Peace process? What peace process?

ukraine-mobilizes-after-putins-declaration-of-war

The war you’ve already forgotten about, the one in eastern Ukraine pitting the government in Kiev against separatist Russian proxies, looks poised to enter a renewed period of fighting.  This despite a shaky ceasefire and the occasional talks between Ukrainian negotiators and the Moscow-backed rebels that have been dragging on since February.

The Atlantic updates us on the current state of affairs with an article today headlined “Is this the end of Ukraine’s Peace Process?

The answer is yes, and it’s pretty easy to understand why. Any peace process rooted in an effort to achieve some kind of negotiated settlement can only work when all sides realize they can no longer achieve their goals by any other means. If any thinks it stands a better chance of getting what it wants by returning to the battlefield than staying at the negotiating table, then the process will fail.

The logic of this was spelled out more than 30 years ago in the work of Johns Hopkins political scientist I. William Zartman who has argued that peace initiatives will only bear fruit when a conflict has reached the “ripe moment,” a concept which centers on the parties’ perception of a mutually hurting stalemate. Zartman explains the concept this way:

[Mutually Hurting Stalemate] is based on the notion that when parties find themselves locked in a conflict from which they cannot escalate to victory and this deadlock is painful to both of them (although not necessarily in equal degree or for the same reasons), they seek an alternative policy or Way Out.

As The Atlantic piece compellingly argues, that is definitely not where any of the parties in the Ukrainian conflict are at present. In fact, the current stalemate is of the most benefit to Kiev, which retains legal authority over the separatist-held Donbas region but doesn’t have to shoulder responsibility for governing, financing, or rebuilding the devastated region.  The price that it is demanding to reintegrate the region is disarming of rebels, the removal of Russian troops and weapons, full control over the international border between Russia and Ukraine,  an internationally supervised regional elections.

Moscow wants the region reincorporated into Ukraine too, but with the rebel leaders legitimized as its rulers, separatist fighters fully armed and turned into its police force, and with so much autonomy so as to be a Russian protectorate in all but name. This would give Moscow a perpetual ability to undermine and destabilize Kiev at will, preventing the Ukrainian government from moving fully into the embrace of the West.

Given these conflicting goals, there is no compromise position that can satisfy both Kiev and Moscow.  And as long as the existing stalemate favors Kiev, Moscow understands that its only viable move is to break the deadlock. Exactly how that will play out remains to be seen. But you can bet it won’t be pretty.

And no one will mistake it for a peace process.