Anyone who currently advocates negotiations with Putin in German features, talk shows and political debates is seen as unreflective, naive, unreasonable or even a traitor. The question is not whether to talk to the Russians, but what to talk to them about – and when. Because in the end, there is simply no alternative to co-existence with Russia.
Many Germans are currently in favor of massive arms deliveries and a tough, military defense against the Russian attack. No one accuses them of a propensity for violence or a lack of strategic and moral deliberation. Because even if most of us continue to reject war as a foreign policy tool in general, upgrading the Ukrainian army for the purpose of counter-warfare simply seems to be the only effective way to keep Putin’s aggression and its expansion in check at the moment.
A perhaps latently irritating but strategically unalterable approach.
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Another position, however, irritates many people much more: anyone who is currently expressly in favor of negotiations with Putin in German feature articles, talk shows and political debates is still considered unreflective, naive, unreasonable or even a traitor to the social consensus that was hard to achieve. Some cite general comparisons with Hitler as justification, with whom one should not have negotiated either.
In Ukraine, advocating negotiations with Putin is perceived as a willingness to “sell” Ukraine for peace and economic stability at home. So did the Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba.
In terms of mediation methods, individual phone calls and short visits to Moscow are not really helpful in this war. On the contrary: strategically, they even play into Putin’s pockets. Because he can use them unhindered for his domestic and foreign policy propaganda by feeding photos and summaries from a Russian point of view into the national and international press channels.
Likewise, from the Ukrainian point of view, the social dialogue between actors from the administration and citizens of Ukraine and Russia is currently not expedient in view of active military operations.
And yet, even in expert circles, for which the protection of Ukrainian sovereignty is the top priority, there are increasing calls for a more targeted dovetailing of arms deliveries and negotiations, namely at the highest political level: alongside the arms deliveries and sanctions that have been found to be right and necessary preparations are now finally beginning for an internationally coordinated and multilaterally supported negotiation process.
Juan Diaz-Prinz (United States Institute of Peace) says: The question is not whether to talk to the Russians, but what to talk to them about – and when. We share this position and would add the question of how these discussions are conducted and who acts in which role in initiating and moderating.
As to when: Should there be a real military stalemate in the next few weeks – also due to the arms deliveries and sanctions – a new and favorable window of opportunity for negotiations will open (see our last article for details). It is difficult to predict when this new window of opportunity for negotiations with Russia will open. Therefore, preparations should be made now for what must then be ready for use quickly: a structure for moderated negotiations that is accepted by both sides, supported by multilateralists and that can be flexibly controlled.
About what: It needs a much larger negotiating body than before. If Russia’s territorial withdrawal from Ukraine is not to be fought out militarily for years and with a completely uncertain outcome, other negotiating partners must be at the table alongside Ukraine and more issues than Ukrainian sovereignty must be negotiated.
The latter rightly takes center stage symbolically and geostrategically. But the international community will have to accept that meaningful negotiations with Russia can only be made in a package that includes overarching issues. The longer one ignores this, the longer one accepts the power of the strongest as the only logic for conflict resolution. The international community would therefore be wise to proactively structure the framework for negotiating the escalating international issues in Ukraine itself.
However, we have to go back to the question of whether, because the public and, to some extent, also parliamentary discourse are still strongly characterized by blanket negative attitudes towards negotiations. Arms deliveries and negotiations are treated as an either/or question. It is denied that both can be interlinked strategically and staggered over time. This defensive attitude has high costs: It is also because of this that the necessary public and parliamentary pressure on the political international coordination of a multilateral approach has not yet materialised.
In this article, we therefore explore the question of what constitutes resistance to negotiations, to what extent it is justified or not, and what alternative answers could be. It shouldn’t be a coincidence that it’s essentially about the how and who of the conversation. Again, we approach things from a discourse-analytical and negotiation-methodical perspective, not from a political perspective.
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.
The strong defensive reaction to negotiation proposals is initially remarkable because, according to a Forsa survey, only a quarter of Germans (25 percent) believe that the war in Ukraine can be won militarily; 68 percent believe that the war can ultimately only be ended through negotiations.
Even the contact thread maintained by Scholz to Putin is welcomed by the majority of the population. At the same time, a majority (56%) agrees that the delivery of heavy weapons is the right thing to do. This suggests that our society is currently grappling with a harsh internal contradiction between the current assessment of reality and deep core beliefs: weapons must be supplied to repel the attack, but only negotiations can end the actual conflict.
But it goes even further: If people have the impression that you want to convince them that one thing takes precedence over another (e.g. negotiations are “better” than arms deliveries), this typically triggers a cognitive defensive reflex: even if both are right beforehand and may have considered necessary, you will reflexively take the opposite position to what is being pushed on you – in order to defend the suppressed counter-arguments and, mostly unconsciously, your own oppressed freedom of choice (technical jargon: reactance). This reactance explains the escalation of some talk shows and discussions.
In this way, the inner contradiction described has become a highly polarized debate. Their either/or pattern (“if one is right, the other must be wrong”) makes it almost impossible to objectively weigh up when which steps are necessary and possible in succession or in parallel in order to achieve both: defense against attack and end of war.
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:
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.
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 sovereignty 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.
In addition, short diplomatic contacts at the long table or on the phone, which Putin has been able to use unhindered for domestic and foreign policy propaganda, should in fact stop, because if practiced in this way, talks can actually strengthen his domestic and foreign policy status. These flying visits have nothing in common with the kind of in-depth, at best professionally moderated, tough negotiations that are now being demanded.
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.
An example is Putin’s demand to recognize the end of the Western-dominated unipolar world order. His reasoning offers the non-Western world a huge area of identification. He can thus use the emancipation efforts of Asian and African countries for his own striving for power-political expansion. Impressive proof of this is the statement by South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor at the G7 summit that the questions that have now been raised have been posed for more than 10 years without the African perspective having been sufficiently taken into account.
Again, Putin’s call for recognition of a multipolar world order does not, of course, legitimize aggression. But: The international community will not be able to avoid a gradual renegotiation of the international order – while safeguarding the legitimate interests of all. In dialogue, this renegotiation can actually be controlled differently than on the battlefield: even if Russia and China claim significant shares, you can help and counteract them with a reliable counterweight.
The gradual hesitation in action that Germany has shown in parallel with the clear normative condemnation of Russia can be harnessed for a possible role: as a pioneering force for a co-existence between Russia and the West that effectively combines toughness and dialogue . By recognizing, naming and mastering the inherent dilemmas.
To do this, you have to trust Ukraine, the German population and international partners to be able to understand the inevitably dilemmatic nature of talks between warring parties. To do this, the belief must be restored that such complex negotiation processes can only succeed in direct contact and that professional mediation can defuse the dilemmas. And for this it is necessary to work on a dialogue forum with Russia for the moment when the time is right. In preparation for this, it has long been.
These statements have just as little to do with a lack of harshness against Putin as they do with a naive belief in peace and forgiveness. In perspective, there is simply no alternative to co-existence as a goal.