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The Ukraine Conflict: Pathways to Peace

Now in its twelfth month, the Ukraine crisis is caught in a protracted winter of war rather than one of frozen hostility or attempted peace. Most prognoses point towards continuing military action instead of dialogue in the near term. This is primarily because Russia and Ukraine have made their maximalist positions clear. But is the door to dialogue completely shut, or is there room for ‘strategic accommodation’ through creative peace diplomacy? Do the theory and history of conflict resolution offer any pointers? This report examines the available options should the path of diplomacy open up.


Attribution: Ajay Bisaria and Ankita Dutta, “The Ukraine Conflict: Pathways to Peace,” ORF Special Report No. 207, January 2023, Observer Research Foundation.


The Ukraine crisis, now in its twelfth month, is caught in a prolonged winter of war rather than one of frozen hostility or attempted peace. Two developments in December 2022 underscored this reality. First, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s visit to the US, where he set a high bar for an end to the conflict in an impassioned address to the US Congress: “just peace is no compromises as to the sovereignty, freedom, and territorial integrity of my country, the payback for all the damages inflicted by Russian aggression.”[1] The visit signalled an attempt to escalate the conflict with added weaponry and firmer western support. To many Americans, Zelenskyy’s assertion that “Ukraine holds its lines and will never surrender”[2] evoked an inflection point from the Second World War, when UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill visited Washington in 1941 to draw the US into a European war.

The second was Russian President Vladimir Putin’s address at the meeting of Russia’s Defence Ministry Board,  where he doubled down on the commitment to provide the country’s armed forces with the latest weapon systems while “maintaining and improving the combat readiness of the nuclear triad” and continuing “the special military operation” as the key priority of 2023 “until its goals are achieved in full.”[3] Battlefield developments since then and the continuing Ukrainian demands for western weaponry suggest that the conflicting parties are placing greater faith in a military rather than a diplomatic phase, even though Russia has periodically signalled its willingness to negotiate after freezing the current territorial status quo.

Since September 2022, Ukraine has been able to reclaim some territory in its northeast and challenge Russian forces in the south. From October 2022, Russia targeted civilian and energy infrastructure across Ukraine. Most prognoses are of continuing military action rather than dialogue in the near term: Ukraine’s leadership informed The Economist in December 2022 that it is bracing for winter attacks and a Russian spring offensive.[4] The accidental missile strike in Poland in November 2022 and the repeated nuclear rhetoric, especially talk of a ‘dirty bomb,’ only underline the possibility of further escalation through miscalculation. A scenario that cannot be ruled out is of heavy Russian losses sending the conflict spiralling out of control into a nuclear endgame. Yet, while global voices periodically call for dialogue, serious peace proposals are conspicuously missing in action.

Both Russia and Ukraine have made their maximalist positions clear—Ukraine would like Russia to vacate all its occupied territory, including Crimea, while Russia would like to hold on to its military gains and secure Ukraine’s ‘guaranteed neutrality.’ However, is the door to dialogue completely shut? Or is there room for ‘strategic accommodation’ through creative peace diplomacy? Do the theory and history of conflict resolution offer any pointers? 

Pathways to Peace: In Theory and History

In their influential work, which is frequently used as a template for peace talks, academics William Ury and Roger Fisher presented four principles for effective negotiations: separating people from the problem, focusing on interests rather than positions, generating a variety of options before settling on an agreement, and insisting that the agreement be based on objective criteria.[5] Central to their model is the concept of ‘the best alternative to a negotiated agreement’ (BATNA). BATNA asks conflicting parties what concessions they are willing to make to arrive at the negotiated agreement or what course of action they would adopt in the absence of such an agreement.

Applying this understanding to the Ukraine conflict, the BATNA for Ukraine remains military gains on the battlefield, whereas, for Russia, it is defending the accrued territorial gains of the year. This is primarily because both countries believe in their respective capacities to push forward on the battlefield towards ‘complete victory’, which for Kyiv would mean pushing Russia out of its territories, and for Moscow, retaining territories in eastern Ukraine. However, pursuing complete victory would lead to a long and destructive war or a grinding stalemate—both scenarios creating negative ripples in Europe and worldwide.

