What hope is there for diplomacy in ending the Russia-Ukraine war?

Analysis: Western leaders are divided on arming Ukraine, oil embargoes and whether Kyiv will have to accept territory loss

An increasingly bitter diplomatic row over Germany’s unwillingness to supply heavy weaponry to Ukraine threatened to spill into a wider dispute between allies over whether they are prepared to accept a peace settlement that leaves Vladimir Putin capable of claiming victory.

One western official said western leaders are divided between those who think they can work with Vladimir Putin’s Russia once the war is over, and those who think they cannot.

The row is leading to disputes over the arming of Ukraine, the feasibility of enforcing a Russian oil import embargo and whether Kyiv will have to accept a further loss of territory at the end of the war as the price for peace.

The immediate point of conflict between Ukraine and some of its allies focusses on the supply of weaponry to Ukraine, and the heavy weather Germany seems to be making in setting up an elaborate chain that would see the country supplying armaments to its Eastern neighbours – principally Poland and the Czech Republic – that would in turn send armoury on to Ukraine.

Kyiv is suffering serious losses due to the absence of long-range weaponry. The commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s armed forces, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, said the delivery of weapons could not be delayed: “We are in great need of weapons that will make it possible to hit the enemy from a long distance.”

Citing its sources in Nato, the national news agency, Deutsche Presse Agentur, reported that alliance members have informally agreed not to supply certain weaponry to Ukraine, fearing Russia could see the delivery of tanks and combat aircraft as the west entering the war and take retaliatory measures. Quite what this decision means in practical terms is disputed.

There were also US-sourced reports that Israel had rejected a US request to allow Germany to send Spike anti-tank missiles to Ukraine. Spike missiles are produced in Germany with Israeli technology under an Israeli licence. Since the beginning of Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, Israel has taken a neutral stance and refused to supply weapons to Ukraine.

The disputes come as some influential US voices, from veteran diplomat Henry Kissinger to the New York Times, have urged Ukraine to realise it may have to lose territory to Putin.

In a reference to the tensions, the UK foreign secretary Liz Truss, a staunch war hawk, warned the West against backsliding and appeasement, insisting the need to supply arms was urgent in a speech in Sarajevo: “What we cannot have is any lifting of sanctions, any appeasement, which will simply make Putin stronger in the longer term.” She insists private sanctions on Russia cannot be lifted until Putin has completely left Ukraine, and his army is irreversibly weakened. She has strong allies in eastern Europe, and the Baltics, but not in Paris or Berlin.

Truss has argued that any backsliding would result in a more prolonged and painful conflict.

A man pushes his bike past a destroyed Russian tank in Trostyanets, north-eastern Ukraine.
A man pushes his bike past a destroyed Russian tank in Trostyanets, north-eastern Ukraine. Some leaders, including UK foreign secretary Liz Truss, have argued sanctions on Russia cannot be lifted until Putin’s troops leave Ukraine completely. Photograph: Chris McGrath/Getty

Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, adopted an ironic, almost uncomprehending tone at the World Economic Forum in Davos this week about the slowness of arms deliveries: “We are pursuing this with strategic patience. I don’t understand why this is so difficult.” The president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, sensed German reticence stemmed from a desire to rebuild relations with Putin once the war ends. “No matter what the Russian state does, there is someone who says: ‘Let’s take his interests into account’,” said Zelenskiy.

Poland has also heavily criticised Germany’s slowness, and within Germany the chancellor, Olaf Scholz, has come under attack for appearing not to want either side to emerge victorious from the war, a stance Scholz denies.

Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, chair of the Bundestag Defense Committee and a member of the Free Democrat party, said: “It must not be that at the end of the war the world sees Germany as a complete brakeman and loser just because we are unable to organise and communicate.”

Early in the conflict Germany proposed quickly supplying Ukraine with heavy weaponry in a “ring system” – whereby eastern European countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic would provide Soviet-era tanks to Ukraine, with these being replenished by modern German Leopard tanks. Whether the failure to achieve this yet is due to bureaucratic inertia, cynical procrastination or a reflection of the depleted state of the German armed forces is hard to unravel. If you are on the frontline, it probably matters little.

Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann
‘It must not be that at the end of the war the world sees Germany as a complete brakeman just because we are unable to organise,’ said Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann. Photograph: Lisi Niesner/Reuters

In a speech in Davos, Scholz tried to dismiss claims that he did not understand the scale of the issues at stake. He said the 24 February invasion had come like a thunderclap.

He described Putin’s war as “imperialism” that is “trying to bomb us back to a time when war was a common tool. It is not only the statehood of Ukraine at stake but a world order that binds might to law”. He claimed Putin had already missed all of his strategic goals. “A capture of all of Ukraine by Russia seems further away today than it was at the beginning of the war. More than ever, Ukraine is emphasising its European future.”

He added that “our goal is clear. Putin must not win this war”. His remarks, insisting there can be no peace dictated by Putin, contrast with those of Boris Johnson, who has always insisted Putin must lose the war and be seen to lose the war.

Truss was one of the first European figures to echo Ukrainian claims that it cannot lose territory in the war, but must regain land lost to Russian separatists since 2014. The Polish president, Andrzej Duda, in Kyiv this week said: “Only Ukraine has the right to decide about its future. No decisions can be taken about its future without it.” Although there are different voices within the Ukrainian diplomatic landscape, Zelenskiy’s public position appears to be broadly the same. He told a meeting at Davos that he joined by video link: “When Ukraine says it is fighting to regain its territories, it means that Ukraine will fight until it restores all of its territory. It doesn’t mean anything else. It’s about our sovereignty, our territorial integrity and our independence.”

He added: “This state of ‘hot’ hostilities, of bloody war, can only move into diplomatic negotiations with the authentic participation of the Russian and Ukrainian presidents, supported by our strategic partners, when we see that the Russian Federation shows real willingness and desire to move from bloody war to diplomacy. This will be possible only when Russia concedes at least something, such as pulling back troops to the borders as they were on February 24.”

At present there does not seem to be any likelihood of Russia signalling such a retreat. Quite the opposite.

But that does not mean countries are not coming forward to offer their mediation services. Italy’s prime minister, Mario Draghi, for instance, has assembled a complex four-point plan that was formally presented to the UN secretary general, António Guterres.

The first step in the plan would involve a supervised ceasefire and “demilitarisation” of the frontline. This would be a multilateral negotiation at a conference on the future status of Ukraine, resuscitating the proposal of future Ukrainian neutrality backed by security guarantees provided by major powers. This could give a security umbrella to Ukraine before the end of the peace process, and act as a substitute for Ukraine’s one-time aspiration to Nato membership.

The next stage would be a bilateral treaty between Ukraine and Russia on “border issues”. The language of the proposal points to free movement of people and economic life, de facto autonomy for the occupied territories and a single economic zone, as well as civil guarantees for Russian minorities, including over language. This would be very close to the Minsk agreement, a format that France and Germany oversaw and the Ukrainians never liked.

The final stage would be a grand bargain on EU/Nato-Russia relations, revival of strategic stability talks, a new role for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and a revisiting of some of the other issues that were being discussed between the US and Russia last summer.

Russia seemed to take great pleasure in ridiculing both the plan and its proponent. The former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev blasted Draghi’s proposals: “It seems that it was prepared not by diplomats, but by local political scientists who have read provincial newspapers and operate only with Ukrainian fakes.” Yet other voices in Russia think there are aspects of the plan that could be adopted later, when both sides have fought themselves to a standstill.


Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor

The GuardianTramp

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