What are the chances for peace in Ukraine?

Outlining the possible outcomes from the probable scenarios

Pray for Ukraine. Child with Ukrainian flag in sunflower field. Little girl waving national flag praying for peace. Happy kid celebrating Independence Day.

Whether there will be a chance for peace in Ukraine depends, above all, on the United States! For the USA, this war is about its geostrategic goals and only geostrategic considerations will persuade the USA to agree to a peace solution. Here are a few thoughts:

Not the war, but what led to the war must be addressed first

The war in Ukraine is the result of a misguided attempt by the US after the end of the Cold War to establish a security order in Europe through a NATO expansion that excludes Russia. In doing this, the USA was hardly driven by any security concerns for European countries, but almost exclusively motivated by its geostrategic concerns to secure its position as the sole dominant global superpower. The accession of Ukraine, as well as of Georgia, to NATO would be its crowning achievement of an eastward expansion of NATO that began in 1994.

If successful, this would extend the US military sphere of influence deep into Central Asia. It would make it possible to militarily enclose Russia’s entire south-western border and thus push Russia out of the strategically important Black Sea and weaken its traditional influence among Central Asian countries. Thus, nuclear power Russia would be largely eliminated as an unwelcome strategic competitor. With this, the USA, a nuclear power located more than 8,000 km away from Ukraine on another continent, could further exert military pressure on the entire Asian region, including China, and dominate increasingly important trade and economic relations between Asia and Europe. The USA is thus pursuing in Ukraine its own strategic – and not any alleged selfless humanitarian – aims. Ukraine has become a theatre of war only because of its geostrategic location between Europe and Asia. Despite all Western expressions of solidarity for a peace settlement, Ukrainian interests are therefore unlikely to play any major role. 

There can only be real peace in Ukraine, and thus also in Europe, if it becomes possible to establish a new security structure in Europe independent and/or in parallel of NATO with the aim of creating a common European house without new dividing lines, as called for in the OSCE Paris Charter of 1990. This must include Russia. Since Europe is too weak, this would need the consent of the USA. The current prospects for this are, however, extremely bleak. Ukraine, as repeatedly put forward in the West, certainly cannot conduct independent peace negotiations with Russia. They do not control any of the geopolitical interests of the nuclear powers of the USA and Russia (and in a certain sense also of China) that are being fought out in this war. Moreover, Ukraine is far too dependent on Western, especially American, financial and military support to take an independent position. 

Who can, then, negotiate peace with Russia?

Only the USA would be able to do so; the European Union is too divided and weak. The recent visit of President Zelensky and the huge increase in financial and military support of over $40 billion he received, have shown how much this war is in reality a war of the USA. Zelensky ignored Europe; he simply flew over it.  

The USA and the war for power

The US geopolitical interest in Ukraine goes back to the period after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991. Whereas, until then, the USA had been ‚only‘ the leading nation of Western democracies, it now saw itself as the sole leading power of the entire world. This triggered a major strategic reorientation. The Wolfowitz Doctrine followed by Dick Cheney’s “The Project for a New American Century” and Brzezinski’s “The Grand Chessboard” laid the foundation for a policy that aimed to secure American global dominance. This put an end to any attempt in Europe to create a balancing security structure that would also include Russia, the now considerably weakened successor state of the Soviet Union. The hopes of the OSCE Paris Charter had died. NATO, which is not mentioned at all in the Paris Charter, now had the task of becoming the military umbrella of a world dominated by the USA. This goal seemed realistic at the time, as Russia had sunk into the chaos of the Yeltsin years and China, like India, was economically and militarily still irrelevant. At the same time, Ukraine was already being considered to play a central role.

As early as 1997, NATO signed a strategic partnership agreement with Ukraine. Since then, NATO membership became the goal of all subsequent American presidents to this day. Despite all protests and threats from Russia, this was pursued with considerable aggressiveness.  The culmination of this came  in 2014, when the USA organized and financed the overthrow of the democratically elected Ukrainian President Yanukovych and the installed the pro-Western Poroshenko government. The stage was set for Ukraine’s incorporation into NATO. Russia responded by annexing Crimea and supporting the independence of the Donbas while the West began a massive military build-up of the Ukrainian army. This led to a latent war between Russian and the USA over influence in Ukraine. After the announcement at the NATO summit in June 2021 that Ukraine’s membership would now go ahead, the situation exploded and led to Russia’s military intervention a few months later. All this was and is solely about NATO enlargement and there will be no peace if it is not resolved diplomatically.