Several reasons have been used to justify why countries go to war, from gaining territory, to defending it, from righting historical wrongs to pre-emptive or punitive actions. However, the trajectory and consequences of war are often hard to define or control.[6] The First World War, the first major conflict of the 20th century, presents two key lessons that are relevant to the current conflict: First, refusal to seize the moment for negotiations leads to greater suffering and destruction; and second, the eventual results of negotiations may not turn out well for either the victor or the vanquished. This is primarily because the consequences of the First World War—including the Treaty of Versailles, the Communist Revolution in Russia, and the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire—paved the way for the Second World War.[7] Similarly, the Second World War led to decolonisation, the creation of the United Nations, relative peace in Europe framed by a bipolar world, and a Cold War that lasted 45 years.

The Cold War never officially began and, thus, could not reach an official conclusion through a peace settlement in the 1990s or the 2000s, even though the Budapest Memorandum of 1994 attempted to draw up some of its security contours. The present crisis has reignited the undeclared and unfinished Cold War, with a 21st-century update of the historical contestation featuring an aggressive US-led NATO, a resurgent Russia, a proxy battleground in Europe, and nuclear brinkmanship. However, the revival of the Cold War has not seen a comprehensive strategic response from the West, like the ‘containment’[8] of the Soviet Union designed in the 1940s. As former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger[9] wrote in 2014, “the demonization of Vladimir Putin is not a policy; it is an alibi for the absence of one.” Similarly, it could be said that the current vilification of Putin and the lionisation of Zelenskyy indicate the absence of a coherent grand Western strategy towards Russia and, hence, the wavering on conflict resolution.

History tells us that resolutions for even the most vexed conflicts can be arrived at through dialogue. Negotiations, in theory, are meant to “balance the competing interests of states and to find common denominators which could form basis for an agreement.”[10] This was exemplified by negotiations aimed at preventing the Cold War military confrontation between the US and the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Even 60 years on, the crisis shines the light on some enduring lessons in conflict resolution. Conflict experts argue that the negotiations to end the Cuban missile crisis were also designed to develop confidence-building measures for avoiding accidental nuclear war. These negotiations were ‘based on the common interest in reducing the risk of confrontations that might escalate to nuclear warfare’ and ‘could proceed because it was possible to identify shared interests that cut across or partially overrode the conflicting ones”[11]

Diplomacy is critical to highlight grievances as well as viewpoints. It is not necessary that conflicting parties have direct connections; instead, key stakeholders could facilitate the dialogue process. In fact, multilateral processes seem to be the preferred pathway in post-Cold War conflict resolution. Less than three decades ago, when borders within Europe were redrawn in the former Yugoslavia, the crisis ended with the Dayton Peace Accords, which offer an instructive template for the current crisis. The crisis in Bosnia and Herzegovina highlighted the complexities and limits of European diplomacy, while the US and NATO intervened to set the stage for de-escalation and ceasefire. The lead-up to the final accords included several failed plans and agreements to bring the conflict to a close. Bosnia represents a case where mediators determined when the situation was critical enough to require resolution. Early mediators responded primarily to pressure exerted by media images of atrocities in Bosnia, perceiving that the conflict had escalated enough for resolution—not because the parties themselves had grown weary, but because the situation had gone too far. The question that the Bosnia situation raised, which is still relevant today, is when is it the right time and when is it ‘just’ for the international community to intervene and mediate in a crisis?

According to scholar Ira William Zartman, there are two approaches to the practice of negotiation—“first, lies in the substance of the proposals for a solution – when parties resolve their conflict by finding an acceptable agreement—more or less a midpoint; and second, lies in the timing of efforts for resolution—when parties resolve their conflict only when they are ready to do so—when alternative means of achieving a satisfactory result are blocked and the parties find themselves in an uncomfortable and costly predicament. At that point they grab on to proposals that usually have been in the air for a long time and that only now appear attractive.”[12] While applying this understanding to the current conflict in Ukraine, one can assume that neither party to the conflict has reached the stage of negotiation, primarily because their interests do not overlap. Ukraine is reiterating its demands for the restoration of its eastern territories, reparations for the damage, and accountability for Russian war crimes. In contrast, Russia has made it clear that it intends to integrate the conquered territories into its boundaries. Arguably, Ukraine’s western partners do not see their interests served by a ceasefire deal when the objective of ‘weakening Russia’ is being realised and nuclear risk is yet to breach the threshold of tolerance.

