The fundamental logic of successful political settlements that end armed conflict requires that the parties are simultaneously strong and weak, writes Valdai Club expert Paul Saunders. It is because this balance is so difficult to find, and to sustain during extended negotiations, that political settlements are rare in comparison with either military victories or very long wars.
Some commentators in the United States and Europe appear to view the December 9 meeting among the leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine—the so-called Normandy Four—as a disappointing exercise that produced only marginal progress, if any. Yet marginal progress is likely to be the most promising approach to resolving the crisis in eastern Ukraine. Moreover, notwithstanding its limitations, the Normandy group is probably the best available format for talks that could produce a viable agreement. Wishing otherwise is to ignore significant constraints on all sides, especially Ukraine’s leader Volodymyr Zelensky and US President Donald Trump.
The fundamental logic of successful political settlements that end armed conflict requires that the parties are simultaneously strong and weak. More precisely, they must be strong enough to avoid unacceptable concessions (otherwise the weaker party will generally prefer to keep fighting) and weak enough that they cannot hope to impose a solution at an acceptable cost (otherwise the stronger party will generally prefer to keep fighting). It is because this balance is so difficult to find, and to sustain during extended negotiations, that political settlements are rare in comparison with either military victories or very long wars.
The central challenge in pursuing a political settlement to the conflict in eastern Ukraine is that with only very limited military assistance from the United States at its allies, and despite a military that has become stronger and more effective during the conflict, Kiev is the weaker party. Worse, the Ukraine government is weak enough to be close to the threshold at which continued fighting is more attractive for Ukrainian leaders (and to Western leaders, who face little to no practical cost from continued fighting) than a bad deal. This leads to a perverse situation in which the weaker Ukraine’s position is, the stronger Ukraine’s president must be in order to pursue and implement a settlement.
Zelensky’s predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, was not sufficiently strong domestically to implement the Minsk agreements that he negotiated. Indeed, some have argued that Poroshenko knew this and intended the Minsk process to slow rather than end the conflict. Whatever Poroshenko’s aims, however, Kiev has committed to agreements that will not be easy for Zelensky to fulfill—regardless of the order in which key steps like elections in the contested regions and restoration of Ukraine’s control over the Ukraine-Russia border occur. Ukraine’s domestic politics thus necessitates a gradual process. From this perspective, observers should be more skeptical toward breakthroughs than toward incremental advances.
The other problem with looking for alternatives to the Normandy group meetings is that pursuing other options requires starting over both procedurally and substantively. Developing new procedures would consume valuable and possibly irreplaceable time. Likewise, it is not obvious that understandings developed in one forum would transfer quickly and completely to another. Abandoning Normandy would mean taking big risks in Ukraine’s uncertain political environment; who can be sure how long Zelensky’s post-election political honeymoon will last? Even the Normandy process may end up taking too long.