This also explains why the US vehemently opposes any peace solution that foresees the neutrality of Ukraine. As recently as December 2021, the US refused to negotiate with Russia over its security concerns should Ukraine join NATO, and in March 2022, NATO torpedoed Ukrainian-Russian peace talks that envisaged a neutral Ukraine. Now, too, the USA is refusing to hold peace talks with Russia, arguing that Russian troops must first leave Ukraine, knowing very well that this will not happen if there is not at the same time an agreement that Ukraine will not join NATO. Is the USA accepting the suffering of the Ukrainian people and the successive destruction of their country for its geostrategic goals?

The European Union and the war into impotence

The war in Ukraine is a disgrace for Europe and especially for the EU. Although this is a war that is being fought on the European continent between two European states, and although this conflict had been brewing for the last 30 years with constantly heightened tensions, the EU did nothing to resolve it diplomatically and thus prevent the war. The EU degraded itself to a willing follower of the USA and thus carries a heavy responsibility for this war in Europe. It will now have to pay for this by slipping into political insignificance, by cutting itself off from the land-based trade with Russia and Asia, by jeopardizing Europe’s economic well-being and by having to make billions of Euros in transfer payments to Ukraine over many years. 

Attempts by European states to mediate in the Ukraine conflict have regularly failed due to European disunity and American resistance. An attempt by the foreign ministers of Germany, France, and Poland to mediate the riots on Maidan Square in 2014 was ignored, resulting in the violent overthrow of the pro-Russian president only hours later. „Fuck the EU“ was Victoria Nuland’s reaction; she is now US Deputy Secretary of State. Even the Minsk I and Minsk II agreements, negotiated by Germany and France, were never implemented. Europe was too weak and disunited to exert pressure. The powerlessness of the EU became even more apparent when Nord Stream 1&2 pipelines were blown up (probably by the USA) without any protests. Europe’s economy, and especially Germany’s economy, should be oriented towards the West and not towards the East. The war in Ukraine is also an economic war of the USA against a Europe that was too much oriented towards the East, especially towards Russia and China.

The tragedy for Ukraine is that this has created a situation in which it cannot negotiate peace itself, in which the EU is too weak to negotiate with Russia, and in which the USA believes itself to be in such a strong position that it has no reason to seek a negotiated peace with Russia.

What, however, could motivate the USA to seek a negotiated peace with Russia?

But that could change. The American stratagem to defeat Russia in Ukraine is built on the belief in the superiority of its weapons systems, its better intelligence and, ultimately, its stronger economic power. However, this strategy has three weak points that could lead the US to change its stance:

Not Russia, but Ukraine, could crumble first

In the Ukraine war, the US and other NATO countries supply the weapons and ammunition, but it is the Ukrainians who pay with their blood. It is a typical proxy war, the success of which will depend on the extent to which Ukraine can sustain its war efforts. Although Russia is also being hit hard by this war, it seems more likely that Ukraine could break up first. And this is not only due to the military situation.

The war is taking place exclusively on Ukrainian soil. This means that not only Russian weapons, but also all weapons supplied by the West are destroying the country. By now, this destruction must have reached catastrophic proportions. Even before the war, Ukraine (with Moldova) was by far the poorest country in Europe. For the vast majority of Ukrainians, living conditions without electricity and water must be indescribably harsh, especially in winter. There is hardly any functioning economy left and the country has lost vital access to the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea. The financial support provided by the West to the now almost bankrupt Ukrainian state will probably never be able to cover the financial needs. For example, the EU has promised € 1.5 billion per month for 2023, while the Ukrainian government had requested between €5.0 and 9.0 billion per month.  