Nevertheless, when one of the conflicting parties is a nuclear power, escalation scenarios need to be considered seriously. Russian nuclear signalling has arguably been confusing and mostly dismissed as sabre-rattling, oscillating between Moscow placing nuclear forces on “special alert”[13] and Putin dismissing the threat of tactical nuclear weapons: “We see no need for that…There is no point in that, neither political, nor military.”[14] Still, it would be unwise to rule out scenarios of Russia choosing to “use a smaller tactical weapon in Ukraine as a “game changer”, to break a stalemate or avoid defeat.”[15] Overall, while the current risk of a nuclear endgame is low, it cannot be discounted and needs to be managed carefully.

A major challenge to early peace is the fact that the only existing platform of negotiation between Ukraine and Russia has been rendered ineffective. The Normandy Format, put in place in 2014, led to mediation between the two parties and the subsequent Minsk-1 and Minsk-2 agreements. The belligerents had differing interpretations of the provisions of the format, which led to it being sidelined; Ukraine saw the 2015 agreement as an instrument to re-establish control over the rebel eastern territories, while Russia viewed the deal as obliging Ukraine to grant rebel authorities in Donbass comprehensive autonomy and representation in the central government, effectively giving Moscow the power to veto Kiev’s foreign policy choices. Moreover, former German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s December 2022 remarks[16] confirmed Russia’s deepest geopolitical suspicion that the Minsk accords were never meant to be implemented but were designed to buy time for Ukraine to be strengthened as a western bulwark against it. Voices in Russia even suggest that it made a tactical error by not completing the job in 2014–15, when it had the chance to move deeper west into Ukraine with little challenge. While these agreements do provide a baseline for the current conflicting parties to work towards de-escalation, initialising the format is a challenge. This is primarily because the Normandy Format, which initiated these agreements, was neglected by the guarantor nations, Germany and France, and was completely ignored during the current conflict. More importantly, no credible alternative platform for conflict resolution has come into play after January 2022.

Clearly, what is required for peace is an ‘off-ramp,’ however difficult, towards de-escalation. One way forward could be a platform provided by a third country or countries, which would encourage the conflicting parties to step up and negotiate unconditionally. The success of this kind of negotiation was evident in the processes of the Tashkent Agreement in 1966 and the Oslo Accords in the 1990s. These agreements provided a platform for the negotiations while charting the future course, with major powers stepping in whenever necessary. The Oslo Accords provide the most promising template for the present conflict. They also framed the basic interim agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) to establish peace and push forward in capacity building while maintaining a futuristic timeline on conversations around critical issues. In both cases, major powers were involved in pushing the conflicting countries towards negotiations in a neutral third country.

Table 1: Takeaways from Major Conflicts of the 20th and 21st Centuries

Source: Compiled by the authors from various sources.
Lessons for the Ukraine Conflict

Every major conflict in the last 100 years, as outlined in Table 1, provides lessons for the present crisis. The First World War indicated that inordinate delay in starting negotiation processes could cause grievous harm. The Second World War showed the dangers of a conflict spiralling into a nuclear dimension. The Cuban Missile Crisis highlighted the importance of backchannel diplomacy as critical to put forward grievances and provide a platform for further discussions. The Tashkent Agreement and Oslo Accords emphasised the role of a neutral platform for negotiations. The Dayton Agreement process indicated the right time for international actors to push for mediation. As the Ukraine crisis nears a year and with its economic repercussions being felt across the globe, the case for dialogue remains strong, despite the reluctance of the belligerents and their backers. The negotiations may not lead to concrete outcomes, and the models followed may differ in detail, but open channels of communication remain critical.

As with any conflict, the present crisis comes with the opportunity for peace, the dissolution of which could lead to disastrous outcomes. The sooner both parties realise this, the more attractive the pathways to peace will become. In the Ukraine crisis, the first step towards peace will need to be the cessation of hostilities. It is dangerous for the world to complacently wait for a solution in the summer of 2023, after Russia has been confronted with the latest weaponry or after Europe has shivered through a weaponised winter.

