There is a possible basis for negotiations to end the war in Ukraine. This would involve a UN-supervised referendum for the residents in each of the disputed territories.
The war in Ukraine has now reached something of a stalemate, with no tangible end in sight. Russia mounted its invasion on 24 February 2022 with the aim of overthrowing the government of Ukraine. It expected to meet little resistance, but Ukraine inflicted a bloody repulse on the invading Russian forces. Vladimir Putin then lowered his sights to annexing the eastern territories of Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kherson, which Putin proclaimed Russian territories in late September. Since then, fierce fighting has seen Russian forces pushed out of Kherson city and back to the eastern side of the Dnieper River. For now, the battlefront has been reduced to trench warfare, with both sides reportedly running low on ammunition.
According to reports, Russia is desperate to end the war in Ukraine without losing face, but neither side is willing to negotiate except on its own terms. Russian soldiers have switched tactics, this time to raining missiles on the infrastructure of Ukraine, destroying power and water facilities, and hoping cold and hunger will force the Ukrainian people to sue for peace. On the other side, President Volodymyr Zelensky has stated that Ukraine is determined to regain all its territories, including Crimea. Neither side is willing to negotiate for now.
The damage has been horrific. Casualties and deaths have numbered in the tens and even hundreds of thousands on both sides, and it is estimated that around US$1 trillion will be required to repair the damage to buildings and the economy in Ukraine.
Is a diplomatic solution feasible?
Veteran statesman Henry Kissinger has called for negotiations to avert the possibility of a new world war. General Mark Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, has also called for negotiations to end the conflict. “The probability of Russia achieving its strategic objectives of conquering Ukraine…is close to zero,” he said. But on the other hand, he added, “the probability of a Ukrainian military victory, defined as kicking the Russians out of all of Ukraine, to include what they claim is Crimea…is not high, militarily.” Milley urged Kyiv and Moscow to find a “political solution” as the winter months continue, warning that the chance of a total military victory was “unlikely.”
A possible resolution would begin with a ceasefire, followed by a legitimate, UN-supervised referendum in each of the disputed territories to see whether the residents would prefer to be citizens of Russia or Ukraine. Both sides would have to agree to withdraw their forces, and for the referendum to be supervised by UN peacekeeping forces. The voter rolls would have to include all the registered voters of each territory recorded before the Russian invasion. An important caveat here is that any referendum would need to be transparent to be seen as legitimate – a clear distinction from the Russian-run referendum that took place last year.
These referenda would clearly demonstrate the will of the people themselves, which ought to be acceptable to both sides. Russia has asserted that the inhabitants would prefer to live as citizens of Russia, and to admit otherwise would destroy their whole justification for the war. And Ukraine has been loudly supporting and advocating for democratic rights, which would be severely compromised if they took back the disputed territories against the will of the people.
There are certainly enormous practical difficulties in achieving such a solution. Both sides would be reluctant to agree to it because it would mean drawing back from their proclaimed objectives. This is notwithstanding that many have died or that political and personal legacies are also at stake. Further, it would require the good offices of mediators, perhaps President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan from Turkey, to bring them to the negotiating table. And even if agreement was reached, Russia and possibly Ukraine are likely to distort the results of the referendum in their favour. Large contingents of peacekeepers and election supervisors would be required to prevent this.
Many people in the US and the EU would oppose any such solution on the grounds that it might reward Russian aggression. In such a case, punishment for Russia would have to be left for a later stage, either by action in an ad hoc criminal court or by the Russian people themselves. The major objective must be to call a halt to the enormous suffering of the Ukrainian people and prevent even worse disasters such as the outbreak of nuclear war.
What would be the outcome of such a referendum? According to a census in 2001, a majority of people in Crimea and eastern Donetsk and Luhansk have ethnic and religious ties with Russia and may well opt for union with it – though such ties may have change considerably since then. On the other hand, the residents of some or all disputed territories might opt to be reunited with Ukraine, which would achieve Ukraine’s aims without any further fighting.
Either way, this could be a way of halting the enormous death and destruction presently occurring in the conflict, provided each side guarantees to abide by the results of the referenda, whatever the outcome. It would also provide a powerful reinforcement of the principle of democracy that the West has been fighting for so earnestly. Russia and Ukraine would do well to explore the possibility, at the very least.
Chris Hamer is President of the World Citizens Association of Australia, and also President of a transnational working group, the Coalition for a World Security Community of democratic nations. He is a member of AIIA NSW.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.