For three weeks, Ukraine has been engulfed in a war of aggression. While Russian troops are forming around Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, government representatives are simultaneously struggling to find a peaceful solution to the conflict. But how exactly do such negotiations work? What contributes to the success of diplomatic talks—and what causes them to fail?
Thania Paffenholz is an expert in international relations, based in Switzerland and Kenya, who conducts research on sustainable peace processes and advises institutions such as the United Nations, the European Union and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). She is executive director of Inclusive Peace, a think tank that accompanies peace processes worldwide. Paffenholz talked with Spektrum der Wissenschaft, the German-language edition of Scientific American, about new ways to think about peacekeeping.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
You have experienced some violent conflicts during your professional career. What makes the current war in Ukraine different?
For many decades, there have tended to be internal conflicts. We have hardly seen wars of aggression against another country since the end of World War II in Europe, with the exception of the Bosnian War. At the moment, there is a lot of talk about warfare—and very little about peace solutions. Yet we actually have institutions with precisely this goal: OSCE, the U.N. Security Council and others. But the international system that is supposed to enable diplomatic work is clearly no longer functioning.
How could it come to this?
On the one hand, we are witnessing strong aggression from the Russian side. But NATO’s dealings with Russia in recent years have also failed. There has been a creeping escalation. In the 1980s and 1990s, there were still numerous disarmament talks and negotiations on how the different needs could go together. This diplomacy, in terms of prevention, failed in the run-up to the war in Ukraine.
Instead we are currently in a phase of escalation. Does diplomacy work differently in times of war?
The basic questions are the same: What are the interests of the actors involved? What positions do they hold? Of course, the points of view differ greatly. According to the Russian leadership, the Ukrainian state is an artificial entity, and the territory should really belong to Russia anyway. The perspective of Ukraine and the West is diametrically opposed to this: Ukraine has every right to exist as its own sovereign state—and does not have to let Russia dictate whether it can become a NATO member.
How does one proceed then?
By analyzing the needs behind the positions. Russia wants a buffer zone to NATO and is therefore against an eastward expansion of the military pact. In Ukraine, the dominant need is not to be crushed between Russia and the West but to have good relations with both sides. In addition, of course, it is a matter of securing the existence of its own state. So in terms of their security needs, the two sides are actually very similar.
How does a diplomatic process like this actually work?
The first talks are already taking place, for example in Turkey or on the Belarusian border. Formal negotiations usually deal with questions such as “Can there be a ceasefire—and if so, under what conditions?” As a rule, the maximum demands are first put on the table. The parties to the conflict often try to strengthen their own positions in advance through escalating measures: Russia sends tanks and weapons. The West puts pressure on the Russian leadership through a sanctions regime. Propaganda also plays a role: both sides try to spread their own views and mobilize their own populations.
Are there other paths to peace besides formal negotiations?
There are also informal negotiations, behind the scenes, so to speak. For example, Kyiv mayor Vitali Klitschko made a video calling on religious dignitaries to come to Kyiv. Clergymen have discreetly mediated in previous disputes, such as the Pope in the conflict between Cuba and the U.S. Both approaches to negotiation, however, are part of long-established diplomacy.
You consider that inadequate. What is your criticism?
It is absurd that the fate of the country is mainly discussed by men older than 60, as is usual in this type of negotiation. Where is the rest of the population? What about women? What about younger people? Do they really want the same things as those in power? How can their perspectives be carried into the peace processes? There are now concepts for inclusive negotiation in which delegations from civil society discuss issues together with the leaders. In Eastern Europe, however, there are only a few examples of this.
The war in Ukraine has not been a stellar moment for diplomacy so far: The numerous talks with Vladimir Putin in the run-up have not been able to prevent the violence. Currently, not even agreements on humanitarian corridors are holding.
First of all, the protection of civilians is a duty under the Geneva Conventions. Those who do not comply can later be prosecuted for this in the International Court of Justice. Nevertheless, the Russian military is now using the corridors for their power games.
Is diplomacy becoming an empty spectacle here?
Political will is always the limit of diplomacy. The question is rather “What is the alternative?” Firing at each other is, of course, the worst option of all. But even sanctions against Russia are not in full force, for example, because of dependence on Russian gas and oil supplies. So the question is how it is possible to reach a compromise that all sides accept—and as quickly as possible so that the war finally stops.
How can this be achieved?
The question is “What can a compromise look like?” Usually, it starts with smaller projects that promise quick success: confidence-building measures, in other words. Once that has worked, both parties are, in the best case, ready to take the next step. Ultimately, it could come down to renegotiating the security architecture of the entire region. Such negotiations would, of course, have to include the other European states.
So much for the theory. In reality, however, even the first small steps are currently failing. Does the way of negotiating have to change?
In my view, it is not the negotiations that are at fault but rather the strategic objective. The war goes on until one party feels, “If we continue, we will weaken our position”—or rather “What we want is now better achieved at the negotiating table.” When a conflict reaches this point, we call it “ripe for resolution.”
So the dying continues until those in power feel the necessary level of “maturity” has now been reached. Isn’t that cynical?
Unfortunately, this is how it works at present. Until the war is over, completely useless human dramas occur. The current system allows old men to act like kings in the Middle Ages sending their peasants to war.
After all, the relationship with Russia used to be much better. Why has peace diplomacy become so rusty in recent decades?
Our idea of peace processes is often still too linear: first, there is war, then come the preliminary talks, then the negotiations, then a peace agreement is implemented—done. But the idea of concluding some treaty and then having peace forever is wrong. The fact that the relationship between nations is always questioned and has to be discussed anew is historically normal.
You advocate a paradigm called “perpetual peace building”—in other words, an ongoing peace process with no time limit. Is that really necessary?
Within states, but also between states, coexistence is constantly being renegotiated. Think of the yellow vest movement in France a few years ago. Dissatisfaction over the economic situation led to protests and riots. France’s president Emmanuel Macron responded, albeit very late, with a “national debate”in which he traveled around the country, offering talks. Even when there is no war, togetherness must always be redefined. In the relationship with Russia, too, one should have said, “When the old treaties and institutions have reached their end, then we have to rethink.”
The criticism of this linear thinking is not new. Even major institutions such as the E.U. and the U.N. share this view. Nevertheless, the practice is often oriented toward outdated peace models. Why?
In research, we call this phenomenon “path dependency”: once actors know how to something one way, they often continue to do it that way, even if the framework conditions change. International diplomacy, too, often still proceeds as if it were stuck in the 1990s. The OSCE was founded primarily so that Western states could remain in dialogue with [the former Soviet Union and then] Russia. Nevertheless, after a while, they were satisfied with sending a new ambassador to the meetings every few years, although it hardly brought any results.
How can we succeed in bringing peace policy into a new era?
Social movements such as Fridays for Future and Black Lives Matter are currently showing how this can be done. What previously seemed politically unfeasible suddenly becomes possible when many people join forces. This is also possible for the opposition forces in Russia. But their room to maneuver is severely limited because they are being muzzled—for example, with arrests and the closing of their media channels. In general, however, the spark for social change must come from civil society.