The second step towards sustained peace is negotiation. For a peace process to take shape, it is critical to balance the maximalist demands on both sides and push for negotiations, including an unconditional ceasefire. At the moment, both conflicting parties seem to assume that they control the momentum of the conflict and, thus, are not inclined towards talks. For external facilitation to be successful, timing is crucial; while the conflicting parties need to be inclined, external stakeholders need to reach “the stage of receptivity – having the trust of the parties, confidentiality, and willingness to expend political capital and time, and a strong team to back up the effort.”[17]

What will be crucial is for international stakeholders to bring pressure on both countries to cease hostilities unconditionally and work towards a peace process. The UN Security Council is limited in its ability to provide a peace platform, given that a veto-wielding permanent member is party to the conflict. Russia, for its part, believes that the West is “backing” Ukraine, just as the West believes that China is siding with Russia. Third parties that enjoy the trust of both conflicting sides could step in when asked to outline a basic agreement for de-escalation, as was witnessed during negotiations for the Tashkent Agreement. Although both sides have regularly stated their maximalist demands, the components of a potential negotiated peace may vary due to shifts in their perceived negotiation power. A critical question is who will take the first step; Russia has signalled an appetite for negotiation, but Ukraine’s Western backers may need to funnel in more diplomacy than armaments.

Contours of a Negotiated Peace

If and when both parties come to the negotiating table, what shape could the negotiated peace take? At the G20 summit in Bali in November 2022, Zelenskyy proposed a 10-point peace plan. The maximalist plan asked Russia to “reaffirm the territorial integrity of Ukraine within the framework of the relevant resolutions of the UN General Assembly and the applicable international legally binding documents; along with cessation of hostilities and withdrawal of troops by Moscow; special tribunals for Russian war crimes; security guarantees and confirmation of end of war.”[18] Zelenskyy had also signed a decree in September, wherein he ruled out peace negotiations by stating: “We are ready for a dialogue with Russia, but with another president.”[19] On its part, Moscow has said that the country was “ready for the negotiations, but not on the West’s demand to pull out of Ukraine,” adding that “the West’s refusal to recognise new territories seized from Ukraine makes peace talks harder.”[20] Both countries have thus applied stiff conditions, even of regime change, but not shut the door entirely to a peace process.

A possible way forward was proposed by Kissinger during a talk at the Davos Summit in May 2022,[21] then in an article in December,[22] calling for a compromise between Russia and Ukraine to the status quo ante: the positions of the two forces before Russia’s invasion began on 24 February 2022 to push for a negotiated peace in Ukraine to reduce the risk of another devastating world war. He stated that “the outcome of any war and the peace settlement, and the nature of that peace settlement — it will determine whether the combatants remain permanent adversaries, or whether it is possible to fit them into an international framework.”

While reverting to the February 2022 status quo could be viewed as a victory by Ukraine and the West, will Russia agree to surrender its military gains? Similarly, will the declaration of neutrality, as offered by Ukraine at the beginning of the conflict, be the starting point for a negotiated peace? Given that the ground situation has since changed, neutrality might be acceptable to Moscow, but will it be acceptable to Kyiv? Or will Ukraine ask for concrete security guarantees from the West and NATO as part of peace negotiations? This may also be unacceptable for Russia; it may accept Ukraine joining European economic, but not security, structures, the EU but not any version of NATO. Another critical aspect is who will be the facilitator, since it must be a country (or countries) that both conflicting parties trust to provide a neutral space.

Where are the Peaceniks?

There have been several tentative attempts to broker peace during the Ukraine crisis, including by Turkey and Israel, which began contributing when France and Germany ceased to play that role. With the current focus on the G20, can the organisation or its chair, India, play a similar role?

