6 February 2023

A diplomatic settlement of the Ukraine conflict on terms unacceptable to Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government should not even be considered, and – despite emerging signs of ‘Ukraine fatigue’ in some Western capitals – probably will not be. So what is the role, if any, for diplomacy over Ukraine?

Looking at the balance of forces and the determination of both Moscow and Kyiv to achieve military ascendancy, it looks as if the world will have to reconcile itself to the management of yet another intractable conflict until, with luck, time throws up a solution that saves Ukraine. This is the key role for diplomacy concerning that country, recognized by President Putin himself as a sovereign state until February 2022, otherwise why did Russia have an embassy in Kyiv? It is also diplomacy in which any part for the United Nations is seriously complicated if not utterly compromised by the fact that one of the parties – as with the United States during the Vietnam War – is a permanent, veto-wielding member of the Security Council.

In the first instance, therefore, diplomacy shapes up in the form of high-level military channels of communication between Russia and the United States designed to minimise the risk of escalation and accidental nuclear war; fortunately, in various forms, this is already under way. Supporting this objective, among others (including New START Treaty verification), is the fact that the two powers also remain in diplomatic relations, albeit via embassies much reduced in size. In this connection it is significant that, following retirement of the US ambassador in Moscow, John Sullivan, in early September 2022, his replacement by Lynne Tracy, Joe Biden’s nominee, was approved by the Kremlin well before Senate confirmation, and she arrived in Moscow in late January 2023.

Meanwhile, diplomacy is stimulated on matters in which the Russians and the Ukrainians have common interests. These include prisoner exchanges and the export of Ukrainian grain to a hungry world, in the last case because Kyiv needs the money and Moscow needs a story to improve its woeful image. It would probably be naïve to see agreements on these matters as confidence-building measures as well but it would be a mistake to rule this out altogether. Besides, to the extent that these negotiations have been brokered by third parties such as Turkey, the UAE and Saudi Arabia they provide contacts and experience that could prove useful further down the line, when mutual exhaustion generates acceptance of the need for ceasefires, demilitarized zones either side of ceasefire lines, secure corridors for humanitarian relief, and other well-established devices for the management of dangerous intractable conflicts.