Ukrainian and Russian lives will continue to be shattered until either a ceasefire or completion of successful negotiations are announced.

Regardless of whether we agree with him or not, President Biden’s statements that Vladimir Putin cannot remain in power and that Putin is a war criminal have compounded already complex negotiations to end Moscow’s devastating and nationally self-defeating war of aggression.

Humanity will be sleepwalking to its doom unless the great powers negotiate nuclear disarmament, and to collaborate to staunch the climate chaos that haunts humanity’s future.

With Russia’s military advances in Ukraine stymied, and with the mounting death tolls, we are receiving contradictory reports about the state of Russian-Ukrainian diplomacy. Ukraine’s lead negotiator Mykailo Podolyak reports that the negotiations with Moscow are “absolutely real”, but that the Kremlin hasn’t pulled back from its most ambitious war aims. Negotiations, he has said, could continue for months.  Ukraine’s Defense Intelligence Chief, Brig. General Kyrylo Budanov is less optimistic, reporting that the negotiations are “vague and unpredictable”. Turkey’s President Erdogan, who has met with both Russian and Ukrainian leaders in his efforts to mediate an end to the war, reports that negotiators have reached “understandings” about Ukraine and NATO, partial Ukrainian disarmament, collective security, and the use of the Russian language, but there have been no agreements on the future status of Crimea or the Donbas. And, contrary to Podolyak, the New York Times claims that Russia is signaling a change in its war goals, announcing that the “first stage of the operation” has been “mainly accomplished.” While it “does not exclude continuing attacks on major Ukrainian cities, the Times reports that they are not Moscow’s “primary objective”. It contends that Russian forces will be concentrated on the “liberation of the Donbas.”

Ukrainian and Russian lives will continue to be shattered until either a ceasefire or completion of successful negotiations are announced.

In recent months, I have been privileged to be a set of ears in a confidential series of track II discussions, initially designed to prevent the war and now to help frame diplomatic compromises that could end the bloodletting. Participants include former U.S., Russian and European officials—including military officers, advisors to their respective governments and scholars. A number of the participants communicate with their country’s policy makers. A number of these people, despite their differences, have negotiated and otherwise worked together over many years. And even as emotions run high, the discourse is civil and “professional.” While there could be unhappy professional consequences for some of the Western participants, one of the senior Russians has commented that “No new initiative comes without the risk of punishment.”

This past week, as Ukrainian and Russian negotiators were meeting and other governments weighed in, one of these track II sessions was held to discuss the advocacy and dangers of a possible Western no-fly declaration, as well as  what Ukrainian neutrality and disarmament would entail. With the exception of near unanimous opposition to the exceedingly dangerous possibility of a no-fly zone declaration, as described below, a range of possibilities were identified which hopefully will inform the diplomacy needed to end the war.

A No-Fly Zone and NATO “Peacekeepers”

While Russian forces grind away at Ukrainian resistance, there is glee in Washington that Moscow may have trapped itself in an Afghanistan-like quagmire. But one thing that thoughtful U.S. and Russian elites agree upon is that despite the ongoing negotiations, the situation may be as dangerous as during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Then the Kennedy Administration believed the odds were between a third and a half  that the crisis would result in a thermonuclear exchange between the world’s two most heavily armed nuclear powers.

Just as the United States has done at least thirty times during international crises and wars, Vladimir Putin has threatened the possible use of nuclear weapons and increased the alert status of his nuclear arsenal. In the words of former U.S. Strategic Command Chief, Admiral Charles Richard, the U.S. has used its strategic nuclear forces to “create the ‘maneuver space’ for us to project conventional military power strategically.” This strategy works both ways. It  has prevented the U.S. and NATO from establishing a no-fly zone over Ukraine to eliminate aerial support for Russian ground forces. As was the case during the Cuban missile crisis, nuclear alerts increase the danger of accidents, insubordinations, or miscalculations triggering the unimaginable. There are also fears that if the Russian military and President Putin find themselves on the defensive, in desperation Putin might fall back on attacking with chemical or low-yield nuclear weapons, risking escalation up the nuclear ladder.

Zelensky has repeatedly appealed for NATO to impose a no-fly zone, an appeal that has found resonance in Congress. Fortunately, thus far NATO leaders have bowed to the reality that enforcing a no-fly zone against Russia would inevitably trigger World War III, in the form of genocidal or omnicidal nuclear exchanges. Enforcing a no-fly zone, would require attacking Russian anti-aircraft installations and shooting down Russian planes, to which Russia would respond in kind. Yet, in the track II discussion, a senior American warned that the longer the war continues, and as the Russian military is degraded, the temptation to impose a no-fly zone will grow.

A second reckless proposal, which was fortunately disregarded in Brussels, was made by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Poland’s president in the run up to the NATO summit. Standing beside Volodymyr Zelensky, he floated the idea of dispatching NATO “peacekeeping” forces, capable of defending themselves, to operate in Ukraine. His spokesman later elaborated that the operation would involve deploying NATO and other forces in regions of Ukraine that have yet to be occupied by Russia and protecting them “against further Russian activities”.

In the track II session, a senior Russian advisor commented that “If Poland moves to impose a no-fly zone or otherwise intervenes in Ukraine, it will be considered an attack by a NATO member state.”  Similarly, immediately following the NATO summit, NATO leaders warned that if weapons of mass destruction were used within Ukraine, but their fallout drifted into NATO’s territory, it could be interpreted as an attack on NATO, necessitating military responses.