India is not new to the role of a facilitator; it played a similar role in the Korean War, where it proposed a resolution to end the conflict, resulting in the signing of the Armistice Agreement. Notably, India refused to support or blame any party in the conflict on the one hand and worked to restore the status quo on the other. This resonates in India’s stand on the present conflict in Ukraine—New Delhi has expressed concerns over increasing violence, but refused to take sides, while calling for diplomacy and dialogue as the only way forward. Throughout the conflict, India has refused to endorse Russian actions and has underlined its respect for territorial integrity, spoken against the use of nuclear weapons, and highlighted the impact of the crisis on food and energy security, particularly in the Global South. India has also reiterated that it is ready to contribute to any peace effort. This was evident in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s conversations in December 2022 with Putin and Zelenskyy, where Zelenskyy pointedly called for New Delhi’s help “with implementing the peace formula”[23] that he had put forward during the G20 Bali Summit.

Various strategic factors drive India’s balanced approach to the Russia-Ukraine crisis. If invited, India is well-positioned to facilitate bilateralism and bilateral peace talks between the two conflicting parties, given that it is trusted by both sides and by a range of stakeholders. New Delhi could comfortably work with partners to build a consensus towards a peace process that meets the interests of all stakeholders, particularly by leveraging its G20 leadership. Modi is perhaps one of the few global leaders who can reach out to many of his contemporaries (whether Putin and Zelenskyy, or US President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron) in a single day.[24] Moreover, India could harness bilateral synergies with Ukraine, Russia, US, and the European Union to bring these vectors together and push an agenda for peace.

The Troika Diplomacy 

India’s G20 presidency provides New Delhi with a platform, as well as the responsibility to initiate discussions among stakeholders to de-escalate the Ukraine crisis. Since G20 remains the world’s premier economic forum, it will need to grapple with the most serious political crisis of current times, particularly since Russia and all G7 members are part of this grouping. The first critical step is to arrive at a consensus towards a peace process, which India could achieve by working with partners to address the interests of all stakeholders. India could then collaborate with its partners to work on a peace plan as part of its presidency’s larger agenda. Thus, the G20 provides India with the opportunity to set the blueprint for that discussion.

The G20 Troika has the potential to be the vehicle for this purpose. The G20 Troika presently comprises of three developing countries—Indonesia (the past president), India (the current president), and Brazil (the incoming president)—representing the true Global South. The troika would offer G20 the opportunity to look at the crisis from a developing-world perspective. Since the beginning of the conflict, India has been highlighting the ripple effects of the crisis on countries in the Global South, including increased prices of energy and fertilisers and heightened food insecurity. During its G20 presidency, Indonesia[25] also advocated for a resolution, with President Joko Widodo visiting both Russia and Ukraine to push for peace. With Brazil in the mix, the troika could prove to be a credible vehicle for a negotiated peace process.

An alternative pathway is for India to join a trilateral group with Israel and Turkey to initiate a consensus mechanism towards a peace process. The choice of Turkey and Israel would acknowledge their early efforts towards resolution of the crisis. Israeli and Turkish leaders have expended considerable effort to get the conflicting parties to come to the negotiating table. While Turkey played a critical role in finalising the much-needed grain deal, it has been unsuccessful in getting both countries to discuss a ceasefire. What would work in favour of this grouping is that it might be more acceptable to both Ukraine and Russia, given their respective ties with the countries and the exclusion of the European countries and the US.

Any multilateral group chosen to attempt peace can take cues from historical peace processes and provide a platform for talks. For example, learning from the Oslo Peace Process and the Tashkent Agreement, the group can provide a neutral ground for both parties to discuss a ceasefire agreement which, once implemented, could give way to further discussion on substantive issues. The peacebuilders could propose an incremental approach to address the concerns of both Ukraine and Russia, starting from the least problematic issues, to promoting confidence-building measures, to addressing difficult territorial matters.


Historically, conflicts have ended either with comprehensive victories or prolonged stalemates. While the 20th century saw devastating endgames, many 21st-century conflicts (such as Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and now Ukraine) seem to be more prolonged. As winter proceeds, the violence in Ukraine may intensify.

