The Ukraine war seems unending. Both sides continue to rely primarily on military means and, in addition, on economic measures. Diplomatic initiatives have so far failed. But in the long term, there is no way around negotiating with Russia about ending the war, but also about European security.

The two most important military and security policy objectives of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin failed completely: He could neither stop NATO’s eastward expansion nor overthrow the Ukrainian government and sustain occupation of parts of Ukrainian territory. Regardless of the outcome of the Ukraine war, the so-called “special military operation” failed. NATO, the transatlantic alliance, has moved even closer to Russia and the expected “Blitzkrieg” success in Ukraine also failed to materialise.  The conflict has turned into a war of attrition. Although NATO governments emphasise that they don’t want to be directly involved in the war, weapon supplies and military and economic support for Ukraine is now very far-reaching.

The basis of post-Cold War foreign and security policy in Europe is now eliminated. What political project can end this brutal war and what can a new European security policy look like?

These questions must be raised in view of the huge losses in Ukraine and in Russia. A primary goal would have to be a ceasefire to end the loss of life, the destruction of infrastructure and the migration of several million people. In addition, it is necessary to put an end to the disruptions of the economy that affect the entire globe. Particularly problematic for many countries is the interruption of grain supplies; for others – and not only for Russia –, the tough sanctions and the loss of energy and raw material sources. As long as both sides believe in a military victory, there is little hope for negotiations. The signs of fatigue that are now clearly noticeable could contribute to pause.

But how is it possible to persuade the Putin system to cooperate? Communication and diplomatic efforts are presently not getting off the ground. The line of communication between Russia and the EU and NATO has been broken, despite the efforts by Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz. The Chinese government, which has influence over Russia, is keeping a low profile, which de facto means strengthening Putin.

The massive rearmament and mutual threats are reminiscent of the Cold War. Although today’s situation is significantly different, there are also parallels. The history of détente shows that, despite miserable conditions, success and numerous arms control treaties were possible in the 1970s and 1980s. The Helsinki Final Act of 1975 laid down important principles. Agreements on national sovereignty, sanctity of borders, respect for human rights and economic, technical, and cultural cooperation were necessary to end the bloc confrontation. Even if the Helsinki Principles are now violated by Russia, it is worth looking back to draw conclusions for today.

Despite the nuclear threat and mutually assured destruction, the confrontation of systems, the division of Germany, the so-called Iron Curtain and ideological competition, it was possible to reduce tensions and reach binding political agreements. Today’s enduring confrontation should not lead to relying primarily or exclusively on military means, especially since Russia will almost certainly remain a nuclear power even after a possible end to the Ukraine war.

There are four possible ways to overcome the present stalemate: mediation from outside (for example by neutral states), a Helsinki II process, the revival of the OSCE and a Minsk III process. None of them might be within short-term reach, but the UN-Turkish brokered grain deal (now cancelled by Russia) and the exchange of prisoners of war are proof that humanitarian steps are possible.

Firstly, mediation: So far, the efforts of a delegation of African governments to Moscow have been unsuccessful. Nor did the initiatives of Brazilian President Lula da Silva, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi or Turkish President Recep Tayyid Erdoğan lead to a breakthrough. Nevertheless, only initiatives from outside seem promising. Perhaps a dialogue between Pope Francis and the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church, Kirill I, could dissolve the hardened fronts. The most promising sign presently is a Saudi initiative. The government in Riyadd offered itself as peace broker and invited the Ukraine, the US, European countries, China, India, Brazil and many others to a summit. Russia was not invited. Saudi Arabia with its global influence, including on Russia, might act as a middle man, although hopes for a diplomatic breakthrough are not high.

Second, Helsinki II: The West’s security policy for the 1975 Helsinki Conference consisted of a dual strategy, as proposed in NATO’s 1967 Harmel Report: military strength on the one hand and lasting political relations between NATO and the Warsaw Treaty on the other. Military deterrence with simultaneous negotiations about dismantling of armaments sat alongside political agreements that ultimately led to the resolution of the bloc confrontation.

Thirdly, revival of the OSCE: the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), with its 57 member countries in Europe, North America, and Central Asia, actually provides a forum for dialogue on security conflicts. But the tensions that exist in Europe have led to a marginalisation of the organisation, which is in dire need of revival in the face of the Ukraine war and other “frozen” conflicts (for example in the Caucasus).

Fourthly, Minsk III: In the Minsk I and Minsk II agreements, measures were agreed to politically settle the war in eastern Ukraine, which has been waged since 2014. Ukraine has rejected negotiations along the lines of the Minsk agreements, and President Putin declared the agreement a failure before Russia’s attack on Ukraine.

Such forums are still necessary today, despite, or perhaps because of, the deadlocked confrontation. Not only to end the war in Ukraine, but also to stop and de-escalate the uncontrolled arms race at all levels in the longer term. Regardless of the course of the Ukraine war, serious negotiations will be necessary at some point. A ceasefire or even peace is hardly possible without negotiations, and war is never an answer to anything.

Functioning communication and arms control forums in which the opponents of the war could exchange ideas existed during the Cold War. Unlike today, the outbreak of a hot war was prevented. But how can the war be terminated? It is still important to support Ukraine by all reasonable and justifiable means. What is “reasonable and justifiable”, however, is judged very differently, as the recent controversial supply of cluster munitions by the USA illustrates.

The Ukrainian demands go far beyond what is currently offered by the US, NATO, and the EU, although Ukraine’s supporters have gradually expanded their military assistance. Opinions are also divided on the economic measures and the severity of the sanctions. The order of the day, while at the same time continuing the West’s military strength policy, should be procedures for de-escalation. The sanctions must hit Russia hard, but it is unrealistic to bet on a collapse of the Putin regime in the short term. Continued pressure on Moscow is needed, but Putin must also be given a face-saving opportunity to end his warfare. This is not an appeasement policy, but an exit strategy. It must also be made clear to Ukraine that unrealistic war aims prolong the war and should therefore not receive any support.

In the long term, a Helsinki II process is needed for the entire European continent, which could be implemented by an organisation such as the OSCE. Ending the Ukraine war requires a process like the one attempted with the Minsk agreements. Even though the Minsk process has failed, there is no way around negotiations. A political project must be pursued in which nuclear deterrence is contained, and a concept for de-escalation, arms control and perhaps at some point disarmament is agreed. It is particularly important to recall some of the principles agreed with Helsinki I, one of which is to comply with international law. Russia blatantly violated this principle by invading Ukraine and, before that, by annexing Crimea. But the occupation of Iraq in 2003 and the Kosovo war in 1999 by the US, a coalition of the willing, and NATO were also clear violations of international law. This rule of law is universal, and we should work to uphold these principles. Especially those who emphasise the rules-based international order should strictly adhere to these rules themselves.

This article ‘In search of an exit strategy‘ was originally published on the Toda Peace Institute website and was republished with permission.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Vision of Humanity.


Herbert Wulf

Herbert Wulf

Professor of International Relations and former Director of BICC

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