Neutrality & Demilitarization

Every war, for better or worse, ends with negotiations. While the details of Russian-Ukrainian negotiations remain tightly held secrets, track II participants assume that Russia’s invasion will end with assurances that Ukraine will never join NATO and that it will become a neutral and significantly demilitarized state. Less certain is whether Moscow will insist on regime change in Kyiv in the guise of “denazification” or if Russia’s territorial conquests will remain in place.

Russian ambitions in Ukraine, undefined as they continue to be, indicate that negotiating Ukrainian neutrality is at best a complex affair. As one Russian advisor commented, Moscow will insist that there be no possible military threats emanating from Ukraine for many decades to come. Recognizing the fragility of Swedish and Finnish neutrality, with both nations currently debating the possibility of applying for NATO membership, Russian leaders believe that neutrality cannot be rooted in what they perceive to be a hostile political environment. Thus, it is argued that meaningful agreements on Ukrainian neutrality will require progress in U.S-Russian and Russian-NATO negotiations, and they will need to be confirmed by an international treaty or a United Nations Security Council resolution.

As if these obstacles are not sufficiently daunting, while Moscow states that regime change is not its goal, believing that neutrality must be rooted in a nation’s political system and culture, it will demand some restructuring of the Ukrainian state, perhaps in the guise of its denazification demands. Not as difficult, but no slam dunk, are indications that Russia will demand intrusive inspections to verify Ukrainian neutrality and placing Kyiv’s nuclear power plants under a special verification regime or in the future to be run by international operators.

Nonetheless, first steps in the direction of Ukrainian neutrality are being made. Under the pressure of Russia’s invasion, President Zelensky has stated that, despite Ukraine’s 2019 constitutional commitment to seeking NATO membership, he will not press the issue. He has stated that he is prepared to discuss neutrality as part of a peace deal with Russia but it need to be guaranteed by third parties and approved in a referendum. It is possible that Zelensky may have wanted to opt for neutrality to prevent Russia’s invasion, but political pressure from right-wing Ukrainian nationalist forces—including assassination threats—raised the political (and personal) costs of pursuing that option.

Regardless of how it is designed, Kyiv agreeing to becoming a neutral state will face significant Ukrainian political opposition necessitating strong support, and likely considerable input, from the United States and other NATO states.

There are,  in fact, many forms of nation-state neutrality. Swedish, Austrian, Moldavan, Irish, and Swiss neutrality differ from one another. International law would require that Ukrainian neutrality, which prevailed between its 1990 independence until 2015, would require renunciation of Kyiv’s ambitions to join NATO, a ban on the presence of foreign military troops and bases, the commitment to treat warring parties equally, and guarantees from a number of countries. Militarily, Ukraine would need the ability to defend its neutrality and territorial integrity. Whether this would include Donetsk, Luhansk, and other regions now controlled by the Russian military appears to be the most divisive issue. Ukraine would also be prohibited from taking part in any international miliary conflict, making its territory available to nations at war (as Cambodia did during the Vietnam War), and providing troops or mercenaries to forces at war.

Determining how Ukraine would defend its neutrality will require intense negotiations. Sweden maintains a professional military, reinforced by conscripts, and its military-industrial complex produces weapons for export as well as for national defense. Switzerland has universal male military service. And at the end of the neutrality spectrum is Ireland which spends little on its military and is widely believed to be unable to defend itself against possible aggression, theoretical though it may be. That said, a neutral Ukraine would require some form of police for domestic security, a border/customs patrol, and a minimal military. Determining where weapons and related training for these forces would come from implies further questions about orientation and influence, and would be another highly contested issue.

Guaranteeing Ukrainian neutrality raises other questions. President Zelensky has said that it would require guarantees from the United States and other NATO nations. Russians respond by asking how this would differ in substance from Ukraine formally joining NATO. There is also the reality that nothing, not even constitutions and international treaties, will guarantee they will endure. With the people and governments of Sweden and Finland debating whether to end decades of neutrality and apply for membership of NATO, Russian analysts are wondering how Ukrainian neutrality could be guaranteed.

What Then?

Ukrainian civilians and soldiers and Russian soldiers are being killed and maimed every day. Many of Ukraine’s cities are being reduced to rubble. And indiscriminate sanctions are wreaking havoc and delivering despair to innocent Russians across that continental empire. These must all end.

International civil society has almost universally condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. With our demands for an immediate and unconditional ceasefire, a negotiated settlement to the war, and the withdrawal of all foreign military troops, we have helped to frame and apply international pressure to end this unjustified and tragic war. No one should be sacrificed or displaced while political leaders and diplomats debate the fine points of the negotiated settlement of the war. Negotiations can take place midst a ceasefire. This must be our immediate demand.

Looking to the future, after the guns are silenced we will face the shattered remains of the  post-Cold War order, especially the continuing existential nuclear and climate threats. Recalling that NATO’s expansion to Russia’s borders was a contributing cause of the Ukrainian disaster and the long record of devastating U.S. imperial wars,  Americans would do well to approach the new era with humility.

Putin has given us new lessons about the catastrophic perils of the arrogance of power. Slow though the restoration of trust and normal diplomatic relations will be, we will face the urgent necessity of Common Security negotiations. The imperatives will be to replace the new ice age of a Cold War with a new Euro-Atlantic order in which no nation seeks to ensure its security at the expense of other nations. This was the promise of initial post-Cold War diplomacy, including the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act. And humanity will be sleepwalking to its doom unless the great powers negotiate nuclear disarmament, and to collaborate to stanch the  climate chaos that haunts humanity’s future.

*This article originally appeared in Common Dreams. This version has been slightly edited.