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Ukrainian refugees

Refugees fleeing Ukraine arrive at the border train station of Zahony on March 8, 2022 in Zahony, Hungary. (Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Diplomacy—and a Neutral Ukraine—Still Best Path to Peace: Experts

"Pursuing diplomacy is not appeasement; it is prudence, and it could save Ukraine and the world from an unmitigated catastrophe," argues Columbia University's Jeffrey D. Sachs.

Julia Conley

As the U.N. reported the deaths of at least 516 civilians in Ukraine Wednesday, with hundreds more expected to be counted in Mariupol and other besieged cities, experts welcomed comments from Ukrainian and Russian officials suggesting both sides are open to diplomatic talks—the best chance Ukrainians have to restore peace in their country, according to international observers.

"In a diplomatic solution, no party gets everything it wants. Putin would not get to restore the Russian empire, and Ukraine would not get to join NATO."

Speaking to Bloomberg Television from Kyiv on Wednesday, Ihor Zhovkva, deputy chief of staff to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the government is "ready for a diplomatic solution."

"Our first and foremost pre-condition for having such kind of negotiations is immediate cease-fire and withdrawal of Russian troops," said Zhovkva.

Zelenskyy offered to hold direct talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin this week, but while he said "we have the possible resolution" for Russian demands he did not necessarily submit to any of them as he called for dialogue and an end to the bombardment.

Ukraine will not trade "a single inch" of territory to Russia in exchange for peace, said Zhovkva, although the president said "the separatist regions' status could be up for discussion," according to Bloomberg.

While open to discussing Russia's demand for neutrality, Zhovkva, according to Bloomberg, "also reinforced Ukraine’s insistence that it will continue to seek NATO membership"—an effort which Moscow views as a threat to its security.

Putin reportedly signaled in a recent call with French President Emmanuel Macron that he is open to potential talks with Ukraine, saying, "This is first and foremost about demilitarization and neutrality of Ukraine, to ensure that Ukraine will never pose a threat to Russia."

According to Columbia University professor Jeffrey D. Sachs, president of the U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network and a former adviser to three U.N. secretaries-general, both sides of the conflict will need to cede some of their demands, including Ukraine's push to join NATO.

"Translated into action," Sachs wrote in a new column Wednesday, Russia's stipulations "could mean that NATO and Ukraine would forswear Ukraine’s future membership in the Alliance if Russia immediately withdraws from Ukraine and forswears future attacks."

Such a deal could save thousands of lives as Russia's recent shelling has left "bodies lying in the streets" in the port city of Mariupol, where a strike hit a maternity ward at a hospital and reportedly buried people under the rubble on Wednesday.

"Pursuing diplomacy is not appeasement; it is prudence, and it could save Ukraine and the world from an unmitigated catastrophe," wrote Sachs, noting that "the history of conflicts in the nuclear age has made clear that compromise is the only safe option."

"The Cuban Missile Crisis is a case in point," he added. "In the end, the crisis was defused by diplomacy and compromise, not by a one-sided victory. U.S. President John F. Kennedy agreed to remove US missiles from Turkey and pledged never again to invade Cuba, while Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev agreed to remove the Soviet missiles from the island."

The U.S. and Europe have responded to Russia's military assault on Ukraine with punishing sanctions and by sending weapons to the Ukrainians, but both of these approaches are likely to fall short of securing peace, Sachs wrote:

Such sanctions rarely deter, much less bring down, a ruthless regime. The US tried similar measures to topple Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, but succeeded only in crushing the economy. According to the International Monetary Fund, Venezuela’s per capita GDP declined by more than 60% between 2017 and 2021, yet Maduro remains entrenched (and now is being courted by the US so that Venezuela will pump more oil). Nor have U.S. sanctions overturned the regimes in Iran and North Korea.


[Supplying Ukraine with weapons] is very unlikely to prevent a Russian occupation, but it will make it more likely that Ukraine becomes another perpetual killing field, like Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria before it. Even more ominously, the flow of arms into Ukraine will risk a direct military confrontation between Russia and NATO.

"In a diplomatic solution, no party gets everything it wants. Putin would not get to restore the Russian empire, and Ukraine would not get to join NATO," wrote Sachs. "The United States would be forced to accept the limits of its power in a multipolar world."

"Historians of the future should condemn Russia very harshly indeed for its invasion of Ukraine, but they will also not forgive the West if we fail to promote a reasonable peace."


In a column last week in Responsible Statecraft, Anatol Lieven, senior research fellow on Russia and Europe at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, also argued in favor of peace talks which would include a compromise between the two countries.

"Russian forces should withdraw completely from all the areas of Ukraine that they have occupied since the invasion began," he wrote. "Ukraine for its part could sign a treaty of neutrality loosely modeled on the Finnish-Soviet Treaty of 1948 and the treaty by which Western and Soviet forces withdrew from Austria in 1954," which guaranteed those countries' sovereignty.

However, he wrote, "to insist on the return of Crimea to Ukraine as part of any peace settlement would very likely only prolong the war and make peace permanently impossible, under any future Russian government."

The U.S. should urge Moscow to withdraw its forces under such an agreement, promising to lift sanctions imposed on Russia, Lieven added.

"Historians of the future should condemn Russia very harshly indeed for its invasion of Ukraine," Lieven wrote, "but they will also not forgive the West if we fail to promote a reasonable peace."

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