In a December interview, Putin said that he was “ready to negotiate with everyone involved about acceptable solutions, but that is up to them,”[26] placing the onus of dialogue on Ukraine and the West. While these comments may seem directed towards war-fatigued domestic audiences and war-sceptical Europeans, Russia’s apparent openness towards negotiated peace raises two critical questions: Is it tactical to make room for a military pause and build towards the next phase of conflict? Or is Russia open to talks, since these will allow it to preserve its military gains, even if by abandoning the dream of ‘total victory’? Many in Ukraine and the West see these remarks as “posturing” owing to continued Russian attacks and an attempt to justify Russia’s “imperial-style war of occupation.”[27]

What is clear is that the global community needs to encourage both sides towards peace talks; neither party will come to the negotiating table as long as the BATNA of a military solution appears more valuable. Irrespective of the pathway taken by Ukraine, the global conversation needs to shift from war strategies to templates for peace; the alternative is much too dangerous for the world.


[1] White House, “Remarks by President Biden and President Zelenskyy,” December 21, 2022.

[2] President of Ukraine, “Address by Volodymyr Zelenskyy in a Joint Meeting of the US Congress,” December 22, 2022.

[3] President of Russia, “Meeting of Defence Ministry Board,” December 21, 2022.

[4] Volodymyr Zelensky and his Generals Explain Why the War Hangs in the Balance, The Economist, December 15, 2022.

[5] Roger Fisher and William Ury, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In (UK: Random House, 1981), p. 50.

[6] Guillermo Altares, “History’s Lessons for the Ukraine-Russia Conflict: How Do Wars Get Started?, El Pais, January 28, 2022.

[7] Anatol Lieven, “Ukraine’s War is Like World War I, Not World War II, Foreign Policy, October 27, 2022.

[8] Office of the Historian, Foreign Service Institute, United States Department of State, “Kennan and Containment, 1947”.

[9] Henry Kissinger, “To Settle the Ukraine Crisis, Start at the End, The Washington Post, March 5, 2014.

[10] Paul C. Stern and Daniel Druckman, eds., International Conflict Resolution After the Cold War (Washington DC: National Academy Press, 2000), p. 4.

[11] Stern and Druckman, International Conflict Resolution After the Cold War, p. 4.

[12] Stern and Druckman, International Conflict Resolution After the Cold War, p. 225.

[13] Ukraine Invasion: Putin Puts Russia’s Nuclear Forces on Special Alert, BBC, February 28, 2022.

[14]Putin Says ‘No Need’ for Using Nuclear Weapons in Ukraine, PBS, October 27, 2022.

[15] Ukraine War: Could Russia Use Tactical Nuclear Weapons?, BBC, September 25, 2022.

[16] Tina Hildebrandt and Giovanni di Lorenzo, “Hatten Sie Gedacht, Ich Komme Mit Pferdeschwanz?, Zeit Online, December 7, 2022.

[17] Pankaj Saran, “The Role India Can Play in Halting Ukraine War, The Times of India, November 9, 2022.

[18] President of Ukraine, “Speech by the President of Ukraine at the G20 Summit,” November 15, 2022.

[19] President of Ukraine, “Address by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy,” September 30, 2022.

[20] Paul Kirby, “Ukraine War: Russia Demands Annexations Recognised Before Talks, BBC, December 2, 2022.

[21] World Economic Forum, “Kissinger: These Are the Main Geopolitical Challenges Facing the World Right Now,” May 23, 2022.

[22] Henry Kissinger, “How to Avoid Another World War, The Spectator, December 17, 2022.

[23] Suhasini Haider, “Ukrainian President Zelenskyy Speaks to PM Modi About G20, Thanks India for Aid and UN Support, The Hindu, December 26, 2022.

[24] Ajay Bisaria and Ankita Dutta, “Where is the Clamour for Getting Russia and Ukraine Off the Ramp?,” Observer Research Foundation, November 5, 2022.

[25] Stanley Widianto, “G20 President Indonesia Seeks to Ease Crisis with Ukraine, Russia Visits, Reuters, June 22, 2022.

[26] Ukraine War: Russia ‘Ready to Negotiate’ Claims Vladimir Putin, Euronews, December 25, 2022.

[27] Russian Missiles Rain Down on Ukraine Towns on Christmas Day, Euractiv, December 26, 2022.

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Ajay Bisaria

Ajay Bisaria

Ajay Bisaria is a Distinguished Fellow at ORF. He is also a strategic consultant and commentator on international affairs. He has had a distinguished diplomatic ...

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