Premature calls for Ukraine-Russia talks are dangerous

Premature calls for Ukraine-Russia talks are dangerous

Hein Goemans and Branislav Slantchev write:

Russia’s war in Ukraine has been raging for more than a year. And for more than a year, various international leaders—including French President Emmanuel Macron and Chinese leader Xi Jinping—not to mention domestic pundits and politicians, have been calling for negotiations to end the bloodshed. Though well-intentioned, these appeals fail to take into account the fundamental nature of war, which requires the fighting to play out before a lasting peace can be a realistic possibility. At this moment in the conflict, any calls for talks are more likely to prolong the war and increase the suffering they seek to end.

War begins with a disagreement: Each side refuses to accept the terms the other is willing to offer, in the belief that fighting will lead to better ones. War ends with an agreement: Each side prefers to accept the terms offered, because it has come to believe that continuing to fight is unlikely to improve them. According to this logic, war is caused by conflicting expectations—about how troops and equipment will perform in battle, how competent the leadership will turn out to be, how ready society will be to bear the costs of war, how resilient the economy and industry will be in sustaining the war effort, how reliable allies and other third parties will prove to be.

All of these factors influence national leaders’ estimates of what can be achieved by military means, and those estimates remain hypothetical until tested in the real world. The fighting is therefore a process of learning, of gaining information that can lead to adjusted expectations. War is a harsh but honest teacher, and fighting furnishes the hard evidence that could create the conditions for peace.

Conflicting expectations about how a war will unfold cannot be resolved through diplomacy—only through fighting. Although most wars do end at the bargaining table, negotiations rarely begin before heavy fighting has taken place. If the West is genuinely committed to supporting Ukraine against Russia’s current war aims, then any calls for peace talks are counterproductive.

Once a conflict breaks out, expectations are confirmed or belied by events. Some corrections happen very quickly. Before the Russian invasion in February 2022, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was not considered a particularly strong leader by either the Russians or the West, or even by most Ukrainians. When Russia’s forces rushed toward Kyiv in an attempt to swiftly topple the government, many people expected Zelensky to flee. But the president astonished everyone by standing firm in Kyiv and rallying the population to defend its homeland against what at the time appeared to be insurmountable odds.

This sequence of events could easily have gone the other way, causing confusion, a collapse of Ukrainian morale, and the emergence of a Russian-controlled provisional government that would have undermined Ukraine’s war effort and devastated its prospects. This appears to have been the Russian expectation, and until Zelensky’s character and capability were tested by war, Moscow had no way to test its prior estimate of his worth as a wartime leader and reconcile conflicting expectations about how the invasion would actually unfold. [Continue reading…]

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