The Ukraine war has been raging for four months. Two negotiation experts advise talks with Putin. But there are two dilemmas at the center that together block the way to real negotiations: negotiations inevitably lead to the sacrifice of sacred things and negotiations legitimize a war criminal. But with clever tactics, Putin could even be pinched, they say.

Negotiating with Putin: yes or no? Anyone who advocates this in the German feuilletons, talk shows and political debates is considered unreflective, naive, unreasonable or even a traitor. In the end, co-existence with Russia is simply no alternative, write Anne Olper and Lars Kirchoff in a guest article for FOCUS Online. The peace and conflict researchers advocate negotiations with the Kremlin rulers. They analyze the arguments of both camps, those of the negotiators and those opposed to the negotiations. Among other things, they find that there are two main dilemmas.

Our suggestion: As a first step, the common dilemmas with which all camps are currently struggling should be fully acknowledged. Because they are the common denominator of conflicts that cannot be resolved in themselves. Specifically, the focus is on two dilemmas, which in combination block the way to real negotiations:

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The next step is to examine the assumptions behind the dilemmas. The elimination of information gaps and misunderstandings defuses relevant parts of the problem: Do negotiations inevitably lead to the sacrifice of sacred things?

Looking at the first dilemma, the assumption seems to be that military power relations must determine the outcome of negotiations completely and linearly. In terms of negotiation strategy and mediation methods, however, it looks like this: Military power asymmetries between conflicting parties can be compensated for, especially if hard issues and currencies of a different kind are involved – and thus, in addition to military logic, other interests of both sides to a relevant extent.

dr Anne Holper and Prof. Dr. Lars Kirchhoff work in the field of peace and conflict research at the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt (Oder). Together they run the Center for Peace Mediation there, which, among other things, has been advising the Federal Foreign Office on mediation issues since 2018. You are the author of the book “Peace Mediation – Field of tension between methodology, power and politics” and have held various positions in the mediation context of Ukraine since 2014.

Insofar as other tangible interests are affected by it, the situationally superior party can also be very effectively “squeezed” at the negotiating table, exactly as it currently only seems possible through sanctions and arms deliveries. That’s why other negotiating partners need to be at the table alongside Ukraine, and more issues than Ukrainian sovereignty need to be negotiated.

It is crucial that possible talks bear the face and methodology of “tough” negotiations instead of the feared Russian “peace dictate”. This requires strong impartial procedural rule as well as incentives and guarantees for both sides. However, this is only possible if there are several actors at the table who are well balanced in terms of gravity and spheres of influence.

An internationally coordinated, multilateral mediation initiative with realistic objectives (first step: coexistence of both states; second step: peacefulness), clear preconditions (Russia’s withdrawal, discrediting of amnesties for war crimes) and clear direction signals (Ukraine decides on Ukrainian sovereign issues , but the underlying international issues are politically negotiable) will clearly put the “sacrifice dilemma” into perspective.

With regard to the second dilemma, the widespread formulation of a “face-saving solution for Putin” was perhaps the real tipping point in the discussion about negotiations. With the insinuation disguised as a rhetorical question as to whether Hitler would have allowed this kind of face-saving, the advocates of the negotiations, right down to Macron, seemed to be morally discrediting themselves.

The assumption seems to be here that official negotiations by the international community with a war criminal would inevitably legitimize his claims to power and modus operandi, which there is good reason to avoid at all costs.

Here, too, differentiation helps: it is not the IF, but the HOW of negotiations that primarily decides whether self-respect is given up and the status-technical/moral upgrading or even “acquittal” of conflict actors. Neither the ignoring of war crimes nor the impunity of Putin are a natural consequence of negotiations. These fears are justified and must be deliberately counteracted in negotiation processes, but they are not automatic. (…)

Another assumption seems to be that an illegitimate war of aggression involving crimes against humanity discredits the causes and interests behind it. Similar to the buzzword of saving face, the question of “Russia’s legitimate interests” regularly escalates the debate. But it should remain utterable: Of course, Russia has legitimate interests.

However, they do not legitimize the way in which Putin is trying to assert Russian interests. This is undoubtedly a moral catastrophe. However, if legitimate interests remain unspeakable in the long term, co-existence with the nuclear power Russia will not succeed.