The rifts between the western and eastern parts of the country, between Ukrainian- and Russian-speaking Ukrainians, must now have become much deeper, perhaps even unbridgeable. This war always had aspects of a civil war, with Donbas militias from eastern Ukraine fighting Asov Brigades from western Ukraine. Added to this are now legal restrictions on the Russian language and culture in the public sphere, the closure of Russian-speaking television and radio stations, the banning of all Russian-speaking political parties, the police raids on over 300 Russian Orthodox monasteries, the announcement of a ban on the Russian Orthodox Church and, finally, the murders of alleged collaborators.

Ukraine suffers from a highly unstable population. Since its independence, the population has dropped by 20%, a trend that has certainly been exacerbated by this war. According to UN figures, 8 million Ukrainians have fled since the outbreak of the war; this could increase with a harsh winter. In addition, there are about 7 million internally displaced persons in Ukraine, and another 6-7 million Ukrainians now living in Russian-controlled areas.

Under these conditions, a situation could arise in which further Western arms deliveries have little impact. Perhaps this is why the highest-ranking American general, Marc Milley, has called for immediate peace negotiations – in contradiction to President Biden’s stated policy of holding out. The US may one day feel compelled to negotiate to avoid a collapse of the Ukrainian state. 

The conflict between the USA and China intensifies

China, and not Russia, is increasingly seen in the US as the great adversary of the future. As the conflict between the US and China grows in ferocity and danger, the US may conclude that it cannot afford simultaneous conflicts with Russia and China. In this case, the US could take the decision of ending the expensive but unpromising conflict with Russia.

Public opinion in Western countries is increasingly turning against the war 

In almost all Western countries, public support for further arms deliveries is declining, albeit slowly. In many countries, a majority of people are now in favor of diplomatic efforts to end the war. The economic impact will most likely exacerbate this trend. With the war continuing, even the highly pro-war-biased reporting in most Western media may begin to transmit more critical reports emerging about Western policies bleeding Ukraine out. There will be increasing reports about the high costs of this war and about billions in monthly transfer payments to Ukraine. There will also be critical reports about uncontrollable corruption, the illegal sale of weapons to criminal gangs and the lack of transparency in the use of transfer payments. Even before the conflict, Ukraine was one of the most corrupt countries in Europe, a fact that is likely to worsen in times of war. And there could increasingly be reports of Ukrainian war crimes – it is a war, after all. Public opinion in the West could change and become more hostile to the constant demands of the Ukrainian government. This would then make this war unwinnable.

The peace dilemma

The arguments I have listed here are purely power-political considerations that major powers might pursue. Understanding this would be important. But they also show the whole perversion of this war and the dilemma that every peace movement will face, for no one should hope that it must first come to the destruction of Ukraine in order to negotiate peace. And no one should ever wish for an escalation of the conflict with China (and, with it, the risk of another war) in order to finally reach a peace agreement in Ukraine. It would also be disastrous for the suffering people in Ukraine if public opinion in the West were to turn against them. They will need Western support for a very long time now – even, and especially, in times of peace.

There must be another way to peace than to follow a great-power logic. We must not leave this war to warmongers. This would need a strengthened peace movement from Lisbon to Vladivostok, a peace movement that does not believe in the blessings of NATO, that does not believe that Americans must dominate the world, that does not believe that only weapons create peace and that does not believe in the annexation of territories of other countries, but that sees peace in Ukraine and Europe, including Russia, as a positive achievement of humanity. Only, this peace movement does not exist – at least not yet.  

Written by

Michael von der Schulenburg

Michael von der Schulenburg, former UN Assistant Secretary-General, escaped East Germany in 1969, studied in Berlin, London and Paris and worked for over 34 years for the United Nations, and shortly the OSCE, in many countries in war or internal armed conflicts often involving fragile governments and armed non-state actors. These included long-term assignments in Haiti, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Sierra Leone and shorter assignments in Syria, the Balkan, Somalia, the Balkan, the Sahel, and Central Asia. In 2017, he published the book ‘On Building Peace – rescuing the Nation-State and saving the United Nations’, AUP.

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