if he starts talking to Putin, the warring Ukrainian people will go to the Maidan and drive him out –now seem exaggerated.

If his readiness to talk with Moscow means a loss for Zelensky in elections next spring, it is unlikely to become a real tragedy for him – he has already gone down in national history, having won a massive victory (he prevented Putin from taking Kyiv in three days) last year. Of course, there are many nuances, but there is not a single argument against negotiations that could be considered ironclad and unassailable.

It is tougher for Putin. Unlike Zelensky, he is not risking anything at all politically; no decision of his (yes, the current war is the most obvious example) could trigger a serious protest from the elites, let alone society. The problem is different – it is the human factor: to put it bluntly, Vladimir Putin is too crazy for such talks.

To put it delicately: in his position (when in your own state you have long been the absolute master and the highest authority) and at his advanced age (when you are over 70, it is much more difficult to swallow your pride), it is simply impossible to recognize people he called Nazis and drug addicts as equals in a negotiation or make concessions on issues that in Putin’s worldview have been decided long ago.
It is not only Crimea – which the Ukrainians will talk about anyway – but even the “inland” Sea of Azov, which Putin has already proclaimed as his historical achievement. Even the Minsk talks from eight years ago – when both the Ukrainian side and the Franco-German intermediaries were incomparably more acceptable to Putin and the costs incomparably lower – was for Putin both politically and personally a kind of step too far. Now, he is hardly capable of such a step, though the situation requires a much bigger one than back then.
A formal ceasefire agreement following the First Chechen war was signed by General Lebed (right) and General Maskhadov (left) in the summer of 1996. Source: VK
Who could make peace?

Against this backdrop, it is more reasonable to assume that direct contact between the leaders of Ukraine and Russia is impossible. However, this impossibility is not an insurmountable obstacle to talks, but rather the first move toward them.

If Putin and Zelensky cannot make peace, then someone else should. The closest historical parallel for modern Russia is obviously Khasavyurt in 1996, when the war between Russia and Chechnya was ended with the signing of an agreement with Russia represented by Security Council Secretary Alexander Lebed and Chechnya by Aslan Maskhadov, who commanded its armed forces.

Even though in that case it was the federal center and a rebellious province that were formally at war with each other, who said that people with the same, second-level status in two independent states cannot put an end to a conflict?

Hypothetically speaking, from the Ukrainian side it could be Commander-in-Chief Valery Zaluzhny, while from the Russian side – well, who knows – the Security Council secretary is now Nikolai Patrushev – let it be him, and if need be, pick a more exotic figure authorized to negotiate with the Ukrainians, like Yevgeny Prigozhin or, if he is too much, Zaluzhny’s vis-à-vis, Valery Gerasimov, for whom the Ukrainian side has voiced respect publicly several times.
“If at least one of the potential mediators running around today with his peace plan understands that at this stage, it is possible to make peace without the leaders of the countries, then negotiations seem quite realistic right now.”
And then wait for a new war or a change of regime in Russia. A delayed resolution – expectations for which will paralyze both countries – and imagine life, say, in Donetsk and Mariupol or in Kharkiv and Kherson during these years. It’s probably nothing good, but which of the available options can really be considered good?

Then it is about luck. Putin’s regime is actually very likely to come to an end, and with it his personal project to destroy Ukraine – much more likely than any other outcome that is dreamed about by the interested parties today. Anyone who is seriously waiting for peace today must understand that the peace that is available is unpleasant and in no way corresponds with anyone’s romantic aspirations.
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